I’m not sure whether Life is Beautiful needs to be an hour shorter or about 5 hours longer. Sekhar Kammula’s observational style might play out better as a mini-series than a film as while not a lot really happens, neither do we get much insight into some of the large ensemble of characters. And understanding more about them might have made all the difference when, for want of a better word, things go a bit stupid.
Sreenu, Chinni and Sathya move to a Hyderabad housing development to stay with relatives when their mother (Amala Akkineni) tells them she needs to take a work transfer for a year. It’s clear their aunt just tolerates them, and the rich aunty (Surekha Vani) next door doesn’t want to know the kids. But where Gold Phase has shiny cars and swimming pools, the B Phase colony is rich in characters and goodwill. Money causes all manner of tension, but mostly between those who value work and self-improvement over those take their privilege for granted. In a similar vein, the film contrasts the superficial gated enclosure of Gold Phase with the more organic sense of community in B Phase where sharing is second nature.
The B Phase kids expect to work to make their own way. Chinni is trying to get into a prestigious English school and Sathya (Rashmi Sastry) is preparing to study medicine. Nagaraj helps new neighbour Laxmi (Zara Shah) to find a job so she can continue her engineering studies, and his lack of education and prospects is a recurring theme. Sreenu (Abhijeet Duddala) soon meets Nagaraj (Sudhakar Komakula) the local cool dude and Abhi (Kaushik Darbha), a sweet-natured geek. Cousin Paddhu (Shagun Kaur) is pretty and confident, and keeps Sreenu on his toes. They’re all good hearted and fundamentally optimistic, and friendship comes easily. It’s not hard to like them and I enjoyed watching them grapple with coming of age and growing responsibility.
I really like that the girls are interested in finding the right life partner not just a hot hero, and that their parents are broadly supportive of their right to do so (if not of their choices). I’m not as happy with some of the films tricks to get the girls to realise who they love. There is an odd decision to make Paru (Shriya Saran) have a gimmicky epiphany, as though she was incapable of understanding her own feelings without a billboard sized clue. And I couldn’t really get on board with her ‘I must win Miss India to fulfil my mother’s dying wish’ thing. I didn’t think Ajay (Vijay Sai) was really a bad guy, but he had a different view of sex and relationships so Laxmi found herself fleeing what she saw as overly determined advances. It seemed she was being punished for straying from Nagaraj and B Phase. Nagaraj has a reverse snobbery about educated people and blames Laxmi for the encounter. And once a boy has decided he likes a girl, that girl should only do what he says or face harsh criticism. Maybe it is just an illustration of how it is easy to be liberal when you’re comfortable, but how people under pressure can revert to type. Maya (Anjala Zaveri) was being harassed by a sleazy caller so the boys actually use their education to catch the culprit. But then their biggest problem seems to be that he is a Gold Phase guy and shouldn’t be allowed to ogle their local hottie while they may do so at their whim. When Maya comes to bail the lads out at the police station, they seem shocked that women can Do Thinking And Other Good Stuff Too. So it’s a mixed bag but the women are distinct and interesting characters and that was pleasing.
The youngsters various relationships absorb most of the film, but they all have families and other issues to deal with. Sreenu and his sisters find out the real reason for their mother’s absence – a reason that made me furious and considering whether to pull the plug on the movie – and have to think hard about what to do with their lives. On the other hand, Abhi and his mum have a really nice relationship. She knows he is a bit weird and nerdy but she loves him for his quirks, and he is super smart and appreciative of her support. Paddhu is caught between her snobby parents expectations and her own heart, plus a dithering Indian Filmi Boy, but she is not a pushover and nor are they villains. Friends help friends, and sometimes friends force friends to confront things they might try to avoid.
Language is both a conduit and barrier. Chinni is denied a place in school because she doesn’t speak English, although she is eloquent when speaking Telugu. Nagaraj tells new neighbour Laxmi that Telangana speakers aren’t formal, they speak from the heart. I couldn’t pick up on the nuances of language in the conversations about Andhra and Telangana speech, although I assume that would resonate with the local audience.
The cast are largely novices and they generally do quite well. Of the young actors, Kaushik and Shagun Kaur were my favourites maybe because they played sunny characters and seemed genuine. I smiled when I saw them and could easily overlook a couple of wobbly acting moments. Amala Akkineni is the largely absent mother, and while I like her performance a lot I had strong reservations about the plot manipulation tied to her character. Shriya Saran is very natural as Paru, the It Girl of Gold Phase, pretty and a princess. And she shows a different side in her scenes with Abhi and the guys where she is at ease, genuine, and friendly.
I don’t like the songs. Especially the English lyrics in this one. It is Eurovision level bad.
My test for whether a song enhances a film is simple. I imagine the sequence, replacing the filmi song with Boston’s More Than A Feeling – a truly naff song which is all about itself. If it works just as well as the movie song I reckon the film could have done without. Obviously if there is excellent dancing, great costumes, or Chiru, I don’t question the validity of the musical interlude.
The song montages are well put together and do help amplify the mood and inner feelings. The locations and set dressing are lovely to look at and the details help flesh out the characters living in the various houses and streets. C Vijay Kumar has collaborated with Sekhar Kammula on several films and their styles mesh very well. He knows how to get the most out of fields, trees and rooftop terraces.
Kammula uses some cheap and cheesy effects which is at odds with his predilection for slice of life stories featuring the unexceptional middle class. Animated hearts when the scruffy boy dog fell for the ritzy lady dog was mildly funny but then there was the magic at the wedding, the magic at Miss India…the (bad and nonsensical) magic. While David Copperfield need not worry about losing his day job, it was nice to see Anish Kuruvilla acting. And Anish, if you don’t like being a character actor you could always, I dunno, direct another film. Just a thought.
I really like Sekhar Kammula’s films, even though I have a few issues with his horrible taste in music and addiction to animated effects, as he can tell simple stories well. While Life Is Beautiful is meandering and low on drama, I do like the characters and the glimpses into their lives. 3 stars!