HanuMan review: An engaging but simplistic Hindu superhero film
HanuMan (Telugu)(3 / 5)
Prasanth Varma, the director of HanuMan, said in an interview promoting his film that it has at least four to five scenes which would evoke passionate reactions from audiences in north India. The film’s ‘pan-India’ or even global ambitions are evident, not just from the fact that it has been released in five Indian languages but also in English and four foreign languages. The interval card for the Telugu version said ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (in Devanagari), as did many audience members across theatres when the film ended.
In Tollywood’s Sankranthi race this year, HanuMan seemed to face the risk of being sidelined. So it’s appealing to root for the story of an ambitious underdog overcoming nearly impossible odds, both on and off the screen. But while this self-aware superhero film offers just enough to take us into its world without much resistance, it falls short of its ambition and promise, with a dearth of imagination.
HanuMan is the first Hindu mythological superhero film from the ‘Prasanth Varma Cinematic Universe’. The deity Hanuman, who is the source of the protagonist Hanumanthu (Teja Sajja)’s supernatural strength, is an ever-present visual motif, most prominently as a massive, brawny CGI rock sculpture in a fictional Telugu village, Anjanadri. The playfulness associated with the deity is delegated to Hanumanthu, a petty thief, and a monkey voiced by Ravi Teja.
Hanumanthu is in love with Meenakshi (Amritha Aiyer), a doctor from his village. In trying to help Meenakshi, her ideas give him a moral compass to direct his newfound superpowers. These he uses at first to fight the local evil – the poligar or feudal lord exploiting the people of the remote, underdeveloped Anjanadri with muscle power and heavy taxes.
But the supervillain here isn’t the poligar, but a nondescript aspiring superhero named Michael (Vinay Rai), an extremely unsatisfying, perplexing antagonist. Michael isn’t a corporate villain or some other personification of a systemic power imbalance. Nor does he have a heartbreaking origin story that doesn’t justify his destructive tendencies but gives him a coherent if vicious motive. He’s just bad, for no good reason.
Familiar tropes of a superhero film play out. It’s fun to figure out the extent and limitations of Hanumanthu’s powers along with him, witness his moral awakening and newfound compassion for his sister Anjamma (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar), watch him make unlikely allies and do supernatural feats. But it’s exasperating when it all doesn’t neatly add up to the film’s resolutions and conclusions.
When Hanumanthu first shows his supernatural powers to his best friend Kaasi (Getup Srinu), Kaasi scoffs at him breaking walls with his fist and lifting a huge grinding stone, saying that heroes like Prabhas and Mahesh Babu have always done things like that. Hanumanthu tells him that our heroes have always done superheroic things on screen. For a star vehicle, the audience goes in with a common pre-understanding of why some things the star does are cool. We often don’t need much justification to feel excited about the ‘big moments’, we just do.
HanuMan too expects audiences to walk in with pre-established hype for Hindu mythology and its ideals. The ‘big moments’ sometimes tend to feel unearned by the writing and forced upon the audience. The visual effects might be noteworthy for a relatively low-budget film but are still frequently off-putting. Much of the sentimentality feels banal and unmoving.
A lot has been written about the rising iconography of the ‘angry’, ‘masculine’ Hanuman in recent times, and the change in the portrayal of Rama from a compassionate, benevolent figure to an angry warrior coinciding with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. HanuMan is a culmination of this perception of the deity. And while a mere trace of Hanuman is shown as a source of immense power, the idea of folk deities like Poleramma, Pochamma, and Yellamma having any powers is brushed off as a joke.
A ‘dharma yuddham’ (war for righteousness) is declared in HanuMan, but what is righteous or right is vaguely defined. If you know you know, the film, which is inspired “from the itihasas (history) of Akhand Bharat,” seems to be saying.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the producers or any other members of its cast and crew.