Mammootty-starrer Yatra, directed by Mahi V Raghav, is a showreel about a series of events which happened in 2003 that changed the course of politics in Andhra Pradesh. The odds were against Congress party and for many, including YS Rajasekhar Reddy (YSR), it was a do-or-die situation. It was under these circumstances that YSR began his padayatra and as he walked from one village to another, one district to another, the tide turned in his favour in the end. It is an extraordinary story about one man emerging as a messiah for the poor and underprivileged. However, when this story is squeezed into a two-hour film, it loses sight of the circumstances in which it unfolded and leaves it to us to fill in the blanks.
The film begins with snapshots to showcase the power and influence of YSR, played by Mammootty, in his region. He is a man of his words and when he promises to do something, there is no looking back no matter how tough things turn out to be. This is a recurring theme throughout the film and Mahi V Raghav comes up with some well-crafted emotional sequences to show what led YSR to make his promises. Yatra focuses on two major issues that stood out during the padayatra — farmer suicides and lack of good healthcare to the poor. The two elaborate sequences, which set the stage for YSR to announce his populist schemes, are also the best segments in the story which, quite often, struggles to find its rhythm. At some point, you begin to wonder if you are moved by the drama unfolding on screen or if it is the actual story and the image of YSR walking in scorching sun that continues to linger in your mind.
This is a film which is not overwhelmed by its subject, but at the same time, the narrative turns bland to a larger extent. You can see that happening in terms of how YSR’s character is treated. He cares for people close to him — KVP and he are inseparable, even when he is ordered to come along with a meeting by the party leader from Delhi. He treats people who work with him as equals and asks them to break bread with him. He stands by those who trust him. Mahi does a fine job in humanising the protagonist with these subtle touches to the latter’s characterisation. And then, there is the other side of the story YSR just does not care what his party high command thinks about him. In one, particularly, ‘mass moment’ in the story, YSR makes his party leader wait for him and then, hands over a list of MLAs that he is going to support. There is no dramatic build-up to this moment, but when it happens, you cannot help but smile at his audacity. Yet, the film also leaves you with a feeling that it lacks punch because it does not make it clear what the odds against YSR are. The internal squabbles are treated as a comic-relief and the film, largely, shies away from addressing or even showcasing in the other political camp. And when it does, it ends up, once again, as a joke.
All this leaves a lot in the hands of Mammootty, who toils hard to make the journey worth rooting for. It also helps that he looks quite comfortable in his shoes. There is something quite likeable about Mammootty and he makes you empathise with his character even without trying too hard or deliver long monologues to draw your attention. Sachin Khedekar also does a fine job as a party leader, who is clueless about how to make YSR toe the line. Rao Ramesh has very little to do, despite playing YSR’s confidant KVP.
In the end, Yatra walks a fine line where it is neither a full-fledged propaganda nor a political drama, which leaves you with a cinematic high. And in its attempt to focus on the journey of a leader, it leaves you wondering if mere honesty is good enough to turn the story into an engaging drama. There are vast stretches where the film turns into a docu-drama, but it quickly changes gears to give you a big moment to root for, and then it quickly returns to its normal tempo. It makes you smile, cry, and then it makes you yearn to feel something. Yatra feels like just its title. The route is long and you are moved to tears at times, but without any major twists or turns that leave you in awe of the whole journey.