How many weddings have you been to and in how many of them do you actually feel any kind of involvement? There are deep and profound vows but neither the bride nor the groom understands them (sometimes we wonder if even the priest has a clue). They look to the sky, and even on the cloudiest of days they claim to have seen the Arundhati nakshatram. And regardless of how well you wish for the couple, you usually get really bored by the time the two hundred and fifty second photograph is posed for. Weddings are dreary affairs mostly.
That's also, incidentally, how Telugu films are. They are often equally elaborate and expensive rituals of the hero, heroine, villains, comedians, fights, songs and completely unfelt drama. Week in and week out we watch these rituals without feeling a blip of human emotion to the point that we forget that the function of art is to make us feel. Just the way we forget that the function of a wedding is to make us witness the union of two lives and wish them the best.
Seen this way, Keshava is your average Telugu film which fails to make any human impact. It's a revenge drama where a young Keshava (Nikhil Siddharth) witnesses his parents' death in an accident (which also paralyses his sister) and he grows up to pursue the perpetrators of this crime and murder them in sequence despite being hounded by a top cop (Isha Koppikar). Add to this the sub-plot of Satya (Ritu Verma) who identifies Keshava as her childhood friend and is actively trying to probe into his mysterious life.
Trouble is, Keshava doesn't sell the need for revenge. Despite their ill deeds, at no point do you feel any visceral impulse to see the baddies lynched. Despite Keshava's heavy lines on his life being a pain, he appears rather emotionless. Part of the problem is his character is given a heart disorder which demands that he always be calm. So, loaded emoting goes out of the window. And the other part of the problem is Nikhil Siddharth doesn't seem capable of doing intense or brooding. In effect, both the good and the bad don't move you.
But that's not a damning verdict yet. This is where the wedding simile checks out. The most unfelt and ritualistic wedding can also be redeemed if one thing is sorted - why, we're talking about the food, of course. There's redemption to be found in the bendakaya vepudus and mamidikaya pappus, and if you happen to be a special invitee in a Telangana wedding, the envy is fit for royalty. And absolutely nothing tops a wedding feast where the family personally manages the cooking department.
The parallel here is the style in filmmaking. Sudheer Varma is a keen director. He isn't out there to tick some checklist and make some money. He has appreciation for the notion that the frame is a filmmaker's playground. Together with cinematographer Diwakar Mani's fluency with light, he pulls off some splendid visuals. There are coconuts breaking the foreground as Keshava follows his prey. There are snail shells stuck to tree bark. Large shadow silhouettes on dark nights. Red blood pitter-pattering in the rain. Keshava is, visually, a delicious film.
One very pertinent comment that has to be made here is that Keshava is almost entirely shot in the Telugu-speaking states. And the film looks just spectacular sometimes. We're really hoping there's at least one filmmaker out there jotting this down into his/her notebook - "Can shoot at low budget in nearby locations and still make film look good. No need to buy air tickets for 45 people."
Sudheer Varma's control on his craft continues to be evident with the grip he has on almost all departments. While not exactly phenomenal, the editing has a gratifying tautness in key sequences. Also, this is another smashing album by Sunny M R (with one song by Mikey McCleary) with the background score by Prashant Pillai being even better.
And the acting is mostly free of bloat. We already mentioned that the emphasis on subdued emoting does not work for Nikhil, but the rest of the cast manages well. Isha Koppikar and Ritu Varma perform but suffer from out-of-place dubbing (Varma's accent is out of place whereas Koppikar appears to be a ventriloquist). Priyadarshi Pulikonda and Vennela Kishore remind us that humour isn't necessarily about exaggerated and loud behaviour. They're both funny and, like, we said, free of bloat.
However, the best performance comes from the villain. There's a certain natural flow of physical, verbal and mental communication that can be pulled off when the actor knows not just the craft but the language as well. The antagonist of Keshava has barely a scene where he speaks anything substantial, but that happens to be the only scene in the entire film where you get convinced of someone's motives.
Sudheer Varma's film could have meant just another instance of weekly drudgery. The film is certainly a failure if you scrutinise it with the story and emotional connect on the stage. However, if you move from the stage to the dining hall and focus on the earthy reds, the aerial shots, the local accents, the water bodies, the pacing and other such deliberately crafted labours of love, Keshava has a lot to give you in its two hours. Storywise, it is very much an empty ritual. However, you'll appreciate it much more if cook up an appetite for some juicy nuggets of passionate filmmaking.