Director: Surender Reddy
Cast: Chiranjeevi, Sudeep, Vijay Sethupathi, Nayanthara, Tamannaah, Jagapati Babu
In the pantheon of ageing-yet-ageless stars of the South, Chiranjeevi has been missed the most. In Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth still lights up our screens regularly — actually, far more frequently than he used to. Mammootty and Mohanlal show no signs of stopping — they seem to have a movie out every month. But apart from Khaidi No. 150, Chiranjeevi has been MIA. You can see why Ram Charan, as producer, was drawn to Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, written and directed by Surender Reddy. This isn't just a vehicle for his father. It's a monument to the megastar. From some accounts, the titular character was one of the many governors or petty chieftains (such as Veerapandiya Kattabomman, or Marudhanayagam Pillai, about whom Kamal Haasan tried to mount a movie), who were amongst the earliest to revolt against the British. But if it's that story you are after, you're probably better off reading a history book. This film is about the agelessness of this particular ageing superstar. It really should have been titled Konidela Siva Sankara Vara Prasad.
There is one glorious moment where the hero's head appears to have been replaced by the sun — and, it's the film's most fitting visual. Expectedly, everyone else is reduced to a tiny planet orbiting around him. Amitabh Bachchan plays a cotton beard. Vijay Sethupathi, speaking a couple of Tamil lines, plays a guessing game with the audience — with no help from the writing, it's up to you to guess what he's doing in the movie. Nayanthara plays the wife. (Her entire character arc in the first half goes roughly like this: Look pretty. Get married. Get pregnant.) Sudeep, Nasser, Jagapathi Babu, Ravi Kishen and Anushka Shetty (as the Rani of Jhansi) all play the easiest pay cheques they've picked up in their careers. So, it's really up to Chiranjeevi to shoulder the sprawling (too sprawling for its own good) narrative, and that he does with charm and magnetism. This is how you separate the men from the boys. If one of today's stars had performed an underwater decapitation, we may have laughed with disbelief, but when these old-school stars do something similar, and the victim's head shoots up like a champagne cork, it seems the most natural thing in the world. The audience cheers.
But even the biggest star needs the gravity of a strong screenplay, and that's where Sye Raa falters, and ultimately fails. Apart from Chiranjeevi, there is nothing holding things together — and nothing that differentiates this rise-against-the-British saga from any villager-versus-evil-landlord masala movie. The Narasimha myth is invoked, but nothing comes of it. There's the solid idea of a "people's movement", but given the relentless focus on the hero, that conceit doesn't come across, either. There's no sense of chronology, of character, of geography (which, surely, should be more than just a bunch of places being named on screen). Narasimha Reddy is everywhere at once. He's there when a villager is persecuted. He's there when his wife is kidnapped. He's there when a house is on fire, with children trapped inside. I half-thought he had been bitten by a radioactive spider during one of his jungle jaunts.
Even generic good-versus-evil narratives can come alive with clever writing. Sye Raa opens with a disclaimer that several cinematic liberties have been taken with this story. So, why not compress the many British villains into one strong antagonist? Why not reduce the many indistinguishable forts to one impregnable stronghold around which the battles are staged? Why not try to do more things with fewer people, so that the characters aren't just a fancy-dress parade of famous names? Some questionable CGI apart, the physical scale of the film is huge, thanks largely to cinematographer Rathnavelu. The emotional scale, though, is a different matter altogether. Brothers and sons appear as if by magic, and we are asked to care about hugely sentimental arcs they are involved in. There's a Brit with a black panther for a pet. I thought unspeakable terrors were in store. The animal ends up about as dangerous as an Instagram kitten. The scene where the two women in Narasimha Reddy's life (Nayanthara and Tamannaah) meet should have been a dramatic scorcher — it plays out like a corporate handshake.
The mega-success of the Baahubali films has clearly emboldened many filmmakers to dream big, really big — but few of them seem to understand that those films weren't just about kings and queens, big costume budgets and bigger battles. The writing made those films first — that's what gave SS Rajamouli a super-strong foundation to build on. There are so many potentially great moments in Sye Raa: the underwater meeting between future lovers, a boy stealing a fistful of grain, a heartless British officer procuring dye for fabric, the "I am Spartacus" scene where people claim Narasimha Reddy is in their hearts. There's some genuinely goosefleshy stuff in here, especially towards the end, but instead of dwelling on a moment and milking it to the maximum, the screenplay keeps hopping to the next one, like a coked-up rabbit. With a mega star and a mega budget, is it too much to hope for a mega movie?