The opening scene of Gaddalakonda Ganesh (the film’s name was changed from the earlier Valmiki after protests) has Brahmanandam delivering a monologue about the power of cinema. It’s the sort of line you would hear in a college annual-day event, a little poem about the magic films can perform. But then the movie shifts away from this aspect of the narrative.
This was essentially what made Karthik Subbaraj’s Tamil original, Jigarthanda (2014), interesting. It made the director the captain of the ship and left the audience at the edge of their seats, wondering what would happen next. There, the hero was played by a bonafide star (Siddharth). Here, Atharvaa, who’s a newbie in the Telugu film industry, steps into his shoes.
Subbaraj also took a risk by casting the then relatively unknown Bobby Simha as the anti-hero. Nobody knew at that time whether Simha could pull off such a character, but he walked away with a National Film Award for his efforts. With Varun Tej, the Telugu audience already knows what he’s capable of, and he mostly delivers with swagger and rugged machismo.
Gaddalakonda Ganesh (Tej) is introduced to the audience several times. These slow-motion shots always begin with him lighting cigarettes. This is what directors mean when they shout, “Mass Entry!” And this is how the camera pays obeisance to the local rowdy, who has been involved in 48 murders. The six-footer puts fear in the minds of his enemies with the help of his gruff voice and rough beard, and Ganesh is probably the best part of this movie, which has been partly restructured and reimagined by Harish Shankar.
Shankar has earlier worked on one of the most successful remakes ever, Gabbar Singh (remake of Dabangg), so he already knows the pulse of the Telugu audience. That’s why his remake pivots around Ganesh and not Atharvaa’s Abhilash, who’s away from the screen for long periods.
If Jigarthanda immersed itself in the colours and milieu of Madurai, Gaddalakonda Ganesh does the opposite. The town it is set in—Gaddalakonda—is small and it goes to sleep at night. This is where Abhilash comes to make a film on Ganesh and his life. In the early scenes, there’s a great joke on how Ram Gopal Varma has made biopics on most of the rowdies and terrorists in India. But the film leaves out many of the intelligent meta references and commentaries of the Tamil original.
I do wish the filmmaker didn’t allow sentimental sub-stories take control of the proceedings. The flashback portion featuring Pooja Hegde (as Sridevi) deserves to be a feature-length movie. But in the truncated narration that Ganesh tearfully places in front of Abhilash, there are only vignettes and not enough meat for you to sympathize with his feeling of loss (revealing the nature of the loss would be a spoiler).
Ganesh is a huge fan of the pan-Indian superstar and it shows in the way he pours milk over the late actor’s cut-outs. The 80s is, predictably, brought alive by the usual suspects—Gold Spot, television antennas, Doordarshan, etc. Filmmaker Sudheer Varma employed similar tactics in his recent film Ranarangam.
Sukumar, who makes a cameo appearance in this movie, is perhaps the only filmmaker to stay true to the events and depictions of the ’80s through his movie (Rangasthalam).
Gaddalakonda Ganesh is fundamentally about a rowdy wanting to act in a film to become more popular. You see, he has a tendency to show off—be it on the battlefield, or the silver screen. He wants people around him to be afraid of him. On the other hand, Jigarthanda’s “Assault” Sethu (Simha) had different ideas about himself and the world around him.
At the end of the day, Gaddalakonda Ganesh is impressive mainly due to what Varun Tej brings to the table as an actor. The film also cannot take its eyes off this rugged thug. His curly hair, stature and the way he threatens his victims come together to build this larger-than-life image of a gangster. After playing the cute guy-next-door in films like Fidaa, Tholi Prema and F2, Gaddalakonda Ganesh may just be a career-defining role for Tej.