Director: Surender Reddy
Cast: Chinrajeevi, Tamannah, Amitabh Bachchan, Vijay Sethupathi, Sudeep, Nayanthara
From Maya Bazaar to Baahubali, there’s something about the past that a Telugu film is able to capture better than those from other Indian industries. The texture, a particular tone, the visuals, the clothes, the language… Tollywood seems to get these things right about the past. And right now we are well and truly in the post-Baahubali era where legendary stories, mythmaking and multiple stars dazzling the screen in a regional film are not even as rare anymore.
Sye Raa sets out to do what Sivaji Ganesan’s portrayal did for the memory of Veerapandia Kattabomman who was a forgotten independence hero. There are several nods to the film, including in the recreation of the ‘why must we pay you taxes? who are you?’ line.
Uyyalawada’s Narasimha Reddy leads a peasant uprising alongside other rulers of neighbouring kingdoms, Veera Reddy (Jagapathi Babu), Raja Pandi (Vijay Sethupathi), Avuku Raju (Sudeep) and Basi Reddy (Ravi Kishan) against the East India Company. Sudeep’s is an interesting role that is a good variety of ‘grey’; Vijay Sethupathi’s Raja Pandi is used to wink at Chiranjeevi’s Tamil Nadu fans, while also cleverly mixing a bit of Tamil and Telugu. The film gets some of the internal politics among these rulers right. The lack of sync in the dubbing because the bigger stars are speaking in their own language (including Chirajeevi’s guru Gosayi Venkanna played by Bachchan) ends up as a major niggle.
The film’s big weakness though is its unimaginative portrayal of the colonial villains. Yes, they were cruel with the taxes, yes they caused famines, hung, shot and killed anyone who dared to rebel. But Sye Raa is unable to bring them to us in a way that makes us look at them in a real manner, to hate them as the real villains. They remain paper tigers, caricatures. Not the way you can feel the villainy and cruelty of the colonising, morally bankrupt white man in say a Django Unchained. You could remove the colonialists from the film and replace them with a “zamindar” or a villain from a regular Telugu film, it won’t make a difference.
For a film of this scale with such a big budget, to have bad editing through the first half is baffling. There’s a literal jump-cut like gaffe where one second it’s a night sky and the next, Bachchan appears. Though it gets smoother in the latter half, the editing really pulls the movie down and one wonders if that contributed to Sye Raa looking like an okayish tribute rather than the magnum opus it wants to be. Patchy staging and lack of depth add to this feeling in the first half.
But the film surprisingly picks up pace in the second half. Some of its best scenes are the stunt sequences of course. Chiranjeevi is thoroughly impressive in almost all of the stunts. Tamannah’s Lakshmi is an interestingly written role. Just when I thought she’d been left far behind in the screenplay, she reappeared pushing the story forward. As an actor too this is perhaps her most physical role, and she excels at whatever she does. She is a dancer who falls for Narasimha Reddy, who too falls for her. Neither know then that Narasimha’s had a child marriage. Enter Siddhamma (Nayantara). One woman takes his ideology forward and the other his lineage. (How convenient). The film is also deliberate in its portrayal of Hindu-Muslim unity and in that aspect, scores some brownie points.
The film needed to slow down a bit though; to allow us to get to know its people. Including the hero. But it rushes through, towards the battle, doing a disservice to the huge and largely talented cast. Though Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy doesn’t under-utilise its ensemble cast to the degree that Saaho did, one really wished the likes of Bachchan, Vijay Sethupathi, Sudeep and Nayanthara had more written for their roles, without taking away from the making of the Narasmiha Reddy myth. The way Tamannah’s role was written, with depth and guts.
In the end, though, the film succeeds in creating a myth around Narasimha Reddy. It will be difficult to forget this story now, even if some parts of it are too cinematic today. Chiranjeevi can rest easy now knowing he contributed to this.