Narappa Movie Review: Asuran’s identical twin is pedantic yet powerful

Ram Venkat Srikar

On the spectrum of remakes, Vakeel Saab and Narappa will find themselves on the opposite ends. While the former repelled me by drifting afar in its tone and treatment, the latter’s homogeneity amused me. From the colour of the font during opening credits to the background music playing over the rolling credits, Narappa is indistinguishable from Vetri Maaran’s Asuran

Cast: Venkatesh, Priyamani, Rajeev Kanakala, Rakhi, Ammu Abhirami, Karthik Rathnam

Directed by: Sreekanth Addala

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

Set in the 80s, Narappa’s (Venkatesh, in his most challenging role yet) family is caught in the middle of a conflict with the obdurate landlord Panduswami (Naren) who desires to capture the lands of the poor. While the defenseless Narappa reluctantly accepts the subservience, his hot-headed elder son Munikanna (Karthik Rathnam) spurns the hierarchy. In a disturbing turn of events, Munikanna is savagely murdered, rendering the heartbroken family directionless. What follows is the journey Narappa goes on with and his distant younger son, Sinnappa (Rakhi), enveloping the systemic oppression inflicted on depressed classes in the story of a father trying to protect his family.

The dialogues, shot divisions, locations, and music of Narappa are identical to Asuran, and you cannot help but wonder why the makers strained to reconstruct a film when dubbing could have done the job. I can see their reasons, though. In an ideal world, the film would have been released in packed single screens, with fans whistling and hooting when Narappa — whom they have, up until then, seen as a timid and exhausted old man — fiercely burst out of the dust as his rampageous self. To witness Venkatesh, who has relented to softer roles in the past decade, unleash his full-steam Ganesh mode is still a joy to watch, and these moments work beautifully because they are held back for so long. 

Being a scene-to-scene recreation, does this film need Sreekanth Addala? Barring the casting of Rao Ramesh, arguably Sreekanth’s favourite actor, in a great role, there is hardly anything in Narappa that one tends to associate with his films. Having re-used the majority of the original soundtrack by GV Prakash Kumar, does Mani Sharma play an imperative role as the music director? With every cut mimicking the original’s edit pattern, does it demand a veteran editor like Marthand K Venkatesh? The answers to all these questions would be negative. 

To understand the degree of similitude, here are a couple of points that paint a clear picture: Even the scene in the original where Murugesan (Munikanna in Telugu) asks his drunken father whether he voluntarily prostrated before the men of the Northern village and the scene cuts to Narasimhan (Panduswami) nodding his head has been recreated. Off-screen dialogues from the original remain off-screen in the remake as well. In other words, “they are the same picture” albeit a rather contentious choice.

Asuran, despite its Baasha-esque skeleton, was essentially an exploration of caste-based discrimination. Although Asuran doesn’t explicitly mention caste, it was, indeed, a portrayal of callousness the oppressed are subjected to at their every step. The makers of Narappa, however, coyly try to play it safe by nullifying caste from the narrative, by substituting it with class instead. “The conflict between Narappa’s family and Panduswami is similar to any conflict that arose in the past between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless. "The poor have no caste or religion, and the rich have no kindness or humanity,” says a voice-over early in the film. This is the only glaring change you can find in this otherwise carbon copy remake. 

Thanks to the original, which closely entwined class and caste, the makers’ attempt to negate caste in Narappa goes in vain. In the flashback, when Narappa’s niece is abused and humiliated for wearing footwear, her mother laments about the plight of their jaathi (could be a stand-in for race, community, or caste). The move to annul caste out of a story that’s built on the exploitation of the underprivileged exposes the makers’ coyness and efforts to make the film more "saleable."  

Does this choice strip Narappa of its merits? No. However, is courage too much to expect from our filmmakers? While, on one hand, a film like Palasa 1978 can be vocal about its politics, we still have a Narappa, wittingly shunning from addressing caste. 

As a film, Narappa doesn’t exist as an independent entity. It doesn’t have a personality of its own, considering how pedantic filmmaker Sreekanth Addala is with respect to recreating the look and feel of the original. In the process, the film inherits many strengths from the original, including the troubled father-son relationship, which serves as a gauge measuring Narappa’s evolution as a human. Several scenes in the film — like the humiliation Narappa has to endure, the death of the son, the massacre in the flashback — are potent and it’s commendable that the makers didn’t assuage the violence to make it more pleasing. Priyamani, as the broken Sundaramma who rejects the truth about her son’s demise, is one of the most emotional links of the film, and it feels great to see Rajeev Kanakala in a substantial role after a long time. The casting of Ammu Abhirami as a young Narappa’s love interest, though, feels a little awkward as the nearly 40-year age gap is hard to shake off the mind. 

Venkatesh has big shoes to fill as Narappa, considering Dhanush’s turn as Sivasamy is arguably one of the best performances in Indian cinema in the recent past. The last time both these actors essayed the same character in Adavari Maatalaku Ardhale Verule and its Tamil remake Yaarudi Nee Mohini, they had the liberty to give their own touch in the respective versions. This time around, the Telugu star is directly pitted against Dhanush’s performance and is compelled to emulate Dhanush. Thanks to his age, the actor doesn’t have to try too hard to embody the older character. The challenge here is not about looking the part but echoing the emotional beats; his ‘mass’ image comes in handy for the younger part, with the quintessential Venkatesh gracing the screen. While he neatly pulls off the role, I wish he had given a more personal touch to the performance — as he does with the final heart-rending smile.

In all, Narappa is as faithful a remake can get; it is, perhaps, too immaculate for its own good. When the original is a film like Asuran, there is no way a remake can go wrong, and fittingly, Narappa, despite its shortcomings, is a welcome change in Telugu cinema.

Director V Priya: Pon Ondru Kanden is not Kadhal Desam

Kiara Advani joins Yash in Toxic, marking her Kannada debut

Song ‘Tu Mil Gaya’ from Rajkummar Rao’s Srikanth out

Samuthirakani's Yaavarum Vallavare gets OTT release date

Mammootty's Turbo gets a release date