Well, I watched it! Because, weeks and weeks after it’s release, it is STILL playing one show a week at my local theater! Which means I had the opportunity to see it, and also the curiosity, what is it about this movie that makes it keep playing and playing and playing? Besides what must be an extremely favorable per play contract with the theater?
I cannot believe how good Sai Pallavi was! I have now seen “all” of her movies (meaning all 3 of them), and I had no idea she had this in her. Sure, she was the standout heroine of Premam, but that was mostly the character and an unusual calmness and centeredness onscreen. And she was great in Kali, but again that was making use of her natural calm, and really that movie was like 70% Dulquer and all the other actors had to split the remaining 30%. But now, this movie, this is a true lead role. Not even a co-lead role, an actual lead!
(See how she is in front on the poster?)
That’s kind of what makes the film so great overall, our heroine really is the “hero” start to finish. She makes the decisions, she causes the changes, she does everything while Varun Tej just stands there and looks pretty (and he is very pretty). And in the end, she is the one who “wins” and gets everything she wants while the rest of the world has to adjust to her desires.
That’s the main thing that is wonderful, but there are other things too. I really like this vision of American life, for instance, it feels very real. A nice house, not a huge house but a nice house. Indian restaurants in strip malls, white and desi friends mixing at parties, and so on and so forth. Oh, and America isn’t a “terrible” place. It’s not for everybody, some people will like it and some won’t, but it’s not vilified or turned into some land of rapists and muggers.
This isn’t my home pride being offended, it’s my need for good narrative that minds it when America is made into such a transparent “bad guy”. To have these big sudden bursts of evil, instead of a slow and steady build of “I just don’t like this place” doesn’t make any sense. And this movie does a great job of showing America as a beautiful country where you can have a nice life, but that still doesn’t mean it is the nicest possible life.
Beyond that what really stood out for me was the style of the film. It felt very, how can I say this, grounded? It wasn’t just America that had the “nice house but not a mansion” kind of visual, India was like that too. A nice house in a village, a small field, a tractor. Lots of mud, lots of rain, not much singing and dancing in the fields, more working in them.
Beyond that, the relationships in this film felt so real while at the same time not just imitations of Western relationships. This isn’t a boy and girl shyly exchanging glances across the room and falling in love at first sight. They really talk, spend time together, get to know each other. And they handle their relationship themselves, parents and heads of family are not brought in to it. This is between them.
But that doesn’t mean that they leap into bed together, or even kiss. It doesn’t mean that marriage isn’t the natural next step after falling in love. You can be grounded and real with each other, and still “traditional” in your own way, still believable as what a “good boy” raised in America and a village girl in India would be comfortable with. Oh, and all of this without throwing away female desire. Our heroine is explicitly looking for a man she wants to touch and who she enjoys when he touches her.
Let’s see, what else? The songs were good. The stand out was the wedding song, but the rest of it was okay. Interesting, there was no big fantasy song of any kind. Another way in which the film was grounded. As I said before, there’s been all this buzz over Arjun Reddy being a “different” kind of Telugu film, but it’s really not. Arjun Reddy, this movie, Ninnu Kori, they all felt the same to me. Love stories, songs, costumes, dialogue, all of it like you would see in the “real” world. Arjun Reddy just pushed the envelope a bit on the sex and drugs part of it, but the rest of it, the style of it, that’s been there all along.
If anything, this film is MORE progressive than Arjun Reddy! A hero who reacts to heartbreak with addiction and self-destruction, blah blah, seen it! A heroine who refuses to alter her life plans just because she falls in love, radical!
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I missed the first 5 minutes. Gosh darn it. But from what I have been told, it sets up the slight gender flip right from the start. Our hero is the one who goes to his big brother and tells him it is time to get married. The reverse of the usual concern with the daughter needing to be convinced and being shy and reluctant and so on. And of course the daughter is also usually convinced by another woman of the household, and this time it is the man of the house who talks with him.
By the time I came in, the brother had arrived in India to see our heroine’s older sister. The couple liked each other, but he asked if they could wait until his little brother came from America to confirm he liked her too. Well, I guess his middle brother. It’s a household of 3 boys, the oldest who is responsible and grown up with a job that supports them all, the middle one who is in med school, and the youngest who is still a little kid.
Okay, I have to pause her and jump around wildly in order to make my point! See, the two households are flipped! Our heroine and her sister are the only support of their father. Our heroine runs the farm, her sister runs the house. Meanwhile, overseas, our hero is the warm supportive parent to his little brother, while the oldest is the provider for the household and head of the household. Our heroine is the “son” while our hero is the “daughter”.
This is not to say that they aren’t still male and female. There is a difference between their gender roles and their family roles. Our hero is tall and handsome and a doctor, and even gets into a fight. Our heroine wears saris and dances at weddings and is teased by boys.
The romance, at least the early romance, is delightful for how it jumps back and forth across gender lines. There are a few moments when our hero asserts physical authority over our heroine in a very male way, and she responds with feminine delight (lifting her up, towering over her, etc.). But there is also a very direct moment in which our heroine takes the male role in those cell phone scandals. She tricks our hero into wearing a wet dhoti in the courtyard and takes photos of him and later threatens him with them.
It finally turns, for both of them, in a very conscious way in the middle of the wedding celebrations. Our heroine does a dance in full sari at the Sangeet, a very feminine act. Later, the gender line is crossed again when our hero offers to help her study, and makes her chai, explaining that since his parents died young, he and his brother naturally learned how to cook and care for themselves. But the next day, once and for all, the line is drawn by the heroine.
She declares that he is tall and handsome and kind and everything perfect. But he must have a flaw because she needs him to be flawed in order for her to forget him and maintain her promise to her father to stay and run the family farm. And his flaw appears to be that he is not willing to fight for her. Some boys at her college are excited by seeing the mole on her back, and Sai consciously taunts them, trying to force a reaction from Varun. And when it doesn’t come, she admits to her friend that she is disappointed in him, but this is the best thing possible, now she has a flaw to latch on to in order to get over him. Only, of course, it was all a fake out on the audience. They go outside to discover that Varun is in a massive fight, beating up everyone who dishonored her, he only appeared cowardly when he was with them because he didn’t want them to be a part of it.
And that is the end, for a while, of Sai as the “man”. Which, again, is underlined for the audience, she and her friend talk and she decides to just enjoy this time and pretend to be something she isn’t while she has it. And for the rest of the love song, Sai “tries on” the persona of a girly girl, enjoying being frivolous and in love.
Until, at the end, she returns to her natural state of boy dom. Not by falling out of love or anything like that, but by reacting to her love in the way a boy would. Planning to propose, to ask him to come live with her. Not planning to change her life, but to ask him to join her and change his so they can be together.
All of this is fascinating! And this alone would be a good movie. But, of course, there has to be an interval point so it all has to change.
And so before Sai can propose, she overhears Varun talking with his cousin (his sophisticated city cousin) seemingly about being in love with her, the cousin. And Sai turns away from him. He returns to America, she rejects his calls. He finally texts her that he is in love with her, weeks later, and she responds with a photo of her slipper (which is a wonderful immediately iconic idea).
This part is a little hard to take. I mean, WHY??? Such a stupid misunderstanding! But if we relate it back to the first half of the film, it all makes sense and resonates. First, it is always the “hero”s role to misunderstand the heroine and hold her imagined sins against her while the heroine silently endures. In this case, the genders are just flipped. Second, and much more importantly, remember that Sai was looking for a fault. She told her friend she would find that one flaw and focus on that until she ripped him out of her heart. Because she cannot be a “wife”, she has to be a “son”. Her hardness here is not because Varun hurt her feelings, or her heart is broken, or anything like that. It is because she is trying to harden herself to the task she has set, to be her father’s strength for the rest of his life. She had a brief moment of weakness, but now that is over. Again, very “hero”, think of Amitabh on a quest for vengeance giving up the woman he loves kind of thing.
Heck, Sai even picks out her next groom herself! Goes to the richest most educated young man in the area and asks for a “selfie” in order to make Varun jealous. And it turns into a proposal. Which is accepted at first in a petty game with Varun, but then rejected later not because of Varun but because of Sai, she just doesn’t like the guy “like that”. And in her mind, it is up to her to pick her husband, not the other way round.
And then the shift to America for the last 3rd of the film, this is not a shift in geography but in gender. Sai is sent because her sister is on bedrest during pregnancy and there is no other woman available, she is told to do what her mother would have done had she been alive. To go take care of the household, take care of her sister, be very “feminine” in a way she never has been before.
It changes the power dynamic further that this is in America, Varun’s home where Sai is the stranger. Not as much the stranger, she can easily navigate most areas, but still needs help with some others. She is still the stronger one, Varun’s heart is broken and life is in shambles while Sai is powering through with her own destiny in mind, but they are more equal here. There is a great moment that shows that, after an emotional blow up (when Sai wore a short western style dress, and Varun had an obvious reaction, and felt that she was taunting him with it), Varun is told he has to drive Sai to visit her friend. He is too upset to think about being on a car trip with her and so leaves her at a bus station instead. Then feels guilty and returns for her. See, emotionally, Varun is the weak one. But physically (especially in this unknown place), Sai is still the weaker one. The gender dynamics are different, but still related to what they would be in a regular film.
The actual car trip is where all the “boy” “girl” stuff sort of sorts itself out. There are two moments that stick out for me. First, at one point, Varun tries to teach Sai to drive in America (obviously she can drive in India). He doesn’t want her to stay weak, he wants her to learn and get stronger and all of that. He wants her to be an equal to him, as she was in India.
But later, when Sai wakes up and sees snow on the ground (while they are visiting Varun’s cousin, resolving that last little bit of doubt as he explains that the cousin was in love with and married someone else), she runs outside to touch it. And then loses her balance and almost falls until suddenly Varun grabs her waist and pulls her up. It’s super romantic. But also a nice line of power. He is both the stronger one, and the one more aware of the dangers in this place, and he will protect her. For now. While she learns to drive and so on.
It’s not surprising that, after this trip, Sai changes her mind and agrees to marry Varun. The underlying concern was never his possible romance with his cousin, that was just the excuse she used to justify and support her other concerns. The main problem was her doubt as to her ability to ever live as a “wife”, to give up her dreams and independence and responsibilities, everything that came with her position as “son”. And that is what Varun proves is possible. She can make herself happy with him, he can adjust himself a little to her. It’s not that she was “resisting” until now, as I see it, it’s that she honestly was not sure this was something she could do until she tried it out and saw that it could work. And, of course, until her father insisted and released her from her greatest responsibility, himself.
I like the big ideas of the ending, but the execution felt a little rushed to me. Although maybe that is because I am still getting in the rhythm of Telugu non-action films? I had the same issue with Ninnu Kori, and even a little bit with Arjun Reddy. And, now that I think about it, Santosham and Manam too!
The Big Idea is twofold. First, the whole issue of Sai making her peace with giving up her place. And second, the question of who will offer to leave, and who will ask. Sai admits to her sister that now she cannot bring herself to ask Varun to stay in India with her, as she planned to in the first flush of love, because love should not have conditions. She should be willing to marry him, if it is to be a true marriage, no matter what. And that is what she is, finally, able to do. To agree to the unspoken deal that if they marry, she will leave her home and her father and live in his world.
It is only after the wedding that Varun reveals he is planning to stay in her world. Because he believed in that love without conditions too. He wanted her to marry him without the promise, and he wanted to be able to give the promise knowing it was his choice, that he could have her and his future if he wanted it.
I just wish it weren’t all so rushed! I feel like Sai’s character, as a whole, may have turned out to be ill-served by that ending, by the way it appears that she changed her mind for no reason (rather than finally seeing that she is capable of letting go of her duty thanks to a whole series of events), and then Varun agreed to stay in the village for no reason (rather than it being the other half of the unspoken love without conditions problem).
However, setting aside the last few minutes, what a wonderful movie! A heroine who takes the hero’s part without losing her femininity, and a hero who takes the female role without losing his masculinity.