Custody opens with a prologue that seems like the worst nightmare anyone could have. Things spiral out of control and everything that can go wrong does. It is the late 1990s. This incident, as expected, has a bearing on the rest of the story. Writer and director Venkat Prabhu gets to that conflict point much later in the story when one least expects it. He uses it to give an emotional heft to the actions of one of the principal characters. The director’s Telugu-Tamil bilingual starring Naga Chaitanya, Arvind Swami and Krithi Shetty also has several trademark Venkat Prabhu flourishes such as peppering the narrative with humour without diluting the tense moments. These segments work to the advantage of this action entertainer and help overlook some of the rough edges.
The Telugu version of Custody unravels in Rajahmundry where police constable Shiva (Naga Chaitanya) does not think twice before stopping the chief minister’s (Priyamani as Dakshayani) convoy to make way for an ambulance. She lauds him but he is taken to task by his superior. Post this, all that happens for about half an hour is the humdrum in Shiva’s everyday life and his romance with Revathy (Krithi Shetty). This is the calm before the storm. A lot of smaller details associated with some of the characters in these portions come in handy in the action segments later. Someone’s driving skills matter and so does a mortuary van that a family uses even to commute to auspicious beginnings, unmindful of how others might perceive it.
Custody (Telugu and Tamil)
The story gathers momentum with the introduction of a criminal named Raju, or Raazu (Arvind Swami) as he prefers to be called, and CBI officer George (Sampath Raj). The chaos that occurs at the police station one night is well-staged, giving rise to a heroic moment. In most films, a chunk of the drama might have revolved around the constable, criminal and CBI officer on the run from powerful opponents. Venkat Prabhu throws humour-laden personal conflict points into the mix. Vennela Kishore as Prem (Premgi Amaren plays this part in Tamil) and Revathy come to the fore.
Raju wants to escape, Shiva wants to produce him in court and Revathy just wants to get married to Shiva. An adventurous road trip ensues. Some of the scuffles are in a realistic space before they lead into cinematic action episodes, an underwater sequence, for example, that works.
As new characters such as IG Nataraj (Sarathkumar) enter the picture, both Raju and Shiva are forced to rethink their perceptions of what is right and wrong and who is saving whom. There are clapworthy moments when the two characters play off each other. In the later portions, however, a flashback that introduces another star actor is marred by an underwhelming song sequence and a predictable emotional story.
While Custody traces the rise of the underdog Shiva, it bides its time in making the antagonist take centre stage. Arvind Swami’s character is supposed to be menacing but most of what we see is a wounded tiger. The actor makes it work. Krithi Shetty’s character oscillates between the typically chirpy heroine to someone who can measure up when needed; she delivers what is required for the part. Chaitanya gets a layered characterisation long after Sekhar Kammula’s Love Storyand he portrays the vulnerability of an underdog and is convincing as an unlikely hero who has to punch above his weight. Goparaju Ramana and Ramki are given the elbow room to make their presence felt in their short screen time.
The late 90s and early 2000s setting (production design by Rajeevan and cinematography by Kathir) also help to reference a few Ilaiyaraaja hits of that era. The maestro and his son Yuvan Shankar Raja are the composers for this film and the throwback to the older numbers works more like a charm than the new songs. The background score is also reminiscent of the era.
The narrative also doffs its hat to several older Tamil and Telugu films. Chaitanya’s character name is a definite nod to Ram Gopal Varma’s Shivastarring Nagarjuna Akkineni; there’s a hat tip to Kamal Haasan’s Vikramin the later portions and Venkat Prabhu also offers a hilarious dialogue reference to his own time-loop thriller Maanaadu. There are more, including a reference to Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam.
Custody is not without its pitfalls. It wobbles when it explores a cliched emotional backstory. The romance and some of the humour surrounding it could also have been written better. But the film has a lot going for it.