Cast: Nani, Keerthy Suresh, Dheekshith Shetty, Shine Tom Chacko and Samuthirakani
Director: Srikanth Odela
Rating: Three stars (out of 5)
Popular movies often fall prey to the second half curse. The power-packed and engaging Dasara, directed and co-written by first-timer Srikanth Odela, does not. It treats its first half essentially as a springboard for a successful post-interval leap to a meaningfully higher plane. And that is where the film stays perched all the way to an impressively executed finale.
Other significant attributes set the Telugu-language film apart from blockbusters like Baahubali and Pushpa. Its exploration of entrenched caste dynamics, bitter political rivalries and debilitating social ills in a coal mining village in Telangana pushes it closer to Tamil films from the Pa. Ranjith, Vetrimaaran and Mari Selvaraj stables.
Dasara remains steadfastly within the parameters of mass-oriented cinema and employs familiar Ramayan-centric analogies to carry the story forward. It still manages to break free at crucial junctures from its stylistic inspirations to dress an old, even perhaps trite, construct in fresh, eye-catching attire.
Dasara is a rustic love story-cum-bromance dovetailed into a revenge drama with a strong emotional underpinning. The composite is presented with a directorial vision that suggests that Odela could, and should, produce works of greater originality and distinction. This film testifies to his skill - and the vision - to tap massy, easy to grasp methods to tell important stories.
The denuded landscape reflects the state of the lives that Dasara depicts. The film is set in Veerlapally village, a speck on the map. It is a place that swarms with men who drink themselves silly and the women bear the brunt of their unruliness. At the centre of the village is a bar - it is named after Silk Smitha - that is out of bounds for all but upper caste drunks.
The narrative straddles a decade and a half from mid-1995, the final year of NT Rama Rao's third term as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, to 2010. The film's two principal male characters - Dharani (Nani) and Soori (Deekshith Shetty) - pilfer coal from running goods trains when they are not sloshed.
They are in love with the same girl, Vennela (Keerthi Suresh). The three have been friends since childhood. The altruistic Nani, who is meek-natured and believes in staying off confrontations, steps back and lets his best friend profess his love to the girl.
Several years on, the love triangle is aggravated by unseemly power politics between Rajanna (Saikumar) and Shivanna (Samuthirakarani), two half-brothers at war for control of the village and the bar. The latter has a son, Nambi (Shine Tom Jacob), whose aggression triggers a tragedy at the film's halfway mark.
A blood-curdling act of violence throws Dharani's life into disarray. He is a cowering mess until he gathers the courage to plan a retaliation. The timid, responsibility-shirking man is forced to make a choice between being resigned to his fate and taking a stand.
The first half, expended on creating a context for what is follow, takes its own time to pick up momentum. Parts of it meander a tad and even feel somewhat wayward. But the turning point just ahead of the interval gives the deliberate and staccato pace a rationale.
The troubles that confront Dharani, whose name means Earth, Soori (meaning Sun) and Vennela (alluding to the Moon) are caused by one man. The villain's motives are hackneyed and the threats that he makes spring from the power that he wields on account of his political and caste clout.
One wishes Dasara had pushed the caste divide envelope a little further and also stressed upon the relationship between the three main characters with some more clarity in terms of its wider societal implications. Is it possible that Dharani's suppression of his love for Vennela has something to do with where he stands in the caste hierarchy? The film does not raise that question, let alone devote a minute or two to answer it.
Another point at which Dasara slips up a touch is in the manner in which the key female character is deprived of agency when it comes to deciding her own future? Dasara makes amends of sorts when the woman demands an explanation why her consent wasn't sought before a life-altering choice was made on her behalf. The man spells out why he did what he did. While his defence of his action isn't entirely convincing, his apology is.
In the matter of plotting and pacing, Dasara isn't perfect, but Sathyan Sooryan's lensing and lighting and Santhosh Narayanan's lush and phenomenally effective musical score are both of the highest order. The latter lends the film a propulsive rhythm with its blend of the earthy and the electronic.
Sooryan's camerawork creates a palette that alternates between the inky and the auburn and is skilfully illuminated by the muted glow of non-electrical sources of light.
A de-glammed Nani makes Dasara a high-voltage affair. The screenplay and his own acumen allow him to ease himself into the character arc and capture the man's evolution from a feckless, evasive youth to a man of action after fifteen Dasara celebrations have come and gone with him letting his life drift aimlessly.
Dasara also gives Keerthy Suresh a wide range of emotions to convey. Even in the most melodramatic of moments, she retains control of her faculties and the scene. Deekshith Shetty operates within a more limited bandwidth but makes a lasting impression. On the flip side, the force of evil that Shine Tom Chacko embodies does not convey the requisite menace.
The rousing climax is invested with great power in term of of both visualisation and execution. The weapons used in the final act as well as earlier in the film tell their own story. To begin with, the villain's henchmen wield sharp scythes and sickles, which are farming appliances-turned-arms.
In the violent climactic clash culminates in tree-cutting axes, digging shovels and rock-breaking hammers making an appearance - a not-so-subliminal metaphor for a once agricultural community that has been forced into mining as a way of life.
A few wobbles notwithstanding, Dasara is a triumph because it achieves a delicate balance between the flashy and the essential and, in the process, delivers a piece of highly dramatic fiction that frequently seems to have emerged from the real world.