Nandanavanam has one main thing going against it. Or make that two. Or better, three. Or… oh heck, let's start.
Nandanavanam is a film that falls into the suspense/horror/thriller genre. For movies in this category to work in Telugu, you either need a great starcast (Chandramukhi), or at least good performances backed by a riveting screenplay (A Film By Arvind, Anukokunda Oka Roju). All Nandanavanam has is a bad lead, er, actor.
Yes, the film's primary problem is that Ajay Varma has about 2 expressions (all-consolidated), and the movie unfortunately has to revolve around his performance. Then, the film looks and feels like a Telugu TV serial in settings and pace. The script stretches credibility to extremes, and when the final denouement happens, it's less intuitive than a Motorola ad. And finally, there's a difference between eagerly waiting for an explanation and suddenly having some explanation thrust on you, and the latter is what Nandanavanam does - there doesn't seem like there's any suspense, and suddenly it is revealed.
Amar (Ajay Varma) is a skilled thief, and is approached by Banerjee (Kota Srinivasa Rao), another thief but in a different league, to impersonate a look-alike of Amar, Sandeep, who is heir to a huge property. Banerjee has Sandeep kidnapped, and wants Amar to impersonate him with Sandeep's family for 3 days, so that Amar can award a Rs. 100 crore contract to Banerjee's contact.
Amar agrees when he is promised Rs. 1 crore. He enters the home, Nandanavanam Estate, and starts acting as Sandeep and mingling with the large joint family. It's a pretty challenging role, but Ajay Varma can, like we said, show exactly 2 expressions - one awkward grin and one anxious look. It's surprising how the people who came up with an innovative script like this selected such a novice as lead.
Ajay starts falling in love with Divya (Manasa, extremely good), who's been courting Sandeep without much success for a while, and who continues her attempts thinking him to be Sandeep. But at Banerjee's behest, he (as Sandeep) refuses marriage to her. And in frustration, he just wants to quickly finish the job and leave. But that night, he wakes up at midnight to suddenly find that there's no power at home, and that everyone at home has disappeared. And then there are some very eerie, spine-chilling happenings all around.
It would be unfair to reveal any more of the plot, but the film loses it in the second half after a peak it hits in terms of audience engagement at the interval. The best part of the film is Manasa's performance as the girl courting Sandeep. The come-hither way she looks at him, the ruthless eye-contact she makes and her ability to speak with just her looks make her a good Telugu heroine find. Her girth, however, does not - and her looks are not conventional, either. It would be interesting to see how successful she is.
When you sit connecting the dots in the end after all is revealed, not all occurences in the film tie delightfully in - several look like they were inserted just to intrigue you at that moment. That's not what makes for a great suspense film - everything should fall into place as you think on your way back home. The movie also relies too much on high volume. Sometimes you are tired of the noises.
Still, with a better lead performer, this might have been a good film.