Rating: 3 (out of 5 stars)
It’s been years since Telugu cinema has produced a detective drama. To give a gist of how long it’s been since we have seen a true blue detective drama in Telugu, it’s been 33 years since Chiranjeevi’s Chantabbai released. In a way, the fact that writer and director Swaroop RSJ went ahead to make a detective drama after the film industry’s reluctance to revisit the genre is in itself a fascinating move which is worthy of our attention. Moreover, he chose to set the story in Nellore, a city that rarely appears as a backdrop.
Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya tells the story of a Nellore-based detective, whose agency FBI (Fatima Bureau of Investigation) is located in a small shop next to the vegetable market. In short, he has the intuitive powers of Sherlock Holmes, but his life is far from glamorous. Agent Athreya (played by Naveen Polishetty) struggles to find a big case, but he doesn’t lose his heart at any given point. He trains his assistant Sneha (Shruti Sharma) in the science of deduction by giving her a lot of homework - to watch all the popular detective dramas ranging from Usual Suspects to The Departed. The only problem is no one takes him seriously enough to entrust him with a major case. And then, one fine day, everything changes when his friends inform him about an unidentified dead body that’s been found near a railway track. The rest of the story is about how Agent Athreya cracks the case and unravels the mystery behind a series of such cases.
From the outset, Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya has an interesting story to tell, and Swaroop and Naveen Polishetty (the two co-wrote the screenplay) build Athreya’s characterisation in great detail. It’s the little factors like his obsession with food and pop-culture, everyday life in Nellore, and mimicking familiar characters like those who deliver the courier or someone who sells books on the streets, that make a lot of difference to building the world of Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya. He’s a master of disguise working on zero budget. Athreya would rather chase his suspect on a 100 cc bike than look for a fancy car. He’s relentless in his pursuit to solve the cases that he handles and he knows that his intuition is better than most people around him. When you look back, it’s interesting to see how much we know about Athreya even before he sets out to crack the biggest case he comes across.
Yet, it’s this immense attention to detail that makes the narrative feel convoluted. There’s a lot of posturing about Athreya’s deduction skills and the film relies too much on at least one of the characters — in most cases it’s Athreya himself — explaining everything in great detail to take the story forward. It’s an extremely verbose film and there’s rarely any visual drama. At some level, the film confuses information (as told by its lead character) with inherent drama. And this doesn’t allow us to be fully immersed in the storytelling because we are constantly looking forward to Athreya explaining the “why’s” and “how’s” in the story before the core idea behind the mystery is revealed. Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya packs in so much information between the plot points that either we forget what led the characters to that point in the story or the revelation doesn’t strike you as much as it should.
But then, there’s also a lot to like about the film. Naveen Polishetty holds the film together with his impeccable energy and he nails the role and its nuances quite well. He truly shines when the film digs into his trove of humour and emotional range to propel his character forward. Newcomer Shruti Sharma delivers a noteworthy performance as Naveen’s confidant. Then, there are a host of other supporting characters including Suhas and Sundeep who leave their mark. And full credit to director Swaroop and cinematographer Sunny Kurapati for exploring the geography of Nellore and the surrounding areas quite well. The film is staged as a wild goose chase and the intensity is accentuated by Mark Robbin’s background score.
The film holds itself back from revealing its secrets until the final act. Even though it’s a socially relevant and well-written segment, once again Swaroop and Naveen pack in way too much in the final segment and we don’t get enough time to soak in all of it. Everything happens in a rush as Agent Athreya and his friends look for clues, while we await, rather cluelessly, to reveal what they are looking for. Despite all these pitfalls, it offers some solid moments to root for its characters. I wish someone told Agent Sai Srinivasa Athreya that he doesn’t have to talk so much to prove his point, or is it a common trait among all detectives? That’s another mystery.