Well, now I know where all the old-school Hindi romance went, it’s in the Telugu films! Not really, I can tell this is a slightly different kind of romance and feel of a film from the Hindi ones, it’s clearly a separate tradition of romance. But it’s very refreshing to watch anything that feels unapologetically and unironically and un-cynically romantic.
Not an amazingly perfect wonderful movie. Not a movie that is for everyone. But if you are the kind of person who thrives on love at first sight, secret messages passed through the eyes, dramatic pronouncements like “He’s not my boyfriend, he is my life and I am his autograph!”, then this is the film for you! And, of that kind of film, it is done very very well. Way better than anything I’ve seen in ages from the Hindi industry. Plus, Nassar! Just in case you wanted to hate him again some more after Bahubali. And Nithya Menon, in case you want to love her some more after EVERYTHING.
(Glasses! She has glasses!)
This is also part of that “other” Telugu history that I am beginning to see more and more. Arjun Reddy, Ninnu Kori, Fidaa, those are just this year. But this movie came out back in 2015. And Bommarillu, Happy, Santosham, those all came out earlier too. Sure, sometimes there is a tiny fight scene, but it’s always just part of the romance. And the characters are kind of grounded in an odd way, and they deal with real issues like father-son dynamics and female ambition versus marriage and all kinds of things. Sure, they deal with them through songs and dramatic announcements and mansions and clothes and so on, but they are dealing with relationship and social concerns and other juicy things like that. I am sure there is a whole bunch of backstory about how the industry shifted more and more to action films and that became the national/international identity for them, I don’t know any of that, but I do know that there is still a market for these relationship dramas in Telugu films, and there are still filmmakers making them. And I am just beginning to have a faintest hint of the feeling that the Telugu audience most have had for ages of “why does no one ever talk about these other films, which are just as popular and prolific as the action movies?”
Now, for this film itself. A good romance with a little more to it. Mostly it is a romance, yes. But it is a romance with a hero who is a successful runner, which is a bit different. And a heroine who has a little more depth to her than I would expect.
And it is a cross-religious romance, and a love romance. And the older generation is not blindly against it. This isn’t a regressive “this could never happen!” kind of reaction. And as for the young people, it doesn’t even come up as a consideration for them. Way more progressive than the same film would be in Hindi.
Later, we will have a young woman who lists off 3 previous boyfriends, and yet is not punished for this. Well, she is taught a better way, but she isn’t written off as a default horrible person just because of that. Dating casually is a mistake, but not a “sin”. We have a woman who wears a Hijab, and also runs a massive business empire. Things are not cut and dried, characters are more than one thing.
And yet, on top of all this interesting freedom and movement, romance is still there. Love is love and fated and forever. Hero and heroine have a magical connection, coincidences abound. It’s an old-fashioned plot that exists comfortably with new-fashioned elements.
This is what I wish other industries would learn how to do. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were. Yes, show working women and open-minded attitudes. But keep the romance, the crazy love stories, the songs, all of the crazy stuff. You don’t have to give up everything.
Oh, have I not mentioned the hero, Sharwanand, yet? He’s very handsome. Looks like he is one of those semi-connected types. There’s some marriage relationship to a film family, he went to school with Ram Charan. His “big” movie isn’t this one, but Run Raja Run, which is most talked about now as the last film by Sujeeth, who is now directing Saaho. He does a good job with this role, but it is also a very story supported role. He doesn’t have to add much beyond standing there and looking pretty to make it work. Nithya has slightly more to do, but not much. And then of course there are the talking anthropomorphized running shoes, who really carry the majority of the film.
But to get into all the ways this works and is different and so on, I have to get into SPOILERS. So, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
This movie starts with Sharwanand, which makes it look like it’s his movie. But it’s really not. He is older, glasses, beard, giving advice to runners about how to always focus on just running the race. Goes home, teases his daughter for running late, then goes to his office and takes down his old running shoes, which talk to him. Okay, it sounds cheesy, but it kind of works in how it is done. And it’s also, not for nothing, very good animation. Doesn’t look super fake or jerky. And with the encouragement of the shoes, he starts looking back to his youth, telling them his story.
There’s a reason that we start with the running shoes. Because this isn’t really Sharwanand’s story, it’s his and Nithya’s. And the shoes are what ties them together. The lack of shoes lead him to cut his foot in his first race, which lead him to offer her a handkerchief to clean them. Later, she gave him the money to buy the shoes in return for his medals. The shoes belong to both of them (shoes shoes shoes, the word is beginning to sound odd to me now).
Sharwanand begins the story, but pretty soon it becomes split between him and Nithya. He sees her at his first running meet, and runs towards a vision of her face, winning. Despite stepping a stone, which Nithya notices and therefore sends a friend over to give him a handkerchief. So far it is all from his perspective.
But then we switch to Nithya. She noticed him as well and noticed him noticing her. And asks her Hindu college friend about him, learning his mother is a singing teacher. And, DISGUISE!
Which is also really interesting for what it says about the Muslim identity. Nithya wears a full face veil at college functions, along with a modest black outfit that covers her full arms (but is really really really tight in the chest! Which undercuts the modesty a little). However, when she goes to Sharwanand’s house, she is wearing a modest anarkalli type outfit with a light scarf draped over her head and no more. Not even a full Hijab.
She wears her Muslim identity lightly. In some situations she wants to be hidden and obvious at the same time, thus the veil and so on. And in other situations, she wants to be revealed, and also invisible. Thus dressing more like “everyone else”. This doesn’t actually seem that unusual to me, or illogical. I know people with various identity fashions, Muslim or African heritage or Jewish, who vary the specifics based on the situation. And it would be logical for her to decide, when starting college, whether she wants to go the more modest or less modest route and stick with it, while at college but not necessarily in other situations. And it would make sense to be less modest while inside a house in a primarily female situation. Especially a house she plans/hopes to enter later as a bride.
That’s the deep part of the disguise, the just plain cute part is that she wears glasses, so Sherwanand can’t recognize her because he only saw her eyes before and that’s what he fell in love with. Which leads to her dreamily singing around him, while he doesn’t even know who she is. And then, even better, asking “glasses Nithya” to teach him Urdu so he can tell “veiled Nithya” how he feels. So cute I am going to die!!!!
And this is the kind of swoony romance that is both unbelievable and believable. I don’t need to see a heroine who agonizes over her religion versus her heart or a hero who strides around trying to save her from her religion. But I do need to see a hero who falls in love with her eyes to the point that he can’t even see the rest of her when she is in front of him. And a heroine who goes in disguise into his house to learn more about him (even though she really could have just asked).
This is one of those romances that works at a distance. He falls in love with her face, and knows when she asks her friend to give him a handkerchief that she loves him back. A few interactions are enough, not because their connection is so shallow but because it is so deep. They don’t need to see each other or talk to each other to understand each other. When she finally reveals his identity just before he leaves for the Nationals, and then his mother suddenly reveals she has known all along and suggests a marriage, it doesn’t feel fast. It feels natural, they have been committed and in love and together on a deep deep deep deep level since they first met.
Of course, this all pays off in the second half. Is this a common structure for Telugu films of this kind, the happy light opening and suddenly serious second half? It’s in Ninnu Kori, and Arjun Reddy and Fidaa to a lesser degree. Oh! And Eega! Which I am thinking about a lot with this movie because it has the same sort of romance-from-a-distance thing going on.
Anyway, the first half is this delightful isolated romance. That peaks after Sherwanand wins the National medal and comes home to give it to his mother (to replace the Mangalsutra his father took from her, am I right that this is meant to imply that his father was a worthless deadbeat who took her necklace? Or is it something else?). And his mother sends him into his room, where he finds Nithya, clearly having his mother’s permission to make out with/marry her.
Only, she is called back home, and before they can meet again, his mother dies!!!! And she leaves town!!! Suddenly!!!!
And this is when we jump back to find Nithya in the present. In Malaysia (and now as soon as I see Malaysia, I start thinking about the oppressed Tamil minority, thanks Rajnikanth!), Nithya is a powerful owner of a corporation. She returns home to call for “Mehak” who is not there. Next morning, we meet Mehak, a twenty-year old woman who is hungover and clearly a bit of a party girl. This is the character who makes mistakes, but not “sins”. It’s a bit of a stereotype, the party girl raised overseas. But we see that she cares about and relates to her mother. This is a bad period, but she is still a sweet nice girl on the inside. And, my favorite part, she knows all about her mother, enough to twit her about her one failed love story.
The audience is briefly tricked, Mehak says that if Nithya had married Sherwandan she wouldn’t be her mother. Which sounds like Nithya married another man and had a daughter. And the audience goes into the flashback with that assumption.
And, finally, we see Nithya’s side of things. Entirely Nithya’s side, not like Sherwandan’s version that ended up cutting back and forth a bit. See, ultimately, Nithya is the stronger and more important character. We learn that she was leaving town because her uncle lied that her father was sick only when she gets to Malaysia, she finds her father (Nassar! With both arms!) completely healthy and charming and cheerful.
This scene is so great! Nassar is cheerful the whole time, as he explains that he knows about her romance with a Hindu boy, responds to Nithya’s certainty that Sherwandan is the only one she could ever love, and finally explains himself. It’s NOT about religion. Well, not exactly. It’s about the Muslim community in Malaysia and how Nassar feels a responsibility to them. And I buy that! They are a minority, an oppressed minority (not as oppressed as the Hindus, but close. Again, thank you Rajnikanth!), in a foreign country. Nassar’s ability to rise from laborer to business owner is a big big deal. To have his daughter seemingly reject the community he represents is a legitimate concern. It’s not just sticking to the rules for the sake of the rules.
(Now, picture Nassar doing this)
And then he shoots himself. They had to choose how to show this part, overly melodramatic or ripping off the bandaid “we know this is slightly contrived” quick. And they went with the second, which I appreciate. He gives her 5 seconds to think about his argument, hears her firm “no”, and then stands up from the table and shoots himself.
What makes me really love the movie is that, at his funeral, his wife is cheerfully planning her daughter’s wedding to the man she loves. Really, it was just Nassar and his concern with his standing in the community. On the family level, they just don’t care. Nithya’s mother wants her to marry whoever she wants to marry, now that Nassar’s standing is no longer an issue and they are going back to India anyway. Where they will no longer be an example to an oppressed community.
It is Nithya who makes the decision. She can’t live with the thought that her marriage caused her father’s death. And Nithya, because she is such a great actress, really sells this. It’s not some abstract sense of duty, it’s that she literally could not be happy seeing her father’s dead face in front of her all the time. And so she writes a letter to Sherwanand, lying that she is marrying someone else so that he will feel free to live his life. But instead, she remains single, always, and ends up adopting a little girl. Becoming a mother and a successful business woman and building a happy life.
How delightfully feminist! Sure, she can’t be with the man she loves, but that isn’t everything. She has work and a daughter who loves her, things work out okay.
And the only reason she is finally going back to India to find Sherwanand is for that daughter. Not for herself, she doesn’t need him for herself. She is sure in his love and in her own and that is enough. Yes, it is hideously wonderful romantic, but also kind of healthy. Why be a Devdas drifting away in misery, when you can keep your lost love as part of your life and still live a life?
Also hideously wonderfully romantic is their first re-meeting. Sherwanand at a wedding singing a long song about them, then dropping her handkerchief (which he still carries) and which her daughter returns to him. It really is perfect, in another film that would just have been the end, that super magical connection moment.
Only, this film wants us to have more! And so she gets to give him a love token as well, returning his medals (that she has always kept) to his daughter, so that she won’t interfer with his life. And we get a rush to the airport and a final explanation, his daughter isn’t “his” daughter, just like her he adopted. And it was because of her, her best friend that was part of their love story got pregnant, he took care of her and the baby without ever marrying her. As part of his loyalty to Nithya. SO ROMANTIC! And, bonus, save the girl child! Both of them have children sort of by choice and choose daughters. Because daughters are the best.
And so we end with a reunion. But not a sad Veer-Zaara “we’ve wasted 20 years and now are in terrible old age make-up” kind of reunion. Instead a “we had a pretty good 20 years and always sort of felt connected, and now we have are coming together stronger and happier than before” kind of reunion.
Really, just the best kind of romance!
(Way better than this)
(also very very similar and way better than this)