There is a sense of dread I've felt over the last decade, whenever I walk into a Ravi Teja film. It’s one of the few brands of films that’s made me question this profession. Every film has lacked ambition and freshness, settling for the familiar and stale. But this collaboration with Sudheer Varma felt like a breath of freshness. Sudheer might not have the greatest track record at the box office, but his films have never lacked audacity. Whether it was the delightfully amoral Swami Ra Ra (2013) or the underrated Ranarangam (2019), which attempted to marry the masala tropes of heroism with the aftermath of the prohibition era in united Andhra Pradesh, Sudheer has had a knack for finding odd moral spaces most mainstream Telugu filmmakers haven't entered.
His low success rate is because once he enters this space, he struggles by not fully committing and resorts to the safety of tropes — comedy tracks that are reminiscent of cinema of the early 2000s, flavourless romances of the same era — and a Hollywood influence in the presentation that has the coolth but never the emotional depth.
So when the king of delivering masala tropes joins hands with a storyteller hellbent on taking tropes to new and quirky places, it should call for an exciting film? Except what happens in Ravansura is that the film settles for a mid-path that’s a little this and a little that. It’s not mediocrity as much as a fusion dish whose ingredients are tastier than the whole dish.
Ravansura tells the story of junior lawyer Raveendra (Ravi Teja) who works for a famous criminal lawyer Mahalaxmi (Faria Abdulla). An investigation of the murder of Harika’s (Megha Aakash) father sends the lawyer duo into a serial killer's path. Who puts the criminal in criminal lawyer? What is his/her purpose and past? The film’s twists are never as clever as the music implies, but the film relies on shock and spectacle so I’ll be coy about it too. But you already know the killer/s, don’t you?
If there is one theme to Ravi Teja’s filmography in the last decade or so it has been this consistent need to portray duality — either through the two-bodies-same-face angle or the one-body-two-brains angle. I’ve always assumed this split personality that Ravi Teja loves to portray is a metaphor for the actor in him — the actor who wants to push boundaries in films such as Naa Autograph (2004), Neninthe (2008) and the star who settles for masala films such as…just google every film he’s done in the last ten years. In every film with this trope, his masala 'side' wins — a reflection of the cynical outlook Ravi Teja himself has towards the box office. Why bother testing yourself and delivering food for the soul when you can do the tried and the tested and deliver masala?
In Ravansura, the masala side goes to a more criminal extent than ever before. The boundaries are pushed further. It’s understandable why he got Sudheer on board. There is a scene where a main character cuts the throat of another character and no other Telugu mainstream director would be willing to get as graphic in presentation as Sudheer. Once the shock wears off and the justification for the actions kicks in, the film never registers. But that’s not the point of this film. The point is comedy, twist, shock, awe, and repeat. And this is where Sudheer gives it the polish it needs. The images are slick and the references and violence are Hollywood in tone. The blood flows like in early Tarantino's films, and the film uses the imagery of Joker and borrows lines from Breaking Bad as clever ways to flex the filmmaker’s sensibilities. These references are for the audience who are not just content with 'show and tell' but want ‘show-off and smugness’.
This film looks heavily inspired by Srijit Mukherjee’s Bengali film Vinci Da (2019), which while devoid of logic had gritty performances from its leads Rudranil Ghosh and Ritwik Chakraborty. The Bengali original made us wary of its world and characters while the Telugu version glamorises the violence and wants us to whistle at the despicable actions of its protagonists — particularly against women. I’m not expecting progressive politics from a Ravi Teja film but I expected better from a Sudheer Varma film.
Ultimately one walks out of the film confused. There are scenes that are fun. There are moments that give you adrenaline, and a few evoke style. There are references that titillate you. But do they all come together coherently? Maybe that's why the film is called Ravansura. It has multiple heads and many voices screaming for attention but with a singular body and familiar form, it barely moves you and by the end, it feels like you've been there and seen that.