Cast: Adivi Sesh, Saiee Manjrekar, Sobhita Dhulipala, Prakash Raj, Revathi
Director: Sashi Kiran Tikka
The media is leaking the locations of India's NSG Commandos. The terrorists are watching TV and are able to derail all the plans of the NSGs who are up against an enemy that is prepared to die and kill. The enemies also have satellite phones and digital blueprints of the hotel that is under siege and India's NSGs have just a hand-drawn sketch of the hotel. What do the NSG officers do?
Can we give an impassioned speech to the media to be better and aid in national security? Or will they care more about TRPs and live updates than the lives being threatened by the terrorists?
What does Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan do? What does Adivi Sesh, the writer of the film, do?
What unfolds on screen and how this leads to a hair-raising masala moment is all you need to know why Major is a film well aware of the liberties it can and cannot take leading to a phenomenal theatrical experience.
This film directed by Sashi Kiran Tikka starring Adivi Sesh tells the story of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan, the NSG officer who sacrificed his life during the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. I'm not sure about the exact life of Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan and the film doesn't want to tell us the truth as much as it wants to give us the essence of the man's life.
Usually, this would mean writers and directors add hagiographical elements and an overdose of patriotism that guilts the audience. But Major is too classy to do that. It never rubs patriotism in your face. Rather it shows how a small boy who was petrified of a street dog grows up to become the bravest man in the face of death. In this film's universe, a soldier means anyone who can give courage to others and it is this definition that drives the narrative forward. It allows it to restrain from painting the villains cartoonishly or cheapening the bravery by overly done stunts. It's just the right amount.
The biggest factor in helping Major get there to me is undoubtedly Sricharan Pakala's music, never thunderous but slowly rising leading to the tragic climax. Throughout the film, his music doesn't intrude but lures you into cheering for the brave officer to the point where you wish you could imbibe his spirit.
Major must not have been an easy film to score music for because Sricharan Pakala has two different challenges ahead of him. First, he has to create an atmosphere of doom and heroism i.e. we know Sandeep Unnikrishnan is going to die and he was heroic. The challenge is to get us to feel both and never lose balance. The second challenge is to hold the film's audience captivated in the first half of the film which tells the story of Sandeep Unnikrishnan's life before the fateful day. So much could have gone wrong.
Do we care about the love story in school? Or the small scuffles while he's training as a soldier? Especially in a film that sensibly chose to not over dramatize the love story. If there is any criticism about the film it's that the first half feels like a collection of music videos – one that tells us the school love story, one with the training montage and the rise of the hero, one about the first kiss and the one about the hero's call to mission. It's not necessarily a bad thing but it could have gone wrong.
But Sricharan Pakala stitches these scenes with his music, making sure we never look into our phones. It is also in the love story that I was most impressed with Adivi Sesh, the writer. Take for instance the generic meet cute sequence with Neha (Saiee Manjrekar) that is followed by a song. In other films we've seen writers and directors delve into this territory with mediocre results – the boy chases the girl, the girl says no at first but secretly loves the boy yada yada yada. But Adivi Sesh gives purpose to this song – she gives him a digit of her phone number every time she falls in love with him. And by the end of it, she's fully in love with him. A small touch like this lets us buy this love story quickly.
Even the way Adivi Sesh, the writer, handles the marital conflict between Neha and Sandeep is mature because she's never villainized and the film goes as far to say that much like Sandeep she too sacrificed as a wife and a woman for her country. It's a brave statement where a lesser movie would have either chastised her or demanded the sacrifice from her.
It's tender, it's sensitive, and it's human.
Adivi Sesh as Sandeep Unnikrishnan is a little unconvincing as the titular man in the initial portions before he joins the army. It's a smart casting call by director Sashi Kiran Tikka to pad these sequences with Prakash Raj and Revathi as his parents. These are roles that they can do in their sleep and they help distract from Adivi Sesh who struggles to hit the right note of "goofy" son. But once he enters the army you see that nobody relishes a slow-mo shot more than Adivi Sesh, giving even his jawline ample space to perform. The way cinematographer Vamsi Patchipulusu combines with the action choreography department (Naba, Sachin Yadav, and Sunil Rodrigues) gives this film's version of Sandeep Unnikrishnan a Superman-like touch – fists on the ground, the slow rises, and the confidence in hand-to-hand combat, etc. Adivi Sesh is sensational in moving all the right muscles and barely saying an off-key dialogue (some clean writing by Abburi Ravi).
I was worried before watching the film that the politics of Major might hamper me from enjoying it – it might milk the sentiment too much or go for easy anti-Pakistan sloganeering. But it doesn't. It shows restraint where it needs to and it explodes where it has to. Major's music and its leading man in the second half make it one of the finest theatrical experiences in the last year and that's saying a lot considering it fights for that space with films like RRR and Pushpa.
While writing a review for Soodhu Kavvum nearly a decade ago, Baradwaj Rangan had written about how when the audience whistled at the entry of Vijay Sethupathi, it felt sweet -like the kind of star audience and critics agreed on. I think through Adivi Sesh, Telugu films have produced that kind of a star for Telugu cinema – someone who can do masala films but stands out differently from his peers. Now too, when the audience whistled at his entry and the slow reveal of his face, it was the sweetest sound I had heard in years.