Salaar review: Prabhas is back to form in Prashanth Neel’s riveting action drama
Salaar (Telugu)(3.5 / 5)
Before the release of Salaar: Part 1- Ceasefire, Prashanth Neel revealed that the film has Ugramm’s story (2014) with KGF’s (2018) treatment. Considering I’m not a fan of either of these films, I wasn’t expecting to like Salaar at all. But you see exactly what the director meant as Salaar unfolds – the writing is stronger, more cohesive, the character arcs well-defined, and while there’s wall-to-wall action, there are plot threads running through these sequences, drawing you into the drama. Though this is only Prashanth’s fourth film, he’s clearly grown and evolved, and his craft is much more polished and assured in Salaar.
The director plucks characters out of Rajamouli’s period epic dramas and places them in the contemporary world. They speak English mixed with Indian languages, wear sunglasses, and smoke cigarettes. Yet, the stakes are as high and the battles, as bloody. It's not easy to get the mix right, but he pulls it off.
As in Ugramm, Salaar begins with a story of friendship between two boys. Mughor in Ugramm is a fictional place like Khansaar in Salaar. But, if the gangster den in Prashanth’s debut film could pass for a real-world town, Khansaar is steeped in legend. Right away, we’re plunged into this land and its laws (and lawlessness).
Young Varadha might be a prince, but his stepbrother Rudra and his clique bully him at every opportunity. Varadha, though, has a one-man army at his disposal – his friend Deva. The origin story of this bromance is fantastically staged, and Prashant builds an immersive universe – from the layout of the town with its grand buildings to the ways of its people – that sucks us into its vortex. You’re given just enough information to understand why Varadha and Deva are such thick friends even if they’re separated by circumstances. The threads that are set rolling are picked up in the screenplay at later points, so there’s always some discovery around the corner.
In the present, Deva (Prabhas) is a mechanic in a small town in Assam. He plays cricket with children, hardly talks, and stays away from any kind of violence. Of course, all this is a build-up to the moment when he breaks free – and though we’ve seen this happening in innumerable films, the payoff is still worth it when executed well (Ravi Basrur’s background score and the KGF-style blackouts certainly help). His mother (a striking Easwari Rao) panics when Deva comes home late, she doesn’t even let him hold a plastic knife, and Deva himself has a Lady Macbeth moment when he looks down at his hands in the sink and imagines blood all over them.
The mother figure in Prashanth’s films is of key importance. She exacts a promise and the son fulfills it. We already see the mother demanding one such promise at the beginning, but there’s another one made – and of this, we only get hints as the non-linear plot goes back and forth to different periods in this friendship saga. The editing ensures that the narrative is intriguing yet cogent for the most part.
Shruti Haasan plays Aadya, an unwitting NRI who is forced to be under Deva’s care, and it is through her that his past unfolds. It’s a narrative device that Prashanth employed in Ugramm and KGF as well – a conversation that the screenplay keeps returning to, echoing the questions in the minds of the audience. She doesn’t have much to do in the film but has a pleasing presence. In any case, she’s definitely an upgrade from Nithya of Ugramm.
Prabhas has minimal dialogues and his acting is one-note. His imposing screen presence makes you forgive that though, and when he lifts a man in one hand and holds him in the air, it looks entirely feasible. Prithviraj as the adult Varadha has a more complex character. His eye is on the chessboard while Deva is merely a pawn focused on his sword. The scenes between the two crackle, especially the one where Varadha is waiting for Deva to unleash the beast within him. It’s a superb action set piece, combining the emotional fervour of the coronation scene in Baahubali (2015) with the satisfaction of a massy action sequence. As in many Indian films, the hero’s rage here is fuelled by “protecting” women and their honour. But the male saviour trope is less cringe because it is tied to an incident from the past, and isn’t just a convenient crutch for the plot to lean on.
Sriya Reddy has a powerful role, and I wish the actor would show some variation in her performances. The shouty, stern-faced demeanour she carries scene after scene (and film after film) is repetitive, and you wonder how anyone can continue to speak in that tone and volume unless they’re consuming Vicks drops for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. John Vijay and Bobby Simha leave an impact even if the second half has too many characters and it can be confusing to figure out who is who.
There is plenty of violence and bloodshed in this succession battle – flying limbs, decapitated bodies, and a scene resembling the zombie apocalypse – but because it is contextualised, it doesn’t feel unnecessary. Thank god for the ‘A’ certificate though.
Salaar has Prashanth Neel in good form, and finally, here’s a Prabhas film after Baahubali that knows how to use him. Please, I kindly request, other filmmakers who want to blow up mega budgets on him, do take notes.
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.
Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.