What constitutes a Prashanth Neel movie? Is it the angst of the protagonist that comes as an ode to the Salim-Javed era? Or is it the setting that's larger-than-life and mythical at the same time?
Prashanth Neel is a filmmaker who knows that there is a clear demarcation between a movie and a film. The former, which is his wholehearted pick, is generally seen as a tool that lures masses to the big screens with its sneaky combination of familiar tropes, marquee names and a "universal story". But there are those who imbue the movie with their own trademarks and originality, and you begin to see the presence of that director and not just any director. Neel, with his four-film portfolio, could well be classified as that director.
But what's interesting is that the filmmaker asserts that he isn't in the profession to satiate his artistic cravings but only to meet his financial goals. Of course, one assumes that he is underselling himself and that he is quite potentially chasing after the elusive artistic high; otherwise, he wouldn't be dedicating a couple of years, at the very least, for each outing of his. The merit of the movie(s) is subjective at the end of it all, but it is quite apparent at this point that Prashanth Neel is here to give us an experience like no other.
So, what constitutes a Prashanth Neel movie? Is it the angst of the central character that comes across as a sincere and very direct ode to the Salim-Javed era? Or is it the setting that's so larger-than-life and mythical at the same time that it serves as the perfect backdrop for something "epic" to take place? You could say it's a combination, so to speak, of both but what's very clear is that he does not shy away from deriving inspiration from famous works of the past. Could it be that Rocky Bhai, loosely put, is the cockiness of Deewar's Vijay Verma and the resolve and tenacity of Inspector Vijay Khanna from Zanjeer? It could be reductive to state it that way but it is definitely safe to say that Prashanth Neel is fond of heroes who aren't necessarily "flawed" or "human," but are rather prone to poetic tragedy.
Let's take 'Salaar: Ceasefire' as a case in point, because one sees that film or movie as the perfect representation of the Prashanth Neel ethos. At the very outset, we find that Deva, the protagonist (played by Prabhas), is a repressed soul who has had to bury his rage deep within himself for the sake of a promise that he made to his mother several years ago. That isn't the only burden he is carrying, mind you, because we know of another vow he took much earlier to show up for his friend Varadha, whenever the need be. Promise, be it an age-old poetic trope in cinema, is still a relevant one and Prashanth Neel knows just how to execute it as a plot point on the screen.
It's almost a 'Basha meets Ben-Hur' approach to telling a story that's largely contrived and overwritten in the history of cinema, but Neel pulls it off regardless because it seems as though he has the perfect sense of the pulse of a real-life theatrical audience. He knows how to rearrange the structure just so that he can play the game in beats rather than scenes, and when you, the viewer, do your bit and surrender to this style, the result is riveting.
And if we are still discussing film references in Salaar, you can throw in Agneepath because, at its heart, it's the story of a son who is potentially carrying the fury of his father's untimely death (murder, rather) and isn't even aware of that fact.
There's also the Karna from the Mahabharata element in 'Ceasefire' and those who have watched the movie will make some sense of what I mean here. (Spoilers Ahead) We learn towards the concluding moments of the movie that Deva's father was the rightful claimant of the throne and that if the hierarchical order had been followed, he (Deva) would have been sitting on the High Chair. Instead, he is an ostracised man, the Gladiator, if you will, who is more of a hired hand to help someone else grab the coveted spot.
The Mahabharata essence is also felt in the make-up of the Khansaar kingdom, which is as convoluted, sinister and frankly gory as the mythology epic. You see, there's a Shakuni-Duryodhana-like "mama bhanja" dynamic; there's the malevolent sibling rivalry and also territorial greed that ultimately emerges as the driving force of the narrative.
The Game of Thrones allusion, too, has come up a bunch of times while discussing 'Salaar' and there's no doubt that Prashanth Neel has borrowed a lot from the mammoth series to etch a world that breeds disloyalty and mistrust throughout. When looked through that lens, Prabhas' Deva is certainly the 'Jon Snow' of this world, who has been tactfully kept away from the thick of the politics and the scheming. It's just that Neel's version of this hero isn't equipped to be as "meditatively dogged" as George R.R. Martin's cult character.
Does this all amount to saying that 'Salaar', a now-typical Prashanth Neel exercise, is a mish-mash of all the filmmaker's influence? Well, it could be but if that job were to be easy, we would have an entire load of filmmakers capable of churning blockbusters. There is a "hack" to how he does things but there's also a style in which he gets things done. It could be the soot-heavy, greased-up, dystopian physical world that is devoid of colour and life, or the blaring soundtrack and the almost-seizure-inducing editing pattern that go hand-in-hand to make the flaws less visible. The short, probable answer is that Prashanth Neel knows how to get it done, regardless.