The anthology Telugu film is a mixed bag, with some highs and others falling short
The best thing about Netflix’s first Telugu anthology film, which has four directors tapping into power dynamics in relationships, is the varied shades of its women — victims of abuse, power hungry, driven by envy… When they take control of a situation and steer things around, you get a social commentary, besides the complexities of relationships. Some stories work, others don’t.
Also Read | Get ‘First Day First Show’, our weekly newsletter from the world of cinema, in your inbox. You can subscribe for free here
Ramula: The orchid garland
Tharun Bhascker’s Ramula is a dark comedy that makes us laugh aloud while being aware of the harsh reality of a situation. In rural Telangana, Ram Chander (Naveen Kumar Betiganti) tells his lady love Ramula (Saanve Megghana) that it’s all over. “Brakkapp!” (break up), he yells, oblivious to her tears, and our laughs. A politician’s son, he thinks he’s stylish and confuses lust and love.
- Cast: Lakshmi Manchu, Saanve Megghana, Naveen Kumar, Amala Paul, Jagapathy Babu, Shruti Haasan, Sanjith Hegde, Eesha Rebba, Satyadev, Ashima Narwal and Srinivas Avasarala
- Direction: Tharun Bhascker, B V Nandini Reddy, Nag Ashwin and Sankalp Reddy
- Duration: 30-35 minutes each
- Streaming on: Netflix
Tharun narrates Ramula with a swag. The setting is authentically rural while the treatment is stylish, with cinematographer Niketh Bommi’s grainy visuals and Vivek Sagar’s European folksy tunes playing in contrast to the native beats.
What happens in a cinema hall and soon thereafter establishes who Ramula and Ram Chander are. She calls out his cowardice. We see Ramula’s feistiness and vulnerability, juxtaposed with the duality of Swaroopa (Lakshmi Manchu), a politician seething at the treatment meted out to her in the political world governed by men.
Humour pervades all through, showing a mirror to society. Someone gets besotted with the idea of a fair skinned bride, and another wants a garland of exotic orchids. Power struggles are laid bare.
When the two women cross paths, their body languages indicate how things can take a turn. And yet, it shakes us up. The all-percussion crescendo by Vivek Sagar in the closing portions is a defiant note of going against the norm. The performances are pitch perfect, with Lakshmi revelling in the task given to her and Naveen living it up. Newcomer Saanve Megghana is terrific. In her, we have another new Telugu-speaking female actor capable of taking on author-backed roles.
Meera: The mind games
The one who has clearly had the last laugh with the anthology format is Nandini Reddy, showing us what she can do when she moves away from family dramas. Her Meera (Amala Paul) is a ravishingly beautiful mother of two, carrying her third child, wedded to a wealthy, older man. The bungalow is a witness to the sinister happenings in Meera’s life.
It’s a clever conceit to portray Meera as a writer who lets her imagination fly. Nandini and writer Radhika Anand use this as a tool, and the notion that women writers articulate their innermost thoughts in their work, to play tricks on viewers. Observe closely and it’s easy to spot at least one of these tricks, if not all.
Amala Paul deftly changes colours like a chameleon to keep us guessing while Jagapathi Babu, cast in an unenviable part, makes it work. Richard Prasad’s cinematography and Mickey J Meyer’s music add to the sinister mood. The final reveal makes us smile and playback certain portions in memory.
Meera deserves a discussion for the way it addresses insecurities in marriage as well as the yearning of a young woman, perhaps at a later date when revealing plot points wouldn’t be spoilers.
xLife: Into the future
This film is Nag Ashwin’s way of making us question ourselves if we’ve been disconnected with the real world, submitting ourselves willingly to be in a digital bubble. ‘xLife’ is a make-believe possibility of a dystopian world in the near future. The nerdy-looking Sanjith Hegde playing the founder of xLife can get on our nerves easily. He fits into a type — the casually dressed geek who thinks he knows it all and cares a damn about the lesser mortals on whom he has a control over, with the help of sophisticated virtual reality. ‘But no one is compelling people to join xLife’ is his constant refrain. Just as no one is pressurising us to spend hours on social media.
xLife is Nag Ashwin’s attempt at experimenting a wee bit more, even if he doesn’t end up pleasing everyone.
Shruti Haasan is the damsel in distress in a set up from which not just she, even viewers, feel trapped. xLife is ambitious, is made by a technically sound team and articulates relevant ideas — like how everyone is a source of data, of the need to transfer power back to people and how we choose virtual comfort over reality. However, these ideas don’t translate into a completely engaging film. The twist can also be spotted a mile away.
Pinky: Remnants of the past
Sankalp Reddy’s film is a relationship drama involving two couples. One wants to be loved, another struggles to shake off the past… and some more. Instead of a linear story that clearly outlines the relationship dynamics, Sankalp chooses the trickier path of slowly revealing how the four characters are tied up against each other.
There are deft little cues, such as the use of ‘Pinky’ and ‘Priyanka’ to refer to the familiarity, or the lack of it, in a relationship, and who knows the laptop password. Sankalp leaves the story open-ended, at the height of a messy tangle. He wants us to mull over how possessiveness and envy can change the course of things.
Through conversations, we decipher the back stories of the four characters to an extent, but it doesn’t feel enough. Eesha, Satyadev, Srinivas Avasarala and Ashima Narwal try and do their bit but the film itself feels incomplete, as though we are being allowed to read only excerpts from a book. The tagline ‘love is eternal, so is desire’ could have benefitted from a more imaginative film.