‘Srikanth’ review: Rajkummar Rao saves a muddled, dull melodrama with his powerful, humanising performance

Director Tushar Hiranandani’s Srikanth, a biopic of Srikanth Bolla, a blind boy born to a poor farming family in Andhra Pradesh, is a strange creature.

On the whole, it is a pretty mediocre film that has a shallow, dull script and a B-grade quality to its direction, cinematography, and an unbearably loud, instructive background score. 

Written by Jagdeep Siddhu and Sumit Purohit, the film presents the life of Bolla, who fights to claim every opportunity that is denied and overcome every restriction imposed on him, as a timeline of speed bumps and victories, going from one episode to another, without really creating any connection between us and its main character.

The result is a tacky melodrama that mostly skims the surface.

Yet Srikanth is difficult to dismiss because of Rajkummar Rao’s excellent performance. 

Rao uses a few moments in Bolla’s life to humanise him and gives the film some powerful, inspiring moments that elevate the film and hold it together. 

Instead of just playing a blind man, Rao plays a blind man driven by his ambition and focused on his abilities rather than disabilities, thus shifting the focus from those who can’t see to those who can but don’t.

Rao uses the powerful and inspiring story of Bolla, who went on to become the first international blind student at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, and the CEO of Bollant Industries, reportedly with a net worth of about Rs 296 crore, to present him as a thinking, feeling human being and normalises blindness as a different ability and not a disability. 

His performance and Bolla’s story deserved a better film with a more inspired script and direction. 

The film opens on a terribly tacky note in 1992 in Andhra Pradesh with Srikanth’s birth which is treated by his immediate and extended family as a depressing, life-long liability. A hole is dug in the ground but a tragedy is averted and little Srikanth (played by two excellent blind actors, Srikanth Manna and Arnab Abdagire) is sent to a regular, local school. He is sharp, and exceptional in studies, but is also constantly bullied and told to prepare for a life of begging on the streets. 

Fate intervenes and he moves to a school for the blind where he finds a mentor in Devika Malvade (Jyothika), whom he calls “Teacher”.

Through a series of incidents, we get glimpses of this strong guru-shishya relationship and of Srikanth’s indomitable spirit and straight-talking, charming ways to win people over. 

In school, he calls out corruption and is thrown out, and later when he is told, despite getting very high marks in Xth boards, that he can’t study science because, well, it has never been done before, he digs his heels in and decides to fight.

Rao uses these scenes to show us Srikanth’s helplessness, but every time he faces rejection or a hurdle, and wins people over with his confidence and charm, he makes a case for equal opportunities and not charity, and to judge the differently abled by their ability, and not disability.

When APJ Abdul Kalam asks him what he wants to be, he converts the former President into a life-long fan. When IIT rejects him, he goes to MIT. When the nervous staff of an airline refuse to let him board a plane alone, he shows them what he is capable of. 

The film is careful not to take a pitying tone or show him as a victim, and so it remains impressed by him, except in the US where it casts a surprised, almost patronising eye on Srikanth and Swathi (Alaya F) as they begin conducting a sweet, budding romance with long drives and cute moments. In this segment, the film that was until now in awe of Srikanth, goes awwww.

Thankfully, it recovers and returns to admiring him as Srikanth flies back to India to start a business in partnership with Ravi (Sharad Kelkar).

This segment, on the creation and growth of the Bollant Industries, is, again, episodic and dull. It is somewhat saved by an interesting turn when Srikanth, tired of being grateful for all those who are helping him, demands recognition, fame and praise for himself. And when he doesn’t get it, he turns into an egoistic, unscrupulous jerk. 

This common human frailty could have been used to add interesting dimensions to the film and its main character, but the scriptwriters and director are so uneasy with a blind man’s ego, jealousies and desires, and so scared of showing him in a bad light that they take us on a muddled, confused track where Srikanth tries to join politics, but suffers a sudden, severe conscience attack and withdraws. 

As he returns to being a good boy, the film serves an annoying melodramatic moral lesson—Thou shalt never, ever use your disadvantage to your advantage— robbing the film of an interesting, nuanced layer.  

Jyothika and Alaya F are both sweet and luminous in the good-girl sort of way. 

While Jyothika has a meatier role and adds some power to Srikanth and Devika’s guru-shishya relationship, Alaya F mostly just smiles and acts cute. She bored me and the film a lot.

Sharad Kelkar is always a delight to watch because he holds the promise of a thrilling performance. He does that when he plays negative roles, but like many fine actors, he can’t find ways to bring alive good-hearted characters and plays them with either reticence or inertia. That is, sadly, the fate of his character, Ravi, here.

Mostly that is the writers’ fault and their weak script which treats all the characters around Srikanth as one-dimensional support pieces who exist only vis-a-vis him. But it is also the inability of Bollywood actors who treat regular roles of decent people as part of a scene’s furniture and not as human beings who can be good and interesting. 

The film, in fact, is so unsure of its script, scenes and dialogues that it uses an accompanying soundtrack to instruct us how to feel in most scenes as if what’s happening on the screen is inadequate and needs help. 

Despite all these flaws, the 134-minute-long film is held together by about four powerful, poignant scenes in which Rao showcases many dimensions of Srikanth. We see his helplessness when he is shunned by the blind school, but also, immediately his fighting spirit and refusal to be a victim. These scenes are like set pieces which hold the film together. 

Rao is the heart and soul of Srikanth. With his face tilted to one side and his eyes shut, he carries an impression of the world around him that is blind to his presence. He barely changes his expressions but uses his eyebrows to do most of the acting here, conveying emotions with tiny, minute changes.

The film exhibits confidence only when it is around him. But the film’s director and cinematographer Pratham Mehta are so in awe of Rao’s performance that they constantly elevate him, framing him like a hero and not a man. This creates an admiring distance between us and Rao, when what we really needed was some intimacy.

Movie: Srikanth

Cast: Rajkummar Rao, Jyothika, Alaya F, Sharad Kelkar, Jameel Khan

Direction: Tushar Hiranandani

Rating: 2.5/5