I'm going to try and not draw too many comparisons between Maestro and Andhadhun because the latter was released as a theatrical experience and the former became an OTT release. I remember watching Andhadhun in a theatre and being thrilled when the characters kept cheating my expectations while the background music immersed me. Whereas to Merlapaka Gandhi's disadvantage, it's harder to recreate the same thrill when watching his remake on a smaller screen without the sound system of a theatre. Especially when the film is tailor-made for a big screen experience. Besides, when remaking a thriller, it's harder to be original because the beats are fixed, and when they work it's attributed to the original and when they don't it's easy to blame the director.
But the director tries hard to squeeze in as much originality as he can. Arun (Nithiin) looks up to Ilayaraja but he's a piano player in Goa. It's like having curd rice with coconut rum on the side. The director wants to show us that this young man is a fish out of water – or rather a rabbit on the road. In the big bad world of Goa, he seems to struggle to become something while he thinks he's running the biggest con. The idea on paper works.
But when all the characters speak such good Telugu it's hard to feel the 'strangeness' of the place or fully grasp the character's contrast to his surroundings. Although Nithiin struggles to sell himself as a piano player, and a man trying to escape the guns chasing him, he is better in the second half of the film where it enters a more dramatic territory. He feels more at ease when he has to beg someone to not kill him than pretend that someone who's in the room with him isn't doing the things she is doing.
Before going into the film, the biggest question that puzzled me was the idea of casting Tamannaah in the role played by Tabu in the original. Like someone caught up over an ex-girlfriend, I was worried that I might constantly hark back to Tabu's performance and complain about how Tammanah pales. But Tammanah is surprisingly good despite her Telugu being awkward.
It could be seen as a meta-dig at the fact that her character Simran wants to be an actor in Telugu pop-culture despite not knowing the world or the language. It's telling us this is how far she's going to go to get what she wants. Her pairing with Naresh is even more jarring because in 100% Love she plays his niece. For me, it worked. Where Tabu made the character devious, Tammanah adds desperation.
But if you're a "glass is half empty" person then her Telugu could be a hindrance to an otherwise middling performance. Or if you're a hung-up-over-my-ex person, then maybe you just can't shake Tabu's performance off your head and you wouldn't be blamed.
But to me the biggest let down of the film was the lack of humor and this has particularly to do with Merlapaka Gandhi. His earlier films such as Venkatadri Express, and Express Raja had such high quotients of humor and twists that even if the story reached farcical levels the laughs and thrills carried them. I was hoping that because the thrills were taken care of, the humor levels would be extraordinary. And the humor needed to be extraordinary for the thrills to work. He's shown he's capable of that through his previous work. In Venkatadri Express, the comedic tracks with Saptagiri and Thagubothu Ramesh carry the wafer-thin plot.
Or even the absurd track with the recording dance troupe in Express Raja which made the second half of the film a riot despite so many flaws. It's also even more puzzling considering that he has an actor like Nithiin who doesn't come with star baggage and is very self-deprecating in his films. He wore a woman's top and got into a "save-the-girl" fight by complaining that the villain should be lusting after him in Chal Mohana Ranga. Nithiin — with moderate success — is an actor who wants to balance "actorly" parts in films such as Lie and Check with mainstream roles in films like Rang De. But he's not had the success his process should be giving. And with such a thrilling and twist-heavy script, it should have been a laugh riot too in the hands of someone capable like Merlapaka Gandhi.
But the director here seems like a toothless blind rabbit on a highway probably owing to the failure of his previous film Krishna Arjuna Yuddam starring Nani. But the lack of humor and its blandness makes the thrills seem milder because the audience is never distracted enough with humor. The jokes fall flat. Jisshu Sengupta playing the cop has a way of sneaking in comical expressions because he wants to show he's not all muscle and guns. Sreenivas Reddy's comedic timing is too good to be wasted for a few scenes that are purely functional. Someone like Sreemukhi whose character has so much potential because she solves the case "by-mistake" needed to be more fun. Nabha Natesh is not given much beyond pouting and looking disappointed.
The dialogues are functional and the scenes are too faithful to the original barring the film leaning a bit too heavily on the organ donation aspect and getting into a preachy zone. The film doesn't have as ambiguous an ending as the original and that's understandable given that Telugu audiences have generally favored clear cut endings. The music by Mahati Sagar is too uneven and what should have been fusion music ends up sounding like two different strains without any synergy. The background music seemed functional and again it might have been a better experience in theatres.
I am not sure how the film is going to be received by those who haven't seen the original. Maybe it'll be as fun as the original — or it'll be absurd. Or you might come out wondering what the hype was all about. But I walked out feeling it's not really Andhadhun, but it's also not fully a Merlapaka Gandhi film. It's somewhere in the middle a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It's probably just another Nithiin film.