Cast: Ravi Teja, Rajisha Vijayan, Nassar, Divyansha Kaushik
Director: Sarath Mandava
I'm not sure what to make of this version of Ravi Teja – the humorless machine that churns out senseless mass films. It's not even reaching the stage of "it's so senseless that it's ironically amazing" like with Balakrishna, where his films have merged self-deprecating irony with genuine masala. While Balakrishna tends to overcommit to his part here, Ravi Teja feels like a lazy rehash of himself from the past like an assembly line of films meant to be safe money spinners. The disappointment is two-fold. He is an actor who is capable of pulling off subtle films where he can play more vulnerable men on screen and also within this framework of masala films, he lent a freshness to them nearly a decade and a half ago.
Sadly, Rama Rao On Duty, while being better than his recent films, still doesn't become a great or even a good film.
It tells the story of Ramarao (Ravi Teja), a deputy collector who is posted as a Mandal Revenue Officer in Chittoor in 1995. There is a spate of murders related to red sanders and its smuggling, and the story revolves around Ramarao getting his hands dirty and investigating the dark forces that are involved in the illegal activity.
Director Sarath Mandava seems oddly confused about how to treat the film and struggles with seamlessly weaving his vision into Ravi Teja's image. There is a lot of research that he has done regarding how exactly the smuggling takes place and it is to his credit that it never feels similar to Pushpa: The Rise, despite sharing the same space and place. But his leading man's over-the-top-ness and mandatory requirement of two female actors, make them misfits. There is not one but two poorly written women in the film starring Divyansha Kaushik and Rajisha Vijayan. Their names might as well be Right Hand Woman and Left Hand Woman.
At some point, the two women meet and discuss how great the man who connects them is and then one of them gets to imagine a song sequence in Spain. It's not the outdated part that is worrisome, but the lack of imagination to begin with. Sure, you want to hark back to a time when songs were an excuse to showcase some new locations to an audience who might never get a chance to go to such exotic locations. Can the locations be more exotic then? Can the choreography be newer? Can the music feel fresher? Give the audience something.
Somewhere buried within Rama Rao On Duty is a Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru-like film. I'm not saying Sarath Mandava shows the same kind of promise as H Vinoth in terms of execution, but he clearly has an eye for the world he wants to delve into. If Pushpa in some sense has an amoral understanding of smuggling, Rama Rao On Duty has a clear moral stance on smuggling. And in that way, it has clear masala tropes of good guys vs bad guys at its disposal, but the film doesn't rise above trying to valorise its leading man. The massy moments should have been punctuation marks in the investigative thriller. Instead they are like giant potholes that make you wish you never came down this road in the first place.
But to Sarath Mandava's credit, this film is at least as good, if not better than any of Ravi Teja's recent films. Upon further reflection, I don't think this film wants to clear a bar higher than that. For now, the assembly line of Ravi Teja films has just gotten one more addition.