Fidaa (2017)

 

Sekhar Kammula’s Fidaa benefits from a talented cast and suffers from some underwritten characters and lazy plot manipulation.

Fidaa bills itself as a love-hate-love story, but I felt it was more about growing up and knowing yourself, identifying where you will and won’t compromise. Medical student Varun (Varun Tej) lives in Texas with his older brother Raja (Raja Chembolu) and younger brother Bujji. One morning they all decide Raja should get married, and minutes later he chooses Renuka (Sharanya Pradeep) on a matrimonial site. Raja goes to India to meet her, but waits for Varun to come and give the final OK. Renu’s younger sister Bhanumathi (Sai Pallavi) is naturally curious and concerned about the man her sister will marry so goes about sussing out her prospective in-laws. She and Varun fall for each other but where Raja and Renuka are easy going to the point of invisibility, Varun wants to stay in the USA and Bhanu cannot conceive of leaving home. They break up without really breaking up or talking about it, and unhappily go on with their lives. But then Renu falls pregnant and develops a mystery syndrome that lasts just long enough for Bhanu to have to go to the USA.

Considering the number of co-directors credited I half expected a lack of cohesion in the direction but not so. Visually this is a beautifully composed film, making the most of natural looking light and locations. Unfortunately the writing relies on half-baked contrivances to move the action along. The characters are not particularly well developed either.

Sai Pallavi should win all the awards for her performance as Bhanumathi. The line between uninhibited and unhinged is tricky to negotiate, but she rocks both the energy and subtlety required. What could have been a mere hair swishing manic pixie dream girl becomes a delightfully quirky and real young lady. I guessed from the audience reaction that a lot of her dialogue is in a regional dialect and there was much cheering at some of her one liners. Bhanu is doing her undergrad degree in Ag Science, and demonstrates this by driving a tractor around one field, just one muddy field, and pointing at different grains. I’d never considered the pros and cons of wearing a half-saree while driving a tractor, but here it looked stylish and appropriate. It’s easy to see when Bhanu is putting on an act but never easy to see that any part of Bhanu is a performance. Her reactions seem spontaneous and her eyes look like there is somebody home. On a shallow note, I also loved that she has minimal makeup on that expressive face, spots be damned. It’s a departure for a mainstream Telugu film heroine. And she can really dance.

Varun Tej is tall, dorky, and may never get all that hair product out. Ever. Not even vigorous frolicking in the rain could flatten that bristly up do. Varun the character is kind of bland and I never found his dreams or change of heart convincing. At first I put that down to his acting but when I considered Bhanu too, I realised that neither character had much explicit motivation or development. The film relies on the actors to make the situations engaging. Varun was just overshadowed a little, playing the slow steady counterpart to the firecracker Bhanu. He was at his most lively in scenes with her, and I liked their rapport. The fight scene seemed out of character, but Bhanu was a huge film fan so I guess that was Varun showing support in a kickarse language that spoke to her. He was less successful in the angry and emotional post breakup phase when Varun keeps taking stupid advice from a comedy sidekick. He’s lucky he inherited the smouldery Mega Eye gene for the crying scenes because it distracted me from wanting to slap him for excessive wallowing. He certainly missed out on the Mega Dance gene…or at least, he got that one from his father not his uncle.

The plot used any old excuse in pivotal moments. Renuka required 3 months of total bed rest, but then was well enough for Bhanu to leave on a roadtrip for a week (judging by the outfit changes), and then turned up heavily pregnant at home in Banswada for a wedding. You or anyone else with a pen and a post-it note could easily write six reasons that were more believable. The roadtrip was beautiful and I’m sure everyone had fun with the drone shots, but if you’re in a hurry perhaps…a plane? Investment in building up characters and relationships was notably lacking. Some of the side characters have no reason to exist other than being a sidekick or whatever. There is also a fair amount of “do as I say, not as I do” advice. It’s disappointing because there’s a whole stack of Kammula films that show he is a keen and empathetic interpreter of human behaviour. This looked like he either couldn’t be bothered or perhaps gave way to an improvised approach that fell over.

Satyam Rajesh’s Ali is one character who added no value to the proceedings. And the kid who played Bujji did nothing to diminish my dislike of high pitched overly peppy kid actors. Of the supporting actors I most enjoyed Sai Chand and Sharanya Pradeep as Bhanu’s dad and sister. I still get irritated when people in possession of all their faculties and full mobility sit and wait for their daughter to come and give them their daily essential medication, but whatever. He was a caring and quite progressive father in many respects. Renu had a masters in psych but there is no indication she will ever get to use it, or wanted to. Another why???? element in the script. But Sharanya Pradeep was calm and lovely, playing Renuka with a maternal solidity.

Shakthi Kanth Karthick’s songs were diverse enough in style that they meshed with the key scenes rather than being a musical interruption. Vachinde was suitably flirty and hectic, setting the scene perfectly. I was pleased to see both the dialogues and songs were subtitled, although the quality of the English subs was atrocious. I hope that is reviewed before a DVD release. Unless there really is a w in hellow. And I’m pretty sure Fidaa doesn’t directly translate to “flat”.

Fidaa is well worth seeing for the charm of the actors and the beautiful visuals. Just prepare to suspend your disbelief a bit. On the bright side, there were no CGI talking lizards!

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Life is Beautiful (2012)

Life-Is-Beautiful-Poster

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!

Life-is-Beautiful-the moral

Anand (2004)

If there is such a thing as a good kind of stalking love story, Anand is probably it. Sekhar Kammula builds characters that have quirks and flaws, and his effort translates into an engaging modern romance. Although the film is called Anand, it’s actually well balanced between Anand (Raja) and Rupa (Kamalinee Mukherjee), at least in the director’s cut version.

Rupa is orphaned after a drunk driver hits her family’s car. Forward 8 years and Rupa (now played by Kamalinee) is a bit of a control freak, and preparing for her wedding to Rahul (often heard but not seen playback singer, Anuj Gurwara). His family are wealthy and traditional, and she is under pressure to modify her behaviour to suit them. She is scared of her future but trusts to god and her own spirit to help her through the challenges she expects lie ahead.

Rupa has pride and a belief that she deserves love and a good future. When Rahul reveals his weakness in the face of family disapproval, she realises she may be making a mistake. Finally, after a showdown with the domineering mother-in-law to be over wearing her mother’s heirloom saree, Rupa calls the wedding off.

I like that there are consequences, but it’s not over the top. Her life goes on, and while there is some embarrassment and explaining, her friends are all there for her, as is her old job. She supports herself financially, and seems to have a good life. It makes a refreshing change from all the filmi orphans living Cinderella type lives on charity from relatives.

The drunk driver is a presence throughout the film, although Rupa doesn’t know this. The shock of causing the accident made Gopalan (played by Gururaj – I think) revert to a childlike state. Initially I had some reservations about whether he was a necessary character, and how his condition would be portrayed. However, I enjoyed his presence and I give due credit to Gururaj for his performance.

Gopalan is loved by his family, and included in all their activities. He isn’t swept into a corner, and no one distances themselves from this damaged man. It was sweet seeing the family in conference, with Gopalan doing that Dad thing of dozing in front of the TV while Anand and his mum argued. They all know what happened, and Anand even describes it as an oddly positive change – a driven man finally happy with simplicity. It isn’t quite as syrupy as that sounds. I really liked the decision to show a content middle-class family who had achieved comfort in their lives at this point.

Anand (Raja) sees Rupa and decides he wants to get to know the real person. He knows her history (she doesn’t know he knows) and while he has sympathy for her, that isn’t his primary motivation. His mother is keen to marry him off, and Anand is tired of the marriage treadmill. He knows he is eligible and doesn’t trust first impressions, and he isn’t really keen on settling down unless he feels he has met his life partner. When he sees Rupa breaking her wedding off, he is intrigued as well as attracted to her. He concocts a story, rents a spare room at her house, and starts to work on getting to know her. He isn’t sure what he feels for Rupa, and he knows there is more to a relationship than just chemistry, so I think the decision to spend some time with her was wise but the method is questionable.

It is a kind of stalking, he does conceal his identity from her, and he manipulates circumstances where possible. It didn’t totally put me off because he is aware of his intrusion into Rupa’s life and he is open about his motives when her friends challenge him. And he can take ‘no’ for an answer. Raja is very much part of an ensemble, not a dominant hero type. He has a pleasant enough boy next door style but wasn’t outstanding.

Better known for directing than acting, Anish Kuruvilla is Anand’s cousin Raju. He is the voice of reason and logic, so of course no one ever listens to him. He supports Anand despite his misgivings, and has an excellent array of pained expressions. Raju is also a colossal snob, and this allows Kammula to introduce some points around discrimination and entitlement. It’s a funny, likeable performance despite the occasionally irritating character. Really, since he seems determined to avoid directing another film in my lifetime (hint Anish, HINT) I don’t see why he doesn’t act more.

Satya Krishnan as best friend Anita has a slightly acerbic yet affectionate nature, and her down to earth comments add a realistic level of dissent and question to the dialogues.

She and Raju have the job of watching their friends fumble with the burgeoning relationship, and their wry observations often deflate the drama or add a dash of humour. I liked the film in-joke when Anita has an Indra flashback and asks Raju if he has ever been in movies. She and Kamalinee took the acting honours in my book. And I love her husky voice – such a nice change from all the super squeaky heroines!

Rahul reappears on the scene, and Rupa and Anand are torn from their comfortable little routine. Rupa finally admits to herself that she loves Anand, but what to do? Anand leaves the next steps up to her.  I like the resolution. I felt it suited Rupa’s character completely and I appreciated that Anand hadn’t gone bitter and started hating her. He accepted that her decision and opinions were valid and essential to any possible future together.

Anand’s family acknowledge a sense of obligation to Rupa, and want to help her secure her future, but there is also trepidation at how they could live together after the truth comes out. It’s a very filmi situation but the emotions feel real – how will that sense of indebtedness balance the anger and resentment, and is forgiveness truly possible? I think Rupa blames herself so much for the accident that she had never considered blaming anyone else until confronted with the man responsible. Having to come face to face with the truth sparked another stage of grieving and she had to forgive herself as well as Gopalan. Kamalinee was convincing in her grief, and rather than loud histrionics she used her physical expression to show the transformation.

I like the realistic touches in the background detail. Rupa has a kitchen with packets of cereal and jars on the shelves, she gardens and washes her own clothes. People use public transport and their idea of a big night out is going to the movies. The house that Rupa lives in is located in an oasis like compound, but it looks a little ramshackle. There are people who fail exams and still have a happy enough life, and people with high aspirations. It’s all very easy to relate to.

I have a few dislikes. There are horrible cutesy kids and I could have done without them. Their performances were fine it’s just a directorial choice I disagree with. And the background soundtrack is a bit too whimsical for my liking. The songs by K.M. Radha Krishnan are great, and are a little classically influenced so it’s quite a contrast to the cheesy background score. I really like Shreya Ghoshal so her singing is a bonus. There is little dancing, although I see in Wiki Sekhar Kammula gets a credit for choreography.

As  modern film romances I prefer Avakai Biryani and Godavari to Anand, although that may be a bit of rural romanticism on my part as the locations were nicer. But I liked seeing a smart woman in control of her own life as a heroine,  people I could relate to, and the non-preachy social observations. 3 and 1/2 stars!

Heather says: There are a lot of things I really like about this film. Sekhar Kammula has the knack of telling a simple story in a very realistic way with genuine characters. And although the story is simple, there is enough complexity in the way it is told to keep it interesting and fresh. The characters are all down to earth and act in very believable and normal ways to the different situations throughout the film. Rupa does have a tendency towards melodrama but I think that is just part of her character and since I have quite a few friends who behave similarly (it must be all the Bollywood we watch!) I found her over-reactions to be just another facet of her personality. And I think a bride approaching her wedding day is entitled to a little drama anyway. There are a lot of little touches in the film which are very simple but help to convey an idea of the various personalities. Rupa’s regular morning coffee and Anita’s morning runs give us insights into their character and their lives seem very typical of the average person. I think Kamalinee Mukherjee is excellent at showing Rupa to be a strong minded and compassionate woman who has some issues due to her past, but is determined to make her own way in the world. I also really like Anita’s character, and think that Satya Krishnan is very good in this role. Her visualisation of a scene from Indra when Anand’s cousin is talking to her was excellent, and I can really understand exactly what she is thinking as a result.

What I don’t like as much was the character of Anand. Although Raja is perfectly fine in his portrayal of the character, I just don’t warm to Anand at all. He seems selfish and lazy and I can’t see why Rupa would want to get involved with him having just broken up with another selfish and lazy man. Anand relies too much on his cousin to help him out whenever he needs something done, and although his interaction with Samatha and Anita is good, it’s just not enough to make me like his character. I do like Anand’s speech to his Raju though, where he seems to realise that he hasn’t actually ‘fallen in love at first sight’ but that it’s more of an attraction. So it seems much more realistic when he says that first of all he has to get to know Rupa and she has to get to know him, and then they will see where it leads. This is a more reasonable approach than many other films where the boy declares his love and then stalks and harasses the girl until she agrees to marry him. And although I didn’t particularly like Anand his character was well developed and his relationship with Rupa was well portrayed.

The other support characters are all good and Rahul’s mother in particular seems to relish her role as the evil mother in law to be. Rahul’s character is well developed and the portrayal by Anuj Guwara was spot on. I agree withTemplethat it was lovely to see AnishKuruvilla on the other side of the camera and he was excellent as Raju. He really did have some of the best expressions.

The film has a great soundtrack and I do really like all of the female characters. It’s an enjoyable story with some lovely performances, but I just would have liked Anand’s character to be a nicer person.  3 ½ stars from me.