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Yes Nani, you were right! Dasara is no Pushpa – Beyond Bollywood

Writer and first-time director Srikanth Odela’s rooted period film cleverly uses mythology to address the larger social cause. Nani is good, but it is Keerthy Suresh who gives a tour de force in a machoistic film.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

By Mayur Lookhar

Any screenplay that doesn’t hook you in the first 20 minutes is usually doomed. Forget 20, but the first 30-35 minutes of Dasara [2023] are insufferable.  Phew, there’s another 121 minutes to go. This reviewer will not deny that he contemplated leaving at the interval – which would have been a first in life. 

Imagine a period, a place where alcohol runs like blood in the veins of most poor men in the village. They are mostly jobless, drinking literally 24×7.  The only humble bar in Veerapalli is run by the village head. The Silk Smitha portrait on the wall is enough to define the period.  The bar is called Silk. The men throng here like camels, drinking to the hilt. They feast on red meat while gulping down one bottle after another. Surprisingly, they worship Lord Hanuman.

If this is the habitat, what else do you expect from the protagonists? Dharini [Nani] and Suryam aka Suri [Dheekshith Shetty] are sons of this soil. They drink as they please. They steal coal from the passing goods train. Damn, we’re not even sure if they are making a living. But such is life in Veerapalli for Dharini, Suri and their ilk. As kids they crushed on Vennela. Dharini killed his feelings, the moment Suri confessed to being smitten by Vennela.  Sacrifice for a friend is fine, but few years later, how do you explain Dharini reprimanding Vennela [Keerthy Suresh] for refusing to let Suri kiss her. Add to it, Dharini’s alcoholism, chain smoking. It is inexplicable as to what is playing out in front you?

If you survive the opening 30-40 minutes, then brace yourself for an intriguing action, romantic drama. Alcoholism is glorified here, but the genesis of this story stems from the very daru ki bottle and Silk bar which acquires near holy status for the Veerapallis. The one who controls Silk bar, inevitably controls the politics of the land. It’s now become a source of contention between upper caste stepbrothers Shivanna [Samuthirakani] and Rajanna [Sai Kumar], with the latter losing control over it. Shivanna enjoys the early years, but in 1994, he lost all respect when the great actor and then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh N.T Rama Rao banned all sale and consumption of liquor. After a lull period, things were back to square one.

Years go by, and Shivanna’s son Nambi [Shine Tom Chacko] has now taken an active interest in its daily affairs. While booze is served like water, but there is social barriers in the liquor shop. An altercation ensues between Nambi’s men and Dharini which results in the latter and his mates being thrashed in jail. Dharini and co. are bailed out by Rajanna. Though he has no interest in regaining power, but Suri, Dharini and co. are keen to see Rajanna back at the helm.

As a viewer, you are now led to believe that this is going to be another power-tussle with the lowborns as foot soldiers. Pushpa [2021], KGF, even Kantara [2022] spring to mind.   Up until the interval, the director takes you on a different tangent, but minutes into the second half and you’re reminded why the the film is called Dasara. No, Odela hasn’t sold the viewer a dummy.  Yes, you get that ‘talking London, going Tokyo’ feeling, but you are quickly submerged into the real narrative of Dasara. Now, that is some direction by a first-time filmmaker. There’s every possibility though that a viewer could also be disengaged by the twist.

There’s not much looking back though as Odela and his co-writers Jella Srinath, Arjuna Paturi, Vamsi Krishna P, have a firm grip on their screenplay. Mythological reference has become a great tool to tell contemporary stories. Beneath that mythology though filmmakers like Odela smartly weave in their Dravidian ideology. At the heart of this Dasara tale is the exploitation of the meek by the powerful.  The liquor and red meat has easily lured the vote banks, rendering these men inefficient, while their women go through various hardships, some even succumbing to the lust of the powerful village heads, landlords.

Odela’s astute direction, especially the brilliant dramatization of the climax is both artistic and has mass appeal.

Dheekshith Shetty, Keerthy Suresh, and Nani in Dasara [2023]

More than Nani, we were blown away by Keerthy Suresh.  We are yet to catch her National Award-winning performance in Mahanati [2018], but this Vennela act is a tour de force in a masochistic film. She starts off as a rugged character like Dharini and Suri. She dances with gay abandon to the tunes of Dhoom Dhaam. That song partly rekindled the 1,2, 3, 4 Get on The Dance Floor nostalgia. Nani, Keerthy, Dheekshith though bring their own madness.  That might not be appetizing to some, but there is a certain brashness to the early Vennela. The character though is subdued after a personal tragedy. The joy is taken out of Vennela’s life, but Keerthy comes into her own as the crestfallen village belle. She gives up teaching, opts for solitude.  The words are few, but Keerthy floors you with her body language, expressions. The writers are also smart in avoiding the sexist criticism, chauvinism that accompanied Pushpa. Feminists rightly hate it when the will of the girl is never considered. Dasara raises the all-important feminist query at a crucial juncture.

While Keerthy overshadows the men, but that is not to suggest that Nani is below par. The early portrayal of Dharini is frustrating. Dharini means earth and like it, this man absorbs everything. He gulps liquor bottles likes water. If not liquor, then it is the beedi . The hero has gulped many quarters, yet he whacks the cricket ball all around the barren park, with a cigarette in his mouth. Strangely, he seems like a bahubali whilst boozing, but Dharini loses that machoism, strength after the personal tragedy.

The beard, beedi, cockiness, alcoholism all naturally lead to comparisons with Pushpa. The actor confidently told us that post 30 March, no one will raise the Pushpa question.  Just like the Telugu super stars, we, too, don’t have an ego. So, we don’t mind apologizing to Nani, Keerthi, and director Odela.  Dasara is certainly no Pushpa.

Shine Tom Chacko is an acclaimed name from Malayalam cinema.  For a wiry man, Chacko intimidates with his menacing looks, especially those trippy eyes. This reviewer was shaken by his intense, psychotic act as Dhruvan in the Netflix film Kumari. He’s no different as Nambi in Dasara.

The cleverly crafted narrative is backed by the highly immersive cinematography, neat production design, and the rollicking background score.  The early Hindi dubbing is a little off putting but the visuals speak for themselves. Veteran Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah had recently commented that South films might be crass in taste but the execution is always flawless.  We tasted that crass early on, but thereafter the near flawless execution calls for celebrating Srikanth Odela’s Dasara.

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