Writers: Vamsee, Srikanth Vissa
Cast: Ravi Teja, Anupam Kher, Gayatri Bhardwaj, Nassar
Runtime: 182 minutes
Available in: Theatres
The first half of Tiger Nageswara Rao’s story is narrated by a police officer (Murali Sharma) to officers from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s security team. They are concerned about the PM’s safety after receiving a warning from the titular decoit. The high-level officers want to know more about the danger this dreaded thief poses. The film we see in the first half, is from Murali Sharma’s perspective. So when his character condenses a massive event like Tiger Nageswara Rao's killing of 24 people after escaping prison, it’s surprising and assuring that we’ll see these events play out later. And we see the same sequence in the second half when it’s narrated by Nassar, who is described as the Dronacharya for all the thieves from the notorious Stuartpuram, where the film is set in. What was just a piece of information from the police officer’s perspective is a full-blown, rageful and emotional bloodbath in the second half. The screenplay choice to tell the story of this real-life thief from two different perspectives each driving the narrative of the two halves, is the most interesting facet of Tiger Nageswara Rao.
This is where the film sets itself apart from other biopics. There are traces of KGF in the way the mass moments are built to highlight Nageswara Rao aka Nagi and his achievements, especially because of its usage of voice-overs. But in the Prashanth Neel film, all the narrators are borderline devotees of Rocky Bhai, but in Tiger Nageswara Rao, there is a difference in two perspectives. One villainises him while the other glorifies him; one is an outsider’s perspective and hence, factual, while the other is an insider’s, and as a result, it is sympathetic. The film, naturally, takes the side of Nagi. While the scarcity of documentation about thief’s life and crimes renders it hard to understand its historical authenticity, as a film, the second half offers plenty of drama despite operating in a tried-and-tested zone. This means the screenplay keeps jumping from one timeline to another but it’s never confusing.
Tiger Nageswara Rao is one of those rare films that actually makes efficient use of the intermission concept because almost all the best bits of the film emerge when the second half contradicts the claims made about Nageswara Rao's morality in the first half. Murali Sharma’s version of the story describes the crime while Nassar’s retelling reveals the motive and its impact. This is why the second half of the film feels more satisfying as a mass vehicle; the events get closure. The first half calls the villagers of Stuartpuram born-criminals while the second half projects them as a marginalised community seeking opportunities they have been deprived of by society. In the first half, Nagi is a criminal; in the second half, he is a messiah… a Robin Hood. Even his first kill gets a moving retelling in the end (it reminded me of a similar scene in Muthaiya’s 2013 Tamil film, Kutti Puli; see, there’s a tiger connection here too). Once again, the historical and political accuracy is hard to comprehend, but on an emotional level, most of it works. Even the way the screenplay uses Indira Gandhi is fascinating. Well, it’s all “inspired by true rumours”.
Commercial cinema’s fixation with the need to shoehorn love stories into action films has always been annoying and in a rather angry and violent movie about an outlaw, it not only is distracting but also goes against the film’s motive to present the film as a misunderstood messiah. Nageswara Rao sees Sara (Nupur Sanon) on a train; his gaze is lewd. A criminal need not be understanding of others’ feelings, sure, but the film doesn’t have to romanticise his interaction with a clearly uncomfortable Sara by playing romantic music in the background, while he obscenely talks about her curves. If you remove the music accompanying the scene, not only will this scene look creepy but deeply discomfiting. This is the kind of stuff that perverse villains in commercial films do and yes, Nageswara Rao is a villain who is redeemed as a hero later, but the way the film treats his equation with Sara will still remain problematic.
At one point, Nageswara Rao and his rival Kasi (Sudev Nair) fight over Sara, with the hero angrily asserting that she is his “property”. It’s disappointing that the film doesn’t even try to make this love story look sensible. And since we never care about Sara, the way the love story ends, barely leaves an impact even though it’s a major, life-altering event for Nagi. The second romantic angle in the film, featuring Gayatri Bhardwaj, is slightly bearable after the silliness of first one, but that too simply pulls you out of the narrative just after the screenplay manages to get your attention. It’s sad how women in Tiger Nageswara Rao exist solely to become victims or to love Nagi. Well, the film’s counter-argument for its poor representation of women would be Hemalatha Lavanam, a social reformer who tried to make a difference in Stuartpuram, but the film, sadly, discredits her efforts in the end to lionise Nageswara Rao’s selflessness and bravery. Leaving his character morally ambiguous would have worked only in the film's favour.
The film and its world-building get a great deal of support from the work of production designer Avinash Kolla and cinematographer Madhie, but it makes you wish the background score was more energetic. While GV Prakash Kumar’s score is still decent, the visuals, especially the action sequences in the second half, demanded more. The shortcomings in the VFX too are slightly distracting, even though they don’t fail completely like with some major productions recently. More than the VFX, my issue is with some writing choices. Why maintain that the hero is an 18-year-old in a flashback when you clearly know that the de-aging technology employed here isn't gonna help? It’s such an easily avoidable conundrum.
The detailing in its world-building is pretty interesting though. My favourite detail is about a practice of punishing thieves by getting nails hammered into their knees and the people of Stuartpuram participating in a bid where the offer doesn’t go up, but down. Meaning, a person would say he’d go to jail for a crime he didn’t commit for 100 bucks while someone else says they’d take the blame just for 80 bucks. Another kid comes to do it just for 60 bucks. This simply goes to show the dire economic status of this place. Touches like this, coupled with its interesting screenplay and a strong emotional core, makes you care for the outlaw and the world he hails from. While Tiger Nageswara Rao has so much more potential to be better, it is, by no means, a lazy effort.