Nani's Gang Leader — that's how the film decides to differentiate itself from the original — has a great interval block. Not so much in the way the plot culminates towards an organic break, but the way the filmmaker chooses to freeze the frame, and how the frame is staged. The foreground is occupied by an Innova with a chariot painted on it. It belongs to a TV channel called Geetha, and is about to move in the direction of Dev, the bad man. Through the front window, you see Nani, and through the one in the back, women wanting revenge. The proverbial moment from the Bhagavad Gita is appropriated for the situation, and cinematography by Miroslaw Brozek plays a major part here. And, it cannot be a coincidence that Nani plays a character named Parthasarathy. Dramatic, yes, but also strangely poignant. That is until a national flag comes flying out of nowhere and plants itself on the car. This is the film. Sometimes, ingenious and, sometimes, awkward.
Gang Leader begins with Saraswathi's colourfully-bangled hand — she is a widow — sending out letters to four other women who have also lost a dear one in a bank robbery that took place a year ago. She convinces all of them that the man who killed their son, grandson, brother, fiancé, and father needs to be avenged. One of them asks, 'How can we, women, do such a thing?' Saraswathi, expectedly, brings reproduction into the equation: "We can give birth to a human, why can't we kill one?" Sound logic. But, she also talks about a novel writer who might be able to help them.
Parthasarathy or Pencil is a mystery novel writer who wrote 28 books on the theme of revenge. This intrigues Saraswathi, an old woman looking for just that: revenge. She thinks that if a man can write numerous books about revenge, he must know something about how to get it in real life. Soon, they figure out that this guy is a hack who copies Hollywood movies and turns them into Telugu novels, but that doesn't stop them from trusting him. Interesting premise, which is ably backed by good performances, great BGM by Anirudh and clever comedy. Yet, Gang Leader stops being engaging somewhere around the one-and-half-hour mark, and it never gets the intrigue back.
Most of this has to do with the way Vikram, writer and director, structures his screenplay. It doesn't flow as well as he might have hoped it to, and it rarely lands when it must. For example, the comparison between old people and street dogs sounds harsh, but it is, sadly, not far from reality. Their deaths are met with the same indifference, at least by the people outside the family. But, this insight is presented to us as a twist that is utterly insubstantial to the plot, and as such, it only tests your patience. Same goes with the scene where Chinni gets her voice back. We know it is eventually going to happen, but it should have an emotional impact on us. When it does happen, we don't realise it until a character points it out.
This isn't to say that the film is without charm or originality, absolutely not. The filmmaker uses his protagonist's profession to apply a screenplay device that generates impressive results. The way Pencil's "creative process" is introduced to us in the beginning is hilarious. It would've been funnier if the trailer didn't reveal it all, but still. Another scene that stands out is the one where Priya flips the table on Pencil when the gang needs someone to seduce a bank employee for some information. And, if the fact that Nani's pen name is Pencil isn't a quirky detail, then what is? His exclusive use of pens only adds to the irony. The repetitiveness of Nani having to carry Lakshmi on stairs, interestingly, grows funnier with time.
Nani is a riot to watch. Even though his character isn't fleshed out, actually none of the characters really are, he has our back. So does, Lakshmi — her pain needs to seem genuine and a bit off, and it does — and Saranya. But, then again, both these women can do these characters in their sleep. Two characters that seem rather badly-written, despite good efforts by the actors, is Priya — the female lead played by Priyanka — and Dev — the villain played by Karthikeya. The thing is we do not know the dead men at all. So, if we are to invest in a story that is trying to avenge them, the women and their pain is our way in. With Priya, it becomes more about Pencil's attraction for her than her loss of a loved one. Random shots of her back don't help matters either.
With Dev too, the cruelty he possesses seems unoriginally exhibitory and inauthentic. He is a menace just because it is fashionable to be one. The five dead men and their motives to do what they did is unconvincing as well. Priyadarshi plays, well, Priyadarshi. Vennela Kishore plays Santoor Senakayala, a stereotypical gay man, who clings to men like he's never seen one. Except he only pounces on men who are gay as well. I know that small victories need patience, but victories this small need microscopes to be able to see them, let alone celebrate them.
From the way he names a book he copies from Kill Bill 'Rassedhu Chimpu' to the way he religiously watches Chinatown and translates the dialogues, Gang Leader absolutely belongs to Nani and he shines throughout. That said, this is nothing he hasn't done before. At the end of the day, a film is more than just a single character or actor. A great story will work no matter who plays the characters in it. Gang Leader, unfortunately, isn't one of those stories. There are sparks here and there, but if a film is confident enough to borrow its name from a Chiranjeevi blockbuster, we expect fireworks, don't we?