Cast: Ram Charan, Samantha Akkineni, Aadhi Pinisetty
Everything that some people will think is right (and others wrong) in Sukumar's Rangasthalam (Stage) can be glimpsed in the song, Ee chethi thone. It's a dirge that plays over a murder victim being prepared for a funeral. We see the body being held upright and bathed. We see the grief-stricken father being helped into his ritual clothes. We see the bier being built, the body hoisted onto it. We see people coming to pay their last respects. We see the toes being tied with string, the women wailing, the body being carried away for cremation, and at the site, we see rice being sprinkled, a dung cake being placed on the face, the pyre being lit. Are we watching a star-driven masala movie, or a documentary on the death rites of a community living on the banks of the Godavari?
But that is Sukumar's approach. Rangasthalam can stand a good half-hour trim – it runs 179 minutes – but there's a method behind the (apparent) madness. One, the film is set in the 1980s, and songs (and scenes, and running times) of this sort weren't uncommon then. And two, Sukumar wants to immerse us in this milieu, in the lives of these people. His lingering on (sometimes excruciating) detail helps elevate a routine story about a village ruled by a tyrant known as "President" (Jagapati Babu, whose screen presence says a lot with very few lines). He has held the post, unopposed, for three decades. As someone says, "For 30 years, this village has seen the same play… There's no hero, only a villain." No one dares to walk past President's house with their slippers on. He returns the favour by usurping their land and crops under the pretext of unpaid loans.
Rangasthalam can stand a good half-hour trim – it runs 179 minutes – but there's a method behind the (apparent) madness.
In short, we are in the feudal realm of Benegal's Ankur and Nishant – or to recall a more commercial variant, something like Mana Voori Pandavulu. But here's the twist. It's not the loud, uneducated hero – Chittibabu (a forceful Ram Charan) – but his soft-spoken, Dubai-returned brother (Kumar, played by a deliberately unforceful Aadhi Pinisetty) who seeks to change the status quo. Sukumar plays a clever game with this "mass"/ "class" mix of siblings. He makes a movie about a morally uplifting social uprising. He also makes a movie about carefully nurtured vigilante justice. This is the kind of "political" film where Kumar goes around the village, beseeching people to support his candidacy for President. It's also the kind of "personal" drama where Chittibabu, early on, vows to crush a cobra that's bitten him, and then we discover the President's real name is that of the king of snakes. It's a great punch moment.
The punch moments arise organically from the screenplay. They aren't just… punch moments, a shot or a line set up simply to get the pulse pounding at regular intervals. Take the hero-introduction scene – it's neither heroic, nor much of an "introduction". We're plunged into the middle of the story, with Chittibabu watching helplessly as a man is nearly killed. The hero seems resigned to his unheroic-ness – he's even hearing-impaired. In the first song, he cheerfully sings: "We are all toys and puppets." The villagers, like him, are resigned to their plight. But wait. Did I just say that the hearing-impaired hero sings, perfectly in tune? That's just one of the many gleeful absurdities of the genre, like the item song (with a wan Pooja Hegde) that erupts one second after Chittibabu's girlfriend, Ramalakshmi (Samantha), defies her father and moves in with his family.
The punch moments arise organically from the screenplay. They aren't just… punch moments, a shot or a line set up simply to get the pulse pounding at regular intervals.
Sukumar keeps tinkering away at his broad (and rather generic) narrative, if not subverting our expectations then certainly reshaping them. You think Chittibabu will, at some point, lead the uprising, but he spends all his time tending to an ailing politician (Prakash Raj), swabbing his body and changing his urine bags. You think you know who's behind the attack on Kumar, but… This may be the only masala movie – I certainly can't think of another – where the villain's death occurs in a flashback. And then, there's another twist. The unhurried pace allows these revelations to function as more than mere cliff-hangers. They keep building towards the final explosion. We see the last few scenes, and then we see why we needed that earlier stretch where Chittibabu imagines there are assassins everywhere. At least for this genre, things are reasonably… realistic.
And yet, Rangasthalam isn't an entirely satisfying experience. The hero's hearing impairment isn't used very well. At first, it's just for comic effect, mainly in the romantic portions. There's a very funny scene where Chittibabu creates a ruckus in Ramalakshmi's house, and elsewhere, he keeps nudging her in the ribs to make her talk louder. He refuses to wear a hearing aid because he doesn't want everyone to know about his condition (though everyone does) – and we need to feel socked in the gut when he finally decides to wear one. The bigness of these emotions – a scene with Rangamma's (Anasuya) gift of a watch, a suicidal man telling Chittibabu he is lucky he cannot listen to their troubles – is in the script, but not on the screen, where we can feel them.
But even if it isn't always involving, Rangasthalam is certainly an interesting film. Look at how even the hero's proposal to the heroine colours the "it takes a village" aspect of the story. Chittibabu doesn't say, "Come with me if you love me." He knows her father is opposed to Kumar's idealism, and he knows he has to stand by Kumar. So he tells her, "Come with me if you love me as much as I love my brother." His love for her is implicit. (We've already seen it, sensed it.) But this is something bigger, and he wants to make sure she's up to it. Usually, in hero-driven vehicles, we'd come away happy with Rathnavelu's colour-drenched cinematography (the night scenes look like oil paintings), a few peppily choreographed Devi Sri Prasad songs, some laughs, some fights. But Sukumar works with a larger vision, and does something unexpected in this most hodgepodge of genres: he leaves behind his fingerprints.