Directors: Haresh Narayan, K Hari Shankar
Writers: Pulagam Chinnarayana (dialogue writer), Haresh Narayan (story and screenplay), K Hari Shankar (story and screenplay)
Yashoda is a Samantha Ruth Prabhu star-vehicle, but for a lot of its runtime, it doesn’t feel like one. The stardom here seems unobtrusive, and the star-vehicle, contrary to standard practice, seems hesitant to step on others to elevate the central figure. The performance itself is remarkable for how it avoids the louder notes we’re used to in films like this, and yet, by the end, my theater broke into whistles. The line that brought the whistles though, is delivered so quietly and without exaggeration by the star, that you wish more star vehicles helmed by male leads had the same grace.
A spoiler-free introduction is probably appropriate—the film is a medical thriller in which the protagonist, the eponymous Yashoda (Samantha Ruth Prabhu) signs up to become a surrogate mother with a mysterious agency called “Eva Institute” managed by Madhu (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar). On the surface, everything seems posh and comfortable, yet there is a sense that something ominous is afoot. Until the film reveals its hand, the ratcheting up of the tension works wonderfully, and you catch yourself looking for clues hidden in the frame.
One of the great merits of Samantha’s performance in this stretch is that she succeeds in investing the audience in the film through her performance without overplaying the character’s innocence to the point of annoyance, or eventually, her intelligence to the point of incredulity. When she flirts with a doctor (Unni Mukundan) in the institute, you’re fooled into thinking that there is chemistry there, but when you see that the doctor is stoic and unmoved, you realize that she'd conjured the chemistry all by herself. The performance also invests you in the film’s action—its fights which are frenetic, gritty, and well done. It is perhaps notable that this time, Samantha’s voice isn’t dubbed in Telugu by Chinmayi Sripada—this means that though there is a slight accent to her Telugu, there is a register of expression that feels more organic, a vulnerability that is woven into the performance through her voice.
Eva Institute is also something of a rarity in commercial Telugu films—a sci-fi-inspired behemoth brought alive by the intelligent production design and art direction. The institute is a prison dressed up to look like a seven-star deluxe luxury resort, and the writing is smart enough to have the group dynamics of the women admitted to it resemble that of prison inmates. When Yashoda is inducted into one of these groups, she has to sneak around to fetch cigarettes for the gang leader as a right of initiation. There is also a scene in which the women, many of them victims of patriarchy, speak about where they come from, and how their experiences led them there.
A parallel subplot involving Murali Sharma and Sampath Raj as officers investigating crimes that ultimately converges with Yashoda’s story is effective in the way good procedurals are, until the film reveals its cards. This is when the film reveals itself to be pulpier than it originally led you to believe. Though the denouement does satisfy all the plot questions raised initially, there is some hamming, scenery chewing, and one-dimensional villainy on display. The influence of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) is apparent, but that film managed to be pulpy, yet political, without devolving into silliness. It doesn’t help that when the film is caught in exposition, Samantha isn’t on screen. Rao Ramesh is, though, and his turn as a conniving politician in this stretch saves the film from taking itself too seriously.
While the film is inspired by real crimes, in its final act, the film comes close to advocating a specious form of traditionalism: a baby is delivered naturally without medical intervention and there is some championing of “our old ways”. To its credit, this happens because there are no medical facilities nearby, but after we’ve been conditioned throughout its runtime to suspect hospitals, medical workers, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, one can’t help but be a little skeptical of the prescriptive intentions of the plot. Maybe we should be thankful that these intentions remain implicit. We should definitely be thankful for Samantha’s stardom.