Prashant Varma’s Awe is a difficult film to review. And if you plan to watch it, you should probably stop reading and come back after you’ve seen it.
At a taut runtime of 1 hour 55 minutes, the film takes the viewer through a mind-boggling experience that’s fairly new for Indian cinema (I was reminded of the Malayalam film Carbon - but that's only because we have so few films which play mind games with the audience), let alone Tollywood. Yes, Hollywood films have already done it but I shall desist from naming them because that would work as a huge spoiler.
The film opens with Kajal Aggarwal sitting in a restaurant and playing a “Do it-don’t do it” game by plucking the petals of a rose. The answer she ends up with is “Do it”.
The narrative then swiftly moves to another scenario. A young woman (Eesha Rebba) is waiting to introduce her lover, Krish, to her parents. The set-up is conventional. The parents ask the usual nosy questions. There’s some cheeky humour woven in. You sit back thinking this is going to be an enjoyable comedy and then... boom! Prashant Varma bowls a bouncer.
At this point, I was hoping the director wouldn’t turn this into a stale sex comedy. The presence of an intelligent actor like Nithya Menen assured me that he wouldn’t. And I wasn’t disappointed. From this segment, the film jumps to another bizarre one and then another and then another and then... you get the idea.
In the process, ideas of time, space, gender and even sexual orientation are questioned, beautifully so. Devadarshini, who usually does the “homely” or comic sister roles, appears as a badass weirdo on a wheelchair. Priyadarshi Pullikonda, who has become a stock "funny friend" fixture, gets his own storyline. Regina Cassandra looks excitingly wicked with her numerous tattoos and piercings. Murali Sharma gets stuck with a crocodile in a toilet. Nani and Ravi Teja lend their voices for a fish and a tree respectively – and the fish and the tree make us laugh.
No, I’m not high on anything! This is the film. Prashant Varma fools you into thinking we’re watching science fiction at one point (Matrix and Inception, for starters). Then we think we’re watching fantasy (the Murali Sharma part reminded me of Alice in Wonderland). Then suddenly it becomes a horror film (some cool CGI there). I was also wondering if this was some modern take on Hindu mythology, considering the names of the characters - Shiva, Parvathy, Radha, Krishna, Mira, Kali and so on.
Awe is all of it and yet none of it. Yes, there’s a rational explanation for it all.
Most of the film is set in closed spaces. Karthik Ghattamaneni has done some exceptional work with the cinematography. This is a film rich in visual cues and the camera constantly makes us question what we’re watching. The unpredictability is exciting, not just in the story but how it is told. This isn’t an anthology film and it’s not easy at all to give the viewer the impression of having met each of the numerous characters but Prashant pulls it off (quite like the rabbit pulling the man out of the hat visual he shows us at the beginning) with a great screenplay.
The editing (Goutham Nerusu) is brilliant – the film follows a non-linear narrative and we jump from one chapter to another frequently. But it’s very smoothly done, you feel it’s all part of the same fabric (and it is). The background score (Mark K Robin) also helps to keep the film together – participating in creating the illusions on screen.
Not every character works right when we’re watching them. The sequence between Srinivas Avasarala and Kaitlyn D’mello, for instance, is not as compelling as the rest. But it all comes together in the end and that’s what matters. If I had to quibble, I’d say it was unnecessary to have a character write in bold what the whole film was about in the end. Maybe the visuals for the opening credits could have been played again so the viewer could watch it with new eyes? The labelling in the end and the emphasis on the "message" seemed like an over-explanation but I guess it came from an anxiety to ensure that people got it and didn’t walk out of the theatre thinking Prashant Varma was completely bonkers.
Awe might look inspired from Hollywood films in some parts but it’s very much its own film. Above all, this is one heck of a daring effort for a debut director – in the theatre I watched it in, the confused employees thought the screen was malfunctioning because of the black-outs in the latter half of the film and turned the lights on to figure out what the problem was. It only added to the loopy experience of watching Awe though.
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 film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.