A film can be made for God or devotees, but a critique should not be written as if it were to be dedicated to a Devasthanam. Thus, it is important not to be swayed by the surge of sentimentality and proffer a professional, not a sentimental, review. Simply put, K Raghavendra Rao has not achieved anything hail worthy by making a film on the legend of Shirdi Sai. The biggest treat comes, however, in the form of Nag, whose appropriate body language and serene facial expressions, together with his exudation of child-like innocence, all deserve a standing ovation!
The film begins by raising a toast to the great avatars and saints who have walked on the 'punya bhumi' called Bharath. A 15-year-old child appears on Earth (inspired by the legend as inscribed in Sai Charitam), meditates under a neem tree, inspires awe in Sharath Babu and others, disappears without a notice, only to appear in the Himalayas very soon.
Once in the land of yogis and religionists, he learns about the great world religions (read Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity) but rejects the dogmatism - KRR, surprisingly, presents it in a simplistic and artificial fashion, before letting the future Sai Baba proclaim 'Sab ka Malik ek hai'.
Once he reappears in Shirdi, the Enlightened One starts doing miracles with the aim of making 'agnanis' understand that He is That. As followers huddle around him in no time, he starts preaching his 'tattva', which is his Agenda on Earth. There is place for an anti-hero in the story, and the part is ably played by Sayaji Shinde.
To wrap up the story, the film is about how Nag grows from being a vagabond to the presiding deity of Shirdi, preaching in the meanwhile to fanatics, sinners et al the essence of all religions is the same.
Drawing comparisons may well invite the wrath of some, but it would be appropriate to say that there are no exciting elements in the story. Watching Annamayya was like directly experiencing the great saint's bhakthi path, feeling his love for Him, even as the lyrics, the dialogues and the music made it a masterpiece. Even Sri Ramadasu had an engaging plot, heart-rending melodrama and interesting music, besides brilliant performances by Nag and Sneha.
Shirdi Sai, on the other hand, is Nag's film first, Nag's film second, Nag's film last. Thus, whenever Sayaji Shinde (as Bhatia), Ali, Ananth and Dharmavarapu enter the scene several times, you not only miss Nag, but also feel like cursing the bunch. If their scenes are all poorly-etched, Bhatia's irrelevance to the story makes the over-importance given to him look meaningless.
When a film of this kind is being made, it is important to cater to the doubts of the lay man. Why does Sai Baba desire that a Sri Krishna temple be built? Why does he not cure his devotee's disease and instead choose to take it? Why does he leave his body for three days? There may be ignorant/unimportant questions, but for a film to leave them unanswered is like a book on philosophical exposition raising more doubts than giving answers.
Shirdi Sai's simple philosophizing is written in a plain language by Paruchuri Brothers. It was as if a Gandhian was doing the lecturing with a lovable face. There are no memorable lines to take home, just his very well-known teachings regarding the value of 'anna danam', Universal God, Universal Religion, etc. Somewhere Ali says 'kevvu keka' to indicate pregnancy. What a masterpiece!
Keeravani's music doesn't disturb the pace, but unlike as in Annamayya, they do not mesmerise. The BG score is ok.
As said in the above paras, Nag excels in the role. KRR might have seen all his films and concluded that if ever Nag's body language would be amenable for a Mystic's mien, it is Shirdi Sai's alone. If you have a doubt, go back to Nag's earlier films and observe his hand moves and dances.
Sai Kumar (as Nanavali), Vinaya Prasad (as Bayjija Bhai), Kamalinee Mukherjee (as Radhakrishnamayi), Sri Hari (as Mr. Wales), Brahmanandam (as Sandeham), Sharath Babu, Rohini and others do their parts well. Though Sayaji is his routine self, it is his overstaying that irritates.
Gopal Reddy's cinematography is awesome, so also the art work.
To sum it up, Nag lives the role, most of the episodes are concocted to bring about conversion in a British officer (Sri Hari in a bland role) or a thief, and the preaching is far less and comes rarely in between.
Bottomline: Watch it for a mellow Nag.
Released on: 6th Sep, 2012