Tuesday Telugu: Ashta Chamma, a Telugu Twist on One of My Favorite Plays

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!

Image result for ashta chamma

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.

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40 thoughts on “Tuesday Telugu: Ashta Chamma, a Telugu Twist on One of My Favorite Plays

  1. Wow, I didn’t expect you to watch it so soon! But I guess you needed it after that Malayalam film yesterday. I’m so glad it did the trick for you!

    (Maybe I should watch it, too, because I had a rotten day. After you cheered me up with that joke, it got much, much worse.)

    They do play with the names of the characters quite a bit. When Nani reveals that his name isn’t Mahesh, it’s not just that he has the “wrong” name, but that it’s such a completely “dorky” name (at least nowadays. In the previous generation it was quite respectable. 🙂 ) It’s hard to explain the impact of the names (Anand is pretty neutral) because there isn’t that kind of name culture in the U.S., except possibly for women. A Tiffany or Traci will evoke very different reactions to a Joan or Mary, right? It’s that kind of thing with even Lavanya and Varalakshmi. The latter is again a very traditional, even “rural” name (because urban folk are too busy chasing after the “glamour” names for their kids, especially daughters). But it actually has a very nice meaning, which is also used as subtext to her character definition. All in all, it’s a very well put together movie.

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    • Speaking of rotten days, I am holding firm to what Asmita said a week ago, Mercury is in retrograde and that is what is happening. Because I have had a remarkably large number of just not quite right things happen. Of the “the movie theater changes the schedule a second after I confirm plans to see a movie” kind of variety. I don’t usually go with astrology type stuff, but I am finding it very reassuring to just blame it all on the planets and assume it will be better in 11 days.

      And speaking of names, I think I get what you are saying, because I have a bit of that myself. I have never met a woman who shares my name (“Margaret”) and is under the age of 50. It’s not a really strange or out there name, it’s just one that was popular in the 50s-60s and not since, so you see a lot of older woman with that name and no one young.

      On Wed, Apr 4, 2018 at 12:47 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I knew Ashta Chamma was based on a play but I’ve never heard of it before. What Moimeme said about the name “Rambabu” is right. It’s more of a rural, old-fashioned name. My dad’s name is actually Rambabu so I sometimes make fun of him about it ever since we saw Ashta Chamma.

    I actually really like Mohankrishna Indraganti as a director. I would definitely recommend Gentleman which is his second collaboration with Nani and Srinivas Avasarala. I would also recommend Ami Thumi which is a really fun comedy that he made last year. Here’s the trailer to Gentleman:

    Speaking of Srinivas Avasarala, he’s a really good actor and director. His directorial debut was Oohalu Gusagusalade which is one of my favorite Telugu rom-coms and he also played an important role in the movie. If I’m not wrong, that movie is also based on a play. You should definitely check out Oohalu Gusagusalade. Here’s the trailer:

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    • Importance of Being Earnest is so fun! I will link you in return, here is the 1952 Michael Redgrave version (the “good” version): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hv4Bw8CfX6U

      Looks like the other movie is based on Cyrano De Bergerac which I was always so-so on, but my mother and grandmother were both a little obsessed by.

      And I have been trying to find Gentleman for years! You know this! But no subtitle love for me.

      On Wed, Apr 4, 2018 at 1:11 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • One day, Margaret, one day. But i’m surprised it’s not on Hotstar.

        You should still check out Oohalu Gusagusalade! It’s a cute movie and it’s starring Naga Shourya and Raashi Khanna in their first movies. I found it with subtitles!

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        • Hotstar is surprisingly bad with Tamil and Telugu! Well, not “surprisingly”, it seems like Tentkotta and Herotalkies already dominate that market so there wasn’t much space for Hotstar. And now Herotalkes has gotten eaten by YuppTV, which makes the market even stranger.

          On Wed, Apr 4, 2018 at 2:01 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yeah, they got a lot of stuff, but not everything. I am finding myself turning more and more to einthusan again. Which feels terrible, both because I am paying for these subscription services and because einthusan is illegal, but there is truly no other option for a lot of the content. Also, the Hotstar search feature is maybe the worst I’ve ever seen, you can only search by the exact spelling of the title. No actors, no misspellings, no sort by year, nothing. And, again, einthusan is better.

            On Wed, Apr 4, 2018 at 2:31 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Ugh, that sucks. Especially when you’re paying for the service. I’m surprised that they don’t have a good search function.

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          • What’s really irritating is that they keep pushing their TV shows, which I don’t want to watch, so if I look at like “popular Tamil”, I have to scroll through 20 TV shows before I even get to movies.

            Not the worst thing in the world, they still have a library of hundreds of films at my fingertips, so it’s a bit of a “my gold shoes are too tight” complaint. But still, thanks for letting me vent!

            On Wed, Apr 4, 2018 at 2:41 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Have you tried Sunnxt? HotStar is Star TV’s streaming platform & SunNxt is Sun TV’s. There are still TV series offered but I saw a good library of all South Indian films. But some of them didn’t have subtitles.

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          • Thanks for the tip! checking them out now

            On Wed, Apr 4, 2018 at 9:01 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • I watched Oohalu Gusagusalade now, and it’s so cute! Thank you for recommending Niki. Definitely it deserves to be on “Cute rom-coms one shouldn’t miss” list. It was my first film with Naga Shaurya, and oh my, he is so handsome!

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          • Based on your recommendation, I also just finished watching Oohalu gusagusalaade. I took it over three nights, watching it in half hour segments. Maybe that was why, but I didn’t think it was as funny as Ashta Chamma, though it did have a lot of snappy dialogues (thanks to Srinivas Avasarala). While Srinivas is certainly a good director, I almost feel like he’s wasted in acting, since he’s such a fine writer! And also a director, I guess.

            At any rate, the version I watched (without subtitles) was only 2:10:00 long, and it clearly looked like a major sequence was missing (Hint: the fire). I’ll now check out the subtitled version in case that is the full uncut version.

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          • I’m glad you liked it!

            Another Naga Shourya rom-com that I would recommend is Kalyana Vaibhogame. It’s not as good as Oohalu Gusagusalade, but it’s pretty fun. Also it’s kind of a spiritual sequel to Nani’s Ala Modalaindi in case you’ve already seen that.

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          • Darn it, Niki! Now, because of you, I’ve just finished watching Ala Modalaini also. And I don’t even a fan of rom coms! 🙂

            (It’s true that I started to watch Ala Modalaindi a few years ago, but was put off by the beginning and stopped. Then I read more about it, and wanted to get back and watch it some day, only I never got around to it. So thanks!)

            It is clear from watching this that Nani has definitely carved out his own special niche in the Telugu film hero universe. I was thinking that he is what Dave Barry describes himself and others like him as — they’re “guys”, not “MEN”. 🙂

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          • I think you nailed Nani’s role EXACTLY!!!! It’s different, because it’s not the “chocolate hero-action man” divide that I am used to, even when he enters the “grown up” phase of the plot, he still has that kind of light guy-like feel.

            On Mon, Apr 9, 2018 at 4:50 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Have you seen Ala Modalayindi, Margaret? If not, I urge you to do so pronto, so we can discuss it! There’s fodder for many posts in there. To wit: the mother-son relationship (which is very unusual in films), the way relationships between men and women are shown, heck, even the other parental relationship of the heroine. This film was written and directed by a woman, and, as soon as I saw her name in the credits, I thought, Whoa! That’s unusual enough to be noted. Then I forgot about it, because I was so engrossed in the film. But now, as I started to list out all that was unusual in the film, I realized that all those “different” things might be due to the fact that it was a woman at the helm, not a man. I’m not saying a man couldn’t have come up with this kind of story or direction (heck, the film that this post is about — Ashta Chamma — is another such), but I do wonder how much difference her being a woman made. So you see, you need to either watch or write about this pronto. 🙂

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          • All of these things are so tempting! I already watched this weeks Telugu, but maybe next week. Or maybe a bonus Telugu this week depending on how my life goes.

            Once again, I was disappointed in my Malayalam pick this week and surprised by the quality of the Telugu pick (SPOILERS: Godaveri). You may see me turn into a convert and spokesperson for the “Malayalam films aren’t all perfect and Telugu films are full of complex interesting human stories” theory.

            On Mon, Apr 9, 2018 at 9:22 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I can’t wait for your Godavari post! It is not perfect by any means, I love it for all its flaws and it is my favourite among Sekhar Kammula’s.
            Ala Modalaindi, on the other hand is just awesome! Nani starred in a string of not so noticeable movies after Ashta Chamma (which itself was more of Swati’s film than his), Ala Modalaindi was what put him and Nithya (this was her Telugu debut) on the map. Since Telugu movies have been pleasantly surprising you lately, could you grant us a bonus Telugu this week? 😉
            Any plan to watch Rangasthalam?

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          • I really shouldn’t watch Rangasthalam, this week I’m just gonna have time for hospital visits and work and sleep. But on the other hand, I may suddenly feel the need to play hooky from the hospital and take off for a Telugu action break. Is it more like Spyder with dark themes and stuff or is it more like Pokiri where it is just over the top happy action?

            Definitely tempted by another happy small Telugu rom-com. Since I seem to have lost my knack for picking happy sunny small Malayalam rom-coms, and I need my hit of sunshine and smiles.

            On Mon, Apr 9, 2018 at 10:26 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I’m not sure about the theme, but the general mood is definitely darker than a regular Telugu flick. It is set in 80s rural Andhra and reminded me of 80’s serious action movies unlike most present day action comedies. Overall I had mixed feelings. I won’t spoil much for you until you get a chance to watch it, but of course life comes first.

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          • Ha ha, Godavari, while not flawless, is a film by Sekhar Kammula, so will definitely be not from the masala school, and good quality. I’m not one of his cult followers, but I do acknowledge that he more or less single-handedly created a new school of Telugu cinema and you can count on his films to be interesting and thought provoking.

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          • I was comparing it with the Malayalam film I watched, from the past couple years with a high quality cast and production values and everything else, but the plot just didn’t hang together, it didn’t feel like people really thought about it and made sure the characters made sense straight through. And then there’s this Telugu film from years back, with less production values and a dozen characters and no real big names or experienced leads, and all these things that should have made it not work, and yet the actually story was so much clearer and the themes stronger and it just felt like someone had put more thought and heart into it.

            On Mon, Apr 9, 2018 at 9:54 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yes, yes, watch Ala Modalaindi Margaret, because I have seen it recently and can comment 🙂

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  3. Manjari : “You are , You are. right ? ”
    Ammaji: No I am not You are , I am by myself.
    M: No, You are you are only
    A: No, I am not your you !, I am the other you.

    Very hilarious climax. and a Masterpiece family detoxing movie.

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    • What’s really wonderful, it’s a family movie that doesn’t make me feel like the concept of “family” is being shoved down my throat.

      On Wed, Apr 4, 2018 at 2:20 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. They did a lot of clever things in this movie that I got a kick out of.

    SPOILERS

    Here’s one that I liked a lot: So the heroine is hung up on the name “Mahesh” because she is a Mahesh Babu fan. And the reason why the nanny left the baby is that she ran to get an autograph from “Superstar Krishna”, who is of course the father of Mahesh Babu. I thought that was pretty cute. 🙂

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    • I was just going to say! That and when li’l Lavanya rescues her school mate from a bully she says “Evaru kodite dimma tirigi mind block avutundo ade Lavanya”. (The only one whose slap can make your head spin and block your mind is Lavanya) And of course the victim is Puri Jagannath who grew up to write and direct Pokiri. He used her line (0:16) and it got so popular! The implication being that Lavanya had indirectly contributed to Mahesh’s success.

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      • Oh, yeah, I forgot this one. I definitely need to watch it again. 🙂

        There were so many of these gems, or “inside jokes”, might be a better description. Now, please tell me what the implications are that the aunt has a crush on Pawan Kalyan. Since I’ve always avoided him and his films, I have no clue what this might be referring to.

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        • In case anybody was wondering where Lavanya’s insane star obsession genes came, I guess that’s the answer. Or they probably just needed a fourth pairing to fill Ashta Chamma box in that animation bit at the end. So, they picked another star with similar stature as Mahesh. I find it sweet actually. Aunt had put her life on hold raising Lavanya and making sure she’s settled. Now it is her turn to engage in her fantasies and Lavanya has to be responsible and protective.
          Of course, there is the entire Mahesh v/s Pawan fandom thing (If the actors themselves have a problem with each other, I haven’t heard of it. But their fan wars are just unbearable) I don’t want to get into it, because I don’t think that is the point of this joke. It is supposed to be a harmless fun tidbit.

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  5. I’m so excited that you watched this movie. Astha Chemma is a simplified version of Pachisi and this movie is as much fun as playing the game. All the four players were moving all over the board and finally managed to reach home!!!

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  6. Ashta Chamma is one of my absolute favourites. One of the few modern Telugu comedies. Unfortunately a lot is lost for non-Telugu speakers like the phone conversation between Nani and Hema worrying about Bhargavi “going too far in getting closer to Srinivas”. I’m glad you could enjoy the movie nonetheless.
    Nani’s backstory is hilarious on a meta level. After watching all those serious dramas where 50+ heroes playing 20+ village leaders, it was refreshing to have Nani’s character calling BS. He was responsible enough to take care of his sister and household affairs, yet the pretension was too much to take. The line where he proudly declares “He’ll have whatever his servants have” reducing the servant to tears is one of our laugh out loud moments and we still quote the line whenever anybody around is being pretentiously generous.
    Swati started out as a TV host and was well received. She played supporting roles in her first few movies. This was her first as a lead and boy was she great! She received the state government award for Best Actress.
    Srinivas Avasarala was a real find. The funniest character and that is saying something considering he is on screen for most of the movie more than any other character. He is multi talented. Check out his directorial debut that Niki had suggested – Oohalu Gusagusalade. I thought it was light on story, but is overall enjoyable for its witty dialogue. And it has lovely songs.

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  7. How true about Telugu cinema’s hidden female-centric gems with gentle heroes! In the mid-late 2000s when Malayalam cinema was going through its worst period, Anand, Godavari, Ashta Chemma and Avakai Biryani really filled that space in my heart.

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  8. I finally watched this and it was so much fun!! Did you get the wordplay on Anand describing why his name is better than Mahesh? He says Mahesh is a Pokiri(a thug, referring to the movie) and Anand is manchi coffee lanti( like a good cup of coffee, referring to the movie Anand, which has the tagline – Manchi Coffee lanti Cinema).

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  9. Something that I noticed but forgot to mention “Jack revealing that he is in love with Algernon’s sister.” “Jack learning that he is in fact Algernon’s older brother” So is Jack Gwendolyn’s brother too? A quick wiki check told me that Gwen is actually Algernon’s cousin so I’m ok now. 🙂

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    • Yeah, it’s kind of funny that they cut that part in the Telugu remake, it would make so much sense for the long lost cousin to marry his maternal female cousin. And for the two close friends to discover they are long lost brothers. And for the “little brother” to the heroine to be her younger male cousin. In the original version, it was also partly because the heroine’s mother had been looking down on the hero all along, and now she discovers that this “outsider” with no family is in fact part of her family and immediately changes her opinion on him in a humorous way.

      Also a reminder that cousin marriage was common and accepted everywhere, not just in South India, as recently as a hundred years ago.

      On Mon, Apr 9, 2018 at 12:31 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  10. OK, I’m not going to try to fit myself into the thread above, but I saw Gentleman, starring Nani and Srinival Avasarala, and directed by the director of Ashta Chamma. I think the writing wasn’t as tight, but both Nani and Srinivas are presented in completely different characters from those in AC. Srinivas is in a relatively minor role, which surprised me. I’ll have to recheck the credits to see if maybe he was also an assistant/associate director or something. But it is a real showcase for Nani’s acting! Did someone say this was his second film? If so, it shows outstanding range. For people who have seen it, the scene towards the end where Catherine confronts him and she realizes the truth, was just amazing! I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, so won’t say much more, but this is absolutely Nani’s movie.

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