My Dear Bootham is a heartfelt, if slightly overcooked, story of a schoolboy and his genie pal, Karnamukhi. Once a king of jinns, Karna has been cursed by a sage to turn into a statue and banished to earth. Only a human's touch can release him from his stony prison, even after which he cannot straightaway return to the bhoothlok and back to his beloved son. He must first serve his saviour for 48 days, and within that time get him to read a mantra, or else Karna turns to dust. Easy-peasy.
Only, Karna's saviour turns out to be a child with a prominent stutter. Forget the mantra, the kid can barely string a sentence together without giving up in frustration. If the curse seemed convoluted and oddly specific, now you know why.
After 3,000 years trapped as a stone, Karna is accidentally released by a young kid named Srinivas (Ashwanth Ashokkumar). N Ragavan borrows liberally from Aladdin's Genie to situate you in familiar surroundings. Karna has the same elven ears and wears his hair in the same high ponytail. He first appears to the child in a cave, out of a blue mist. He shapeshifts and grants his master anything they wish, except the forbidden three - to kill, resurrect the dead or deal with matters of the heart. But unlike Genie's smoky lower half, Karna (Prabhu Deva), of course, has a killer pair of dancing feet.
So Srinu is now Karna's master, his daivam, and Karna is at the former's beck and call. Inglia Bunglia Junglia, Karna chants, creating burgers and cool drinks out of thin air, turning the textbooks into cartoons, and giving Srinu Pegasus rides through billowy clouds.
Srinu's real problem though is his speech impediment. No matter how many mouth exercises he does, how many doctors and black magicians his mother consults, his stutter persists. He is mocked by his teachers and bullied by classmates, particularly a rowdy gang of three who call him a chicken and push him around. Srinu pleads with Karna to fix him. But stuttering is an ailment of the heart, a crisis of self-confidence, Karna says, which, as a jinn, he is forbidden from tampering with.
Ashwanth Ashokkumar, who plays Srinu, is a prodigious talent, this being his third film role following a debut in Super Deluxe. As his character blossoms from an aloof, misunderstood child to a confident, happy one, Ashwanth displays the whole gamut of human emotion with the depth and control of a veteran actor. With his buck teeth, pudgy cheeks and electric smile, he is a magnetic screen presence. His Telugu dubbing voice (not his own - the movie is dubbed from Tamil), however, is a blubbering, barely intelligible mess in some crucial scenes.
For the whole 45 days of shooting, Prabhudeva sported a bald head with a small oasis of hair at the very top. So his commitment to the role is of no question. He is goofy, loose-limbed, clownish. But the cakey makeup (mustard-yellow eyeshadow, yeesh!), and the stiff, armour-like costume vaguely resembling the pillars of a Thai temple, constrict his physical comedy. When he sheds this carapace and does his signature hip-hop style of dance in a song, wearing a loose T-shirt, the relief is palpable.
For the bits of magic, the movie makes liberal use of CGI. And it is, plainly speaking, so bad that it's hilarious. It is as if the last two decades of progress in CGI technology never happened. In an interview, director Ragavan revealed that graphics took nearly a year to finesse. At some point, he got into a fistfight with the CGI technicians over differences of opinion and slipped deadlines. All that animosity shows (revenge of the nerds?). Even in scenes where a clever bit of cinematography may have done it, the director leans on bad graphics.
Once you accept the dismal quality of the editing, however, it's a lot easier to enjoy the movie. There is genuinely a lot of innocent fun to be had in the first half of the movie, as the genie and the kid get up to a lot of mischief. The best scenes are in the classrooms, in the playground, when children are being children. Consequently, the movie starts to fail when it is injected with too many adult emotions and worries. For instance, there is a scene where Srinu's mother (Ramya Nambeessan) beats him up and asks him to choose between her and the genie, who by then has become his best friend.
My Dear Bootham should have remained a sweet, light-hearted children's story of friendship and self-discovery. But by the end of it, the joy is almost completely drained out