Prashanth Neel outdoes himself after the KGF series with Salaar, even if it's a glitzy makeover of his debut Ugramm
Deva and Varada are childhood friends who are forced to part ways under unavoidable circumstances overnight. Many years later, when the life of Aadya, the daughter of a US-based businessman Krishnakanth, is under threat in India, Deva comes to her rescue. How far does Deva go to protect her? What’s his past?
Delivering a career-defining work is a credible achievement, yes, but how does one surpass it? Prashanth Neel had two pathbreaking hits with his second, third films - the KGF series - and bears the burden of outdoing himself with Salaar (Part 1 - Ceasefire). He revisits his debut - Kannada hit Ugramm - gives it a glitzy upgrade with bigger names, better aesthetics, vastly improvised storytelling.
While many had complaints with the limited promotional material for Salaar, one must acknowledge that the director prepared crowds well for his magnum opus. This is indeed a story of friends-turning-foes, one that’s high on drama, set in a fictitious world where law does little to dictate the behaviour of its characters. For those familiar with Ugramm too, there’s a lot to discover and savour.
Much like his previous films, Prashanth Neel’s love for 1970s Hindi cinema reflects in his usage of a dysfunctional childhood to set up a strong emotional foundation. The personality traits of two friends - Deva and Varada - are established in crisp sequences. The tale commences in the 1980s, only to take a three-decade leap, traversing through various parts of the country.
In the 2010s, Deva is a mechanic living in disguise, but you discover flashes of his dark past. He’s trying hard to keep his temper in check. There are effective visual metaphors to indicate his psyche. The leisureliness in the storytelling works in the film’s favour, it gives a viewer enough space to absorb the tension, relish the character development, as the narrative is inching to take an explosive turn.
The core sequences of Ugramm are retained for Salaar too, but the makeover isn’t merely glossy. The filmmaker cuts the flab and is focused on building his world sans much distraction. Prabhas is intentionally given minimal dialogue, his ‘stand and deliver’ screen presence (aided by the cinematography, music) alone is enough and it’s relieving to see a director do his homework about the star well.
The tone of the film undergoes a drastic change in the latter hour - the drama comes to the fore and it doesn’t leave us much to complain about. There’s a fabulous backstory dating to the 1700s, taking us through the origins of a fictitious region Khansaar (where Ugramm’s Mughor gets a fantasy spin). This gives the director the liberty to create a world with a unique set of rules.
There are a few bouncers early on - a host of characters and their complex interpersonal relationships and the inner workings of the Khansaar region overwhelm you. The lineup of actors is huge - Brahmaji, Garuda Ram, Jagapathi Babu, Sriya Reddy, Bobby Simha, Pramod, Mime Gopi, John Vijay, Shafi - and it takes some time to come to terms with the identities of their characters.
The languid pacing too slightly gets to your nerves soon, but the payoffs are thankfully delectable. The action sequences are gory at times, though the slick choreography and the effortless visual style is hard to deny. Obviously, the men take care of the stunts and the women are the vulnerable lot. Despite the predictable story trajectory, Prashanth sets up masala moments with taste.
While Prithviraj does the heavy lifting with the dialogues, handling melodrama tactfully, Prabhas is assured, as cool as a cucumber, rising to the occasion without making a fuss. Much like Yash’s ‘I hate violence’ dialogue, Prabhas gets an equally appealing one-liner - ‘Please..I kindly request’ The playful camaraderie between the duo amidst intense sequences ensures several whistle-worthy moments.
The portrayal of power dynamics with an empire is something Prashanth has excelled at - be it Ugramm or the underworld in KGF - and Salaar too gives him the license to go full throttle to capitalise on his strengths. He also flaunts his taste with war machinery and integrates it with the tale. More than his originality as a writer, Salaar showcases his evolution as a director.
The film gets a terrific final punch with a delicious twist that turns the tale on its head, generating enough curiosity for the second instalment. Ravi Basrur’s background score is loud occasionally, but adds enough meat to the film’s crucial junctures. The song placement is yet another area that the director betters himself and the uncluttered narration helps sustain the film’s mood.
The cinematographer Bhuvan Gowda and editor Ujwal Kulkarni do the needful, but could do well to look beyond the KGF hangover in their work. Shruti Haasan is appealing while she tries to make her presence felt within the limitations of a 'commercial film heroine' but it’s Sriya Reddy who brings authority to the portrayal of a crooked royal daughter. Eswari Rao is dependable as ever but her ‘motherly’ acts are getting increasingly monotonous in terms of performances.
Jagapathi Babu, Jhansi have superb screen presence in brief roles while Brahmaji springs a surprise too. Bobby Simha is a perfect fit - in terms of body language, emotive appeal - for his part. Garuda Ram, Pramod, Tinu Anand have abundant screen space but one can expect meatier roles with better impact in the second part.
It’s time for Prabhas fans to hold their heads high. Salaar is a superb action vehicle crafted with enough style, old-fashioned drama and powerhouse performances. While the film doesn’t subvert any cinematic norms, there’s no joy like tasting well-made, familiar comfort food. Safe to say Salaar is Prashanth Neel’s best film to date.