What an interesting movie! Now I can see why everyone was excited about, but not surprised by, Fidaa. Clearly this director knows how to build complicated imperfect female characters and reward them with a perfect love story.
This is one of those films where I know, 5 years from now when I am 5 years further along in my Telugu journey, I will have a whole different sense of its place in film history. The Rangeela effect, as I think of it. Rangeela being the second Hindi film I ever saw, and a movie I really really really did not understand or appreciate at the time. I am sure it has a specific meaning and changed certain things, and influenced certain things, and was influenced by certain things, but right now all I have is that it was a good movie and definitely could see that it was made by the same person, Sekhar Kammula who made Fidaa, but earlier.
The thing about Fidaa is that it doesn’t pretend to be a hero’s journey. It was about the heroine, all the way. Sai Pallavi was an exciting new actress and we all knew that Sekhar had waited for her to be available to make this movie. All the images to promote the film showed hero and heroine equally, but while Varun Tej was calmly sipping coffee, Sai had her head thrown back, laughing with abandon, glowing into the camera. You were told in all kinds of ways that this was going to be a movie in which Sai is the one who shines, who takes the lead, who is the important one.
Whereas this movie is named after the hero. For no good reason that I can see. It is our heroine’s story, start to finish. She is the important one, the unique one, the one who makes decisions and changes things and changes people. She’s also the better actor! Kamalinee Mukherjee does a phenomenal job in this role being average-but-not-unimportant, and she has gone on to an excellent career. Meanwhile, Raja’s performance is fine but not super memorable, and he has gone on to a career that’s okay I guess. He works steadily, but that’s kind of the most that can be said about it.
It’s not even that the hero feels like the second lead. He feels more like the 3rd or 4th lead. First is our heroine. Second is our heroine’s best friend. Third is the general community she lives in. And only after all of that comes our hero.
Our hero comes late in the plot too. Our heroine has so much going on in her life, soooooooooo much. The hero is part of a very small part of it. He’s the final resolution of the last little bit of her story, but most of her story is unrelated to him. That alone makes this an unusual film, a film in which the majority of the plot is about the heroine’s internal conflicts, unrelated to her romance.
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What makes this film interesting, right from the start, is that there is no twist that is hidden from the audience. We see a young teen girl Rupa saying good-bye to her family and shutting the door after they all leave without her for a wedding. And we see a man leaving a bar, drunk. And then inevitably we see his car hit the car of the family. He stumbles down to find them, injured, arriving just in time to hear the father say over and over “Rupa! Take care of Rupa”.
And then we see Rupa, all grown up, still living in the same house, surrounded by memories of her family, and played by Kamalinee. There is no mystery, we don’t have to have her or anyone else explain that she lives alone because her family is dead, she is in the odd position of a traditional woman who lives in a family home but without a family, that she is trying to do the right thing and be a good daughter as best she can even if there is no longer a family there to watch over her. To not be that wild naughty girl who her mother yelled at, but the proper girl she wanted her to be, sitting up straight and studying her books.
We also don’t need a huge backstory for our hero “Anand” played by Raja. We meet him chasing after his father, the man who killed Kamalinee’s family, who is happily chanting “Rupa Rupa”. We know in a few tight scenes that Raja’s father regressed to childhood after the trauma of that night, but in his own way has remained obsessed with the charge he was given, to take care of Kamalinee. His wife tolerates his behavior and has become the head of the household. His sons happily and lovingly chase after him and play with him and try to make him happy. And Raja has returned to India not to see brides, as his mother thinks, but to sneak his father into Kamalinee’s wedding. And at the wedding, Raja finally sees Kamalinee face to face and falls in love with her at first sight.
That alone could be the plot of a different movie. The son of the man who killed her whole family falling in love with her. But this movie was more ambitious than that. It didn’t want to make a big ridiculous dramatic film of coincidences and fate and so on, it wanted to make a small strong story instead.
Raja was merely our introduction to Kamalinee’s life, and the tragedy of her childhood was just the start of her journey. Now, she is a pleasant kind young woman who has singing lessons in the morning on her front porch, then goes to her office job, takes with her friends at the bus stop, then comes home to have dinner alone, and then sit on the terrace with her best friend Satya Krishnan. She isn’t modern or rebellious or poetic or brilliant or any of that. She is just a nice young woman who gets through her work day and drinks her morning coffee and wants to get married and quit her job. But she has to be self-reliant in all these dreams. She can’t ask advice of her mother or her father or anyone else when she makes these decisions, because they aren’t there. And so she is struggling through the world, trying to figure it out for herself.
I find her first failed romance much more interesting than her romance with Raja. Not that I want him to actually be with the first guy, but the way it plays out is something I haven’t really seen before. We meet them at the end. Casual morning phone calls, counting down to the wedding. And then at work, casually sharing a coffee cup, talking wedding plans, him reminding her that she has to be extra polite to his relatives. They aren’t passionately in love, but they are comfortable, they are happy, they are building up a life.
Or, are they? Kamalinee goes to meet her fiance female relatives, dressed carefully in a sari, bows to touch each of their feet, while her friend Satya watches in horror at how she is changing herself. That is why the romance falls apart. Not because her fiance is cruel, or because she is in love with someone else, but because his family would expect her and force her to be something she isn’t, to leave behind her own hard won identity. Kamalinee walks out of the wedding because her future mother-in-law tries to make her wear a family sari instead of her mother’s wedding sari that she always dreamed of wearing.
And then it keeps going. Into an ugly ugly break-up. He keeps coming around, talking to her, trying to warm her up at their mutual office. But she is still happier free of him, back at work, back in her own home, than she was when she was trying to be something else to please his family.
And in this ugly confusing time in her life, Raja appears. He has 3 months while his mother is out of town before his MBA exam, and he spends it renting a room from her neighbor and slowly infiltrating her life. He befriends the little girl next door, and the old grandmother. Slowly he wins over Satya, until she starts giving him advice. And he romances Kamalinee in his own odd way. He makes her angry, he makes her tease, he makes her smile, he makes her come alive and return to that wild unladylike little girl she was before she had to become her own mother and father.
That’s half of it, slowly getting her to a place where she will propose to him, she will kiss him, she will joyously go after what she wants in live. But once that is accomplished, the other half is to give her back her family that she has lost.
Raja has been romancing her mostly on his own, following her and saving her from her evil ex and doing all kinds of nice things. But at the very end, now that he has her, he introduces her to his mother and (more formally than before) to his older brother. And they are delightful! They give Kamalinee the loving family acceptance she has been craving this whole time. She has her teasing big brother back, and her loving gentle kind mother. And that loving gentle kind mother is wise enough to see that the marriage cannot continue without truth and without trust. Raja has to tell her why he was at her wedding, that his father killed her family. Because finding out after marriage would just not be fair to either of them.
And in the end, telling her is what cures her. To discover that she hasn’t been alone all this time, that Raja’s father has spent all those years saying her name, thinking of her, that she had a family waiting for her all along. That she is lucky to have fallen in love with a boy from this family, because this is her family. She has been preparing herself to be the kind of daughter-in-law they want all this time.