Saakini Daakini Is An Entertaining Action-Comedy With Intelligent Feminist Subtext

The gender-swapped remake of the 2017 South Korean action-comedy Midnight Runners is infused with something that is rare in Telugu cinema — a feminist subtext
Saakini Daakini Is An Entertaining Action-Comedy With Intelligent Feminist Subtext

Director: Sudheer Varma

Writer: Akshay Poolla

Cast: Regina CassandraNivetha Thomas, Johnson D M

Nested in Saakini Daakini’s second half lies one of the most fun brawls I’ve witnessed in a Telugu film. It consists of two female police trainees beating up a group of human traffickers in a restaurant, and it is more believable than most fight scenes in “commercial” Indian films involving male stars. For one, we’ve witnessed the characters train for this. But the fight is as gritty as it is comedic — chairs are smashed, someone’s beard is lit on fire, and noticeably, it resists the temptation most South filmmakers filming fights seem to have given into—the Snyderification of every action scene with their alternatingly sped up and slowed down frames—done to extract a series of “hero shots” that disrupt the flow and grit of the action. It is an impressive piece of sequence design (the opening blows are underscored by Danny Morrison’s hyperbolic praise of a smashing Rohit Sharma innings on a TV in the background), stunt work, fight choreography, and sound design (deliciously violent sounds of bones cracking and heads smashing against tables). It also deserves to be watched in the theater, with its surround sound and the scale of the screen. You’d be making a mistake waiting for the OTT release.

Saakini Daakini is a gender-swapped remake of the 2017 South Korean action-comedy Midnight Runners. The original is as much a buddy-cop action movie as it is a coming-of-age story of young, confused boys becoming men. Saakini Daakini loses this specific texture, but what it replaces it with is rare in Telugu cinema—a feminist subtext that informs its characters’ motivations.

Consider the differences. In the original, jealous of a classmate’s love life, the leads take leave from the Police University to visit a high-end pub to hit on girls. They fail miserably. They see a pretty girl walking down the street and hope she turns to look at them. The girl is then abducted, kicking off a plot about human trafficking and the exploitation of women. The boys become men when they go from seeing women as possessions or potential girlfriends to recognising the systemic exploitation of women, specifically because these women are being reduced to their biological identities.

In Saakini Daakini, the girls go out to a pub because Shalini (Nivetha Thomas) hears that the actor Varun Tej frequents it and she wants to catch a glimpse, but they’re wary of staying out too late because they have a cut-off “out-time” as hostels in India often do (and girls’ hostels usually have one that “cuts off” a couple of hours earlier than boys’) . When the abduction occurs and they tell their superior officer, they’re told that the first thing they should do is get back to the academy, “for their safety”. Later, when they ask a cab driver to drop them in a shady part of town, they’re told by him “It’s not safe for women”. Shalini replies “No place is safe for women. So what do we do? Sit at home?” By the end, the feminist undertones become more explicit, with an electronic version of “Aigiri Nandini” in the background underscoring a fight sequence, but this still feels earned given what has led up to this point.

Nivetha Thomas is great as the boisterous Shalini, delivering on the promise she showed in Brochevarevarura (2019). While I wasn’t convinced by all the lines given to her, she displays great comic timing as well as a powerful, visceral presence in the action sequences. Regina Cassandra’s character could be slightly underwritten, but she is equally convincing as an uppity economically privileged woman who finds the academy life difficult. The humour in the first half is somewhat broad-strokes and “commercial” compared to the original, and not all the jokes land, but the film is inventive with the localisation of the story.  There is a clever reference to the Bechdel test early on when our leads encounter each other in an argument. After their argument ends, a senior male officer in the academy asks one of them “You were talking about me weren’t you?” They weren’t, but such is male entitlement.

Though some of the humor felt tacked on, Saakini Daakini is a clever, engaging remake that has both the filmmaking prowess and the progressive undertones many recent smaller and medium budget Telugu films have shown. While writing this review, I realised I’d like a sequel. It’s the sort of “mass” film you wish would go Pan-India despite its flaws.

This story was originally published on September 16, 2022

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