'Sarileru Neekevvaru', 'Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo' and the Manmohan Desai brand of madcap masala

Director: Anil Ravipudi

Cast: Mahesh Babu, Vijayshanti, Rashmika Mandanna, Prakash Raj, Sangeetha, Tamannaah

Well into the film’s second act, Ajay (Mahesh Babu), an Army major, creates a bomb out of printer parts, some liquid, a mobile, and other tiny things. We aren’t made to focus on his ingenuity, because this isn’t the scene’s punchline. The punchline lies inside the bomb; it finally goes off creating a mild noise, but a supposedly potent visual — tricolour smoke. 

A good potboiler is all about diversion — from plot holes, flimsy characterisation and problematic messages. By dedicating the film to the Indian Army, and by bringing up soldiers and women every time there is a break in the film’s rhythm, Anil Ravipudi’s Sarileru Neekevvaru partially succeeds in distracting us from seeing it for the routine film it really is. Like the marital rape “joke” by the under-utilised Rao Ramesh suggests, we too go with the flow, because what else is there to do in a dark room?

The film starts with Bharathi (Vijayshanti) and her troubles. She is a professor of medicine who slaps a student for attending her class inebriated. When questioned, she says: ‘He is going to be a doctor. His mistakes cost lives.’ May be a reference to another alcoholic doctor, may be not. Either way, it lands. The film then shifts its focus to Ajay who returns from the border to help Bharathi, and take care of a politician-turned-goon or a goon-turned-politician Nagendhra, Prakash Raj has played such a character at least 50 times in his career.

There is not really much about the film that is noteworthy. It sticks to the same template of a stranger helping a family, and becoming a part of it. The minute you see Satyadev, you see the whole film playing in front of you, but that’s okay. Commercial cinema is really not about unpredictability. A terrorist is introduced with a BGM that sings the word ‘Illahi’. This is okay too — apparently, it’s wrong to expect political correctness in a masala endeavour. No Sankranti release is complete without casual sexism and body shaming. Ajay says, ‘Women will know about this better’ while talking about washing clothes. I wanted to ask, ‘Who cleans your clothes in the Army, Ajay?’ But I know what his reply would be — ‘I put my life on the line for you, and you question me?’ — so I didn’t.

Even the hero introduction scene — the holy grail of “mass” cinema — is regular and weak. Mahesh Babu plays a bomb squad official who gets a call to defuse a bomb. He gets into his jeep, gets down at the location, and says: “Is everything under control?” (No, it’s not. There is a bomb about to explode.) And then, he and Rajendra Prasad’s character have some fun before getting down to doing their job. Even that sequence is played for laughs. How is your film paying tribute to the Indian Army if it makes their work seem like child’s play? I guess, this doesn’t matter either. Murali Sharma’s character says that the choice is between rules and morals — in other words, logic or plot points — and the film chooses the latter every single time. 

Sarileru Neekevvaru Movie Review

It’s not like there aren’t any positives in the film. Vijayshanti’s Bharathi is a relatively well-written and well-enacted character, and it gives the actor enough space to shine. Her heroism is what stands out, and, to the film’s credit, the low-angle elevations and closeups add to the effect. Rathnavelu’s cinematography is good, as always, but irrelevant as that’s not what the film focusses on. Devi Sri Prasad’s music isn’t as impressive as you’d expect, but I can’t get ‘He’s so cute’ out of my head. There are moments that kind of shine, but the dialogues that worked the first time are repeated until they lose their gravity. I don’t understand this choice, but it doesn’t work.  

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Coming to the man of the hour, you can see glimpses of the old Mahesh Babu in the film. His body language and dialogue delivery take you back to the days when they were more fluid and fun. He is less rigid as the man who has to reject and escape the advances of a woman, Samskruthi played by Rashmika Mandanna, who seems to be impressed by his “milky” complexion. See, this is not about men Vs women. It’s not feminism to expect a film’s female lead to be more than a caricature. I have nothing against women who just want domestic bliss, but no human being — man or woman — wants just one thing. She can want a good-looking husband, while also having other defining qualities. I know more about her mother’s journey — Sangeetha’s comeback is at least different from her previous works — than her life.   

I understand the commercial space better than I did a year ago, but even so, the exception seems low and unyielding. How wise is it for an Army officer to say, ‘If you see anyone suspicious with a mobile, shoot them’? The film’s main premise seems to be this: A man who works for the Indian Army thinks that he owns every citizen’s life, because he is indirectly saving us from death. I understand the pain of an Army man returning to a society that is bloody, but I don’t understand this idea that he can claim ownership. Not to sound “woke”, but is that the smartest thing to do? In this climate? 

If you’ve watched the writer-director’s previous films Raja The Great or F2, you know what to expect and whether he is someone whose cinema you’d enjoy. And, if you did like his previous outings, you will like this one very much. If you can put aside all the things I’ve mentioned I had an issue with, it is entertaining. I couldn’t all the time, so I didn’t enjoy the film thoroughly, but I didn’t completely hate it either.

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