Director: Prasanth Varma
Cast: Anandhi, Teja Sajja, Keshav Deepak
When two friends at a chai shop think the Prime Minister is delivering a speech about Corona beer instead of the coronavirus, it's not just hilarious, it's a hat-tip to all the memes doing the rounds for almost a year now, and our collective dilemmas.
Although the film begins with the perfect setup to make the current pandemic an integral part of the story, Zombie Reddy doesn't take it seriously, beyond mentioning it in some places and making a character wear a mask throughout the run-time.
Director Prasanth Varma clearly hasn't made a film revolving around the pandemic. He has, however, incorporated many elements from our socially-distanced world in his work that involves two feuding families. He even goes to the extent of including all the Rayalaseema tropes — flying machetes, ragi balls, chicken curry, and crude bombs in the two-hour comedy drama. While some of them are made the object of ridicule, others help move the story forward.
Caste, as such, isn't a subject matter the filmmaker dwells on, since all characters seem to belong to the same community. But every time Nandini Reddy (Anandhi) takes control of a situation, somebody from the background shouts, "Seema Bidda," with a smile. It's a statement that means women from the Seema region aren't afraid of violence.
Remarks of this kind keep popping up until the third act, and that's where all the fun ends, sadly. It morphs into a different kind of film after the boiling point. Imagine a 90s' devotional drama without a song full of fervour in the climax!
Varma has a tendency to humanise mythologies, especially The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. His earlier movies Awe (2018) and Kalki (2019) were narrated through the lenses of the epics too. Here, he doesn't get much room to do that, because the zombies are mindless creatures who simply walk with a limp and grunt unceasingly. What can he possibly do with these crazy, half-dead people anyway? But he still brings in Hanuman via a sticker and the gadha (Hanuman's weapon) to make Mario (Teja Sajja) fight against the zombies.
Actually, Mario isn't interested in doomsday conspiracies. And he certainly doesn't come across as a person whose day job involves lifting weights. He's a guy-next-door game designer, and all he wants to do is make his friend Kalyan (Mirchi Hemanth) fix bugs in the mobile phone game he has recently developed. But here's the glitch — Kalyan is getting ready to get married in Kurnool, and he's in no mood to come back to Hyderabad to solve engineering problems.
This meaty conversation takes place in less than a minute, but, later, Hemanth makes you watch his antics without making them appear ridiculous. We've seen it before in hundreds of films — the groom is over the moon and his freakish attempts at romancing the bride are over-the-top. And despite these clichés, they work greatly, as they are well-padded.
Mario isn't alone in Kurnool and he doesn't need to depend on Kalyan for jokes all the time. He's there with his other pals Bhadram (Kireeti Damaraju), a hypochondriac, and Maggie (Daksha Nagarkar). If Mario had spent more time with these two gentle folks, there would have been more humour and camaraderie beneath the surface.
Mario, Maggie and Bhadram make a great team. So, it's disappointing that we don't see them together on-screen after the introduction. That is also the main reason why it feels a little unbelievable when Maggie hesitates to hurt her friend in the climactic portion (the movie demands it, by the way). How can the director expect us to sympathise with her predicament without taking us deep into the trenches of their relationship?
This happens in another scene that features Mario and Kalyan too. When the latter tells his future father-in-law that Mario is like family to him, we can't take it at face-value, as we know nothing about their closeness. What could have been a touching scene turns into an empty marker, since there's no bonhomie to make that statement come alive.
Zombie Reddy is not a true-blue horror film that feeds on grief and sadness. It's a middle-of-the-road experiment that ticks many boxes. And in spite of this being an unexplored genre in Telugu cinema, Varma does not make too many mistakes in Zombie Reddy.
However, the film also made me think of how brilliantly Ram Gopal Varma made the quasi-zombie thriller Deyyam two-and-a-half decades ago without dropping the Z-word into the plot.
And, unlike Prasanth Varma, he didn't even give us a primer on the kind of evil lurking in his movie. He didn't feel it necessary to warm up the viewers beforehand. And, here's the best part — he didn't go after a solution for the zombie-conundrum. He let a ghost movie breathe freely and therein lies his true power.