Director: Venu Sriram
Writers (adaptation): Venu Sriram, Mamidala Thirupathi
Cinematography: PS Vinod
Edited by: Pudi Prawin
Cast: Pawan Kalyan, Nivetha Thomas, Anjali, Ananya Nagalla
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
How do you repurpose a powerful and gripping story about women into an over-the-top star vehicle in which the hero towers above everything else? Vakeel Saab provides a masterclass. The film is a remake of the 2016 starrer Pink, in which three single working women in New Delhi find themselves terrorised by educated but entitled goons, cops and lawyers. That film was an indictment of patriarchy and the shackling of women in archaic stereotypes. Through the character of retired lawyer Deepak Sehgal, played with bruised majesty by Amitabh Bachchan, director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, creative producer Shoojit Sircar and writer Ritesh Shah delivered a potent message about sexual consent – that no matter the circumstances, no means no.
Vakeel Saab also gets to this crucial point. But the focus isn't on the three girls whose lives are shattered after a night out, which ends with one of them breaking a bottle on the head of a man who is trying to sexually assault her. In this telling, the girls are merely the instigation for the titular Vakeel Saab to roar back into action in the way that the killing of the two young boys in Master propelled J.D. to straighten his act, quit alcohol and go into avenging-angel mode. Interestingly, Vakeel Saab is also a drinker. In fact, he carries a hip flask, which is marked 'Medicine'. We are told that intoxication is the only way to keep him in control. This concept of the high-functioning alcoholic seems to be a male preserve – I can't recall a single woman onscreen knocking back drinks but also coming up aces. We are also told that Vakeel Saab has a manufacturing defect – he can't abide injustice and always stands up for the weak. His name, in case you still haven't understood his moral compass, is Satya.
And he is played by Power Star Pawan Kalyan in full showboating, over-the-top glory. Pink was also remade in Tamil as Nerkonda Paarvai. In that film, superstar Ajith played the lawyer. I haven't seen it so I don't know how much the casting altered the narrative but here it skews the balance. Director Venu Sriram, who has also adapted the script, flattens out the more complex ideas of Pink into palatable masala, which serves the larger-than-life image of Pawan Kalyan. Unlike the original, the girls don't meet the boys at a rock concert, which perhaps suggests a more uninhibited setting. Here they are stranded on a deserted road. The boys happen to drive by and offer them a lift. The film begins by introducing us to the girls in their respective homes – it is established that they are obedient, religious, caring, which makes them worthy of being saved. Their sharp edges are blunted – Pallavi, the one who resorts to violence to defend herself, doesn't have the fierceness of Minal, played by Taapsee Pannu. There is no mention of the salacious joke that she shares with her assailant. These girls, played by Nivetha Thomas, Anjali and Ananya Nagalla, are mild-mannered and more simplistically written. Thankfully, when Pallavi is asked, "Are you a virgin?", the answer is still no. Though here she loses her virginity at 21 instead of 19 for Minal in Pink.
Much of Venu's energy as writer and storyteller seems to be focused on his superstar. Pawan Kalyan is introduced in saviour mode, which stays in place until the last frame. Another character compares him to Lord Ram. He even gets a backstory and bizarre romantic track – Shruti Haasan swings by for a few minutes to play a girl who loved him through college and stalked him for several years. But Satya's happiness is short-lived, which is why he ends up drunk and barred from practicing law.
Venu creates several opportunities for the power star to beat the bad guys and walk away in slow motion, flick his black lawyer coat, also in slow motion, flip his watch and even maul his ball point pen – he keeps clicking on it at a particularly tense moment in court. Satya is filled with a righteous rage, not just for the girls, whom he agrees to defend, but for mankind at large. As I said before, it's a manufacturing defect. Pawan Kalyan plays to the gallery with aplomb, delivering his lines and saving humanity with just the right touch of theatrics and panache. There's also Prakash Raj, scheming and badgering, as the defence counsel. At one point, he says to Satya: "Vakeel Saab, will you please chill?" It's almost comical.
What's important, though, is that ultimately the critical message – that no means no – is delivered with force. And since it comes through a star with massive clout, hopefully it will be heard.
You can watch Vakeel Saab on Amazon Prime Video.