Nenu Devudini makes you feel like a sprinter at the starting mark, crouched in position, all charged and pumped up, waiting for the gun to go off any second.
And waiting and waiting and waiting.
Director Bala gets a great concept - you can almost see peers slapping their forehead at why they didn't think of it first - and messes it up so spectacularly, you quickly realize how much you take normal Tollywood commercial directors for granted every time you criticize them for losing their grip in the climax or overdoing the sentiment, ignoring instead how they get at least the basics right.
You also have other fish to fry about Nenu Devudini. Bala spoils it for everyone else too, who will now all draw all the wrong conclusions from the failure of this one. And that would be an unfortunate by-product of Nenu Devudini, since it goes into the alleys of India that exist only in the fine-print of the country, subterranean to all those who don't belong there, and that deserve all the sunshine they can get if they really aren't to be seen.
Nenu Devudini deals primarily with the lives of beggars, giving you more data to resolve those eternal quandaries that you face everytime you see one at a signal. It also touches upon the world of Hindu sadhus, especially the Aghora sect of Shaivites. That would seem like an unlikely combination of themes for a movie, and Balu cannot make it work either, but it's pretty clear to you long before the end that that isn't for a lack of possibility at all.
The movie starts off with a brilliant panoramic profile of Kasi (Varanasi), Hinduism's holiest spot that the average Hindu of today knows far lesser about than Muslims do about Mecca, Christians about the Vatican or Sikhs about Amritsar. Stunning photography panning the thronging masses by the Ganga, and glimpses of mass cremations, of the rituals for the dead, and of practitioners of the Kapalika, Naga and Aghora cults, offer an almost-there experience. Illayaraja's haunting tunes extolling Lord Shiva provide the perfect background to get the goose-pimples all revved up, and in about 15 minutes, you are sure this is going to be a different, and rousing, ride.
The story catches up with the experience soon enough - a father has come looking for his son after 14 years. A son who he abandoned here since astrologers told him that he would bring bad luck. Searching the entire temple town, they finally land upon him - he is now an Aghora sadhu, Rudra (Arya), superhero.
It might require a complete formatting of the brain to understand the Aghora sect without judging it: they smoke ganja, eat human corpses, and roam around almost naked. Worshippers of Lord Shiva and pursuing moksha, they believe they are one with the Lord Himself (and hence the title), and are devoid of all attachments.
When his father gets Rudra's guru to direct Rudra to come home so his ailing mother gets better, Rudra complies. And introduced as you have been by then to Rudra's austere living, fierce special capabilities and intense propitiation of Lord Shiva, as also to a seriously inhuman don running a begging ring in the temple village Rudra's coming to, the stage is set for an explosively different film.
And it stays set.
For, Bala simply cannot go after getting set. The film practically stalls once Rudra reaches the village. Excelling on every other front - music, visuals, depiction of the begging ring and the bonding among the victims whose lives seem so inconsequential that you feel guilty of your own, and supremely brilliant performances by a bunch of motley actors for whom this might be the only film they'll ever do - the movie fails in just the basic aspect: telling a story. And you badly miss Puri Jagannath, Vinayak and Rajamouli.
Indeed, it's interval 45 minutes after the movie starts, and the films ends another hour later, and what happens all through is something that the aforementioned trio might have used as the intro scene for the hero. A movie that had intense potential on so many fronts - as a superhero film, as a sentimental drama, or along spiritual lines - wheezes and sputters along, and dies long before the finish line.
And if it weren't for so much brilliance in characterising the beggars and their lives of unbelievable exploitation, and making a bunch of midgets perform heart-rending stuff, Nenu Devudini wouldn't deserve such an elaborate post-mortem. Bala can chisel out great beads, he just can't string them into actual jewelry.
The performances are brilliant, especially, like we said, those of the beggars, including that of Pooja as the guileless blind one. Rudra beats her up when she tries to persuade him to be nice to his mother, but if Rudra believes he is God, he delivers on it - if you try to be good to God, it is widely rumoured that He returns the favour, and Rudra gives the young victim of destiny, the Supreme Gift.
Illayaraja's music and Arthur Wilson's camerawork (especially at Kasi) are other highlights of this ill-fated venture. This is a film dubbed from Tamil, and looks every bit of it thanks to a half-hearted effort.
Chanting Tamasoma Jyothirgamaya or the Gayatri Mantra is mostly just a politically correct thing to do - if you want your ignorance burnt, you will have to do it yourself, as all those sadhus on the banks of the Ganga at Kasi demonstrate. As always, God is in the detail - not in a mantra. Lord Shiva won't be helping Bala at the box-office with this one for forgetting that, and He's probably feeling sorry, too.