Dasara, written and directed by first-timer Srikanth Odela, ventures into a space that mainstream Telugu films do not often dare to. It tries to be a ‘massy’ Telugu film that explores the ugly caste politics in a semi-fictional story set in the coal-laden hamlet Veerlapally, Telangana, with earnestness, and achieves this balance reasonably well. One of Dasara’s highlights is a chilling pre-intermission episode. The three central characters — Dharani (Nani), Vennela (Keerthy Suresh) and Suri (Deekshit Shetty) — are integral to the happenings. There is no scope for the display of machismo or bravado. The fear-inducing episode made me wonder, briefly, if this was the real incident based on which Srikanth had written this semi-fictional story.
First, to address the elephant in the room, Dasara is not a wannabe Pushpa or KGF. Rather, it tries to bring in the grittiness of Tamil films such as Jai Bhim, Asuran and Karnan, in its depiction of power equations. Dasara is also in a zone similar to Rangasthalam, one of the few significant ‘massy’ Telugu films that explored caste dynamics in recent years.
It takes a while to warm up to the world of Dasara, where alcohol excess is a way of life, a way of escaping the travesty of the daily grind. For the men in the village, life revolves around the only bar named ‘Silk bar’. Srikanth tips his hat to the sultry Silk Smitha.
The bar is where the rules of power become evident. The upper caste men drink inside the bar while the others stay outside. A backstory of the conflicts within a powerful family, involving the characters played by Saikumar and Samuthirakani and later Shine Tom Chacko, forms the undercurrent for the power dynamics in the village. Srikanth places the three childhood friends Dharani, Suri and Vennela in this milieu. Their names aligning with the earth, sun and the moon are metaphors for their characters and relationships.
Cast: Nani, Keerthy Suresh, Deekshith Shetty
Direction: Srikanth Odela
Music: Santhosh Narayanan
The film draws us into Veerlapally that is carefully built through its many characters, Avinash Kolla’s production design, cinematographer Sathyan Sooryan’s stunning frames in brown-black, earthy brownish-reds and the smart use of oil lanterns, along with Santhosh Narayanan’s rustic-meets-jazzy haunting musical score. Pay attention to the score in the cricket match that turns out to be a battle between the caste groups. Added to this, the rural Telangana dialect and the songs that mirror the region’s cultural ethos make the film all the more rooted.
As Suri and Vennela, Deekshith Shetty and Keerthy take centre stage, Nani stays in the background and the narrative is in no rush to push him to the fore. The bonding between the three is depicted beautifully, punctuated occasionally with humour. One of the earlier sequences in the police station helps to delineate the naivete of Dharani as opposed to the comparatively smarter approach by Suri.
Srikanth narrates the story of the hamlet as an insider, depicting how men are numbed by alcohol and why the fact that women voters outnumber men is actually not a reason to rejoice. Not yet. Once the power dynamics is displayed at full throttle, as expected, the underdog rises to hit back and fight for survival. When he etches his name on a sword, you cannot help but root for him.
In the latter half, a sudden shift in the relationship equation between two characters happens when you least expect it. Was it just a ‘mass’ moment to announce the arrival of a saviour? This comes after a tear-jerker sequence that seems plucked from some of the Tamil and Telugu movies of the 1990s. These are the portions in which the narrative wobbles a bit. But the narrative redeems itself in an endearing scene where Vennela questions if she has no say in her life decisions and the man, though his heart beats for her and he intended to protect her, apologises.
The quiet, understated romance that follows, sets the tone for the final encounter that runs parallel to Ravana dahanam. The motive of the antagonist is a trope that we have often seen in cinema. However, it serves to draw a parallel to the battle between Ram and Ravana.
Deekshit Shetty is a revelation as Suri and shows that he is an actor with immense potential. Dasara is no Mahanati for Keethy Suresh. Nevertheless, she is central to the drama and gives it her all. She portrays Vennela’s spring in the step as a young bride and later the quiet resignation to fate followed by resilience convincingly. Jhansi and the several supporting actors contribute by doing their parts well. The film ultimately belongs to Nani. In a completely de-glam part, watch him cower in fear and later in shame that he cannot think straight under the influence of alcohol. Several portions require him to convey his emotions with his body language and silence, and he is fantastic. In the final episode, he displays the rage of Dharani in full glory.
Dasara is not perfect. A few tropes could have been smarter. But this is a film with a lot of heart and succeeds in hitting the sweet spot between a gritty drama and a ‘massy’ mainstream film.