White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Telugu Movie Review: Saindhav is watchable in spite of its gangster cliches, thanks entirely to lead Venkatesh

Victory Venkatesh Daggubati and Ssara Palekar star in the new Telugu action-crime film "Saindhav," here reviewed by White Guy Watches Bollywood.

Saindhav is an amalgamation of a lot of the major tropes in today’s Telugu cinema: a reformed hero with a dark past, a close-knit father and young daughter mourning the loss of Mom, an unstable gangster underworld brimming with power struggles, a backdrop of global terrorist threats. For the most part, the movie doesn’t even try to elegantly weave all of these disparate elements together; it combines them in as easy and efficient a manner as it possibly can. The script is lazy, and much of the finished film’s construction is as well. But Venkatesh is so good at selling this sloppily-written mess in his lead performance that – at least for a while – the movie holds together well enough to keep the audience’s attention.

In his prior life as a gangster henchman, our hero used to be called “SaiKo,” as in psycho – an early “reveal” that the movie initially seems to be protecting, despite it being patently obvious that the name Saindhav Koneru would be cleverly abbreviated in this way. Saindhav swore off his life of crime around the time of his wife’s death, which has left him raising their young daughter Gayathri (played by Ssara Palekar) as a single dad. He’s now a humble crane operator at the local port. But Saindhav’s past can’t help but come back to haunt him, as two tragedies simultaneously unfold. First, Saindhav’s past associates begin supplying local kids with weapons, recruiting them for terrorist groups, crossing a redline he had set when he left the organization. Second, Gayathri is diagnosed with the rare disease SMA (spinal muscular atrophy), requiring a life-saving injection that costs ₹17 crores, an exorbitant sum that no simple crane operator could ever afford.

You can see where this is all going from a mile away, and with a lesser star at the helm, Saindhav could have been a complete disaster. But Venkatesh is absolutely perfect for this character. While he doesn’t have the power to transform the hackneyed script into a quality film on his own, he certainly makes it a mostly painless sit. Venkatesh has that rare ability to take action film character cliches and turn them into universal-seeming human qualities, in the same way that Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis built careers doing in Hollywood. He nails both the tender, loving father of a young daughter and the scary, badass killer lurking beneath the surface here. You simultaneously believe he’s a great dad and that he was once referred to as “SaiKo.” Just watching Venkatesh play with this dynamic makes for an engaging first hour or so.

The fact that the script is so lazy also comes with certain upsides – namely, that it never gets bogged down by excessive backstory, as writer/director Sailesh Kolanu couldn’t be bothered to come up with it in the first place. Oftentimes, Indian films in this genre space spend a lot of time needlessly delving into the past in flashbacks, particularly through post-Intermission reveals. Saindhav avoids this trap and only gives us only the bare minimum needed to understand its hero’s predicament and the current conflict. This spares the movie a lot of bloat, which wouldn’t have helped flesh out a story that’s hopelessly contrived anyway. As such, the viewer can simply invest in the raw character journey that Venkatesh’s performance is selling.

Granted, there does come a time when such a thin genre exercise begins to tire, and Venkatesh isn’t able to singlehandedly keep the momentum going. For me, the tipping point was when the movie increasingly became an “issue drama” more than it was a down-and-dirty ex-gangster picture, as a sort of compensation for its lack of original substance elsewhere. Not only does Saindhav have to find a way to finance Gayathri’s SMA injection, working against a ticking clock, so too do hundreds of other families we meet at the NGO where Saindhav initially seeks treatment assistance.

Genre movies – and exploitation films specifically – have a long, time-honored tradition of being politically charged, but a delicate balancing act is required in ensuring that the tone of this material matches the rest. In its second-half barrage of children’s hospital imagery, Saindhav veers too far into being a polemic on the exorbitant cost of medicine, rather than sticking to simply ideologically-tinged melodrama. Paired with the commentary on child terrorist recruitment in India, this feels like overkill – and not in an effective way.

The film also feels awfully lacking in the supporting character department, drawing further attention to its dearth of core story originality. In his Telugu language debut, Bollywood veteran Nawazuddin Siddiqui makes some eccentric, fun performance choices as Vikas Malik, the aspiring mob boss whose actions are most responsible for bringing Saindhav out of “retirement.” But his character is as minimally written as Telugu crime film thugs get; Siddiqui runs out of material to play with well before the end. Mukesh Rishi has even less to do as Mithra, the reigning cartel leader, and a father-son subplot involving his character goes nowhere. The women of the film – Shraddha Srinath as Gayathri’s babysitter and Saindhav’s kinda-sorta love interest Manogya, Ruhani Sharma as NGO-leading physician Dr. Renu, and Andrea Jeremiah as baddie sidekick Jasmine – are pretty minimally written and developed, as well. Jasmine is the only one of the three who gets any real standout moments, and that’s only because she is paired with scene-stealer Siddiqui.

The production values of the film are competent, albeit unremarkable. The musical score and soundtrack, composed by Santhosh Narayanan, are similarly just-OK, setting the tone for the story decently but not standing out as memorable. The choreography on the movie’s only big song-and-dance number, “Wrong Usage,” falls in the same unremarkable boat. Which is to say, these elements do little to elevate what is ultimately an aggressively mediocre attempt at a mass-appeal actioner. Without Venkatesh doing nearly all of the heavy lifting, Saindhav would have been an intolerably dull sit; with the actor leading the charge, it’s upgraded to being a forgettable waste of talent.

Rating: ★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Scroll to top