Happy Tuesday! A Telugu film! First one in a while, but it felt like time. We’ll see if my Telugu chops are still at their (very low) level.
Be warned, this will not be a very detailed review. Because the subtitles got lousy and delayed and weird about 40 minutes in and never came back. And because it is one of those plots that you really really need to know all the specific relationship names people are using to be able to follow the details. I had to just throw up my hands and accept that everyone was related to everyone else in a variety of ways after a certain point, because there was no way I was getting enough information from the simple “aunt” “cousin” “uncle” that the subtitles were giving me.
I think I vaguely got the plot, and the appeal of the film. The appeal was Mahesh Babu, Prakash Raj, and Venkatesh Daggubati all together in one film, lots of songs, and a generally warm feeling to it. Plus, a nice reassuring message of traditional family values and festivals and happiness.
This appeal didn’t totally work for me. For one thing, while I like Mahesh, I’m not like into him-into him. And Venkatesh is a total stranger to me. Prakesh Raj, he’s awesome, but he isn’t around enough in this film to sell me on the whole thing.
For another thing, I have no deep emotional connection to traditional Telugu style family values and festivals. The film is clearly picking up on that feeling of everything being just like in your family but slightly prettier and richer and happier and better. Only, it isn’t like in my family.
This isn’t because I am incapable of opening my mind to other cultures, obviously I can do that, I am writing this blog. No, the film is taking a bit of a shortcut. Instead of establishing a universal appeal, it stays within a specific context that the majority of it’s audience will have an instinctive subconscious reaction to.
Not that that is a bad thing. Sometimes I feel like Indian movies have gotten too universal, all the rough edges scrapped off. The ideal would be a movie that is both specific and universal, but that is very hard to achieve. Most filmmakers choose the universal boring option, it’s kind of nice to have a film that chooses the other door, the “so specific that it stops being universal” door. I just wish it wasn’t selling itself in universal ways, “family”, “happiness”, and so on, but with definitions of family and happiness that do not fit my experience.
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Prakash Raj is a happy man who wants nothing more in life and always looks on the bright side. In his household is his daughter, his wife, his mother, and his orphaned niece. His oldest son Venkatesh is working out of town (I think Vizag? But, again, subtitles were lousy). His younger son Mahesh Babu is more educated and is in Hyderabad trying to get a good job.
The essential “conflict” of the film is something that is universal, and which I quite enjoy. The older son Venkatesh is pessimistic, worried, angry. The younger son is optimistic, happy go lucky, charming, sure that everything will work out for the best. Which is, well, how older and younger siblings work!
It’s the same in my family, since birth if you look at any photo of me and my sister, there she is being responsible and serious and concerned, and there I am making a wacky face and doing whatever. That’s how siblings work, the oldest has all the worries, and the youngest doesn’t (because the oldest is taking care of things). And this film does a nice job (from the little I grasped) investigating that dynamic. The oldest is the responsible one, but he still turns to the younger one for advice and support. The younger one is carefree and optimistic, but the one thing that can get through that shield of happiness is if the older one abandons him and forces him to be the responsible one.
It takes a loooooooooooong time for this film to get there. First, Venkatesh quits his job working for a relative and returns to the family home. Then Mahesh returns as well, for reasons that are unclear to me.
Both brothers are united in the household, but still different in how they live their lives. And their romances show that. Venkatesh has always been intended for his cousin Anjali. But he is so cautious and closed off that he ignores her obvious love, and the happy life that is right in front of him. Meanwhile, Mahesh goes to a family wedding and immediately goes after Samantha Ruth Prabhu, sure that she will respond to his flirtations. He casually keeps up a phone call relationship with her for months on end, not worrying about her losing interest or their relationship not working out, or anything at all really. The brothers are living together, but still could not be farther apart in how they view the world.
It almost comes to a head with their sister’s wedding. Samantha’s wealthy family has helped find her a groom. Venkatesh is too proud to accept their help, but Mahesh sees the bright side, that they are offering this and there is no reason to turn it down. For a moment it seems like the brothers will fall apart over this issue. But then Venkatesh steps back and lets Mahesh make this decision for them and accepts the help.
Let me back up for a second and see if I have the family structure correct. Prakash Raj’s sister was married to Rao Ramesh’s brother and they were the parents of Anjali. They died in an accident and her father’s very very wealthy family did nothing to help her, while Prakash’s more modest family took her in. Rao Ramesh only values money and therefore looks down on Prakesh Raj and his sons and the rest of the family. But ultimately his family as a whole is still the large loving traditional type. And so his wife and mother make sure to invite her poor distant relatives to his daughter’s wedding and, after the wedding, the daughter herself bumps into Prakash and is so taken with his kindness and sweetness that she offers to help set up a groom for Prakash’s daughter. There is lingering resentment because Anjali had no help from her father’s family, and because they have always looked down on Prakash’s family for being poor. This resentment slowly builds through out the film in a series of incidents. I think. Again, terrible subtitles!
As I could follow it, when Rao Ramesh invites them to his daughter’s wedding, they send Mahesh to represent their family because no one else wishes to go. And it gets worse at Prakash’s daughter’s wedding, the wealthy relatives come and are superficially nice, but in fact are looking down on the poor wedding in the coconut field. Venkatesh sees through their facade when they insult him and yells at them, and then is too angry to give a blessing to his sister at her wedding. Mahesh goes after him and finally confronts him for his sour behavior. But the boys make-up again, eventually.
There is a move towards the family conflict ending when Rao Ramesh takes a hand in helping to find a good groom for Anjali. Which brings in a new conflict as of course Anjali would prefer to marry Venkatesh, but he still refuses to speak his feelings to her. The family prepares for the wedding and at the same time attends a mass religious event. Thanks to Prakash’s goodness (most recently displayed by him risking his life to save a young man who turns out to be connected to a wealthy man), he is called to the front to lead the procession, honoring the whole family. And then, disaster! There is an accident and a stampede at the religious event, live electrical wires are everywhere, it’s terrible. Mahesh and Venkatesh wordlessly work together to save everyone, including Venkatesh risking his life to save Rao Ramesh’s youngest daughter. Finally, the families are united again as Rao Ramesh comes to appreciate the virtues of the family, even if they are not wealthy. And this whole experience also makes Venkatesh, finally, speak his feelings to Anjali.
The happy ending is at their wedding with Anjali shyly introducing herself post wedding by listing off all her new secure relatives, her husband and mother-in-law and father-in-law, no longer feeling like an orphaned outsider in their household. And, of course, Mahesh and Samantha flirting one last time, implying that their wedding will be occurring soon.
Okay, I know I got ALL SORTS of things wrong in that description. But I am hoping I got the general message correct, the smaller poorer family that is always looking for the good in people and trying to stay loving and united is better than the rich family that does not appreciate familiar bonds as much. And this message of family unity is most present in the adjustments and disputes between the two brothers, and their strength when united.
Now, here are my problems with that message as a whole. First, in terms of family unity, I find it a little disturbing that the entire film is about the effort to keep the two brothers bonded together and (to a lessor degree) to bring Anjali as a daughter-in-law into the home and give her a secure status, and yet the sister only exists to be married out of the family. Her marriage is a huge family endeavor and decision. But once she is married, she is just gone from their lives. And even before her marriage, for all the talk of the relationship between the two brothers and the clear way their dynamic is shown, there is no time spent discussing their relationship with their sister.
(Great wedding song though!)
Second, there is a message of happiness and family and goodness over wealth. But there is also a constant struggle for the two sons to find jobs. A struggle which isn’t just put on by the outside society, but is something the characters themselves are trying for.
This is what I meant by it being too specific. I am aware that the ideal Indian family is two sons, two daughters-in-law, two parents. And so a sister or daughter only exists to be removed from her family of birth and happily placed into a new in-law family. But there was a strange dissonance in a film that is supposed to be about the general concepts of “happiness” and “family” and valuing that over societal ideals, and at the same time some portion of the family is just ignored and forgotten by the movie because it does not fit into the societal ideal. A daughter is loved and cared for, certainly, but your lifelong bond is with your brother, not your sister.
And at the same time, how can we combine this message of “just be happy” with the struggle for a job? Not that I want them to remove the struggle for a job, I want some modification to the “just be happy” message. Something like “it is not the only thing that brings us happiness, but certainly economic security is part of what serves to make us happy”. It feels like an effort to have it both ways, the virtues of being not-money minded and at the same time the advantages of having money, maybe not as much as your relatives, but still money.
A specific message would explain “it is our culture to marry our sisters/daughters off, so the important bond is with your brother” or “just be happy but it is also okay to care about money if your family is starving otherwise”. The danger is in allowing for the specific to stand in for the general. To believe that “family is important” naturally of course means only those parts of your family as defined by typical Telugu family values, allows you to think those who do not follow these values don’t care about their family at all. Someone who chooses their sister over their brother doesn’t have “family values”. To believe that being generous and uncaring about money means not being super wealthy and being okay with that, allows for the possibility that someone who is living in desperate poverty and stealing for food could be considered as caring “too much” about money. Could be told “don’t be so mercenary, just be happy!”
If I were raised within Telugu culture, it may not even occur to me to question the specifics of how these morals are being presented because it is the life that has always surrounded me. But since I am from outside, I can’t help but question them. And they don’t really hold up to questioning. And I want the film itself to question some of this instead of blindly presenting it as the correct values which everyone naturally has, the life everyone naturally lives.
To end, I’ll give you a minor example which I think shows what I mean. Mahesh Babu is a fairly handsome man, but I do not find him “stop traffic” handsome. I know some people do, I don’t. And yet this film, over and over again, shows every woman in existence sighing over him, desperate for his smile, acknowledging his as the most handsome many who ever lived. Compare this with, for instance, how he was treated in Srimanthudu. He was still the perfect son and the perfect boyfriend and all of that. But he didn’t have strange woman literally coming up to him and proposing, we weren’t supposed to believe that he was so overwhelmingly attractive as to make every woman in the world fall in love at first sight. Or Hrithik Roshan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, he got the big intro with every girl on campus falling for him. But that was it, it wasn’t burned into us for the whole rest of the film that he was the handsomest man in the world and everyone agrees. But in the world of this film, Mahesh Babu is that attractive. And if you (the audience) don’t see it or don’t believe in it, this film is telling you that you are wrong, this is the “normal” way to be, all right thinking people are in love with Mahesh Babu, and all right thinking people want to marry their daughters off and out of their houses, and all right thinking people attend large Hindu religious processions, and all right thinking people live in combined families, and so on and so on with no possibility of any outside thoughts.