A long disclaimer precedes the film, through which the makers emphasise that while the story is inspired by the life of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, they do not claim historical accuracy for all the events shown in the narrative. They have used information available in the public domain and folklore, with cinematic dramatisation. This disclaimer is a smart move with which they take the leeway to narrate the story of Narasimha Reddy whose valour preceded the Sepoy Mutiny and make it larger than life, to be headlined by one of the biggest superstars of Telugu cinema, and take a populist approach to cater to his large fan base, and beyond.
The story is narrated by Laxmibai, the Rani of Jhansi (Anushka Shetty pulling off a regal cameo, the way only she can), whose army is outnumbered by the British. She narrates Narasimha’s story, urging her soldiers to draw inspiration from the man who fought till the end.
The large canvas on which the story unfolds is an aesthetic one. Rajeevan Nambiar’s production team prefers a muted colour palette that’s brought to life beautifully by cinematographer Rathnavelu, and the costumes and styling by Sushmita Konidela, Uthara Menon and team take a slightly pan-Indian approach than depicting a strictly Telugu style of attire, though the story is set in areas in and around Kurnool, like Koilkuntla and Nallamala Hills.
When Amitabh Bachchan appears as Gosayi Venkanna, in a gurukul that’s set amid rolling hills and a gushing stream, it feels like a visual creation of a page from an Indian comic book. The principles he teaches young Narasimha become the foundations for the larger war.
Narasimha and more than 60 of his contemporaries were polygars, and the film’s lavish scale portrays them almost like kings. As the East India Company makes inroads, the polygars are nearly stripped off their power. The young Narasimha doesn’t like the idea of an outsider oppressing his native land and people, particularly the agrarian sector. He bides his time before he can mount a people-led fight against the British.
Intertwined into his single-minded focus of not giving up what is rightfully his, is his own personal story. He tells the dancer Lakshmi (Tamannaah Bhatia) that the subject of her art shouldn’t be confined to temples and deities, but reach and inspire people. To his wife Siddhamma (Nayanthara), who has unquestioningly adored him since childhood, he asks permission to go fight the war and not be tied down to family duties. It’s a nice touch to have him ask his wife’s consent rather than take it for granted.
Director Surender Reddy takes the cinematic liberty of equating Narasimha Reddy to Narasimha avatar in a key episode where he takes down a British officer. This entire sequence speaks of the skilful action choreography and execution.
In another segment, when Chiranjeevi questions the veracity of high taxes and asks what the British has done to deserve it, it reminded me of the eponymous lines by Sivaji Ganesan in Veera Pandiya Katta Bomman. Capping off such a situation, in true Telugu film style, is what happens next. It takes the British officer by surprise, and is capable of eliciting whistles in the hall.
Sye Raa… unabashedly plays out in the mainstream, popular format. Chiranjeevi might be introduced to the audience while in meditation, under water, but the film does all it can to play to his superstar image. You could debate if some of the conversations and slogans actually happened, or give in and see how well the crowd-pleasing format has been pulled off. Chiranjeevi leads from the front, showing that he isn’t done yet and is still a superstar. It’s one of his memorable performances too.
The film is populated with characters essayed by prominent names. And it manages to give most of them their due. Both Nayanthara and Tamannaah make an impression in their limited screen time, without ending up as pretty, ethereal-looking props.
Amitabh Bachchan’s is not a fleeting cameo. He appears at crucial junctures and is a guiding force. Kiccha Sudeep gets a part that looks tailormade for him and he breezes through it with swagger. There’s no premeditating what he’ll do when, and his eyes don’t give away anything. Vijay Sethupathi, speaking in a believable style of Tamil-laced Telugu, is the ‘Hanuman’, lending complete support to Narasimha. It’s a brief part and the actor lends his charismatic touch to it. Talking of Jagapati Babu, does he ever go wrong?
The war portions feel overdrawn, despite some ingenuity that made someone in the hall comment “did they exchange notes with Rajamouli?”. Julius Packiam’s background score and Amit Trivedi’s music try to keep the mood intact through the running time of 170 minutes. Pawan Kalyan’s voiceover too, adds weight to the legend of Narasimha Reddy.