Director: Pavan Sadineni
Cast: Rajendra Prasad, Naresh Agastya, Harshavardhan, Gnaneswari, Sathya Prakash, Rakendu Mouli
The term ‘grey character’ gets thrown around a lot. Often, it refers to a character barely a shade off angelic good or pure evil. For the first time since Swami Ra Ra and Prasthanam, Telugu film Senapathi (a remake of 8 Thootakkal) and its characters earn the word ‘grey.’ It’s not just a stylistic choice about the clothes they wear or the way they speak. It is, in fact, in how quickly the film makes it easy for you to hate a character and then chide you for judging them earlier.
Take Bablu Yadav (Jeevan Kumar) the dreaded gangster of Dabeerpura, where the film is largely set in. He’s so powerful and feared that even the police tread carefully around him. He has gold, guns, and is a cold-blooded killer. And then when he is being betrayed, he only needs to look in the mirror to see that he suddenly dwarves in size and becomes a laughing stock. Considering Jeevan Kumar’s broad build, it becomes all the funnier.
This film’s commitment to moral greyness defines the story it chooses to tell — that of protagonists Krishna (Agastya Naresh) and Krishna Murthy (Rajendra Prasad). Krishna is preparing to become an IPS officer because he wants to fix the system by reaching the top. But one day on a mission he loses his service revolver and suddenly it falls into the hands of a mad man who won’t stop using its bullets to kill for selfish reasons.
When we first meet him, as a child, the world is literally in black and white. Despite being wronged by the system, he still believes in his own goodness and idealism. It’s his story because he’s so pure and white the world wants to hack away at it till it becomes grey. We begin being empathetic and end up wary of him.
Similarly for Krishnamurthy, a cold-blood killer who robs a bank, and dead bodies begin to pile up around him. The film wants us to see him as pure evil until it hacks away at our notions of who he is. We begin being wary of him and end empathetic to his causes and means.
The film ends when both the characters reach a moral greyness and no one person is more right or wrong than the other. And that the film achieves this with barely any hiccups is a testament to how well it is made by its director Pavan Sadineni and producer Sushmitha Konidela.
The story religiously follows the beats of the original but it does a fantastic job of transposing the story onto the seedy world of Dabeerpura with its drug sellers, gun sellers, prostitutes, arrack sellers and anyone engaging in an activity that would be considered immoral and illegal. This is where the world created by production designer Narni Srinivas and art director Upender Reddy helps cinematographer Vivek Kalepu snake around the lanes and capture awkward angles. They make it seem as if we are illegally snooping on the film’s characters.
Some of the flourishes by editor Goutham Raj Nerusu seem excessive – like the brush strokes that cause a metro track to be painted diagonally across the screen. This feeling is furthered because the second half seems flabbier than the first. Some of the portions surrounding Krishna Murthy’s family delve into TV serial levels of melodrama.
But it is easier to forgive, at least while watching the film, because of how well Rajendra Prasad holds your attention. The character lies somewhere between Naseeruddin Shah’s The Common Man in A Wednesday and Kamal Hassan’s Senapathi in Bharatheeyudu not just in terms of morality but also in terms of how menacing he is. The director seems to have struggled to give him the right note to play the comedic bits particularly after something gruesome happens. But during the emotional bits he reminds you of the characters he played to perfection in Aa Naluguru and Mee Shreyobhilashi. Towards the climax there is an interesting choice to let Murthy reveal a giant chunk of the backstory without cutting to a flashback and you can see why with an actor of Rajendra Prasad’s caliber, flashbacks become irrelevant.
It’s good to see a young actor like Naresh Agastya play the character of someone who is the butt of all jokes and is abused so much by everyone around him. Even when he retaliates it doesn’t become aggressive in a cinematic sense. In any other mainstream film, he’d be the sidekick. His innate meekness made the twist in Matthu Vadhulara bland and unconvincing but here it’s the same quality that works in his favor. He pales in front of actors like Rajendra Prasad, Harshavardhan and Satya Prakash but the character warrants that.
Although the romance with Satya (Gnaneshwari Kandregula) seems terribly written in a film that finally lets its female lead have greyness in her. When she betrays him, Krishna sees himself as a victim of another act of selfishness and evil but she points out that he’s not terribly righteous either. When you have such an interesting and rarely seen dynamic between Satya and Krishna, did there really have to be such a clean romantic closure?
There’s so much to like in the film’s quirks – right from Harshavardhan’s Param singing classic Hindi songs to Satya Prakash’s Puroshottam always eating healthy food despite taking part in shady activities to the chain reaction of events that begins with an abuse.
There’s even more to like in the film’s commitment to create a universe where nobody is right and yet everyone is wrong and that this moral code conquers all. Rarely do Telugu films explore the themes of greyness and empathy in such a layered manner but this one comes out with flying colors.