Vijay Deverakonda seems to be surrounded by funny people in all his blockbusters—Pelli Choopulu had Priyadarshi and Abhay Bethiganti; and Rahul Ramakrishna was in both Arjun Reddy and Geetha Govindam. In Taxiwaala, he has Madhunandan and Vishnu for company.
Taxiwaala has just released, and I can already see Vishnu's career taking off. You may be wondering why I am talking about a sidekick rather than the current apple of Telugu cinema's eyes, Deverakonda. The answer is simple. Deverakonda has been making waves since Pelli Choopulu, but Vishnu is the one you should focus on here, for he brings charm to the film with his physical humour and one-liners.
Deverakonda's Siva is a taxi driver, but unlike his peers, he's a style icon as well—sporting a jacket and stylish shoes and flashing a big smile at all times. The film sets up the story of how Siva finds the vintage car that he drives around in Hyderabad pretty well. This part is lifted by some real wit and Sujith Sarang's cinematography. As Siva took the old car out for a spin the first time, a tiny voice in my head said, "This movie is not going to be the same anymore." And that's true—the trailer had hinted at a supernatural presence surrounding the car.
The tension is built up slowly and the horror elements aren't revealed all at once. Siva's friends and his girlfriend Anusha (Priyanka Jawalkar) take up much of the first hour, leaving no time for us to find out what the car's story is. We know it behaves strangely—it cleans itself, scares away people who don't respect Siva, and its doors even close automatically at times. These scenes are stitched together to provide laughs alone and they do not, in any way, shift the gears. Half the movie is over by the time the real action begins.
Siva keeps telling everybody that his car has a character, and the movie subtly changes tracks to say that the car itself is a character. The flashback episode involving the car and its original owner is a tad bit sentimental, and runs on expected lines. The surprise factor is not that surprising, but it still manages to throw a few curveballs as it is set in the realm of "science" and "pseudoscience". This particular portion is well-handled—in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the pseudoscience theory could have gone awry. But director Rahul Sankrityan holds this part together tightly.
In terms of performances, Malavika Nair and Ravi Varma, who appear in the flashback scenes, are fine actors. When they cry and shout, the viewer actually understands what the characters are going through. It's not every day that you find such able performers in a supernatural comedy. Chammak Chandra, who appears in a cameo, is a scene-stealer as well. The sketch that unfolds in a hospital with Siva, Hollywood a security guard (Chandra) and a doctor is hilarious.
And it's good to know that Deverakonda doesn't want the spotlight on him all the time in his movies (he appeared in a supporting role in Mahanati earlier this year, and in Taxiwaala, he's absent for at least twenty minutes).
Taxiwaala could have been an excellent example of a horror comedy done well, if not for the way all the problems are solved in the third act. Sankrityan takes the easy way out to put a full-stop to the car's troubles and Siva's uncontrollable tears. For a film that tries to stay away from conventional modes of story-telling from the beginning, the ending seems like an unnatural fit.