Devotional films have always been a safe bet for Tollywood filmmakers. But because
of this rather complacent 'safeness', such films have off late become a formula
rather than a genre, in our region. Keep the rest of the commercial elements (that
means songs, action, villains and sex) as they are, introduce a god or goddess
who, at frequent intervals, will give opportunity for some really mind boggling
special effects, and we will rake in the moolah - this has become the credo of
most filmmakers who attempt anything here.
It needed a casting coup of mammoth proportions, and the stewardship of a showman
who has the experience of making an honest devotional film (and that's saying
a lot), to make this genre come out of the rut it currently is in. In short, K
Raghavendra Rao has delivered an encore.
To be stating it objectively, Sri Manjunatha seems to be a shaivite version
of Annamayya, with The Destroyer replacing The Preceptor. But that's where
the similarities end. A new and an equally professional star cast, a new surge
of devotion and, most importantly, the divine paradox of eulogizing The Destroyer,
are splendidly brought out in the film.
It is also a rare occasion in Telugu films when star power, comprising the 'megastar', the 'action king' and an actress of the stature of Soundarya, and the theme have complemented each other so well. Add to that supplements like special effects and soul-stirring dialogues, and what you get is a winner outright.
The film is about the transition of an arrogant atheist Manjunatha (Arjun) into one of the most ardent devotees of Lord Shiva (Chiranjeevi). The rather vehement
atheism of Manju is very well brought out in the song 'Oho Garalakantha', where
he is cursing Shiva a hundred times and Shiva is at the same time performing the
Divine Dance with éclat. When questioned about this rather peculiar behavior by
his consort Parvati (Meena), the Lord says that very soon the atheist would undergo
a transformation and become a paragon of devotion.
Manju marries Katyayini (Soundarya), an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva, and they
have a son. And from there the transition of Manju starts with the divine aid
of the Lord.
The first half disappoints as we see the director falling back on his commercial
caterings. That includes a couple of unnecessary songs, giving Arjun a chance
to flex his muscles, and some inane villains.
But it is only in the second half that the purpose of the film is brought out.
Some splendid scenes like the one where the Lord comes disguised as an old man
to Manju's house and the final scene that is an interlude between Manju and the
Lord where he feeds Him food, make the viewers reach a devotional high. Particularly
moving are the dialogues here; one of them which has Manju telling Shiva, "Oh,
Lord! You are constantly directing this divine play, which must have made you
very tired. Here, let me refresh you."
Chiranjeevi as Lord Shiva plays his role to the hilt. And so does Soundarya hers. But clearly, the most commendable performance is that of Arjun, who makes a smooth transformation from his action king image to that of a devotionally charged character. His performance comes as the most pleasant surprise in the entire affair.
Sri Manjunatha is an example of doing justice to a particular genre with
complete honesty. It will reap the dividends due to this trait.