Director: Rahul Sankrityan
Cast: Nani, Sai Pallavi, Krithi Shetty, Madonna Sebastian
Before I talk about Shyam Singha Roy let me talk quickly about two films that are set in a similar space and get most things right. First is Magadheera, Telugu cinema's biggest and best written masala reincarnation drama. While the images in the "past" were unforgettable and pumped copious amounts of adrenaline during the first time viewing, the film built the stakes in the present day story which takes up the first act and climax of the film. It was as much Harsha's story as Kaala Bhairava's story and the former too got his own share of Hero moments and drama.
Similarly, in Rang De Basanati (I know it's not a reincarnation drama but loosely in its spirit it could function as one), the vagrant aimless youth of the present were in direct contrast with the revolutionary and driven real life heroes they portrayed in the documentary. So, the contrast made it as much the story of the present-day youngsters with a mission for revenge as it was of the revolutionary men they portrayed.
Shyam Singha Roy exists somewhere in between both these films but it struggles to give its present-day story any weight. It tells two stories. First is that of Vasudev Ghanta an "upcoming" filmmaker who is embroiled in a plagiarism controversy as his work resembles the works of a Bengali social reformer from the 70s. The second story is that of Shyam Singha Roy, a fictional social reformer and prolific half Bengali and half Telugu writer and his love story with the written word and a Devadasi dancer he names "Rosie".
The film struggles with Vasudev to the point it seems disinterested in him. Usually, stories about storytellers tend to be tales of self-aggrandizement and glorify writers and story-telling but cinematically it's hard to make writing or filmmaking look interesting on screen.
How many shots of typewriters or a character typing or a functional film set can we cram before we get bored of seeing the writer write or the creator struggle to create? How interesting an end goal is "I want to make a film" and to what length can we stretch it when he convinces an actress for his short film easily, her father too quickly, the producer too simply, and even the audience rush to take selfies with him. Vasudev calls himself a film director without having directed a film. Maybe he does that because he knows things are going to be so easy for him. No struggle for this "upcoming" director.
Even Nani never sets the character in a consistent tone.
Is he sort of the fun assistant director he played in Majnu or the playboy in Krishnarjuna Yuddham? It looks like Nani wants to move away from Nani-isms that define his style of comedy (which I'm a big fan of). The awkward body language almost as if he's been caught on camera stealing laddoos while eating during a wedding or the way he exclaims dialogues as if every minor inconvenience makes him a victim of fate. Or even simply when he cracks a bad joke and laughs like a friend who enjoyed a bad pun.
Watch him pause and laugh at himself when he realizes Keerthy rhymes with Poorthi. It's a terrible rhyme but the joke works because Nani acknowledges it's bad but he's still having fun.
Nani also enjoys the odd Hero shot with Vasudev. He's juxtaposed with a mural of Kaali and that works as a foreboding sign of the importance of Kaali and Bengal in this man's life.
But barring these moments I couldn't help but yawn at the rest of his story. They exist in a limbo between bland and cheesy. The usually dependable Mickey J Meyer also struggles in the songs he writes for Vasudev. In the song 'Tara' lyricist Krishnakanth has a line that says ee lens lo life e choodara (Watch life through this lens) and it's terribly cheesy. So much so that Mickey J Meyer drowns out Kartik's voice with mediocre music.
Particularly awkward is the romance between Vasudev and Keerthy (Krithi Shetty) who plays a psychology graduate and a reluctant short film actress. When they kiss and get intimate it's weird not to feel uncomfortable by the real-life age gap between the actors. Of course the actors do what the script demands and it's harsh on actors when viewers like me impose any real life baggage on characters but here all the kissing is unnecessary and disposable adding no real value to the story or screenplay. Bigger stars and smaller actors have committed bigger sins but with Nani it feels…worse.
Worse yet, it's under a poster of the book cover of Conversations with Mani Ratnam as the filmmaker looks on and who would know better than him on how to show intimacy without really showing intimacy.
But then the film gets to the story it really wants to talk about. First in the line of interesting characters is Madonna Sebastian's Padmavathi, a no nonsense lawyer who doesn't believe her own client and is a fan of the lawyer who's her opposition. Padmavathi at least deserves her own show based on her character. Her chemistry with Nani too suits him. His brand of comedy works well against strong women as opposed to the 'playboy' vibes that the film goes for during his romance with Keerthy.
And then once the interval comes the film really comes into its own because it sets up Shyam Singha Roy's story. Here Nani shines because the character is well imagined and written.
Shyam Singha Roy is born into a Bengali bourgeoisie family but he's a rebel who is finding his cause as he goes. The film uses 'untouchability' as a set-up for a Hero moment. In other films it would have been awkward and tone deaf but here it can be forgiven because Shyam is hot-blooded and finding his way around the world he occupies so his action is tone-deaf but his intentions are in the right place. And when a goon threatens to burn the house of an oppressed caste victim, Nani's dialogue that says something to the effect of "I know where your houses are too" did set the theatre I was in, to a frenzy.
Similarly he has an interaction with Maoists who ask him to look towards the forest and the gun for answers on the questions of injustice and he has an interesting reply. He says (I'm paraphrasing) "a bullet answers only one person but the pen can talk to lakhs of people." Here the dialogues written by Rahul Sankrityan start to shine and he is much more confident in these portions. Even Nani's dialogue delivery has been recently (I think rightly so) critiqued for being base heavy and monotonous with an emphasis on short sentences. But finally in this director's hands that style seems to have found a home in the way they imagine Shyam Singha Roy. It takes away from Nani's comedic ability and in a good way.
He is terrific as a hot-blooded Bengali writer with progressive values struggling to find a cause in his world plagued with injustices.
And then comes the film's biggest weapon (and literally any film's biggest weapon if she's in it) – Sai Pallavi's Mythreyi aka Rosie. Nani and Sai Pallavi shared great chemistry in Middle Class Abbayi but that film was a shell of the possibilities they hold and the meaning they could add as actors to the characters they play.
As the Devadasi woman who is trapped in a world that deifies her but refuses to let her out into the world Sai Pallavi shines, getting the mix of innocence and fear but without seeming like a damsel in distress. Sai Pallavi, just Sai Pallavis. Nani and her are great as the star crossed lovers out to fight against society, religion and God.
There's also some superb dance sequences but at this point there are really no more words to praise about her dancing abilities and the way she expresses with her eyes and the rest of her body. Cinematographer Sanu John and Rahul Sankrityan weave magic with the images they create in Bengal be it in the temple or on the boats or the streets of Calcutta and along with the editor Naveen Nooli they do lovely transitions.
She gives Shyam his cause too – that of Devadasi women's liberation. It's terrible that even in works about fictional reformers men are saving women but given the time and atmosphere this film is set in it's not unforgivable and the film did enough to convince me that with age Shyam Singha Roy would have realized the falsity or the hypocrisy in him holding the pen and writing on behalf of Devadasi women or him speaking into a mic about their plight. It's not that he isn't flawed or isn't too righteous but it's that he seems to be able to learn and listen to Rosie but obviously the forces of fate and screenplay have other ideas for him.
The last song of the legendary late 'Sirivennela' Seetha Ramasastry coincidentally 'Sirivennela' makes you wish that there was more of Sirivennela Seetha Ramasastry's lyrics set to Sai Pallavi on screen because I didn't know they could be such a potent cinematic force and it's a pity that there can never be more of that.
Like any film set in a different state, Rahul Sankrityan struggles to get the balance of language right – there is a heavy dose of Bengali and the justifications given by Shyam and Rosie as to why they speak in Telugu seem half baked. Here too they can learn from the Rajamouli school where his logic seems to be 'they speak in Telugu because that makes my job easier' and move on. It works for him and I'm sure it would have worked here.
My favorite writer's touch in Shyam's life is the hint of a correspondence between Telugu leftist poet Sri Sri and Shyam Singha Roy and on the other hand Vasudev Ghanta's favorite film is Aakali Rajyam where the protagonist loves and quotes Sri Sri.
But sadly, like the proverbial good things the story of Shyam Singha Roy comes to an end and the film veers off into the story of Vasudev Ghanta and it becomes boring again. The film thinks it has a neat trick up its sleeve. If the first hour and Act had been set up better emotionally the pay off might have worked. But in the end the badly written courtroom drama portions and the final image which is supposed to be moving akin to Titanic's iconic last few seconds ends up looking comical.
The film Shyam Singha Roy gets a lot right about Shyam Singha Roy the character and his story. But all that feels undone because of how blandly and weakly the present day portions are written. Maybe like the film's title if it had focused on only its titular character the film could have been an epic like Magadheera or Rang De Basanti but now it exists a little bit here and there but nowhere really as epic as it should be.