Cast: Prabhas, Pooja Hegde
Director: Radha Krishna Kumar
There's something audacious about a star of Prabhas' proportions agreeing to do a full-length love story without any action and banking purely on the script and his own acting calibre. After Saaho and the announcement of films with Prashant Neel and Sandeep Reddy Vanga, there was a fear that the pre-Baahubali Prabhas who was known for being the goofy-masala star of romantic dramas had completely faded out. Even his comic timing and dialogue delivery hasn't been adequately used in nearly a decade.
But in Radhe Shyam he wants to try and remodel himself into that mould again. Utter romantic dialogues, be a goof in love on screen, and of course, the most important of all, be smolderingly attractive and walk-in slow-motion to ensure that the women in the audience can lust after him. Unfortunately, all of this might have worked for the pre-Baahubali Prabhas but in Radhe Shyam he looks tired, his eyes are droopy, simple dialogues seem laborious, and he just isn't funny as much as cringey.
Radhe Shyam tells the story of an expert palm reader ("Einstein of Palmistry" as the film keeps referring to him) Vikramaditya (Prabhas) who falls in love with Prerana (Pooja Hegde), a doctor. They are both in Italy in the 70s because something something Indian emergency something but the real reason seems to be that a 'Prabhas' film must have a scale that is bigger than his previous films. Back to Prerana and Vikramaditya. They are not supposed to be in love because it's not within their fate. Why can't Prerana and Vikramaditya be in love? Can Vikramditya read his own palm and does he know something we don't? Did Prabhas read the script?
Radhe Shyam is directed by Radha Krishna Kumar who is one film old, that film being Jil which was a regular masala-fare. Here, he tries to tell a pure love story along the lines of Manirathnam's Geethanjali but adds a layer of Hindu mysticism to it. In that attempt, Radha Krishna Kumar has envisioned beautiful frames that show his influences ranging from Mani Ratham to Michael Gondry and maybe even master framemaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Some frames are beautiful to look at such as a train running through a lake as the lead pair stare into each other's eyes; some seem like ambitious homages like when Prerana and Vikramaditya are lying on snow as if they are the only ones in the world (similar to the posters of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); some are plain cheesy like Prabhas being at one end of the rainbow while Pooja Hegde runs to the other end.
But they are all beautiful frames put together by cinematographer Manoj Paramahamsa, production designer Ravindar, and costume designers Eka Lakhani and Thota Vijay Bhaskar. Even the sets designed by Gayatri Shinde and the art by Illia Boccia, Sagar Mali, and Giulia Parigi have raised the bar at least twofold for any Telugu film that comes after this. Rarely do Telugu films look so pretty and this one looks stunning. The interiors of a house look so picture-perfect that, even a bed that's been slept on for a whole night looks barely crumpled as if to sleep properly on them is to sin.
But here is where Radha Krishna Kumar's script (he wrote the film too) lets down the scale of the film and its stars. He seems to be so invested in the frames that in terms of storytelling, he's taken it far too literally where his characters tell us what happened and what we are supposed to feel rather than show us.
Take this scene for example. Vikramaditya tells Prerana that if she doesn't come outside a certain place by 10 AM the next day, he will never show his face to her again. This is usual Telugu film territory. But the next day he shows up at said time and place. But how do we know this gesture is grand? Because a character literally tells us something to the effect of "Did he just travel 300 kilometres in freezing temperatures and pouring rain across mountains to meet you?" And that is how we learn that he did all of those things. Otherwise, we get a Prabhas on a bike with no scratches or signs of wear and tear and he looks prim and proper with barely a stain on his clothes.
I'm not asking to be shown thermometers and rain gauges but don't expect me to be awed by the result without showing me the process. The film suffers throughout from excess exposition.
And it commits the other cardinal sin that lies adjacent to exposition — easy and convenient payoffs. There is a ship captain (played by Jayaram in a Captain Haddock way) who is always in the hospital because he is constantly worried he has a disease i.e. he is nosophobic. He's given a few scenes to play for laughs and his scene with Prabhas, which the film thinks is ripe uproarious comedy barely causes a chuckle and that is induced neither by Prabhas' nor by Jayaram's acting chops. But this captain suddenly changes his life — we barely see him contemplate and his entrance, in the end, is so outrageous that even Vikramaditya can't predict it.
Similarly, there are characters who have no payoffs but they are all supposed to mean something. Jagapathi Babu plays a character who has no outcome in any event in the film and yet his scenes were retained. There is a scene with an archer where she asks "Do armless handicapped people not have a future?" and what is supposed to be a meaningful moment feels like a silly question asked by a 14-year-old. Towards the climax, we are supposed to feel destroyed by the fact that Vikramaditya is leaving his mother with his friend, and he's leaving his entire life behind. But how can we do that when we don't care about them enough? Do we really need Kunal Roy Kapur to play a 'fat' friend who eats a lot? Did we even need such a character again in such a seemingly ambitious film?
Director Radha Krishna Kumar also struggles to handle Justin Prabhakaran's fantastic music. I'm just going to leave you with one example so that you know how odd the songs feel on screen. Radhe Shyam's biggest song (and my personal favourite too) is 'Ee Raathale' sung by Yuvan Shankar Raja. When the chorus hits, the song is magical as the lyrics say "Ee raathale Dhoobuchule" (This fate keeps toying with us) and there is a sweet fusion of Carnatic and Western music that explodes. But in the film when this same chorus hits at one point it cuts to Vikramaditya and his family eating. There's more Prabhas and Kunal Roy Kapur toying with the rice on their plate than the enormity of fate playing with anyone. Other songs suffer similarly.
I suspected the film to share this 'fate' after I saw one of its first frames. It said "Story Idea by Chandrashekhar Yeleti". Radha Krishna Kumar worked as an assistant under Chandrashekhar Yeleti for nine years or so. Chandrashekhar Yeleti is Telugu cinema's most overrated "underrated director" as he too suffers from being an ideas man who struggles to translate them on screen.
Radha Krishna Kumar too has some big and ambitious ideas. I think the idea to intertwine death, love and fate is a winning combination and similarly to make your protagonist a palmist is a brave idea. This is not to say you have to agree or believe in astrology. But such a literal interpretation of fate and love is a great idea given that Prabhas caters to large sections of the audience. But it feels like a gimmick rather than a characteristic and when Prabhas harps on about not having a 'love line' it makes his character seem flaky whereas the film wants us to think he's a tragic hero. Similarly when the character wants 'flirtationship' (which in modern terms would be fuckboi) it feels cheesy and makes the audience cringe rather than be something that you find endearing.
And finally, the two plot points that the film considers 'twists' do not work primarily because they are withheld from us and we have to struggle through a bland but beautiful first half and an equally generic second half till the twists are revealed one by one. They're not worth the wait because there are no 'real' obstacles to this love story. Had Radha Krishna Kumar followed Manirantham's Geethanjali where the conditions of the lead pair are revealed early on, Radhe Shyam might have been a more exciting watch.
Maybe this film could have used some action as opposed to completely avoiding it. Maybe the film could have borrowed a little from Krishna Vamsi's Murari which intertwined Hindu ideas of fate with young love and came out a smashingly entertaining and lovable film. Maybe…
The most enjoyable moments in the film are also its most genuine ones and those pertain to the 'marriage jokes' on Vikramaditya which carry meta baggage regarding Prabhas' own bachelorhood. These scenes with his own uncle Krishnam Raju (who plays Vikramaditya's guru Paramahamsa) come with warmth and self-deprecation that adds life to the film.
Radhe Shyam, like Saaho, seems to have been signed by a pre-Baahubali Prabhas and he had to scale up these films with simple outlines to match his image. But I'm glad he's done with both of them and now he can move on to the likes of Salaar with Prashant Neel, Spirit with Sandeep Reddy Vanga, and Project K with Nag Ashwin. These filmmakers and films seemed to have come for the post-Baahubali Prabhas as opposed to ramping up older ideas for a newer image.
I look forward to that version of him because whatever this is, it's not dishing up films that are worth the hype.