I was really excited to watch Skylab, the film by debut writer-director Vishvak Khanderao. The real-life story about how a NASA space station was about to crash to earth in 1979 and was seen as an apocalyptic event in the Karimnagar district of Telangana had always piqued my interest. In fact, this led to many children in the region being named Skylab at the time. So, I was curious to see what Vishvak Khanderao’s film had to offer.
Skylab stars actors Nithya Menen, Satya Dev, Rahul Ramakrishna, Tanikella Bharani and others. While Nithya Menen (as Gauri) and Satya Dev (as Anand) play the main characters, they are not paired opposite each other. They have individual storylines, and they hardly have a single scene together. This was definitely refreshing to watch.
By the very colour palette of the film, you realise that Skylab is not a conventional Telugu film. The colours blue and turquoise dominate the frame. Skylab doesn’t have a love story or dreamy song sequences which disrupt the story narration.
The film is about how Bandalingampally, a village in the Karimnagar district of Telangana, which is extremely backward and under the grip of superstitious beliefs reacts to a near-apocalyptic event. The drama is set in the year 1979 when NASA’s defunct Skylab space station came crashing down. However, this event serves just as a backdrop for this fictional tale.
Casteism is rampant in Bandalingampally. Dalits are not allowed to enter the temple and are taunted by the upper castes when they seem to defy their caste status. The primary health centre in the village has remained closed for nearly 15 years over a rumour that the facility is haunted.
At such a time, situations force two individuals – Anand and Gauri – who are from Hyderabad to visit Bandalingampally. Anand is a doctor who is in financial trouble. His greediness and crooked behaviour have cost him his job, while Gauri is a failed writer, who gets sacked from the Telugu magazine where she works. Gauri is the daughter of a feudal lord. Her false accomplishments as a literary figure are all a result of the caste privilege of being a Dora Bidda. Both these individuals are struggling to put their lives back on track. Anand wants to go back to Hyderabad after making money, and Gauri wants to grow out of the shadow of her father and earn a name for herself.
The actual incident of the space station falling caused wide panic in the Karimnagar district. The residents feared that the space station would land in their area. The threat of debris falling from the sky and exploding made people flee the villages in the area, sell land and cattle at throwaway prices and move to other places. Some people went to holy places like Tirupati and Kashi, hoping that God would save them. People would pray that they would name their child after Skylab, if they survived the crash. Several such strange incidents took place.
In Skylab, the filmmaker makes an interesting commentary about how this disaster turns out to be a blessing in disguise for the oppressed communities. An announcement that the public should take shelter in temples and community halls, cause the Dalits to resist the discrimination they face. They demand access to the village temple. The incident also makes people shun their superstitious beliefs and reopen the government health facility, which majorly benefits Dalits.
Actor Rahul Ramakrishna plays the role of ‘Subedar’ Rama Rao. He belongs to a dominant caste, but his family is in debt due to litigation over property. Though in deep trouble, caste pride prevents him from working under someone. Eventually, this changes. Usually, in such stories, reform is brought to the village by the lead characters, who come in as ‘saviours’. But in Skylab, the main characters have no hand in these changes. The looming disaster of the world-ending creates this situation.
While Skylab is largely fun, sans violence, and a well-intentioned film, some of the scenes are inorganic. For instance, the scene where Rahul Ramakrishna lashes out at his family for often recalling the family’s proud history does not come naturally.
The performance of Satya Dev, as a crook, is impressive. Rahul Ramakrishna is equally good. The hilarious scene with Satya Dev and Rahul Ramakrishna inaugurating a health clinic and serving sherbet to the village residents, just when the news of a looming tragedy breaks, particularly stands out. While Nithya Menen performs well, her poor Telugu accent is glaring. Tanikella Bharani is as usual brilliant.
Prashanth Vihari’s music keeps the movie engaging. And Anand Javvadi’s cinematography beautifully captures the emotions running through the film.
If you are tired of watching violent films with over-the-top action sequences where the male lead keeps delivering lengthy preachy dialogues, then you should definitely watch Skylab.