From the very first frame of Athadu it is apparent that Trivikram Srinivas is a promising director. Not because of his urban slickness, often reminiscent of Ram Gopal Verma and Mani Ratnam, but because of his harnessing of the idiom of contemporary mainstream Indian cinema in the service of an old-school "massy" actioner. Thus Nandu (Mahesh Babu) is depicted in the film's first song as a modern day Narsimha -- except he's a ruthless contract killer. And unlike in Pokiri, he's really not a very nice guy, Trivikram's relatively laconic style of filmmaking etching a deadpan, "minimalist" sort of Mahesh Babu, one who is glamorous according to the best conventions of this sort of film, but disturbing nonetheless. The backstory is even more powerful, as the film's opening sequences (among the most memorable in recent times, and which in themselves make checking Athadu out worth one's while) introduce the viewer to a desolate Vijaywada setting, where the mere act of stopping at a tea stall in the rain can be fatal, before taking off through a gang initiation (and baptism by fire) of the young boy who has fled Vijaywada for the streets of Hyderabad, and then to a contract killing in the heart of Hyderabad's Old City that culminates in a thrilling chase. The object of the chase is Nandu, now all grown up, and even before the background song begins we know that the nods to Verma's "urban grit" school of visuals are merely means for Trivikram to reinterpret and reinvent the "overman" persona using a new and technically sophisticated idiom. And more power to him: Ram Gopal Verma's work is only rarely as watchable as Athadu, which in slickness and technical finesse stands shoulder to shoulder with much of the best that Hindi and Tamil cinema have to offer.
The plot is engaging enough: opposition leader Siva Reddy (Sayaji Shinde), facing the prospect of yet another election defeat at the hands of the Chief Minister, decides to stage his own assassination attempt, gambling that the resulting sympathy wave will help him in the elections. The venue is to be an election rally (captured by Trivikram with great vividness), and the instrument Nandu himself, for the best in the business is required for an operation so delicate. But -- can you see this coming? -- things go horribly wrong: in a wonderfully exciting sequence, just as Nandu is about to pull the trigger, Siva Reddy is shot dead, and mayhem ensues. Nandu is now on the run, having leaped on to a moving train from the building from where he was supposed to shoot Siva Reddy, with the police in hot pursuit. On the train Nandu meets Parthu (Rajeev Kanakala), returning to his village twelve years after having run away from it as a boy. One thing leads to another, and when Parthu is felled by a police bullet intended for Nandu, the latter shows up in Parthu's village and home, as Parthu himself. Parthu's family takes an instant liking to Nandu, from the resident patriarch Sathyanarayanamurthy (Nasser) all the way down to the children of the house.
On the surface the hardworking Parthu and the ruthless Nandu can have little in common, but in a suggestive vignette we are informed that Parthu ran away because he had unwittingly caused the death of another boy; although Trivikram does not explore this angle as much as I would have liked, he does enough to underscore the symbolic and mythic richness that Indian cinema is heir to (richness that far too many filmmakers are in the process of reflexively discarding in the pursuit of the "deracinated" banality of films like Don -- The Chase Begins Again or Dhoom 2): Parthu's karma has come full circle, unwitting victim as he was once unwitting killer; simultaneously he is also the scapegoat, in symbolic terms paying with his life for the sins of another. Of course, the scapegoat is always one who dies in the place of someone else, that is, one who dies so that someone else might live, and it is thus fitting that Parthu has died so that his "double", the man who would take his place in his own life, can live. Somewhat discomfiting? You bet, as all tales about "doubles" invariably are, reminding one of the arbitrariness of identity. But there's more: one's destiny is provisional -- given the ease with which one's place can be taken -- but also pitiless. For when one comes face to face with one's double, one of the two must die, an artistic representation of the necessity that the "real" truth (who one "is" may not be taken for granted) be repressed in favor of a cathartic and ultimately comforting fiction (there is only going to be "one" me, even if the last man standing might not really be "me"). This, loosely speaking, is the terrain of Dushman (even if Rajesh Khanna couldn't quite pull it off in the face of Meena Kumari's brilliance), of Don (where the doubling is literal), of Le Retour de Martin Guerre (and of its hapless Hollywood remake Sommersby), and of The Great Gambler (involving a doubling so perverse that on more than one occasion the audience couldn't tell which Bachchan was which; both doubles live at film's end, and one might see this comforting resolution as an attempt to evade the doppelganger myth by means of a "brother myth" -- both Bachchans are long-lost identical twins -- although the added baggage put more strain on the schema than it could comfortably bear). And this is the symbolic terrain of Athadu as well.
Unquestionably, Trivikram's slickness deserts him somewhat once Athadu shifts to the rural "family film" setting, with its by-now usual tropes of puerile female characters indistinguishable from one film to another (this one's female lead is Poori (Trisha Krishnan)) and gratuitous sexism. I found this segment of the film rather flat, although it's insubstantiality prevented it from being seriously grating. To his credit Trivikram intersperses this sequence with fairly engaging snippets dealing with a CBI officer (the ubiquitous Prakashraj, in a likably fluid performance) and his investigation into the killing of Siva Reddy, as well as a few rousing action sequences involving Mahesh Babu taking on several goons all by his lonesome, first when they try and usurp some land belonging to Sathyanarayanamurthy (Trivikram's vision of uninviting flat agricultural land stretching out as far as the eye can see, serving as backdrop to Mahesh Babu's face-off with the land-grabbing Naidu and co., is reminiscent of a Western, and drives home the point that Trivikram's grasp over the masala action registers is inspired indeed), and second (to far lesser effect) when the goons attack Nandu/Parthu and Poori at a village festival. Ultimately however one is left with the impression that the film has lost its way amidst yet another cloying gharelu love story, and perhaps that was the price Trivikram had to pay to ensure that audiences got what they tend to look for in a "big" Mahesh Babu film. The action is ratcheted up several notches when the truth is out, as Nandu must get to the bottom of the mystery -- which he does, amidst a trail of gunshots, bodies, and (in a Face Off-inspired action sequence alternately outlandish and thrilling) a devastated church.
Credit is due to Mahesh Babu, in what is perhaps my favorite of his three "bigtime" roles (Okkadu and Pokiri being the other two; the latter is supposedly one of the biggest hits in Telugu history, although Athadu itself was no slouch, and by some accounts was the biggest hit of 2005, celebrating 100 days in at least one theater in no less than thirty-eight centers; the equivalent figure for Pokiri? Gulp! Two hundred!, although the same site carries a 144-center figure too): Babu strikes me as a somewhat limited and obvious actor, but compensates by displaying a rare intelligence, preferring to make the understated, deadpan style his own. The result -- a choirboy who almost always looks rather mean and dangerous -- is strangely discomfiting, and perfectly suited to Mahesh Babu's screen presence and charisma (though it does mean that the guy who shows up for the song and dance sequences, only marginally less forced here than in Pokiri, seems like a different person altogether).
Ultimately, however, Athadu works because Mahesh Babu's star power is effectively harnessed by the filmmakers' slick vision of what a "massy" actioner should be like,and kudos to director Trivikram and cinematographer K.V. Guhan for taking a fairly predictable story and situations and imbuing them with great pizzazz: the film's opening sequence, and the thrilling chase on foot through the Old City that introduces us to Mahesh Babu, have already been mentioned (though this viewer continues to be dismayed by the fact that this is the second Mahesh Babu film I have seen where the Old City and its Muslim denizens are depicted as vaguely threatening "others"); nothing in the rest of the film quite lives up to this early visual promise, but it does have its moments: watch out for the special shot from the interior of Sathyanarayanamurthy's house after the family has learned the truth about Parthu and Nandu, taking in Sathyanarayanamuthy's back and the festive decorations that now wear a melancholy air. The dialogues too appear to be a cut above the usual (even in subtitled form), especially as the film draws to a close, and are well-suited to the ethos of Athadu, which by the end firmly comes down on the side of myth rather than the truth/lie dichotomy fleetingly suggested by the film's nod to the "whodunnit" genre. In the final analysis, of course, it doesn't matter who killed Siva Reddy, not even to the CBI investigating the matter; what does matter -- what was always going to matter -- is Mahesh Babu riding off into the sunset.