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-[Film Reviews]-, South Asian Cinema, South Indian Cinema

Telugu Reviews, Volume 6: ‘HIT’ (2020, 2022) & ‘Dasara’ (2023)

Directed by: Sailesh Kolanu [1, 2], Srikanth Odela || Produced by: Prashanti Tipirneni, Nani [1, 2], Sudhakar Cherukuri [3]

Screenplay by: Sailesh Kolanu [1, 2], Srikanth Odela, Jella Srinath, Arjuna Paturi, Vamsi Krishna P. [3] || Starring: Vishwak Sen, Ruhani Sharma [1], Adivi Sesh, Meenakshi Chaudhary [2], Nani, Keerthy Suresh, Dheekshith Shetty [3]

Music by: Vivek Sagar [1], John Stewart Eduri [2], Santhosh Narayanan [3] || Cinematography: S. Manikandan [1, 2], Sathyan Sooryan [3] || Edited by: Garry BH [1, 2], Naveen Nooli [3] || Country: India || Language: Telugu

Running Time: 130 minutes [1], 118 minutes [2], 156 minutes [3] || 1 = HIT: The First Case, 2 = HIT: The Second Case, 3 = Dasara

Any casual reader of this site will note how often I compare my two favorite filmmaking industries, that of the United States (dominated by the major studios of Hollywood plus various smaller independent filmmaking houses) and India (dominated by Hindi-language productions based in Mumbai, also known as Bollywood, as well as the Dravidian [Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada]-language films from the southern peninsular region of the Indian subcontinent, collectively known as South Indian Cinema [SIC]). They’re the two most prominent mainstream or “1st Cinema” cultures, film industries that focus on populist, crowd-pleasing blockbusters as opposed to more dramatic, auteur-driven “art films,” or “2nd Cinema,” and are even more diametrically opposed to the polemical, guerilla filmmaking styles of “3rd Cinema” from Marxist-sympathizers of the developing or post-colonial world.

Indian and US cinema tend to produce the kinds of movies that most people see and that most people wanna see, in other words, but the weaknesses of their truly industrial, assembly line-driven film production are made bare in the countless predictable screenplays, paper-thin characters, on-the-nose dialogue, and empty special FX showcases (e.g. action set-pieces, extensive computer generated imagery [CGI], or musical numbers that don’t progress the greater plot or inform a movie’s principal characterizations) that populate the bulk of productions from these 1st Cinema stables. Too many forgettable blockbusters are derivative of singular, exceptional films that unintentionally spawn entire subgenres, and these legions of imitators only distinguish themselves based on the amount of storytelling filler they use to justify their often bloated runtimes, ensemble casts, and budgets.

Vishwak Sen (bottom) and Adivi Sesh (top) kneel before their crime scenes, which incite the narratives of the second (2022) and first (2020) HIT cases, respectively, and whose conclusions don’t live up to their initial hype.

While I would never advocate Indian filmmaking sacrifice what sets its populist style apart from, say, Hollywood (e.g. its explosive color-palettes and costume-design, its melodic soundtracks, etc.), I have long abhorred the 2.5-3 hour runtime common to most popular films from that culture (India produces the longest films in the world on average). Imagine my surprise then, when I watch a trio of Telugu films and the two lesser of the three are the shorter, streamlined genre pictures, while the longer, 2.5+ hour musical venture made in the style of more traditional SIC crowdpleasers works. The former two are HIT: The First Case and HIT: The Second Case, standalone installments in newcomer Sailesh Kolanu’s burgeoning crime drama franchise, while the latter, Dasara, is another feature directorial debut by longtime assistant director Srikanth Odela. 

With their somewhat modest runtimes (118-130 minutes), total lack of dance accompaniments, and straightforward genre approach, the HIT (short for Homicide Intervention Team) films hew the closest to a 2nd Cinema auteur project. Both movies are more or less unofficial remakes of each other given how they follow the exact same whodunit murder-mystery structure and sport almost identical strengths and weaknesses.

As far as strengths go, both HIT films start well enough with serviceable protagonists and intriguing crime puzzles that set their plots in motion. The problem with each is how their stories run out of gas despite their short (for Indian standards) runtimes and the reveal of each mystery is a dud. HIT (2020) in particular deflates once its central antagonists are revealed and their weak motivations stretch diegetic credulity, while the sequel aims high for a Seven (1995)-style serial killer but can’t execute a menacing enough villain from Suhas Pagolu’s weak performance. Besides further problems like forgettable love-interests and other side characters, writer-director Kolanu can’t muster a noticeable audiovisual theme to stylize his vanilla scripts. Maybe hire a better director of photography next time?

In contrast, the archetypal capitalist blockbuster that is Odela’s Dasara, so named after the Hindu festival of the same name, utilizes all its hybridized musical, action, and romantic elements to produce charismatic melodrama. Most amusing of Dasara’s strengths, however, is its general absence of weaknesses common to numerous SIC crowdpleasers. Its CGI embellishments to action sequences are small to nonexistent, most intrusive in the introductory coal train heist sequence with lead Nani Babu and costar Dheekshith Shetty; Nani’s protagonist isn’t an invincible badass, so the actions scenes have tension to them; it has no cringeworthy comic relief side characters, nor are there any needless preachy monologues where the main characters lecture the audience on proper South Asian culture, behavior, or piousness.

By the same token, Dasara features around three memorable, stylish musical numbers that meld pulsating percussion, creative lighting techniques, and character personality into melodic set-pieces, all of which inform a stylish backdrop of classical South Asian village politics. Fluid crane shots mix with choreographed dust clouds to establish the film’s Singareni coal mine setting, while hardhat flashlights illuminate otherwise indecipherable nocturnal cinematography to inform the adult personality of Nani’s protagonist, which in turn juxtaposes with the celebratory marriage of Shetty and female lead Keerthy Suresh set to thunderous drums. These dance sequences are visually stylized yet help progress the greater story, ensuring the narrative’s pace doesn’t drag. This purposeful cinematographic style extends to the general look of the film thanks to extensive rural Telangana location photography, as well as creative composite backgrounds and impressive pyrotechnics.

Dheekshith Shetty, Keerthy Suresh, and Nani Babu (center foreground) dance up a dust storm in Dasara’s first musical number “Dhoom Dhaam Dhosthaan.”

What sets Dasara apart from the legions of generic South Indian action movies starring the likes of Mahesh Babu, Suriya, Rajinikanth, Vijay, etc. appears to be the execution by newcomer Srikanth Odela, who demonstrates a strong directorial vision right out of the gate. Sailesh Kolanu tries for a more focused, stripped-down approach with his Homicide Intervention Team movies, but that’s pretty much all he can be commended for given their lackluster results. As a group, this trio of films represents a nice sampling of the 1st-2nd cinema range of modern Indian filmmaking, a range that no doubt skews more to the populist end than the auteur-driven “art cinema” end a la Hollywood. They also, I argue, showcase how those classifications do not correlate with cinematic merit.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: With characters that are neither colorful enough to entertain in a melodrama nor deep enough to explore as a character study, the bland HIT movies are a poor man’s attempt at a South Asian hard-boiled neo-noir crime drama. Dasara, by contrast, possesses all the ingredients — narrative structure, star power, FX, musical numbers, and action scenes — of a traditional South Indian blockbuster and excels through precise execution of all those elements at play.

—> The burgeoning HIT series is NOT RECOMMENDED, while I do RECOMMEND Srikanth Odela’s first feature.

? I appreciate how scruffy, unkempt, and overweight Nani’s drunken villager looked.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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