Cast: Shivathmika, Anand Deverakonda, Kishore
Director: KVR Mahendra
Raju, the son of a painter, comes home for holidays—he lives in the city with his grandparents and studies. You can see that he comes from a different place, both physically—he dresses more fashionably and has a stylish hairdo—and mentally—he asks his friends to pursue reading rather than education, learning for the sake of knowledge. He is a poet who is yet to find his muse. He even writes a poem to help his friend express his feelings for a girl. But before the friend could hand the paper over to his romantic interest and pretend it's his own words, Raju recites it to Dorasani over the phone. Someone who was charitable with his words, a moment ago, sees a girl and realises that he needs all of them for himself. A man's change of heart established in just a few brief, mostly dialogue-less, scenes.
The film sets itself in a village called Jayagiri and borrows the time period of the 80s when the People's War, the communist party based in Telangana, is gaining momentum. It then slowly starts to bring these two conflicts together. A boy (Raju) in love uses the unrest caused by a movement to stop his girl (Devaki) from leaving the village. A leader who is on the brink of danger realises that love that dares to cross the boundaries of society is a revolution in itself. Dorasani's general template is as old as cinema itself. A rich, upper-caste girl and a poor, lower-caste guy falls in love and are punished for it. But thankfully that's where the staleness ends.
If the film feels fresh, most of the credit must go to K. V. R. Mahendra, the writer and director. He knows how to imbibe a film with details so that it seems like an experience rather than a performance. From the way Raju gets the idea to write on the walls of Dorasani's house by watching Naxalites paint their slogans—he isn't a rebel by nature, to the way Devaki's brother's clenched fist shakes at the end of the film—is he mad at himself or his sister? Is it love or anger he feels toward her? Or are they the same thing to a man like him?—they all force you to look beyond the surface. This is why when the domestic help—played by the impressive Sharanya Pradeep— says that a woman, whether she is a daasi or a dorasani, is never free, it hits you where it is supposed to rather than feeling like a quotable dialogue. Oppression has many faces, and all of them ugly.
In one of the songs that play in the backdrop—Prashanth Vihari's music is touching at its best and overpowering at its worst, we see both our hero and heroine daydreaming about each other. Devaki is smiling sitting by her window and Raju sits by his main door and does the same. For a moment, Devaki looks at the camera and shyly brings her head down as if she's seen us looking at her lovelorn disposition. This isn't a fourth-wall breaking moment because it doesn't happen again, but it's effective and charmingly unassuming. A girl who is prisoned inside a big house is living a life chained to a title. To her any kind of deviation from her lifestyle feels new and exciting. Shivathmika's gait and expressive eyes bring the best out of an imposing yet silent Dorasani. Anand, too, plays his character perfectly—a simple man who wanted something he isn't supposed to. The scene close to the climax with the both of them sitting in a car—scared, relieved and, confused, all at the same time—is marvellously enacted.
The film isn't without its flaws. The screenplay makes abrupt shifts from one moment to another in the first half-hour of the film and the way the film begins and ends with a man, not part of the story, kind of dilutes the overall effect. Even though the way it reveals the connection between Raju and Devaki from their childhood, through a yellow flower allows an interpretation that suggests something deeper than mere attraction or infatuation, I needed the connection to be more visceral. The film moves rather slowly, letting us drink in the great camera work, but the characters really don't spend any altering or profound moments together. Any minute connection might be easy for two teenagers to fall in love and put their lives on line. But as an audience member, I needed to see them bond more for me to break down over their separation.
Similarly, when Devaki hands Raju water in a jar for him to drink, he asks, "Am I allowed to drink from your vessel?" Moved by his innocence and the reality of this situation, Devaki kisses him. This is a powerful scene and it moved me when I watched it in the trailer. But in the movie, it comes after the interval, by which point Raju has already kissed Devaki, making us question his present hesitation and the lack of it in the past. This is where the film's cinematography works wonders. The way Sunny Kurapati uses light to form long shadows and darkness to create intimacy between the couple makes this love story seem more genuine and unwavering than it is. And the fact that the colours predominantly used in the film—red, yellow, and earthy browns—also help with framing exquisite shots is a bonus. J. K. Murthy's art design and the skillful implementation of sync sound—J.R. Ethiraj, Ajith Abraham George, and Nagarjun Thallapalli—give the film the realism it's been seeking after.
Dorasani is no Sairat—a film like that isn't that easy to come by—but it's a start in the right direction. Even though I expected the film to be more explicit about caste hierarchy in a village—we aren't told Raju's caste, just that he belongs to something that's considered lower—I appreciated the way it handled the 'Dora' and his character arc. He is a man who sucks the life out of the village he lives in and his bigotry traveled to the city through his son who insists that Raju stopped calling him 'Dora', but what lies inside is the same filth. Binding the two conflicts—a people wanting the dignity they owed, and a couple wanting to be free—by the colour red and a journey that is just as bloody, the film manages to say that people deserve to live and love in a society that can see beyond caste and pride. Even though I would've preferred a happy ending, I understand that a film based on true lives can't afford that luxury. Not yet.