When you think of Pedarayudu, or Alludugaru, or M Dharmaraju MA, or even Veedevadandi Babu, there's that thing that's common to them. No, we know they all star Mohan Babu. We're after something less obvious and, of late, rather elusive - an engaging story with purposeful characters. No matter how high Mohan Babu thinks of himself, he certainly doesn't seem to think of the script as being secondary to him. This, you'll agree, isn't a trait many Telugu stars can claim to possess.
Gayatri, too, comes with an engaging story with purposeful characters. It's a tender tale of a father Dasari Shivaji (Mohan Babu) who is on the search for his long-lost daughter Gayatri (Nikhila Vimal). He knows she's alive and likely in an orphanage somewhere, but all his enquiries end up fruitless. So he just sends money over to all these orphanages across the country hoping at least some of that reaches his child.
But this Dasari Shivaji who's circulating lakhs of rupees across the country is a mere stage artist (even if he's a celebrated one). Naturally, he's upto some funny business if he has to generate enough revenue to disburse it. And that funny business is where he plays stand-in for wealthy people who have to sit in jail in wait of bail. So Shivaji disguises himself to look exactly like his client, goes to jail in place of his client, and waits there for weeks till his client obtains bail.
Both prongs of the premise, the search for the daughter and the shady revenue-generation, are written with care, and multiple characters are brought into the plot - like Anasuya as an investigative journalist, Siva Prasad as Shivaji's loyal aide, Giri as the drunkard friend and so on. All these characters, with the benefit of having a clear purpose, are executed efficiently. Nikhila Vimal, in particular, breezes through her titular role.
While this is how most Telugu films were written and made a couple of decades back, it feels surprising and new to be sitting in a movie hall in 2018 and watching a Telugu film whose star is still trying to be functional within the confines of a story. Mohan Babu doesn't ever lose an opportunity at flourish, and just his dialogue delivery (except for his English "fur-far-mens") is worth the ticket money sometimes. But he diligently puts himself in his role and dutifully makes you feel for him.
But that doesn't make the film work, sadly.
To understand the failure of Gayatri, we'll refer to a recent interview of Madhavan where he says (we paraphrase): "Many filmmakers today hold their mentors' work as the benchmark for themselves. Because they're afraid to explore and experiment, their definition of quality comes from the classics their mentors made. But the audiences have moved on. A film that was a hit two decades back wouldn't cut a two-week run today. So when these guys compare their work with decades-old hits they aren't addressing their current day audiences."
There is no way to verify this counterfactual, but we think Gayatri would have been an easy 50-day run in most centres and a hundred-day run in a handful of them had it been released in 1997. But, for today, you're going to find it a little tedious to watch. The old-fashioned handling of the material automatically makes you sign off, and it's all rather distant except when Mohan Babu's expressive eyes and words catch your attention.
It gets worse with the flashback where Manchu Vishnu plays a younger version of Dasari Shivaji. Mohan Babu, no one will contest, is next to none when it comes to Telugu diction. He performs and speaks like a true celebrated stage artist would. Now when Manchu Vishnu reprises his role, and is even made to deliver a version of the hallowed 'Emantivi Emantivi' monologue, you enter a territory where you aren't sure if your lead is saying lover (cheli) or sister (chelli).
What makes Vishnu's under-acting more unpalatable is having Shriya Saran clap and cheer to it. Saran does her normal shtick within her usual bandwidth, but it feels like such gross over-acting simply because the material she's cheering to is so dismal and disturbing. When that flashback ends you'll be grateful for the very existence of Mohan Babu. From there the film veers to its fascinatingly written but not fashionably made climax.
"Old-fashioned", to some extent, means not having high "production values". So the film is rather ordinary-looking. However, Thaman rises above this ordinariness and pulls off a catchy album (we really liked Hanuma Hanuma), but you know, when Thaman is among the best things of your film, it's perhaps best not to watch it in a theatre.
Some point in the future, when you've forgotten all about Gayatri and you have no expectation from having driven to a hall and spending on a ticket, on one lazy Sunday afternoon, you're likely to catch it on television and feel rather surprised at how engaging a story it is. For that surprise to be effective you may begin working on the forgetting part right away.