Before creating a nationwide sensation with KGF Chapter 1, Prashanth Neel made his directorial debut with Ugramm. Apparently, Neel was going to make a sequel to it, titled Ugramm Veeram, but that never saw the light of day. Since I haven’t watched the entire film due to time constraints, I will reserve my judgment on it. That said, based on what I have seen, there was a drastic shift in Neel’s visual storytelling between Ugramm and KGF Chapter 1. And since that connected with the masses, he continued it (and maybe streamlined it a bit) in KGF Chapter 2. Since that became an even bigger hit, he has clearly doubled down on it for Salaar. In addition to that, Neel has allegedly resurrected certain aspects of Ugramm because the film probably holds a special place in his heart, and integrated them into his latest action epic. What is the end product like? Well, to put it simply, it’s a headache-inducing fever dream.
Prashanth Neel’s Salaar: Part 1 – Ceasefire starts off in 1985 in the fictional city (even though it functions like a country) of Khansaar, where a young Deva and a young Vardha are standing up to bullies. Then some spoiler-heavy stuff happens, and Deva’s mother is about to be raped by a bunch of goons. But the young Vardha steps in, gives a section of the land that he owns, and then sends the young Deva and his mother away from Khansaar because he can’t ensure their safety anymore. Deva says that he owes Vardha one, and he’ll show up whenever Vardha calls him. The narrative moves forward to 2017, when Krishnakanth’s daughter, Aadhya, comes to India, against her father’s wishes, to scatter her mother’s ashes. When Radha Rama Mannar learns about this, she sends her goon squad to kidnap her. Krishnakanth pleads with Bilal to take Aadhya to the place where Deva resides because that is the only way she’ll be safe. Bilal takes Aadhya to Tinsukia, Assam, where she works as a teacher to keep up appearances. However, two more kidnapping attempts force Deva to unsheath his violent side and reveal the fact that he is Vardha’s sworn enemy. All this happens in the first half of the film. There’s a convoluted second half after all this, and you are most welcome to unpack it in your free time.
The two emotions that Prashanth Neel is familiar with are awe and shock, exactly in that order. A major chunk of his screenplay is dedicated to building up the fear around the character of Deva. Then, the next chunk of his screenplay is dedicated to building up the fear around the character of Deva. And then the chunk of screenplay after the previous chunk is also dedicated to building up the fear around the character of Deva. After that, he allows Deva to punch some guys and then goes back to his cycle of myth-building. He manages to make some space for twists, which will fuel theories for the next installation. That’s about it. Salaar should technically hinge on the camaraderie between Deva and Vardha, especially since the next film is probably going to be about their fallout, but Neel isn’t interested in creating the emotional bond between the two characters and the audience. He makes the supporting characters talk about Deva and Vardha’s relationship like it’s gospel. He makes Deva and Vardha sulk together quite a lot. They even have shades of “bromance” as they hype each other up. However, all that exposition isn’t enough to root for them or wonder about their enmity. On top of that, there’s the “world-building” and the “politics,” which are too much and too little at the same time. As in, there’s a sensation of history and epic feuds, but the presentation seems like a three-year-old kid’s attempt at creating a fictional nation after their first history and civics class. To put it simply, it’s a whole lot of gibberish.
Prashanth Neel’s visual storytelling is easy to describe: it’s an assault on the senses. I am not kidding when I say that it took me three sittings to watch KGF Chapter 1 in its entirety, and that’s only because I was tasked with reviewing KGF Chapter 2. The reason why the viewing experience was so difficult isn’t exactly a mystery. You see, each shot in KGF Chapter 1 lasted on the screen for about 2 seconds. KGF Chapter 1 had a running time of 2 hours and 35 minutes. 20 minutes of that stuff made me feel nauseous. Things improved a bit in KGF Chapter 2. The shots lasted longer, and even if he cut to a different shot, it was composed in a way that made the cuts feel invisible. In Salaar, he has regressed once again, and it seems like cinematographer Bhuvan Gowda and editor Ujwal Kulkarni are powerless in this situation. The sad thing is that you can clearly figure out the amount of effort that has gone into crafting the action sequences, the sets, the VFX, the SFX, the costumes, the lighting, and more. But given how it doesn’t stay on the screen for more than 2 or 3 seconds, it all blurs into one faint memory of a few frames instead of an impactful collage of moving pictures. I genuinely don’t understand why Neel is so afraid to allow his film to simmer. Why does he feel the need to make every scene feel like a trailer for the next one? Why does he want to overwhelm the audience with blaring sounds and flashing images? Why is he always in such a hurry? I’m not saying that Neel needs to stick to traditional filmmaking methods, but I do think he needs to stop emulating motion sickness with his visual storytelling.
The acting in Salaar is bad. I have no clue what has happened to Prabhas. Till Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, this guy was one of the most expressive actors in the Telugu film industry. His physicality, his vocal inflections, and his screen presence were all top-notch. There was a sudden drop in quality in Saaho. It dropped a little more in Radhe Shyam. Then he crash-landed with Adipurush. And it doesn’t seem like he has fully recovered from that colossal misfire. To be fair, you do see shades of the old Prabhas when Deva is being a little vulnerable. However, the man simply doesn’t understand stoicism. He just sulks the whole time. The writing doesn’t help him too because his character is motivated by the need to protect women and Vardha; and that gets stale pretty quickly. Prithviraj Sukumaran is an incredibly talented actor, and he is barely utilized. Sriya Reddy swings for the fences. John Vijay sticks out like a sore thumb. The rest of the cast sort of falls somewhere between Prabhas and Prithviraj’s “depressed prince” act and Sriya and John’s “manic anger” act. Shruti Haasan’s role can be labeled as a “jump scare” because there are times when you forget she is in the movie, and then she appears out of nowhere. Even though Deva’s mother is integral to Deva’s “arc,” Easwari Rao hardly gets to do anything substantial. Jagapathi Babu enters, exits, and re-enters the film so frivolously that it’s actually hilarious. Tinnu Anand is in the film, and he cries a lot. Bobby Simha is also there in the film, but he’s pushed to the background. I hope he gets to do more in the second installment. All the actors playing the zombie-like goons deserve a round of applause for their commitment.
I’ll conclude this review of Salaar by talking about its fatal flow (minor spoilers ahead). While bashing Animal and its theme of violent kids of rich dads, I actually appreciated the KGF movies for presenting a protagonist who punched up, rebelled against the status quo, and took down products of nepotism. I pointed out that, in real life, there are way too many people who are getting the world handed to them on a platter and that they’re using their class and caste privilege to inflict suffering upon minorities. And I said that, given how a massive section of the Indian population isn’t privileged, the sight of a Rocky Bhai taking on the police, corporate overlords, and politicians felt aspirational. That’s why it’s disappointing to see Prashanth Neel present two violent protagonists who are products of nepotism, thereby making them unrelatable and uninspiring. I don’t think there’s any way to fix that in Salaar 2, but the one thing that Neel can fix going forward is the editing. Please, man, let your shots stay on the screen for at least 10 to 20 seconds!