Director: Surender Reddy
Cast: Chiranjeevi, Sudeep, Vijay Sethupathi, Nayanthara, Tamannaah, Jagapati Babu
What starts and sustains a revolution? A cruel and unstoppable enemy? A great leader? A group of peers willing to put aside egos and stand behind a man? A people — troubled and tired — willing to give their life if their leader needs them to? Women as strong and willing as the man they love? Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy seems to suggest that the answer is all of the above. Even though the film starts as a one-man show — he, and only he, can put an end to a drought, and only he gets to light the fire at the top of a hill that promotes prosperity — it wises up soon enough, and branches out to include other characters and and their courage. This is what made the film stand out for me. As much as Narasimha Reddy loves to say ‘Sye Raa’— a word meaning ready for anything — it only turns into a movement if those by his side are ready as well.
Sye Raa is a highly-fictionalised story, based on the life of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, of a polygar deciding to rise from under the oppressive feet of the British Empire. Even though the actual story ends as a tragedy — the real man was hanged in front of his people to instill fear — the film modifies it enough to end on a positive note.
Thankfully, Surender Reddy isn’t trying to make the next Baahubali. Even though the scale and some sequences are reminiscent of the aforementioned film, the similarities are consequential rather than aspirational. The action sequences are rather well-choreographed, even if a bit long, and the emotional beats that drive the film are perfectly placed. The kid who only learns what stealing is after he’s committed it, the old man whose bravery forces the others to join a fight with bad odds, and the mothers — one is allowed to decide the punishment for her own son, one forgets to blink until her son’s death is avenged, while the other holds out her pallu to catch her son’s blood — they all invigorate a familiar template.
The story is written by the Paruchuri brothers — the two men singlehandedly created the Telugu commercial cinema language that filmmakers swear by even now — so, it’s no surprise they could easily tweak it to fit a slightly diverse film. Reddy gets most things right in the film. Sai Madhav Burra’s dialogues — colloquial yet dramatic — deserves some credit too.
When we are introduced to the grown version of Narasimha Reddy (Chiranjeevi), he is underwater, levitating and meditating. Even though he is very good with his knife — he even cuts fire, if it’s in his way — he isn’t your average hot-headed young man; he doesn’t act and then think. He is level-headed, and his punishments are humane and calculated. This maturity not only helps build a different kind of hero, it also accommodates the age of the actor playing it. Chiranjeevi has played many difficult characters in his films, so this character might not have been a challenge. Nonetheless, he gives it his all — he screams in agony just as well as he seethes with anger. The way his character ends wouldn’t have landed as well as it did if not for his conviction and body language.
The supporting cast — led by Amitabh Bachchan, Vijay Sethupathi, Sudeep, Jagapathi Babu, and Ravi Kishan — helps keep the film diverse and interesting. Even though the characters aren’t complete or long enough to have substantial emotional heft — except for Sudeep’s Auvku Raju, they work as cameos. I don’t know what to think of a Bachchan character without his baritone, but it is what it is. And Sethupathi’s character saying that Narasimha Reddy’s songs are heard everywhere in Tamil Nadu might not be a wink at Chiranjeevi’s popularity in South India, but I am going to treat it as one.
Keeping up with the tradition of the masala entertainer, the two female leads in the film are not given characters to play, but roles to perform. Siddamma is the dutiful wife — Nayanathara’s earnestness and innate softness sells this part more than the writing — and Lakshmi is the sacrificing lover — Tamannaah’s performance improves post-interval. While the former has fallen in love with him without ever laying eyes on him, the latter falls for him the second she does. The lack of chemistry between Chiranjeevi and Tamannaah makes for a few awkward scenes. Be that as may, the film does acknowledge the sacrifices of these women and the way Lakshmi’s arc turns into a revolutionary singer — Amit Trivedi’s music is uncharacteristically mundane — makes up for the rest; at least, it tries to. Rohini’s performance as a distraught widow and a mourning mother is impactful as well.
Telugu cinema loves its bulls, and loves it more when run amok. A well-shot sequence in the beginning involving raging bulls bodes well for the film that is to be and its visual effects. The primary villain of the film is a man named Cochrane whose pet is a black panther, and who calls Indians barbarians while being one himself. Even though his character is almost a caricature, the cruelty he perpetuates successfully creates a palpable enemy and makes the interval block that much more satisfying. Rathnavelu’s cinematography comes through very impressively while covering this man’s acts. Uthara Menon’s styling needs special mention as well. The film’s use of local and solid colours — muddy red and yellow — make for interesting frames.
While most films think that a star-driven venture needs its star to fill every frame, this film pleasantly disagrees. One of the best conflicts of the film is between Jagapati Babu’s character and his son. There are a few places where the screenplay, while trying to build a scene up, inevitably creates a lull, but that is easily forgivable. Sye Raa might not be a perfect film, but it’s a perfect entertainer.