If this penniless fakir
of inexplicable miracles were alive today, what impact would he have on our society? In an age of exaggerated cynicism and rationalization, in an age in which terms like "baba" and "swami" are increasingly taking on not-so-nice meanings, where would his story stand?
Would his torn white (and not saffron - that color people seem to be afraid of) robes placate people suspicious of a communal agenda? Would his lack of a secret cabinet with hidden treasures comfort skeptics concerned about the masses being duped of their money? Would his succinct pearls of ordinary wisdom mollify netas suspecting a political ploy?
These are uncomfortable questions, but it would not be unrealistic to assume that Sai Baba of Shirdi, who had his share of detractors then, is sure to face plenty of criticism in this day. However, even a single reading of the Sai Satcharita is enough to prompt the question - can today's faith move mountains like it did then? Or, at the very least, heal disease? Of course, if you know a Sai Baba devotee, you know you will get a vehement yes for an answer.
K Raghavendra Rao's latest devotional attempts to depict the life of the simple saint (played by Nagarjuna), and is a dramatization of significant events described in the Sai Satcharita. The film traces Sai Baba's life from the time he was a wandering teenager who set up camp under a tree in Shirdi, first attracting the attention of Mhalsapati (Sarath Babu) and Gangabai (Rohini Hattangadey).
After his journey to the Himalayas, during which he studied all religions he could, he came back to Shirdi. He started being referred to as Sai and Baba, and from then on, his simplicity and wisdom, and an occasional miracle, made devout bhaktas out of people not just from the village, but also from lands far away. Sai's popularity infuriated many, including local moneylender Bhatia (Sayaji Shinde), who tried his best to defame him, even going as far as to get him murdered.
Whether you find Shirdi Sai, the movie, good or not depends entirely on you and your affinity to the object of faith here, and not on its maker. It is like hearing your favourite lunchtime folk tale told by your grandmother for the 15,678th time - would you judge it? There hasn't been a Telugu Sai Baba movie in a long while now, and by virtue of that fact alone, this film is likely to draw in lots of devotees.
Shirdi Sai, then, is a gratifying portrayal for Sai Baba devotees. Emotions run high, miracles are hailed, and nerves are soothed. There is some cinematic melodrama on display, and it all serves to effectively reproduce the legend of the saint. Devotees are likely to be moved by certain well-made scenes - the Urs-Ramanavami story; the 3-day period when Sai's soul is believed to have briefly left his body; and his eventual death, when he passes away after taking on Tatya's suffering.
But there is something about it that doesn't entirely click. The film does not conjure up that intense bhakthi
that devotional movies are generally known to. Maybe it is the fact that Sai's straightforward biography does not lend itself to grandiose depictions. Or maybe it is the fact that the movie has a rather old-fashioned treatment of its characters, not unlike a TV serial. Also, the studio sets prevent some scenes from rising to their potential.
That Nagarjuna Akkineni leads this film is a significant thing. The star, on his part, has put in a good performance. The role is much less intense than his roles in Annamayya and Sri Ramadasu
, but he has that calm yet strong presence that is needed for it. His persistence in sticking to genres like these is heartening, and hopefully paves the way for his contemporaries to take on leading roles that are not
in competition with those of their sons.
There is generally a good set of performances on display. Sarath Babu is dignified, Srikanth puts in a passionate act as Das Ganu, Komolinee Mukherjee is graceful as Radhakrishnamai, and Ruchita Deshmukh is pretty good as Lakshmi Bai. The youngster acting as Tatya is clearly gunning for a Nandi. Rohini Hattangadey should have been given more screen time, and Tanikella Bharani is an even rarer sight. It is mostly Sayaji Shinde and his comic sidekicks (Ali) who have a lot to do. Meanwhile, Dharmavarapu is hilarious.
Apart from Srihari as a Britisher (whose office is graced by a photo of the current Queen Elizabeth, no less), nobody in the film jars you.
Meanwhile, Keeravani is as awesome as he has been with these period films. Many a scene has been sparked to life because of a bhajan that springs up or a veena's twang that accentuates the emotion in there.
Watch it if you're a devotee, or even if you are in need of a little bit of spirituality on celluloid. It's not spectacular, but it does the job all the same.