What a fun recommendation! Thank you Moimeme! An unassuming movie that is great on many levels.
In yesterday’s review, I was all depressed about the hidden misogyny in Malayalam film. Not “hidden” like it was hard to see in the film, but like no one talks about those films. If you think “Malayalam”, you think of Bangalore Days and Premam and wonderful films with wonderful strong female characters. But I am beginning to realize that starting in the late 90s through the 2010s, most films had this sort of thoughtless populist misogyny in them. And even today it pops up in the films that don’t get the big think pieces and film festival premiers. Like the one I watched yesterday.
But, to balance, this film is a reminder that the opposite is true of Telugu films! You think “Telugu” and you think of stalking and one tight slap and item numbers and blech. But there is also a tradition of films, I am discovering, with strong complicated central female characters, where it is less about big action scenes and more about human comedy. How nice!
This film in particular is delightful. It came out in 2008, the same year as Bujjigaddu, my other favorite, and it could not be more different. Instead of crazy camera angles and quick editing and fancy fight scenes, it is about long conversations and eccentric characters and light romances. And it is all started off by a female character! Swati Reddy, who I saw and loved already in Amen, playing a determined character who knows what she wants and does everything she can to make sure she gets it.
The most interesting part, to me, is that in order to make it all about her character, they had to radically change the source material. Which, thanks to having been obsessed with it for about 3 years in high school, I can recite almost verbatim. And I know that it starts with two male characters and continues with them primarily for the entire script. The female character who matches our Swati Reddy here, she is barely in the plot. Certainly her desires don’t really drive much of anything.
And the other female character in the original, the one matching the role Bhargavi plays here (such a sad life Bhargavi had! I don’t really have anything to say about it, but I want to take a moment to acknowledge it), in the original she was seen as a duty and a drudgery, while in this film she is beloved and a joy. Heck, even Hema in this comes off better, instead of a humorous older woman who is a joke simply because she dares to have a romance, she is a vibrant beautiful woman who gets her own happy ending.
I’m not saying this is the most amazing perfect wonderful feminist film ever. But compared to the “usual” Telugu film, compared to the Malayalam film I watched yesterday, and even compared to the Edwardian British original play, it has refreshingly interesting and happy and worthy of respect women in it.
Oh, and also Srinivas Avasarala is a freaking DELIGHT, and Nani in his very first movie already feels like a different kind of a hero.
(If you are wondering why I haven’t said the name of the original play, it’s because my sister is reading this review and I want to show her this movie and see if she can guess what it is without me telling her)
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So, the play is The Importance of Being Earnest. Which, in the original, is a witty commentary on the way the British upperclass does almost everything for the sake of appearances instead of inner desires. Thus the name “Earnest”. The importance of being sincere (which none of them are), and the importance of having the name “Earnest”, which both heroes at one point pretend to be, as part of pretending to be a different person than they really are. It’s about masculinity and fakery and and English gentleman. And the peculiar English phenomenon of spending “the season” in London and the rest of the year in their country houses, a double life. And in the end it is about how this fakery is merely another way of getting to the truth, our hero IS in fact named Earnest, and IS a gentleman by birth, just as he has always pretended. Not instead an adopted son named Jack.
This movie does something different, and brilliant. It is about movies and how they create templates for how men should be, and what women want from them. Our heroine Swati Reddy is in love with Mahesh Babu and declares that she will only marry a man named Mahesh. Her best friend, the superficial rich boy who lives next door Srinivas Avasarala, promises to find her a “Mahesh”. And, after searching, he eventually meets Nani at a club, learns his name is “Mahesh” and immediately befriends him to determine if he is worthy of Swati Reddy. And Srinivas does all of this because he genuinely cares about Swati, and about her aunt Jhansi, and wants Swati to marry the man she wants and Jhansi to get her niece married as she desires. There is no ulterior motive, nothing for him to get out of it. He just likes Swati because she is his friend and wants her to marry the kind of man she wants because that is a reasonable desire. How revolutionary! And the kind of man Swati wants was defined by movies, because that is how this society defines itself.
But once Swati and Nani start dating, it ISN’T a movie romance. They fall in love, yes, but only after Swati is embarrassingly pushy about offering him a ride two blocks to his car and being extra excited about a date the next day. They like each other, they talk to each other, it’s all very real and not filmi.
Until it gets filmi again when Nani learns that Swati mostly loved him for his name, and confesses his “terrible secret” to Srinivas. He ISN’T named Mahesh! He is a village boy named “Rambabu”.
Not being “Mahesh” is about a lot more than a name. In the original play, he is Earnest in town and Jack in the country because, it is implied, his horrible scandalous excesses may reach the ears of his country family and he doesn’t want to embarrass them. In this, it’s not exactly excesses, it’s more a completely different person. And it is a person as defined by Telugu cinema.
In the country, Nani is the saintly perfect village head. Just like in all those other village action movies. He is so saintly that his servant is often driven to tears just at the sight of his perfection. But of course no one is actually like that, it is just a pretense you put on because that is how films have taught you to be. On the inside he is a goofy young man who wants to have fun, like anyone would be.
In the city, he is the other thing films have taught heroes to be, the cool club going ladies man, the wealthy successful young professional. But that falls apart pretty quick too, just as soon as he starts seriously dating Swati and reveals himself to be as awkward and shy and nervous as any other young man in love. That is why he is “Mahesh”, to be the Mahesh Babu type, handsome and confident and all the rest of it when he is in town. The counterpart to his saintly country act.
What really surprised me is that the adoption factor is hardly addressed here. In the original play, we open with Jack and Algernon talking, Jack revealing that he is in love with Algernon’s sister. A brief scene between Jack and Gwendolyn. And then Jack talking to Lady Bracknell, asking to marry her daughter, at which point he reveals that he was in fact adopted, found in a handbag at Victoria station as an infant. The gentleman who raised him died and left him everything, and guardianship of a young woman in the country.
That is the main conflict of the play, Jack versus Lady Bracknell in the effort to get him married to Gwendolyn. It has some twists and turns, Algernon travels to the country and meets and falls in love with Jack’s ward Cecily, Gwendolyn goes to the country as well to try to find Jack, but the start of the film, the original conflict, is Jack wanting to marry Gwendolyn and being refused because he has no family. And the resolution is Jack learning that he is in fact Algernon’s older brother, long thought lost, and his birth name was Earnest. In fact, he has told the truth all his life, his name is Earnest, Algernon is like a brother to him, and so on and so forth.
But in the film, the adoption is truly not even mentioned until the last 5 minutes of the film. The main conflict is getting Swati safely married to a Mahesh, just like she wants to be. We start with Swati’s desire, slowly watch Swati’s romance, the reveal that Nani’s name is not Mahesh is treated as important primarily for it’s effect on Swati, and the village sequence at the end reaches it’s resolution not at the arrival of the hero (as in the play) but at the arrival of the heroine, Swati. Most of all, Swati’s desire to marry a man of a particular name is treated, strangely, with respect. While Gwendolyn’s desire is almost forgotten in the original play by the end, the main conflict always being getting her aunt’s permission, in this film everyone is aware that it doesn’t matter what Swati’s aunt thinks, or her friend Srinivasan, or how much Nani loves her, it only matters if SHE wants to marry him, and she will not marry a man who is not named Mahesh. And so the resolution is her jumping for joy at the discovery that the man she loves IS a Mahesh after all.