Director and Writer: Prasanth Varma
Cast: Teja Sajja, Amritha Aiyer, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, Vinay Rai, Vennela Kishore
Duration: 150 mins
Available in: Theatres
At one point in HanuMan, Hanumanthu (Teja Sajja) wants to prove to his friend that he has been bestowed superhero powers. To demonstrate his newly found powers, he punches a wall made of stones, as a hat-tip to a scene in Mahesh Babu’s Athadu (2005). The friend doesn’t believe him. He goes on to kick a water hand pump, in a reference to the popular scene in Allu Arjun’s Arya (2004). The friend still doesn’t believe because “our heroes do these things easily all the time,” in his words. While the scene might have been intended as a harmless attempt to appease the massive fandoms of the aforementioned stars and evoke some cheeky humour, the scene also addresses why the superhero genre has never exploded in India, especially in South India. Our heroes are superheroes. When a guy flies 10 feet in the air after taking a punch from say, a Mahesh Babu or a Pawan Kalyan, no questions will be asked because we have accepted that these demigod-like figures are capable of doing it.
So how do you crack the superhero formula in an industry where a mass hero is capable of doing everything—from bending iron to taking down an army with just two iron rods? How do you create a superhero and make the audience—who are already fine with insane, unbelievable action sequences—root for the character? What happens when the Telugu masala treatment meets the superhero template engineered and exploited by Hollywood blockbusters? HanuMan is a fitting answer to all these questions and it yet again proves that when the emotion works out, it makes up for the technical hiccups. Let me give you an example, the blend of Telugu masala and superhero-ness gets a cracker of an exhibition in the form of a song-and-action sequence set in a forest when our superhero takes down bandits using his abilities while women preparing avakaya (mango pickle) sing a folksong in unison. This, to me, is where HanuMan’s masala nature peaked and this is how the film fully embraces its identity. And this is a sequence Teja Sajja is likely to be proud of for the rest of his career. From a screenplay perspective, I found the placement of this sequence (which happens right after the protagonist learns a big truth about the villain) rather debatable because logically, you'd expect him to address the main conflict but the detour was still fun.
While I expected HanuMan to ride high on the devotional angle, it’s surprising how limitedly yet effectively the screenplay uses this facet. The divine touch here plays the same role as that of the radioactive spider in Spider-Man (there’s a direct reference too), and doesn’t come across as shoehorned for the sake of capitalising on the prevailing climate in the country. It superbly bridges the story of Hanuman that we all grew up listening to with the world HanuMan is set in and even smartly makes the Sun an integral part of its story. The film is set in the fictitious Anjanadri, an undeveloped village in an undisclosed location. All we know is that it's a backward place where people barely survive. Prashanth fills this world and screenplay with numerous elements, ensuring the film doesn’t waste time to “entertain” the audience before the story kicks off. There’s a conflict within the village when the educated Meenakshi (Amritha) questions the village head’s barbaric and oppressive practices. The main villain, Michael (Vinay Rai)—whose story the film opens with—is after the supernature abilities that Hanumanthu possesses. It’s a classic fight between the one who deserves the power and who seeks it. By opening the film with Michael's childhood and his desperation to gain superpowers after being inspired by movies and cartoons, the film accepts its own inspirations. In fact, HanuMan is so committed to its superhero-ness that when we see the villagers of Anjanadri gather for the screening of a movie, they see NTR's Superman. This is also a wonderful hat tip because NTR plays a Hanuman devotee who is given superpowers in the 1980 film.
On the flip side, HanuMan feels quite derivative at numerous points. You could say that the template, by itself, is done and dusted by now. Be it the underdog protagonist, the 'all is lost' moment, a motivator to uplift our hero's spirits at the end... on paper, there isn't much novelty, and recency bias too plays a role. When we are introduced to Anjanadri (the VFX is rendered perfectly in this bit) in a sweeping drone-like shot, it reminds you of Wakanda. When Hanumanthu is having fun with his abilities, you are reminded of Minnal Murali (2021). Michael himself, with barely any personality, is imitative of several power-hungry supervillains we have seen in the past. In some places, the VFX, especially in the final climactic showdown, doesn’t match up to the ambition. In a highly intense scene where Hanumanthu has to save a dear one from dying, the VFX is done so poorly that you cannot help but be distracted even though you understand the emotional stakes. Despite all these evident shortcomings, what keeps HanuMan going is its constant effort to surprise you within the generic bounds it is operating in and how the film keeps trying to land one big moment after the other, with some strong imagination and imagery by Shivendra.
Speaking of imagery, the effort to create striking shots (I’d like to call it the SS Rajamouli effect) is visible throughout the film. Be it fishes with gills that look like wings when they dive out of water or Hanumanthu standing on the massive Hanuman statue carved out of the hill, or Hanumanthu sitting on a pile of men, resembling the image of Hanuman sitting on his tail, you can see that the film is committed to creating memorable images. And for a film that’s all about mythology and supernatural abilities, it doesn’t always take itself seriously. Be it a gag referring Teja Sajja’s popular dialogue as a child artist in Indra (2002) or the self-aware humour that keeps popping up throughout, they keep the mood light and funny for the most part. A special mention to the track featuring a monkey named Koti (voiced by Ravi Teja) which is played for laughs for the most part and then used to land a glorious mass moment towards the end. GowraHari’s music instills so much energy into the film, oftentimes even making up for some subpar visuals by selling and sustaining the emotion.
If only Prashanth had all the resources to fulfill his vision thoroughly...Nevertheless, HanuMan is an inspiring start. HanuMan might just be the biggest surprise this Sankranti.