The protagonist of Rahul Sangritayan’s Shyam Singha Roy is a writer who shoots to the centre of India’s cultural sphere within a ridiculously short period. However, the viewer is kept in the dark about his ideas and craft as the film speeds past them, replacing details with a generic montage that acts like a giant signpost.
This abandoning good writing for gorgeous visuals is the film’s primary technique. Naturally, the pivotal architect of Shyam Singha Roy is cinematographer Sanu John Varghese, whose cinematography is as elegant as the writing is mediocre. He creates gloss and grit in equal poise, adding depth to even the shallowest scenes.
Shyam Singha Roy, a fantasy-romantic drama, is a pool of inane and implausible events. The film’s central conceit is reincarnation, a popular device of melodrama in mainstream Indian cinema. Murdered in the 80s, the eponymous hero, Shyam Singha Roy, a member of a feudal family in rural Bengal, comes back to life a couple of decades later, in the same physical form, but in a different city. Nobody points out his eerie resemblance with a writer who wrote three of the most celebrated novels in the country because, call it a twist of fate, no photograph of Roy remains in the public domain.
Consider the scene where we first see Roy, an aspiring writer. He is at a village square where a group of upper-caste men are bullying a family of peasants for trying to access a well. Roy, carefully curling up his moustache, storms into the spot of tension and delivers an angry speech. When a Dalit young man apologetically retreats from the venue, Roy scoops him up and throws him into the well. The film applauds.
Throughout the film, Roy/Vasu, who reeks of a severe saviour complex, arm twists the less powerful people around him into doing things that suit his beliefs. When he approaches Maithrayee (Sai Pallavi), a Devadasi woman with whom he’s fallen in love at first sight, there is no hint of romance or humility in Roy but a lethal smugness about his power to rescue her from her life in the brothel. It is with a similar arrogance Vasu persuades a young woman (Krithi Shetty) he spots at a coffee shop to act in his short film.
The film is handicapped by its aspiration to be like a coffee-table book. Characters look photogenic, but not rooted in their reality. Roy’s present-day self, Vasu, an aspiring filmmaker in a financial crisis, ironically, lives in a plush condo that has a breathtaking view of the Durgam Cheruvu bridge. The brothel where Maithrayee lives with her fellow Devadasi women is ethereally beautiful. So are the women’s wardrobe. The supposedly horrific scenes where a powerful priest visits the brothel to choose a woman for the night are filmed like theatre, as though the characters are staging a performance.
Nani, in a scene in the former half, makes a self-referential joke, calling Shetty a ‘natural star’. For the uninitiated, natural star is what Nani is known as in the film industry, rightly after his understated acting style and his ability to portray the ordinary on the screen. However, the actor’s performances in his last few films are drastically different from his earlier works. Here, it is heavy-handed, the weight of his stardom crushing his shoulders. He plays Shyam Singha Roy like a high-school child in a Republic Day parade, devoid of human elements. He seems at home as Vasu, yet not good enough to hold the film together.
The women are the film’s saving grace. Sai Pallavi is magnificent as Maithrayee, a Devadasi dancer who can speak seven languages and has, in all likelihood, seen more harshness and complexities in life than Roy ever has. Shetty, in a brief role, holds her own against a much-older male superstar. Madonna Sebastian, as Padma, a lawyer, displays a hitherto unseen talent for comedy on screen. This reign of the female artists is a curious occurrence in a film where the male lead, in dual roles, draws his heroism from playing a saviour to women.
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