Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi (2018)

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s follow up to the exceptional Pelli Choopulu suffers a little from second album syndrome. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was left underwhelmed. Tharun Bhascker was so keen to draw us into his nostalgic world that I felt bombarded with descriptions and dialogues, but didn’t really get to know the characters for myself. I would have liked less of the how and what, more who and why.

Karthik (Sushanth Reddy) works as a club manager, hired to keep his own common people away from the VIPs. Vivek (Vishwak Naidu) is a mean drunk, a filmmaker who doesn’t make films, uncompromising and unlikeable. Uppu (Venkatesh Kakumanu) works as a wedding videographer and Kaushik (Abhinav Gomatam) is doing voiceovers for low budget TV comedy shows. All the guys have dreams, or a shared dream, that has pretty much been mothballed since 2007. In the present day, Karthik gets the nod to get engaged to his boss’s daughter. He’ll land a wife, a business, a fancy heirloom engagement ring to hand over, and a ticket to the USA, all as part of the deal. He gets the guys together for a celebratory drink and…hijinks ensue. The guys end up drunk, in Goa, minus the expensive ring, but plus a child relative Kaushik is supposed to be minding. Of course the only way to buy a replacement ring is to enter a film festival and win first prize. But that opens up old wounds and stirs old ambitions. Can the gang go back in order to move on?

I think the risk of a “slice of life” is that the viewer has to find some interest in the lives being examined. And some of the characters are not that compelling on their own merits, some are “types” rather than fully realised people in their own right. Vivek sits at one end of the scale, the intensely idealistic artist afraid to expose his work to judgement, and Karthik is his opposite, completely packing his ambitions away in favour of financial security. Uppu and Kaushik occupy the pragmatic middle, and are not the losers they seemed at first glance. They are still doing what they loved but not quite in the way they had hoped. But despite the flashbacks and memories, I felt I was experiencing it all second hand, not actually getting drawn into the story.

The film relies on a high degree of happy coincidence, and people seem to make decisions based on what the plot needs. A drunken truth or dare was framed as a bar promotion, thus introducing Shirley (Anisha Ambrose) as a promo girl who also turned up in Goa and by amazing chance happened to also be a musician who could be their composer. She also had the magical power of making people who wouldn’t have a meaningful conversation with each other agree to spill their guts on film for video content, all for a free drink. Shirley’s Russian friend Dasha just happened to have a great house with room for the guys to crash and she was prepared to act in their short film. The sapphire ring just happened to be sold by only one jeweller, based in Goa. Yes, life does often wave vaguely towards a solution after smashing you with a problem, but it felt contrived.

Sushanth is the nominal hero I guess, one who has packed up his dreams in order to be a good son. Karthik is a pleaser and usually goes out of his way to be inoffensive, which meant Sushanth is also nice but forgettable. I never felt the weight of Karthik’s decisions, or what it cost him. The resolution of his story was neither unexpected nor very interesting.

I am so over the myth of male artists being tortured souls who get a special exemption from behaving decently because of their art. Vishwaksen Naidu gives Vivek a dour intensity but I could take or leave him. Vivek blames his ex-girlfriend for his creative block, and uses aggression to cover his fear of judgement and rejection, literally diving in to a bottle to avoid facing reality. The breakup scene with his first girlfriend (Simran Chowdary) was horribly stilted and packed with clichés of the “it’s not you it’s me” line, all delivered in an expressionless staccato with Vivek grimacing and flexing. I also disliked that his redemption seemed to depend on Shirley, even if she seemed to have a reasonable handle on things.

I found myself barracking for Kaushik and Uppu, the guys who just get on with it. They know they’ll have to compromise to make a living, but they are kind of working on their craft and believe one day they’ll get their break. And they have professional standards, they’re just not obnoxious or precious about them. Venkatesh Kakumanu plays Uppu as pretty chill but with a keen sense of self-preservation and a dash of sarcasm. Abhinav Gomatam gives Kaushik a blend of empathy and shameless self-importance that made me cringe at times, and made him one of the more memorable characters. They are the underdogs in life and in the gang.

I don’t think every story has to have a 50/50 gender balance, but I was disappointed that the few women with any screen time had so little substance. The women – Anisha Ambrose, Simran Chowdhary and the actress who played Dasha – had so little to do apart from enable the men. Even the kid served little purpose other than one cheap potshot at his mother at the end. Karthik’s intended fiancée may as well have been played by a potato.

While the film is easy on the eye, my attention wandered a bit. (To be fair, that could be because of the uncle who spent the ENTIRE movie on a phone call and I think was describing a succession of surgical procedures.)  It’s a pleasant enough timepass, but I wanted more than OK. But. I do keep hoping the Telugu industry makes room for diverse stories that aren’t just mass Hero fodder, and this is certainly in that “something else” category. So please consider seeing this (or Sammohanam if it’s still around) and prove there is a market for story telling, not just spectacle.

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Pelli Choopulu (2016)

 

PelliChoopulu-posterI loved Pelli Choopulu (or #pellichoopulu as it is also known). Writer-Director Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam has an ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for people and their quirks. It’s a funny, feel good, movie with a little dash of realism, and packed with great characters. And – it had subtitles!

Prashanth, with his family and friends, goes to meet a prospective bride. After an idli related mishap on the way he asks for somewhere to change into a clean shirt when he arrives. Prashanth, Chitra, and a little boy there because this is a family friendly rom-com, get locked in her room. While they wait for a carpenter to come and break them out, they decide to have the chat they need to have. Initially awkward, they warm up and talk about their relationships and life goals. Chitra feels that Prashanth should follow his passion for cooking and not just drift along. He doesn’t really understand her drive. They have a frank conversation interspersed with laughter and good natured jokes at each other’s expense. Things turn awkward again when it turns out Prashanth’s dad got the address wrong, and everyone has to shuffle off to the right meetings. But at the very least, a friendship has begun. When Chitra needed a cook for her food truck, and Prashanth needed a business to impress his intended father-in-law, working together was a no-brainer. Then the question was – will they or won’t they?

I liked the sensible conversations between Chitra and Prashanth as well as the more playful scenes. She could easily outgun him in a battle of wits, but gave him his fair dues. The dowry discussion was interesting. Prashanth saw a substantial dowry as a way he could relieve his father’s worries and avoid a life where, based on his work experiences to date, he would most likely fail. Chitra was dismissive of his motives saying he was taking the easy way, and Prashanth agreed but saw nothing wrong with that. He found himself engaged, pending running a successful business, to a rich girl with a slightly unhinged father (Anish Kuruvilla). Richa and her dad took almost no interest in him as a person beyond his horoscope, and it was clear that he wouldn’t have voting rights in any decisions. Prashanth tried not to be offended by their behaviour, but the effort was visible. Would the lure of dowry win? Would he and Chitra realise that while they’re both imperfect they are perfect for each other?

Ritu Varma’s Chitra is feminine but practical, assertive but not rude. She is an articulate, educated girl who knows what she wants and that she is worth it. Chitra was hurt by a previous boyfriend, Vikram, but more because he effectively ran away without the courtesy of a face to face break up. Chitra also felt that her dad didn’t appreciate her as he wanted a son. But she didn’t let these things scar her. She got her MBA, she had a plan to make some money, and wanted to move to Australia. She was prepared to listen to her feelings, trust her gut, and go ahead with her business idea.

Vijay Deverakonda plays Prashanth as a bit dim and a little hopeless, but not in a bad way. Prashanth is an underachiever who decided not to try too hard because he knew he couldn’t do what he wanted anyway. He just wanted to find a way to get his family off his back, and not to keep feeling like a failure. When he is doing the things he loves – like cooking or drinking with his mates – his body language changes and he is more present and more confident. His call centre melt down is a sight to behold! When he is switched off his uncertainty shows in how he speaks and moves, and he seems to take up less space. It took me a while to recognise him as the actor who played one of the rich kids in Life is Beautiful, but I knew I’d seen those eyelashes before.

I think for Chitra to stay in charge, and not have to change to suit a partner, she needed a cute puppy type like Prashanth. He would give her the space to be herself, and not fight her on all the decisions. And Prashanth had some backbone when it came to showing her affection and support, telling her father off for wanting to send his own in house Ambani away for the sake of acquiring a son. What was wrong with the amazing daughter he already had? And dad agreed, later telling Chitra that he loved her and would support her no matter what and to take her time. He would still keep arranging the marriage meetings because of all the family expectations, but she was not to feel pressured to accept.

The relationships are depicted beautifully. Prashanth and Chitra get the bulk of attention on their will they won’t they romance, but the families and friends are very much part of the goings on. Prashanth was lolling around at home, with a drink topped up from his dad’s liquor stash. When his grandmother took a sip her reactions were priceless and the unspoken threats, mimed blackmail, and affectionate laughter as they shared a sneaky tipple was just gorgeous. Gururaj Manepalli and Kedar Shankar play the gruff but good hearted dads, and they showed how the tension between what their kids wanted and what they wanted for their kids was driving them both to distraction.

Prashanth’s friends are good value. Priyadarshi Pulikonda is a scene stealer with his droll expressions and slightly vague timing that made me wonder if Kaushik was an idiot or a genius. Vishnu (Abhay Bethiganti) is more sensible but has a larrikin streak a mile wide. They all know they could try harder, but they don’t judge each other (I was doing enough judging for everyone!). Everyone needs friends who just accept them and give them a hand when they can.

Once I recognised Vijay Deverakonda I couldn’t help but think of Life is Beautiful. Pelli Choopulu has a lot of the things I like about Sekhar Kammula’s films (a strong sense of community, realistic issues, good ensemble cast, Anish Kuruvilla who will seemingly do anything to avoid directing) and less of the things I don’t like so much (the assumption boys are right,  over-engineered plot developments, excessive and badly executed VFX).

The audience here in Melbourne went off at all the Australian references and the engineering jokes. The biggest reaction was garnered by mention of a potential groom from Melbourne who had a really good job. (7-11? Enquired one of the audience, to great merriment). Slightly sarcastic good humour was the prevailing mood for the movie, and for the viewers.

See this for a story full of love and warmth, laugh out loud zingy lines, relationships that make sense, and the delightful cast who bring it all to life.