If there is one rule the world has reaffirmed over the course of the last half-decade, it is that elections are won with emotions and not facts. This plainly terrifying conclusion can be applied to cinema as well, even though the consequences of one might outweigh the other. Your emotional investment in a film is what makes your film-going experience worthwhile. You need to genuinely care about characters, their worlds, their stories and their triumphs/losses. Personally, Ram Charan Tej failed to coax me into caring about any of his characters in a career that has spanned over a decade. Playing Chitti Babu might very well be his finest hour as an actor. It took him long enough, but he has finally broken out.
Rangasthalam follows the life of the hard-of-hearing Chitti Babu (Ram Charan) and the many colourful characters that inhabit the titular village. The village is led by its President (Jagapathi Babu), a man who has stayed in his position unopposed for three decades. A man who seemingly has forgotten his name as he has never been addressed by it by any of the common folk he rules or his many henchmen who aid his tyranny. Among the downtrodden are Chitti Babu's parents, many a fellow villager, his love interest Ramalakshmi (Samantha Akkineni), and his employer Rangamatta (Anasuya Bharadwaj).
While the townsfolk are a bunch of frogs boiling away in an unforgiving vessel of water, Chitti Babu's Dubai-returned brother Kumar Babu (Aadi Pinisetty) will have none of this hazardous environment. And instead of jumping out of the water alone in the interest of self-preservation, he takes it upon himself to take the citizens of his village on the ride with him. The ensuing socio-political drama plays out on the streets of this appropriately titled village.
The streets of Rangasthalam, or Subramanyapuram with upkeep as we like to call it, act as a window into the raw realities of remote rural areas, as a rustic canvas filled with a rich tapestry of human emotions and as a conduit to the excess of Telugu commercial cinema. Sukumar and his team want to intelligently address the complexities involved in policy-making, the Herculean effort required to alter the mindset of a group of people who live in a miniature version of the fictionalised England in 1984, and the expanding divide between the ruler and the ruled.
Adjacent to this primary plot, they want to tell the very personal story of a family and its dynamics, and in true Sukumar fashion, painstakingly illustrate a flawed lead character. Add to this a throwaway romantic angle and a few sub-plots that are brought up and resolved every five minutes, and you quickly begin to realise where all the excess comes from and why every twist the movie puts forth does not land with the same amount of impact. There is a subversive and stirring story to be told here but the film's flaws and merits cancel each other out almost perfectly, and hence the clever subversion is lost and what remain are the raw emotions.
Breakout star Ram Charan Tej leads the pack while bringing these visceral moments to the screen. The work the man puts into wrenching every single emotion out of his character is almost jaw-dropping at times. There are instances where his polished diction and nods to his predecessors take over, but we chose to bite our lips through them because the film assured us that a spellbinding scene wasn't too far off.
In a cruel twist of fate, however, his world, the story he is in and the people in it fail to match the sheer dedication and over-the-top craftsmanship he brings to the table. Chitti's brother, family and friends are all played by fine actors, but are nowhere near as influential to the narrative as the film would like them to be. Chitti's every action is a reaction to a situation his cohorts find themselves in, but said cohorts give the audience no reason to care.
Not to mention, a villain whose menace comes from the many rules and quirks the script sets for him but not from the character himself. The unstoppable force has no immovable object in his way.
This can be chalked down to many long-drawn-out sequences that envelop a few quick-fire scenes. While both are shot exceptionally well for the most part, the director occasionally fails to realise that his grasp of the few quick scenes punctuated by striking imagery makes for many of the pulse-pounding parts of his film instead of the many multi-minute scenes that plod around aimlessly until a misplaced song or a haphazard edit stops them in their tracks.
Ace cinematographer Ratnavelu isn't the one at fault here. He masterfully captures every shift in tone and act. He employs POV shots, higher frame rates, close-ups, exquisite framing and some truly well-earned slow-motion sequences to make Chitti and his struggles palatable. Even though the film teeters on becoming a sepia-toned hellscape from time to time and employs some dodgy CGI, the man behind the camera reins these negatives in and never lets them overpower the film.
The same cannot be said about the music. Devi Sri Prasad composes some of his most inspired pieces of the score for his friend's film. Sadly, his errors mirror those of his friend. His insistence on overusing these bits of music rarely allows the audience to choose how they feel about certain occurrences in the film. The musical cues choose not to trust the audience, and hence stuff the film to the brim with notes with no due respect being given to silent reflection.
Rangasthalam the movie is like its star Ram Charan's beard. Even though it wants to project a sense of ruggedness and rawness to its proceedings, it is not rough around the edges to be perceived as such. Every follicle of hair is in its right place and hence the grooming behind the veneer is unmistakable. It lacks the unabashed political intrigue of a Subramanyapuram
and is not the unflinching character study Aadukalam is. It is, however, Ram Charan's and Sukumar's best work in a long time.
Even though most of us have been conditioned by Telugu cinema to develop Chitti's condition of only being able to hear loud sounds and over-the-top acting, it is refreshing when we realize that theatrics like these when done right can remind us why we like the performing arts in the first place.