Lavanya and Satya shine in this surreal comedy

Story: A motley crew congregates at an upscale hotel for various reasons right after a bill is passed, allowing citizens to carry firearms. A madcap journey reveals everyone’s hidden motives.

Review: If you’ve seen Ritesh Rana’s maiden film Mathu Vadalara, you really know what to expect from his sophomore, Happy Birthday. The director makes it clear from the get-go that the surreal comedy will be anything but logical. But sadly, that doesn’t always mean the film is an engaging ride.

Rithwik Sodhi (Vennela Kishore) is a politician who just passed a Gun Bill that liberalises every home to own a firearm. It soon becomes a status symbol in Sin City, Zelangana, Zindia, to own guns studded with diamonds or made of gold. So much so, that an upscale hotel won’t even allow its customers in unless they own a firearm or are stylishly dressed. Happy (Lavanya Tripathi) is a youngster who just wants to celebrate her birthday in style. A down-on-luck Lucky (Naresh Agastya) is looking to make money to save his hospitalised mother. Benami (Ravi Teja) also wants to celebrate his birthday at the hotel, but the manager (Harsha) keeps finding ways to keep him out. Max Pain (Satya) is a henchman who has been hired by Uncle Fixit (Sudarshan) to dispose of a dead body. Also thrown into the mix are two agents, one of whom is William (Getup Sreenu), a goonda called Gunda (Rahul Ramakrishna), Sniper Sam (Suresh Krishna) and others.

If you’re seen Mathu Vadalara, you’re familiar with a melodramatic couple who find themselves in odd situations. Happy Birthday happens to be one of those situations. In a world where it snows in a Telugu speaking state, currency has Rakesh Master’s face on it, a book called The Shashank Redemption exists and apps like Gunpay and SadChat are the norm, Ritesh takes his own sweet time to unfold a story that’s part social satire, part comedy. The film begins with Rithwik giving sodhi on why the state won’t be lawless just because bullets are now sold on bandis to…well…it needs to be watched. As the story progresses, the motives become clear and sadly, the jokes get old.

Happy Birthday is the kind of film that is perfect meme and GIF material but when you dig deeper you realise it’s all style over substance. Suresh Sarangam’s camerawork and Kaala Bhairava’s music is truly top notch. They lend the film a slick, neon and peppy look and sound that works well for the story. Suresh in particular even switches the look, depending on the character he’s shooting. The issue however lies in the fact that, Ritesh doesn’t inject enough substance in the proceedings. While all the meme references make for a fun watch, there are scenes – particularly in the second half – that really lag and don’t really keep you engaged. The transphobic jokes that make fun of a character’s tendency to cross dress also could’ve done away with. This is the kind of film that you either love or hate, so it could’ve done with a tighter narrative and screenplay.

Lavanya Tripathi seems to have a ball, especially when the interval twist rolls around and her backstory unfolds in the latter half. It’s rare for a heroine working in TFI to get a role like this and she makes the most of it. Vennela Kishore, Rahul Ramakrishna, Sudarshan, Naresh Agastya, Ravi Teja, Harsha, Getup Sreenu and others breeze through their roles but it’s Satya who really owns the wackiness of the material, apart from Lavanya. By the time he’s walking in slow motion through the chaos that unfolds around him, you’ve laughed almost every time he has been on screen.

Despite its flaws, Happy Birthday is refreshing and is exactly what TFI needs to shake things up. It might be far from perfect but Ritesh deserves an A+ for effort. Watch this one if you’re looking for something that’s wacky, out-of-the-box, funny and something you really don’t need your brains for. If you’re looking for logic, this one’s not it.

PS: Don’t forget to stick around for the post-credits scene.

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