Narappa is the Telugu remake of Vetri Maaran's 2019 film Asuran, one of Dhanush's biggest hits and a film that led to a lot of debate and conversation around land rights, caste and oppression. While the film was hailed for presenting the ugly reality of caste, it was also criticised for glorifying violence on screen and elaborately showing the humiliation of already marginalised groups. The remake, directed by Srikanth Addala, comes two years later and one is left asking why it had to be made at all.
It's not that Narappa is a bad film. Every frame is almost the same as Asuran, making us wonder why the same film had to be made again when the original was immensely popular across the southern states. More troublingly, the director has retained nearly everything from Asuran but has diluted the caste conflict in the film to a class struggle. Just as in Asuran (based on Poomani's novel Vekkai), the younger son and father of a family are on the run because the former has committed a crime. But while the Tamil film placed caste at the centre of the crime and the consequences, just 12 minutes into Narappa, we're told that a poor man has 'no caste or religion', reducing the circumstances to a difference in economic status.
Venkatesh plays Narappa, an alcoholic father to three children, who owns three acres of land in an Andhra village. The land is coveted by Pandusamy (Aadukalam Naren reprising his role from the original), a landlord who finds it an affront that Narappa won't sell his land to him. Bad blood ensues between the two families, setting off a cycle of violence from which there is no escape.
It's difficult to review the film without referencing the original because Asuran minus the context is just like any other film where the underdog hero overpowers those who taunt him. If oppressed castes do not own land and oppressor castes do, it is necessary to confront the history that led to this situation. It cannot be explained away as a 'rich vs poor' equation.
All right, it's not as bad as Dhadak, Karan Johar's tofu version of Nagaraj Manjule's heartrending, bloody Sairat. Narappa does have a mention of panchami land and why it cannot be sold; it also has a few references to people from 'this' community being treated badly, but the film's politics is intentionally muddled by the references to rich and poor. At several points, Narappa's young son, Sinabba (Rakhi) asks why the law works differently for them...but the film isn't brave enough to provide an honest answer to the question. At the end of Asuran, Dhanush's character Sivasamy advises his son to study well and acquire a high position in society. "But after that, don't do to others what they did to us," he says. In the Telugu version, Narappa tells his son, "But after that, don't do to them what they did to us." This is not only a pacificatory note but underlines the film's simplistic understanding about the structural, systemic injustice that is caste. Asuran's ending is a nod to Ambedkar's famous slogan 'educate, agitate, organise'. But, Narappa, by projecting its hero as a poor man who has 'no caste or religion', ends up making a mockery of the scene.
Venkatesh delivers a competent performance as Narappa, especially in the interval block. His body language in some of the scenes where he's playing the elderly man is sometimes too deliberate, but he still manages to move the viewer with his wan, exhausted face. Priyamani as the fiery Sundaramma is predictably good, her grief and flashes of anger equally believable. Karthik Rathnam and Rakhi as the two sons also hold their own, making us care about this family and its fate.
If you haven't watched Asuran, Narappa may seem like a hard-hitting film that brings another layer to the underdog hero who fights the system. But if you have indeed watched the original, this shy remake just seems unnecessary.
Watch: Trailer of Narappa