Directed by: Hari Nath , Ashwin Saravanan , Sujeeth Reddy  || Produced by: M. V. V. Satyanarayana, Kona Venkat , S. Sashikanth, Chakravarthy Ramachandra , Vamsi Krishna Reddy, Pramod Uppalapati 
Screenplay by: Kona Venkat , Ashwin Saravanan, Kaavya Ramkumar, Venkat Kacharla , Sujeeth Reddy, Abbas Dalal, Hussain Dalal  || Starring: Aadhi Pinisetty, Ritika Singh , Vinodhini Vaidyanathan, Anish Kuruvilla, Sanchana Natarajan, Ramya Subramanian, Parvathi T. , Prabhas Raju, Shraddha Kapoor , Taapsee Pannu1-2
Music by: Achu Rajamani, Prasan Praveen Shyam , Ron Ethan Yohan , Mohamaad Ghibran, Tanishk Bagchi, Guru Randhawa, Badshah, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy  || Cinematography: Sai Sriram , A. Vasanth , R. Madhi  ||Edited by: Pradeep E. Ragav , Richard Kevin , A. Sreekar Prasad  || Country: India || Language: Telugu1-3, Tamil2-3, Hindi3
Running Time: 122 minutes , 97 minutes , 170 minutes  || 1 = Neevevaro, 2 = Game Over, 3 = Saaho
Today’s sampling of Telugu cinema involves two sidestream films that, while not groundbreaking or transgressive, deviate somewhat from the standard formulas of South Indian filmmaking, as well as a third film that represents the apex of those formulas. The former two, Neevevaro and Game Over, clock at 122 and 97 minutes, respectively, putting them far below the average running time (~2.5-3 hours) of most Indian films, South Indian or otherwise. They also downplay the bombastic, slow-motion action common to most Telugu blockbusters in favor of creative narrative premises that feel more in common with Bulbbul (2020) than the filmography of, say, Mahesh Babu. Saaho, on the other hand, is Prabhas Raju’s tentpole follow-up to Baahubali (2015, 2017), the highest grossing franchise in Indian cinema, and like that film is massive in terms of narrative scope, special FX, and budget.
Neevevaro and Game Over are both acting showcases for prolific multilingual actress, Taapsee Pannu, who plays a conniving swindler in the former and a “final girl” horror stock character in the latter. Neevevaro (“Who Are You?”) is a mystery drama headlined by Aadhi Pinisetty, a blind chef who has built a career atop his State Award for the Specially Abled, a government funded grant for talented individuals with particular physical handicaps. The story kicks into gear after he meets Pannu’s enigmatic female lead, which dovetails into a series of tragic accidents and complicated criminal schemes that our protagonist navigates along with the audience. Narrative revelations unfold organically such that the film treats its audience like adults, almost never spelling out plot-points, relying on exposition dumps, or resorting to extensive flashbacks to describe the plot. This deliberate, realistic storytelling keeps the viewer’s attention without rushing plot developments, feeling more patient than most blockbusters without engorging its run-time. Screenwriter-producer Kona Venkat’s faithful adaptation of this script from the Tamil original, Adhe Kangal (2017), is the most probable explanation for this effective storytelling.
Neevevaro’s visual direction by Hari Nath is reliable, if nothing special. He minimizes the tedious, slow-motion fight sequences common to most Telugu action movies and excises musical numbers altogether. My lone significant complaint about the film is how it halts its story in its tracks for an abrupt, overly long introduction of guest star, Vennela Kishore, but other than those contrived five minutes, Neevevaro is a smooth ride.
Game Over, shot simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu by Chennai native, Ashwin Saravanan, is a straightforward horror movie and contemporary homage to classic American slashers of the 1970-1980s. Its lone notable screenplay twist is its protagonist’s (Pannu) limited “extra lives,” hence the movie’s videogame overtones and title, which is furthermore a nod to movies with time loops like Groundhog Day (1993), Happy Death Day (2017, 2019), and In the Tall Grass (2019). Game Over’s narrative is a trim, skeleton framework on which to hang its gritty slasher premise, and feels reminiscent of the minimalist genre thrills of Bulbbul most of all. Regardless of whether the narrative itself feels a little thin or cliched (a masked serial killer stalks Pannu, whose love of videogame design and tattoos somehow grant her multiple lifelines), I was hooked after the prologue: Our principle antagonist breaks into an unnamed victim’s house, point-of-view (POV) camera style, and suffocates her, after which the scene cuts to an abandoned soccer field where the murderer kicks her severed head through the goalframe after setting her body on fire. Holy shit.
The film’s gruesome violence is so casual, like S. Craig Zahler’s nonchalant attitude toward physical conflict, but also more visceral. To be sure, this filmmaking experiment is no “high-brow (whatever the fuck that means… )” character study or treatise on female empowerment, but rather a potent genre exercise in establishing tone and maintaining tension. A few thematic bits on depression, suicidality, and the determination to survive sprinkled throughout are appreciated, thanks in large part to Pannu’s committed lead performance, but ultimately are secondary to director of photography Vasanth Kumar’s neo-noir lighting and gory POV shots.
Last but sort of least is Sujeeth Reddy’s sophomore feature, Saaho, also known as Prabhas’ first starring role since the Telugu phenomenon, Baahubali, and female lead Shraddha Kapoor’s South Indian Cinema debut, filmed in Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu. This blockbuster’s massive cast, variety of set-pieces, and inexperienced director (Reddy’s debut film, Run Raja Run , was four years prior) hint at a studio mandated megahit in the vein of Warner Bros.’ Dawn of Justice (2016). Further recalling that divisive Hollywood film, Saaho significantly underperformed box office expectations, grossing only ₹433 crore (~$56.3 million) on a ₹350 crore (~$45.5 million) budget amidst savage critical reviews.
I’m not sure what the huge disappointment here is given Saaho’s stylistic similarities to so many other mediocre (e.g. Dhoom 3 , Krrish [2003, 2006, 2013]) to bad (e.g. 2.0 , Simmba , Janatha Garage ) Indian blockbusters that performed well at the box office, save for perhaps its overloaded budget, which would’ve required Baahuabli-levels of financial success to generate profit. A few things Saaho does better than those aforementioned films are decent close-quarters-combat (CQC) action sequences, which take obvious inspiration from the Raid (2011, 2014) and John Wick (2014, 2017, 2019) franchises, a well paced first half with a memorable narrative twist, and Kapoor’s decent female lead. Aspects of Saaho that are as bad, if not worse than previous notable Indian blockbusters, include its stilted, empty musical numbers, a bloated second half with weak computer generated imagery (CGI), and an overextended supporting cast that serves no purpose other than to fill the movie’s comical, poorly explained in-universe crime syndicate. The plot is too convoluted and weird to explain in text, but the film’s style and tone are most reminiscent of CQC-heavy spy thrillers like the James Bond (1962-) and Mission: Impossible (1996-) series, which may appeal to certain audiences save for the distracting CGI and numerous exposition dumps.
While two of these three films only sort of qualify as strict “Telugu Cinema,” all three movies provide a diverse range of contemporary South Indian filmmaking styles, from streamlined genre exercises (Neevevaro, Game Over) to mainstream blockbuster extravaganzas (Saaho). I found all three films more interesting from technical and storytelling perspectives than your average Mahesh Babu picture; Neevevaro and Game Over attempt creative screenwriting techniques and camerawork within the confines of traditional studio filmmaking, while Saaho takes the stylistic excesses of previous Indian tentpole features and runs with them. Your mileage with each film will vary depending on your tastes, but all three are ambitious projects that avoid the worst of mainstream filmmaking cynicism.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Neevevaro is a creative subversion of the classical Indian romantic drama; Game Over is an effective, stripped down Tamil/Telugu interpretation of American slashers with a fun time loop gimmick; and Saaho is a big-budget blockbuster tale of two halves: One pretty good, the other pretty stupid.
—> Neevevaro and Game Over come RECOMMENDED, while I DO NOT RECOMMEND Saaho to most audiences.
? Do people realize jetpacks are not useful?