As I mentioned when reviewing the Kollywood bank heist thriller Thunivu, my selection of newly released Indian action blockbusters has been severely limited in recent months, as I don’t currently have access to a car. The only theater that screens the gloriously over-the-top action cinema I’ve taken for granted in recent years is all the way out in the suburbs, far beyond a reasonable bus ride, so I have to settle for whatever titles trickle down from its distant marquees to the streaming services I pay for at home. Between Thunivu and the new Tollywood action-romance epic Dasara, Netflix has been the quickest to deliver the goods so far this year – give or take Pathaan, which I was lucky to catch on the big screen before it populated on Amazon Prime. In Dasara‘s case, Netflix even premiered the film in its original language of Telugu, which isn’t always a guarantee for home viewing (even in big-name cases like S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali & RRR, which are still primarily presented in their Hindi dubs on the same platform). As much as I appreciate Dasara making its way to my living room so quickly, though, I know in my stupid little heart that I would have enjoyed it much more had I caught it at the suburban multiplex. The immense spectacles & body-rattling sound mixes of these movies demand the theatrical experience. That environment makes a throwaway romcom like Radhe Shyam play like an action-hero riff on Cameron’s Titanic, crushing you so flat beneath its towering CG mayhem that you hardly have time to notice that the flirty jokes between its action sequences aren’t especially cute or funny. For its part, Dasara also delivers the goods when it comes to large-scale CG action spectacle, but that can only carry you so far at home, so the lengthy lulls between its explosions tend to spoil the mood. I’ve greatly enjoyed a few masala films I happened to see at home for the first time instead of the theater—Master, Karnan, Enthiran, the aforementioned Baahubali, to name a few—but they all would have been even more enjoyable & memorable had I seen them big & loud, which is an unignorable problem in more middling titles like Dasara.
Dasara details a lifelong friendship & romantic rivalry between a pair of mining-town besties. After a youth wasted stealing coal off mining trains for liquor money and pining after the same childhood friend, the two ambitionless hedonists are forced to get serious about the politicians who poison their village – both through alcohol sales and through coal-mining air pollution. The alcohol is treated as the bigger threat to local morale, in that it makes wastoid addicts out of every able-bodied man in their community (an anti-vice sentiment underlined by the opening credits’ health hazard warnings and a barn-burner monologue in the final scene). Booze is also the main driver of local politics, as the powerful positions of bar owner & cashier are essentially treated as public offices, violently contested through rigged elections. In establishing all of this big-picture conflict within the mining community, Dasara only leaves room for three major action sequences: a daring coal-train robbery, a vicious massacre of local drunks via machete militia, and a climactic act of revenge in which the evilest politician of all is decapitated via flaming machete after his goons are slaughtered one at a time. There are some incredible moments & images in those sequences that highlight how India’s various film industries are regularly producing the greatest action movies on the market today, if not the greatest since Hong Kong action’s independent heyday in the 80s & 90s. There is a lot of downtime between those moments, though, especially for a film with so thin of a moralist lesson (alcohol = bad) and with such cliché love-triangle tension. A few weddings, cricket matches, and religious festivals liven up the dead space between the action payoffs, but not enough to make the picture especially worth seeking out at home. Even when enjoying how its all-out explosive climax filled my TV screen with a wall of flames, all I could think about is how much cooler those flames would look if they were 30 feet taller and came with a bucket of popcorn.
Even though Dasara is a mixed bag overall, it’s really just one catchy composer short of being a stunner. It’s got plenty explosive imagery, but its songs are mostly duds, so the time drags heavily between fires & beheadings. To its credit, I was happy to see the musical numbers directly integrated into the narrative, when so many modern films in this genre separate them out as music video asides. Unfortunately, they do so by adopting a plodding stage-musical songwriting style that never fully meshes with the score’s rapid, relentless percussion with any coherence. Music is certainly one of the genre’s primary joys, but I’m not even sure that a louder theatrical environment would’ve helped the songs hit all that harder, even with the spectacle of dancers kicking up black coal dust in frantic choreography. However, I do suspect that the constant coal-mine blasts of fireballs & air pollution would’ve been so much more vivid at the multiplex that I wouldn’t have cared about the mediocre music they interrupt. Speaking from past experience, three great action sequences is usually more than enough to make one of these cheap-o epics worthwhile in that environment, whether or not the music is memorable. Without that boost in scale & volume, Dasara is unraveled by its own thinness, which it appears to be aware of itself by the second flashback montage of earlier, more exciting scenes. The action is too sparse for its songs to be this bland, and so the movie was only worth seeking out for the one week it screened at AMC Elmwood (or your local equivalent), when its few explosions would’ve stunned you for the longest stretches. I don’t regret watching it at home, though, and I don’t think this experience will deter me from seeking out other Indian action streamers in the future. In the past, I may have positively reviewed so-so masala films like Shamshera & Radhe Shyam for the enjoyment of the theatrical experience rather than the actual quality of the product, but that’s how they were intended to be watched. Catching up with Dasara on my couch is only the Great Value™ equivalent of the real deal, and it will have to do until I have a car again or until one of the three remaining theaters in the city catches up with how fun these crowd-pleasers can be.