Tholi Prema was strongly recommended by several hardcore Pawan Kalyan fans. If it gets the most enthusiastic film fans in the world hopping with excitement, I knew I had to watch it. It is not quite what I expected from a 90s romance, and mostly it’s a very nice film. Karunakaran let a couple of vaguely sensible ideas creep into all the filminess, and I really enjoyed the way some of the situations play out.
Pawan Kalyan stars as Balu, an underachiever who seems a bit adrift. He doesn’t live up to his parents’ high hopes and lacks motivation in his academic life. Balu and his father clash time and time again, and there is an unsettled and acrimonious atmosphere at his home. This forces him to spend more time with a group of friends that includes Ali and Venu Madhav. Balu has no trouble being assertive and a leader outside of his home, but he has no standing within his family. He is a decent guy, but just hasn’t quite got himself sorted and relies too much on his uncle (Nagesh) to sort things out for him.
Keerthi Reddy is Anu, the girl Balu falls instantly in love with. She is first seen hopping and clapping on the side of the road in the traditional filmi ‘escaped mental patient’ style. I liked her in Arjun and she is good here as the too perfect to be real rich girl but her role is mostly about looking fair and rather vapid. Anu has good intentions that manifest in ditzy ways. She believes ordinary people who do good should be celebrated so chases them around to get their autographs as though they were celebrities, and she also plays Santa for some homeless kids. Nice ideas but the execution makes her look flaky. Anu has big dreams for her career and study, and isn’t looking to marry any time soon. She wants to win a Nobel Prize!
Balu is looking for her because of her beauty and she is looking for him because he saved a child (in a very stupid traffic incident) and she sees him as a hero. There are near misses, a very dramatic incident and far too much advice from the comedy gang. But once Anu and Balu meet, the characters got a bit more interesting.
Balu is the hero so he does his share of beating up wrongdoers and righteous speechifying. But he is also a little vulnerable and I found him quite likeable. He doesn’t throw his weight around all the time, and he is easily disconcerted by quick witted cousin Priya. Pawan Kalyan looks a tad too mature for the undergrad Balu, but he is very convincing in his swings between diffidence and a more energised and confident state. He can work up a good smoulder as well as a very impressive sad puppy face. He has the Mega family eyes after all! But it’s not simply a matter of the hero claiming his ‘reward’ and he does bring a bit more nuance to Balu than I was expecting. The story plays out in both full blown melodrama and some sweetly sensible dialogues.
Priya (Vasuki) tells Balu to get to know Anu before he proposes. Radical, I know! She also points out that stalking a girl is creepy and not a good tactic as it means the girl is unaware she is in a relationship. And the sensible advice and decisions don’t stop there. When Balu writes a message in blood, another favourite of filmi heroes, Anu is as mad as all get out. She can’t understand why anyone would do that, and tells him so. The boys all fluctuate between moping listlessly and having the vapours when they so much as see their intended, so in some respects they are more like the traditional romance heroine.
Having said that, the notion that a girl is obliged to accept a guy who declares love for her is firmly in place. There are several examples of female characters succumbing to the man’s ‘honesty’ or ‘love’ regardless of whether they had ever exchanged three words in person. The biggest disappointment was in the way Priya’s story was resolved. Having seen how disturbed Balu was by his unrequited love, she couldn’t bear to reject someone who would feel the same pain. So she, giver of sensible relationship advice, married a colleague out of pity. It didn’t fit with someone who was determined enough to live away from home to complete her medical studies in a more conducive atmosphere. And while Anu and Balu were a bit more sensible, Balu showed little sign of applying himself to any form of work, study or career plan. The male characters mostly assumed that they could be useless, as the women would look after them. I think the female characters were getting a raw deal in being lumbered with these manchild types, but True Love is supposed to make everything right, isn’t it?
Most of Balu’s songs are picturesque montages of him wandering lost and lovelorn or behaving foolishly under the influence of daydreams. And he does all that very well. His dream sequences are really something! The opening disco sequence was hilarious and very peculiar. And there is a colourful vintage tribute. Deva’s music is pleasant, if heavily derivative at times, and matches the mood of the scenes. I enjoyed the light hearted mood in this song, mostly because he looks as though he snuck into big brother Chiru’s dress-up box to put the outfits together. And also because of the Ricky Martin ‘influence’.
Ali and Venu Madhav seem to be less irritating in films with Pawan Kalyan. I don’t know whether that is because he takes on some of the comedy himself so they are more contained, or that they often play characters with a purpose. I could still do without them, but I didn’t have my usual allergic reaction. The comedy is often broad and relies on slide whistle, poking fun at stereotypes and cheesy visual tricks. Narra Venkateswara Rao is Balu’s dad and he is a very unsympathetic character for most of the film. But he and Balu share a really soppy moment that was quite sweet, and a little unexpected. Nagesh is fun as the uncle and Sangeetha as the patient but passive mother makes up the rest of the major support roles.
I think every single character cries for most of the last 20 minutes. Luckily the resolution was left to Balu and Anu and the ending was quite satisfying (despite my reservations about Balu ever growing up).
I liked Tholi Prema for the way it took a slightly different path through the romance clichés. There are nice scenes between family members and with Anu, Balu and Priya that added real humour and emotion. I like Pawan Kalyan but if you’re not familiar with his films, this might be a good place to start for people who don’t enjoy the action genre. 3 ½ stars!