‘Mangalavaaram’ movie review: Ajay Bhupathi’s period thriller starring Payal Rajput engages with a few twists and turns, but doesn’t become an absorbing emotional drama

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‘Mangalavaaram’ movie review: Ajay Bhupathi’s period thriller starring Payal Rajput engages with a few twists and turns, but doesn’t become an absorbing emotional drama
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Payal Rajput in director Ajay Bhupathi’s Telugu movie ‘Mangalavaaram’

Director Ajay Bhupathi’s Telugu period thriller Mangalavaaram (Tuesday) had the potential to be a riveting mystery that discusses faith, relationships and morality. The writing had the scope to build complex, morally ambiguous characters in whose journeys we stay invested. The film, which has also been dubbed in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi, achieves this only partly. The rustic period drama relies heavily on the backstory of its central character Shailaja (Payal Rajput) and a handful of twists and turns, some of which are easy to guess if you notice the clues. The music by Ajaneesh Loknath (of Kantara fame) and the fiery reddish-orange visual palette by cinematographer Dasaradhi Shivendra play a major role in propping up the film in some of its weakest portions.

The actual story begins at the intermission mark and that too, with a twist that we know would lead to something entirely different. Ajay Bhupathi spends the first hour or so establishing the world of Mahalakshmipuram, a village in Andhra Pradesh. A childhood episode in the mid 1980s works like a prologue to what transpires much later. Years later, mysterious deaths occur in the village on Tuesdays. Lines are written on a wall about illicit relationships and soon after, the villagers discover that the people named have been killed. 

Mangalavaaram (Telugu)

Cast: Payal Rajput, Nandita Shwetha, Divya Pillai, Chaitanya Krishna 

Direction: Ajay Bhupathi

Music: Ajaneesh Loknath

Storyline: Mysterious deaths occur in a village and the answer lies in events of the past.

Ajaneesh with his music that’s a blend of folk and contemporary, and the sound design department amplify every mood at a relentless pace. Dasaradhi’s camera criss-crosses fields and jungle areas with swift, sometimes hasty movements to convey an eerie atmosphere. The village looks forward to the Mahalakshmi temple’s jatara, which is leveraged to introduce folk-inspired characters to step up curiosity. 

In the village, tempers can flare easily. A provocation quickly changes a celebratory atmosphere at a feast into a chaotic display of temper and rage. Also, there is no dearth of seemingly odd characters. Everyone is made to look like a suspect soon after the unexplained deaths. A newly appointed cop Maya (Nandita Shwetha), whose kohl-rimmed eyes and a scar hint at her tough-as-nails persona, will not take things lying down. The village zamindar Prakasam (Chaitanya Krishna), an atheist who often takes to alcohol, is presented as a disgruntled man at odds with the methods of his late father. In contrast is his wife (Divya Pillai), a devout who is respected by the village.

Mangalavaaram is packed with several characters who are made to appear more intriguing than they actually are. The village priest and his wife, a photographer who works with the police… any of them could be suspects until proven innocent. The narrative punctuates the eerie atmosphere with banal and crass humour, especially through the character played by Ajay Ghosh.

When Dr Vishwanadham (Ravindra Vijay plays his part with a world weariness required for it) reveals something crucial at intermission point, it does not come as a major surprise since we haven’t seen the central character until then and can premeditate that the film rests on this reveal.

When the film delves into the story of Shailaja, it gives us ample clues to a condition that dictates her behaviour. It is also easy to spot another wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing character and hence, the romance and heartbreak doesn’t create a desired impact. Payal Rajput goes brownface to play the rustic part and needs to be appreciated for taking up what can be perceived as a morally ambiguous character. She plays her part with sincerity and determination. 

The male gaze through which her character is presented can be disconcerting at times. In fact, the male gaze permeates through the film. Take for example how some characters leer at women, including the female cop, and rate them as ₹50rs, ₹100, and so on. It makes you wonder if it is a crime to be a female in Mahalakshmipuram, which is an irony.

Reverting to the main narrative, the flashback overstays its welcome by prolonging it. Even when further truths are revealed to make viewers empathise with Shailaja, the narrative fails to question the village, where nearly every other character seems to be involved in illicit relationships! 

The last 45 minutes of Mangalavaaram are relegated to twists and turns. There are a few mystery elements, such as a character running with pots of fire through the fields at night, another character appearing with a mask, etc. There was scope to create something new. What we get instead is an old tale of revenge in a new packaging. Of course, it has its emotional payoffs. 

Some of these reveals are not tough to guess if you remember the relationships, both heartwarming and dysfunctional,  in the initial portions, but a few others come as a surprise. Mangalavaaram keeps us engaged with these turns but it is not as smart as it wants to be. For instance, the cop turns out to be more talk than substance when she turns up without a proper plan of action. Early on, she states the obvious when she deciphers if the victims have taken their own lives or have been murdered.

Mangalavaaram delivers a few momentary thrills and guarantees a theatrical experience with its production design, cinematography and sound design. Chaitanya Krishna, Ravindra Vijay and Nandita Shwetha come up with dependable performances. But beyond that, the film does not become an absorbing saga of a troubled character, which it sets out to be.

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