Director: Rahul Sankrityan
Cast: Vijay Deverakonda, Priyanka Jawalkar, Malavika Nair
Had Taxiwaala been a new — as opposed to long-in-the-making — Vijay Deverakonda movie, it would burnish the halo around the actor so much more. (He signed the film before Arjun Reddy released and shot him into the stratosphere.) For we would have then said: Here is a star who is committed to the uniqueness of a script. (He plays Shiva, Hyderabad’s hippest cabbie.) A star who doesn’t care that he is off-screen for a large chunk in the second half. (A star who says, Anything for the movie!) A star who’s not going to force a romantic track into the film, to sate his female fans who want him in lover-boy mode. (The heroine, Priyanka Jawalkar, is used sparingly and painlessly.) A star who’ll allow the narrative to reduce him to a mere man. (Shiva makes a vow. He doesn’t quite pull it off. This is a far cry from our regular oath-taking heroes.) A star who’ll forgo action scenes, and can live with just one physical confrontation with the villain. (And even there, he’s no superhero.)
How much will the success of Geetha Govindam change Vijay Deverakonda? Will he continue to sign slightly off projects like this one? Whatever the answer to that question is, Taxiwaala is still a worthy addition to one of the more interesting resumés in show business today. After some narrative throat-clearing — Shiva struggles to find a job, et cetera — things get moving when Shiva decides he’ll take up the profession that gives this movie its name. He buys a 25-year-old Contessa, clearly unaware that, in cinema, the more personality a car has, the greater its vintage, the likelier it is to be inhabited by paranormal passengers. (Nayanthara in Dora was similarly clueless about her Austin Cambridge.)
Soon, strange palm prints begin to appear on the windows. The back door shuts itself. And an empty bottle of booze dropped inside the car is chucked out with such vehemence, it appears that the spirit cannot abide spirit. I thought it was one of those stories where someone got killed by a drunk driver, and the murdered man’s (or woman’s) ghost was waiting to take revenge. But the writing (the story is by the director, Rahul Sankrityan; the screenplay is by Saikumar Reddy) has a way of surprising you. You think a terrorised Shiva will distance himself from his car — that happens, but he also becomes “friends” with its unseen occupant. (Silly-sounding scenes are the toughest to put across convincingly. Vijay Deverakonda does this with ease.) You think this is a ghost story — it is, in a sense (you get a mansion with cobwebs and a hand suddenly popping out), but it’s also something else, something more (dare I say this!) intelligent.
Taxiwaala isn’t what it could have been. It should have been much tighter. The explanation for why the person with all the answers is kept alive by the villain should have been more than… “otherwise how will we tell the audience what really happened!” The flashback with Malavika Nair should have been less clichéd, and I would have liked a few more scares. But then, the film isn’t exactly trying to do a Conjuring on you. This is more along the lines of that loose, homegrown genre: the horror-comedy. And it must be said that amidst the high-concept horror, there’s some fantastic low comedy (not even the Mona Lisa is spared), courtesy Vishnu and Madhunandan (they are mechanics in the garage where Shiva keeps his car) and Chammak Chandra (who plays a con man). The ending is perfect. (And, again, unexpected.) It’s more about women than men, and it’s certainly not about Shiva single-handedly saving the day. Vijay Deverakonda, the actor, has a good ear for scripts. It’ll be interesting to see what the future brings, now that he’s a star.