Director: Srikanth Odela
Writer: Srikanth Odela
Cast: Nani, Keerthy Suresh, Shine Tom Chacko, Dheekshith Shetty
Blazing. So much of Dasara’s ambience is sun-tanned and blazing. The dry, inland heat. The torchlight on miners’ helmets pouring over the protagonist’s grief in sharp cones of yellow light. The afternoon dust storms raised by raucous feet dancing to rapturous music. The sultry poster of Silk Smitha blessing the toddy shop — called Silk Bar — with her mouth half-open with a finger tucked in suggestively. This extravagant blazing-ness, which characterises the world of Dasara, is refused to its story.
Nani propels Dasara with his coy, rambling patheticness, playing Dharani, an alcoholic who narrates the story, whose narration exits the film mid-way after providing the necessary context and the history of this village, Veerlapalle. He is in love with Vennela (Keerthy Suresh) but refuses to act on it after he realises his best friend, his dost, Suri (Dheekshith Shetty) is also in love with her. This is a friendship that could have bloomed and cemented only in childhood — when difference was seen with curiosity, not doubt.
A more polished man, Suri has the more chiselled body, and is someone who can handle his alcohol daze as well as his sobriety. He is the conventional hero. In a moment where the cinematic gears of the film shift, when both Suri and Dharani jump political parties — from backing the evil Chinna Nambi (Shine Tom Chacko) to the kinder Shivanna (Samuthirakani) — it is Suri who looks ahead, confident; and Dharani who looks at his feet, worried, unsure. But Dasara, taking a page from Lokesh Kanagaraj, has no place for the conventional hero. (Sathyan Sooryan, the cinematographer of Master (2021) and Kaithi (2019) is behind the lens here too.) A murder at the interval block moves him to reconsider his alcoholism, and seek revenge. That vengeance coats the second half.
For all its fury, Dasara is a film that isn’t sure where to derive its emotional force from. There is the smaller intimate story of love and friendship. This gets torpedoed when placed against the larger story of power, caste, and politics, each trying to exert a cinematic thrust on one another, bulldozing forward with a score that knows its mass moments from its quieter ones.
The problem is that this larger story is too feeble. Politics and power are swapped easily. Elections and electoral promises are flung into and out of the narrative as lazy asides, to push the film forward. You can sense this forceful pushing. The evil of the story, pooled into Chinna Nambi, is unstable and shallow. Often villains are produced from a moment of humiliation. As the film sediments, it builds this humiliation, slowly, but not strongly. Here, Suri and Dharani are seen as the people instigating his humiliation, and so, his evil. Post-interval, it completely discards this, turning Chinna Nambi’s acid into something totally different and toothless, involving women and his unbridled lust. Women are the casualties of this story, but also this storytelling.
The larger world seems oddly absent. We see a video of N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) banning alcohol, but this law, too, is soon overturned by local bootleggers and it is as though the state does not exist. We see the police, but they’re just men in uniform dutifully toeing the sarpanch’s diktats. The village is a marooned island, surrounded by coal mines. The mines themselves are unrelated to much of the story. Dasara begins with hazy, patched scenes of Suri and Dharani stealing coal. Their teeth so white, it shines like magnesium flames against their coal-stung skin. That the film refuses to acknowledge the charcoal powdery quality of the air as a problem that needs solving, that needs the muscle of the hero to clean, shows either how it sees the coal mine as merely an aesthetic choice, or that the villagers have given up fighting for what they think they deserve — clean air.
Why I am being so generous with my interpretation of the film is because it has an odd, subtle hand when talking about things like caste. It wants us to peek into the film, really pay attention, to figure out who is upper caste and who is lower. Suri and Vennela are from the same caste. Dharani, it is implied, is from a lower caste. The bar has a separate entrance for people like him. This is shown, not discussed. It must be yanked out of the film.
Dharani is a man whose courage and bravery are kindled only by alcohol. This he learned from his grandmother. When, as a child, he asks her, why she drinks, she replies mournfully, for courage. Alcoholism, like most things in the film, is given a sudden, jerking arc. As this film steadies us into its world, the film goes so far as to call it tradition. In a charming song after NTR bans alcohol — an elegy, really — we are told about how mutton sales dropped and marriages and funerals are both without life. The film depicts alcohol as valorous. There is a creeping sense that the central tragedy that keeps the film afloat would not have happened had Dharani been drunk. Sobriety is a vice in this world.
But soon, this flips in an unconvincing epilogue. As though the film was worried about its posture being one promoting alcoholism, and so it overcorrected in the only way it knows — throwing dialogues at a problem. These overcorrections are signs of a worried writer who isn’t confident about his world, worldview, audience, and craft. There is a shamelessness that it refuses to lean into. Even the way Dasara treats Keerthy Suresh’s character feels apologetic, giving her a patch of dialogue to explain why the film is so cruel to her.
The film unsteadily grapples with Nani’s heroism. In one scene he takes a scythe right out of the fire it is being baked in, but first wraps cloth around his hand before touching it, so he doesn’t get burned. This hero has his limits. Yet the climax is one of unkempt bravado, of one man pummelling a mountain of men; of him emerging from fire, untouched by its flames. A character asks in Dasara, “Are our lives greater than myths?” The film answers, shiftily, both yes and no, and I wish it had made a choice, one that it stuck to; one that it could put the full force of its cinematic might behind.