Satyabhama Review: A Convoluted Police Procedural Led By An Intense Kajal Aggarwal Is Hit-and-miss

There is fun to be had as the film runs through eclectic assortment of tropes, but think about whether these actions make sense for the characters we’ve been introduced to, and it all falls apart
Satyabhama Review
Satyabhama Review

Director: Suman Chikkala

Writers: Suman Chikkala, Prashanth Reddy Motadoo, Sashi Kiran Tikka

Cast: Kajal Aggarwal, Naveen Chandra, Prakash Raj

Duration: 132 mins

Available in: Theatres

Satyabhama is conscious of how rare it is for a woman to play the lead in a mainstream Telugu film. In its early stretches, we see shades of Vijayshanti’s Kartavyam (1990) — Kajal Aggarwal in the lead plays a cop with little patience and a taste for violence. This is a film smart enough to acknowledge that we exist in a culture where markers of femininity are associated with weakness. So, we get an “elevation” scene in which we hold on to a close-up of Kajal’s bangle-adorned wrist as she heads towards an apprehended suspect before she punches him in the face. Electric guitars roar and the bass goes full throttle, KGF style.

About twenty minutes in though, the film becomes an investigative procedural—something along the lines of what we’ve seen in the HIT franchise. When a victim of domestic abuse seeks Satyabhama’s help, she gets embroiled in a case that threatens to remain unsolved even as it leaves emotional scars. 

A still from Satyabhama
A still from Satyabhama

This is when the film begins to revel in rug-pulling—every ten minutes, new information is revealed that redirects your suspicions. This is fun for a bit until it gets tiring. In great mysteries, we realise that the truth was always staring us in the face, and that the journey has been one of uncovering the truth. In lesser ones, it feels like the plot was so intent on confounding us that it has ended up convoluting itself beyond the realm of plausibility. It’s as if we’ve paid to watch a magician only to have been served up a contortionist.

The film’s ambition has it piling on too many cliches at the genre’s trope buffet—we get a trafficking subplot as well as a terrorism one, a “honey trap” via virtual reality, the “badge and gun” scene when a cop is forced to give up the investigation that they’re obsessed with. There is fun to be had as the film runs through this eclectic assortment of tropes, but stop and think about whether these actions make sense for the characters we’ve been introduced to, and it all falls apart. This is a shame because Kajal Aggarwal is a lot of fun when she’s intense (though the emotional notes are a bit iffy). Naveen Chandra as her supportive love interest doesn’t get much to work with, but I enjoyed the dynamic of their relationship if only because of its rarity on screen. My favourite bit was the Harshavardhan cameo, which comes with an Amrutham throwback.

A still from Satyabhama
A still from Satyabhama

What is perhaps worthy of comment is the film’s politics—much of the film concerns Satyabhama’s dealings with a Muslim family. Here too, the film is more committed to confounding, rather than to a political position— it plays with your knowledge and perception of several Islamophobic tropes without always necessarily succumbing to them. We do, however, get a “mass” action scene in the “sensitive” area of Hyderabad Old City, as well as a couple of other stereotypes thrown in. It’s almost as if the film wants to be a Dirty Harry-esque cop film, but keeps having compunctions about the excesses and trigger-happiness of that type of film. Perhaps nothing surfaces these compunctions quite like its ending.

Satyabhama is another film that reveals Telugu filmmakers’ desire to make slicker, cleverer films – but their inability to make these films work with their writing neutralises the potency of their ambitions. This is something the film shares with the HIT franchise—there are a lot of clever beats here, but no real substance. It feels like the characters are written to be imitations of archetypes from other films—this is fine if we’re watching pulp, but that’s not what these films are going for. When characters in these films tell us that their actions are motivated by something that happened to them, we accept it like we accept a law of trigonometry, not because we feel the truth of this drive.

But this is by no means a bad film. Kajal Aggarwal has for the longest time been saddled with roles that didn’t give her what she deserved. This is a film in which she shows that she’s a bonafide star who deserves to lead films. As a step in this direction, Satyabhama is serviceable.

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