'Pink' was considered a groundbreaking film on consent because its protagonists weren’t ‘ideal victims’, but 'Vakeel Saab' is keen on painting them as such.

Vakeel Saab Poster with Pawan Kalyan sitting in a chair Nivetha Thomas Anjali and Ananya Nagalla standing behind him
Flix Tollywood Friday, April 09, 2021 - 18:45
Timepass

Ever since Vakeel Saab, the Telugu remake of Pink with Pawan Kalyan was announced, it was expected to be a star vehicle. The actor turned politician hadn’t delivered a major hit since 2013, and fans have been hoping Vakeel Saab would be a solid comeback film. From the title, first look and teaser announcements, the makers made it clear that the film would be a heavily tweaked version of the Hindi original, to suit the star and his fans’ expectations. But in doing so, Vakeel Saab drifts so far from the source material, which is on women's sexual agency, that it turns into a campaign vehicle for Pawan Kalyan, pushing the women of the film (who were already sharing the centre with the male saviour in the original) way off to the margins. 

With all the deviations in Vakeel Saab, it might deserve to be seen and assessed as an entirely different film from Pink. But the deviations chosen are crucial, as they heavily influence the issue at the film’s core. Like Pink, Vakeel Saab is also centred around an incident in the lives of three young women, Pallavi (Nivetha Thomas), Zareena (Anjali) and Divya (Ananya Nagalla). Stranded on a deserted road at night after their cab breaks down, they seek a lift from three men who run into them, as one of them happens to be Pallavi’s schoolmate. The men are on their way to a resort, and the women accompany them. Soon, we see that one of the men, Vamshi, is badly injured and bleeding. While his friends rush him to the hospital, cursing the women, we see Pallavi, Zareena and Divya returning home, their faces filled with distress. As Pallavi seeks to file a police complaint against the men when they continue to intimidate her and those around her, she and her friends end up being accused in a serious police case. And Konidela Satyadev aka Vakeel Saab, comes to their rescue.

A major reason Pink was considered a groundbreaking film on consent was that its protagonists weren’t ‘ideal victims’. But Vakeel Saab seems intent on establishing that the three accused women are ‘decent’ and ‘virtuous’. The film begins with Pallavi, Zareena and Divya moving into a shared flat in Hyderabad. As the song ‘Maguva Maguva’ plays in the background, exalting ‘feminine’ virtues like patience and sacrifice, we get a glimpse into their work and personal lives. They have fun together, but not at parties, like the women of Pink. They run around playfully chasing each other in a temple, wearing sarees, because that’s their idea of having a good time. Unlike Pink’s Minal (Taapsee Pannu), Pallavi isn’t a dancer, but a software engineer whose parents have found her a groom from a respectable family. Before the pivotal incident happens, Pallavi and her friends are at her office team outing, and not at a rock concert. They only end up at the resort because they were stranded and badly needed a lift, not because they met some boys while out partying. While Falak in Pink was in a relationship with an older, divorced man, Zareena is dating a boy whose parents approve of her. All the aspects that made the women more prone to moralising, and were asserted as personal choices that must not be judged, are altered here to make them more “modest”. 

The portrayal of the star lawyer Satyadev’s heroism — who has turned into an alcohol-dependent recluse after suffering a huge personal loss — takes precedence over the women’s trauma as the case unfolds. A drawn out flashback shows Satyadev as a student at Osmania University, reading socialist literature and leading student protests (and occasionally quipping in Telangana dialect). Having redistributed his ancestral property, he studies law to fight for the oppressed. In a sequence that feels like an election campaign video, we see Vakeel Saab take up varied causes, from land encroachments to caste atrocities and false encounters, and ‘saving’ poor farmers, Dalits and tribal communities. He single-handedly puts a stop to Uranium mining in Telangana and helps out victims passed out from an illness (suggestive of the Vizag gas leak incident and the Eluru mystery illness). 

As he returns from self-imposed exile to argue Pallavi’s case, the references to his political career continue. At one point, Vamshi’s father (Mukesh Rishi), an influential politician, mocks him for resuming his ‘fight for justice’, saying ‘the people’ would end up ‘betraying’ him anyway, which is hard to interpret as anything but a reference to Pawan Kalyan’s electoral loss. Satyadev gives him a reply which almost sounds like Pawan Kalyan gaslighting the public who didn’t vote for Pawan Kalyan. Citing a few patronising reasons for the public’s ‘betrayal’, he says that he will still continue to stand by them and fight for them. 

It isn’t just that the star persona takes centre stage, which was almost inevitable. But the people being saved by the star are victimised to the extent that their suffering is shown more to establish Satyadev’s benevolence than to invoke empathy for them. For instance, as Vamshi’s friends molest Pallavi to intimidate her, we see tears streaming down her face in close-up. As they drop her back at her apartment, their car runs over a children’s soft toy, as if to indicate the brutality of what just happened, just before Satyadev roughs them up. 

Some of the striking scenes from the original are also altered in ways that dilute the point they make. It’s the prosecution lawyer Nanda Gopal (Prakash Raj), and not Satyadev, who asks Pallavi if she is a virgin. The uncomfortable question, which was asked by the defence lawyer in the original to establish the importance of consent in sex, is repeated by Nanda Gopal to elicit a violent reaction from Satyadev. Although he later turns it around to make the point about consent, it’s only after spending some time further elaborating on his heroism. When Falak, on being provoked by the prosecution lawyer makes a false confession that can hurt their case, it is used to further the conversation around consent in Pink. Here, Zareena profusely apologises to Satyadev after the incident, for derailing his fight for justice. 

There are many ‘mass’ elements in the film that cater to fans without departing from what was intended to be the central theme. There are multiple fight sequences that allow Satyadev to deliver instant justice outside the court. Satyadev’s arguments in the court scenes have been altered to deliver extra punches which might be entertaining. There may have been ways to incorporate these changes and venerate the star while staying true to the spirit of the original, like the Tamil remake Nerkonda Paarvai starring Ajith. Vakeel Saab might be a treat to Pawan Kalyan fans, but it’s hard to take it seriously as a harbinger of nuanced, meaningful conversations on consent in Telugu cinema.

Read: 

What 'Joji' and 'The Great Indian Kitchen' have in common: Women against patriarchy

'Karnan' review: Dhanush leads a hard-hitting film on caste

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

Show us some love and support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.