Those who were rooting for Bapu win this one.
Sri Rama Rajyam is a remake of old-time classic Lava Kusa, and itself has the makings of a classic. The credit to this triumph goes to a man who could think of the whole rather than the sum of its parts. Wise move, that, sir.
The story of Sri Rama Rajyam is drawn from the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana, which deals with the period after Lord Rama returns to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana in Lanka. All is well in the kingdom, until Rama hears of a washerman who doubts Sita's chastity. In fact, he has contempt for Rama taking back "a woman who has spent a year in another man's home".
Wishing to uphold the honour of his duty as a ruler, he banishes the pregnant Sita to the forest, where, in Sage Valmiki's ashram, she bears the twins Lava and Kusha.
This is not a happy story. It is a saga of grief: of Rama, the king torn between his sense of duty towards his kingdom and that towards his wife; and of Sita, the wronged but devoted wife. Further, this is also the story that Ramayana-critics and bra-burning feminists love to cry themselves hoarse about, demanding to know what the fuss over Rama is all about when he's merely an unjust husband just like "any other man".
Needless to say, Bapu has both the vision and the finesse to deal with this topic with the subtlety and sensitivity it deserves. For example, Rama's sense of remorse, when he sends his wife away to the forest without so much as telling her what went wrong, is explored with fitting detail here.
Ditto for other vital elements of the narrative. From Sita's unflinching devotion to her husband; Hanuman's helplessness over Sita's sorrow, and, simultaneously, his eagerness to serve her and keep her happy; to Lava and Kusa losing their regard for Rama after they hear of Sita's tragedy - they're all dealt with with immense dexterity.
The treatment of the story is all old-school, and the film succeeds in recreating divinity and devotion, without ever being over-the-top or exaggerated. We know several people who would look down upon any modern mythological film as blasphemy, but we'd like to urge them to give this one a watch. At least, to witness in this day and age, a movie so staunchly faithful to the classical that every frame gives away the discipline that went into its making.
Some of the charm of Sri Rama Rajyam lies in the star cast, all of whom seem to have actually had a good time putting the movie together. Notable of them all is Akkineni Nageswara Rao, who plays Valmiki, and whose beatific smile radiates so much goodwill it makes you believe that no one else could have played the character.
This is somewhat true for Nayantara as well, who should certainly mourn the end of her film career now - this is probably the most powerful role she's ever done, and she has pulled it off well. Her emotional scenes are quite potent, and move you into alternating states of mind - of admiring Sita as well as appreciating the actress.
The film has a hint of the Nandamuris' self-important gloating about how they're suited for important mythological roles. Balakrishna, however, is visibly aging. This may not be the problem, actually - Sri Rama Rajyam isn't about a young, dashing Rama as much as it is about a tired, contrite, aggrieved husband who pines for his loss. To his credit, Balakrishna displays the poise and restraint expected of a Lord Rama (thanks to the precedent set by you-know-who). The wrinkles and and tired eyes are a giveaway, though. Fact remains that, at the end of the day, he is certainly no NTR.
The women, led by K R Vijaya in Kausalya Devi's role, are all graceful. Srikanth, as Lakshmana, gets some heavy-duty emoting to do. Vindoo Dara Singh, as Hanuman, too.
Lava, Kusa and Bala Raju are played by immensely talented kids (the kid playing Bala Raju has also been seen in other movies) who're going to be treated like celebrities in the school circuit now. In fact, the kids in the ashram are all cute.
Brahmanandam as the washerman, Jhansi as his wife, Roja as Bhoodevi, Hema as Mandodari, Murali Mohan as King Janaka and Sudha as his wife all make brief appearances. Tollywood's moms and sisters appear as various well-dressed royal characters.
Ilayaraja's music is mellow and pleasing, with Shreya Ghoshal having sung several mellifluous numbers. The set design is impressive. Plenty of graphics have been used - not just in the "astra" sequences, but also in patching together the grandiose palace sets, and to show the frolicking animals in the ashram, and other sequences. The special effects aren't mind-blowing, but hey, if you're going to be complaining about them you're missing the point here.
Well worth a watch, and not just for the devoted. You know who we sorely miss? NTR. And Ramana.