Director Karuna Kumar takes a mainstream approach with the presence of Sudheer Babu, while trying to keep the narrative gritty
Director Karuna Kumar’s Palasa 1978 (2020) was in a raw, rustic space and explored caste politics with characters that weren’t typically white and black. With Sridevi Soda Center, Karuna Kumar takes a mainstream approach given the presence of actor Sudheer Babu and tries to keep the narrative gritty while discussing issues of honour.
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The film is set in the Godavari belt, which is often explored by Telugu cinema for its picturesque quality. Instead of showing us an airbrushed Godavari region, Karuna Kumar and cinematographer Shamdat show us small-town festivities where the fault lines of class and caste divisions run deep, defying the celebratory lights. Suri Babu (Sudheer Babu) is the lighting expert for all festivities in the village. He, his father (Raghu Babu) and friend (Satyam Rajesh) take pride in their work and refuse to be submissive to Kasi (Pavel Navageetham).
Sridevi Soda Center
- Cast: Sudheer Babu, Anandhi
- Direction: Karuna Kumar
- Music: Mani Sharma
An adrenaline-pumping boat race that unfolds on sun-kissed waters sets the stage for battles to follow. Sudheer Babu shows off his ripped muscles in the slow-motion shots and Mani Sharma’s rousing background score sets the mood. This is perhaps Karuna Kumar’s way of drawing those who are used to mainstream narratives to stay invested in the proceedings, before navigating uncomfortable spaces in the story (Nagendra Kasi shares the writing credits).
The romance between Suri Babu and Sridevi (Anandhi) unfolds at an unhurried pace. Since it’s easy to guess the motives of the main antagonist, a crucial reveal in the latter half doesn’t hold any surprise.
Karuna Kumar reveals his cards in the third act, when the story progresses beyond the good guy Vs. bad guy trope. Suri might be up against an obviously negative Kasi, but what does one make of a father (V K Naresh) who takes pride in his daughter’s fiery nature but fails to understand that she has agency in choosing the man she wants to live with?
‘He might be a good guy, but not our guy’, he says, pointing to caste divisions. The conversation between the father and daughter, where he asserts that he will hold on to his ideas of family and societal honour even if the world is changing, and she emphasising that she, who has a whole life ahead of her, won’t bend to outdated ideas, is among the best scenes in an otherwise predictable film.
Though this is a different story, subconsciously I drew a parallel to the father-daughter confrontation in Uppena as well as director Vetrimaaran’s Or Iravu segment in the Netflix Tamil anthology Paava Kadhaigal.
Sridevi Soda Center has many things going for it — Sudheer Babu navigates the massy segments and rises to the challenge of portraying the emotional upheavals of a guy who is cornered; Anandhi is charming where needed and emphatic in portions that require her to be more than just a pretty face; Raghu Babu and Satyam Rajesh are good in their assigned tasks. The soda Center, shadow puppets and occasional folk music accentuate the rustic milieu.
However, overdoing the mainstream indulgences pulls the film down. Take for instance the fight sequence between Sudheer and Ajay. Though well choreographed, it does nothing for the story. The same goes for a couple of songs that add to the length of the film (154 minutes).
Sridevi Soda Center is the kind of film that happens when art-house and mainstream meet midway but it is not seamless. There are a few memorable moments and hard-hitting segments, but the film doesn’t sweep you off your feet.