Happy Birthday Nagarjuna! Manam, The First Time I Saw You Onscreen

I LOVED this movie!  This is going to be my new happy making comfort food film every time I get down.  Everyone is happy and good and does good happy things and has good happy things happen to them.  And even if something bad does happen, not to worry!  You’ll just get another chance in your next life!

The big “hook” of this movie is the same as the big “hook” for Paa, seeing a real life father play a son and a real life son play father.  Only, unlike Paa, it doesn’t feel like just a “hook”, just a clever idea to get the audience in the door.  It’s more than that, this sense of a family coming together and loving each other and being naturally at peace with one another, that permeates the whole plot.  And is a big part of why I loved it, because I was super sick while I watched it and I really needed to feel loved and comforted and taken care of.

The other big advantage over Paa is the execution of the “hook”.  It isn’t a lot of prosthetics and medical jargon.  It’s based firmly on Indian narrative traditions, especially film narrative traditions, and builds from that.  Also, equally important, the characters don’t play their relationships through exaggerated mannerisms and crazy masks, they play their own age and their own personalities, the only thing that shows their “true” relationship is the way they are with each other.

Akkineni Nagarjuna has the most difficult role, needing to switch his mannerisms from that of a 6 year old with his parents, to that of a middle-aged man with his son, to that of a middle-aged man with the woman he loves.  And he is AMAZING!!!  I just happened to watch this the same weekend I finally got around to seeing Geetanjali, and now I am in love with him.  So charming, so handsome, so confident, so mustache!

It makes sense for Akkineni Nagarjuna to have the hardest part of the 3 male leads, played by himself, his father, and his son. Wonderful though his father ANR is, he was also 90 the year this came out and died during filming, so it wouldn’t be right to expect that much of him.  By the way, I did finally see the ANR Devdasu, I just couldn’t bring myself to write yet another Devdas post.  But I’m glad I saw it, so that I could appreciate the little flashes of youthfulness and attitude in his old man role here.

The other lead was played by Naga Chaitanya, who is quite quite handsome!  Quite quite!  But he doesn’t have the same kind of dashing charm as his father, so I think I might still go for the old guy over the young one.  But not the really really old guy, because he is really really old.

It’s the relationship between these three that is really the most important, but that doesn’t just feel like fan service.  No, the point of the film is that romance and love might be fated, but the relationship between a father and son, that is something you have to work for.  And it is something worth having.  It’s not a big moral that they keep hitting you over the head with, but it’s shown that the mother characters have an immediate powerful connection to their children.  But the fathers have to learn to love them, and the sons have to learn not to take them for granted.  Even the romances are easier than that, you just see each other and fall in love all over again, fate brings you together.

Not to undersell the romances, they are super sweet (all 4 of them!), but they aren’t very full of conflict.  Everything will work out because it has to.  It’s the relationship between the 3 male leads that is more interesting and up and down.  It’s really the perfect script for a grandfather, father, and son to play together!

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Since everything is fated from the beginning, it almost doesn’t feel worth it putting in a spoiler section in this review.  But I suppose I might as well, because it is kind of nice to enjoy the small surprises of exactly how the film is structured to make these things happen.

The opening is kind of clever, from the perspective of a camera, with Naga being nagged by Samantha Prabhu (is it her fate to always be in reincarnation movies?) to be sure to enter the date.  And then the date appearing as it is typed in February 13, 1983.  We continue from this camera perspective, it is a young couple making a video for their son’s birthday.  There is some lowkey sniping about how to use the camera, but then they go in to wake up their 6 year old and are all loving and kind.  Until they get downstairs and Samantha sees that the cake has their son’s name on it, instead of being blank like she requested (since it is inauspicious to cut through his name).  She keeps a smile on her face, but they start fighting right away, while their poor kid is literally stuck in the middle listening in.  And then as soon as the cake cutting is over, Samantha runs off to play with her son and his friends, living poor Naga behind to watch.  And, song!

I love this song, for how clearly it shows the progression of their marriage.  Nothing is really wrong, basically they just need about 6 hours with a good marriage therapist, but without that, all the little things keep building up.  And the big underlying question of their relationship, the thing that is causing all of these problems, is what Naga’s friend points out to him at the end of the song when he asks her advice.  They had an arranged marriage, and Samantha still isn’t sure that he loves her.

That’s a real problem!  Not just with arranged marriages either, although I suppose that exacerbates it.  With a non-arranged marriage, the question would be “what if he fell out of love with me?”  With an arranged marriage, it becomes “what if he never fell in love with me to begin with?”

Naga is the one making all the mistakes, that’s clear.  But they are small mistakes, being a little late coming home, that kind of thing.  Only they are blown out of proportion, because Samantha sees each one as a sign that he doesn’t love her after all.  That he just sees her as his wife, not a person in her own right.  And she loves him too much to bring up the issue directly, to run the risk of learning he doesn’t feel the same way.  And he loves her so much, that he can’t understand that she is doubting it.  It all comes to a head as these things often do when Samantha sees him with another woman, the friend who was giving him advice.  In Samantha’s mind, he is in love with someone else and the only kind thing she can do is let him go.  In his mind, Samantha is asking for a divorce and if that’s what she wants, he has to give it to her.

See, what’s nice about this conflict (the only romantic conflict in the whole film, by the way) is that it is simple but not stupid.  It’s not something that relies on a missed phone call, or a misunderstood photograph, or anything dumb like that.  But it’s also not so complicated a solution would be impossible.  We can understand why they feel like they do, how they reached the point of divorce.  But we can also believe that they really do need to just say “I love you” and everything will be fixed.

Oh right, and then they die.  But it’s a reincarnation movie!  Death is only the beginning. (what is that from?  Oh right!  The Mummy!  Man, I love that movie!  Brendan Frasier in a shoulder holster, is there anything better?)

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So, fast-forward 31 years, their little son is now the head of a massive multi-national corporation, named after his parents.  Oh, by the way, the past life people are named Radha-Krishna and Rama-Sita, but with the usual genders reversed (Radha and Sita are boys, Krishna and Rama are girls).  That’s got to be significant, right?  Somehow?  Not sure how, but it feels like it must mean SOMETHING!

Anyway, Akkineni is the son, and he does a fabulous job.  When we first meet him, he is all kind of serious and sweetly sincere, but also confident and in control, explaining that his company has become his family, his wife and mother and children.  And then he gets on an airplane and Naga sits next to him!  His father!  And all of a sudden, Akkineni is a little boy again.  It is so cute!  He just sort of changes his face and bounces a little in his seat, and suddenly he is that little 6 year old boy again.

I love that there is no time wasted on “coming to believe in reincarnation” or anything stupid like that.  Akkineni is in 100% right from the start.  He knows this is his father, and he is sure his mother must be somewhere around too.  And she is!  He finds her, and follows her, and in the end she is the one who comes up to him, introduces herself, and immediately invites him to lunch with her and her friend.

I was really impressed with Samantha in this.  Because she manages to sell their instant connection, and her obsession with him, without ever making it romantic.  It’s just a mother son thing, only she happens to be a reincarnated mother who is 15 years younger than her son.  Of course, Akkineni manages to sell it too, but I would expect no less from him, because he is THE COOLEST.

While his mother is easy, his father is harder.  That’s what I was saying about the focus on the father-son relationships feeling natural.  Of course your mother is easy, she is always easy, she just loves you right away.  But father’s are different.  Naga resists their connection for a long time, until he finally has to call him for help when he is arrested.  Akkineni rescues him, of course, and invites him to stay in his house with him after he is thrown out of the hostel.  And Naga admits that he misjudged him.

Now, this is all nice, and I could see a pleasant film being spun out of a son reuniting his reincarnated parents.  But what makes it really over the top excellent, is the pre-interval reveal that Akkineni has a reincarnation love story also!  Akkineni is sitting in his car at the magical intersection where everyone keeps dying and then meeting up again, and a woman jumps in his car!  And orders him to drive off!

I really love this romance, more than the young people romance I think.  The young people one is your standard “proper girl, flirty boy” kind of thing.  But this one, the mature romance, there is a lot more going on.  For one thing, neither of them have any time to waste pretending they don’t feel what they feel. For another, they are allowed to be flawed.  She stutters, and is shy, and is a little abrupt in her requests.  He is shy too, and not sure how to tell her how he feels, and just happy to go along with whatever she asks, without thinking through how he can move their relationship forward.  Thank goodness their “son” and his “mother” are there to help!

Because the reason she jumped in his car is because an old man collapsed at the intersection, and she is a doctor and needs to go to the hospital to see to him.  And, that old man is ANR!  And his character is their son!  From their previous life!  It’s not really underlined, but the same difference between the reincarnated mother and the reincarnated father is here as well.  She is a doctor, but her concern for her patient seems a little bit more than the usual doctor-patient stuff.  On the other hand, while Akkineni is willing to help out, his main focus at first is on the doctor, not the patient.

Their modern day romance is cute, but the past life romance is what KILLS me!!!  It’s so adorable, just the outlines of it, that he sees her photo and insists on marrying her, and then when he learns she needs 6 months to raise the money to get married, he works for her under an assumed identity to help her earn it faster.  That’s so sweet!

But it’s the little details that really make it even better than that.  That he admits to himself he wasn’t in love with her before, he just liked her picture, but meeting her and seeing her strength and hard work, that’s when he fell in love.  That she is so excited about marrying him, for reasons he didn’t even think worth mentioning, that he doesn’t want a dowry, that he is willing to have her grandmother live with them.  And, of course, the ending.  When his face is suddenly revealed at their wedding, and she immediately dives across the fire to embrace him, because of course she was in love with him all along too and is just so happy to discover that the humble helper on the farm and the man she is marrying are the same person.  It’s all down in very simple strokes, but you get a picture of people who love each other for who they are, for things they don’t even think of as notable about themselves (he loves her because she works hard, she loves him because he will take in her grandmother).  And a love story that was very simple, because as soon as they met, they knew they were a matched pair.

I know it’s a dodge, I know they throw in these 4 love stories, and the reincarnation stuff, just to string out a longer movie without any big plot conflicts, but I don’t care!  Sometimes I want a nice movie with no conflict, just a bunch of nice stuff happening.

It gets even less conflict-y with the Naga and Samantha romance.  Looks like there is conflict at first.  Samantha sees him and remembers their past, so when they meet again, she immediately confronts him and tells him to go away, using his past-life name.  But he doesn’t know what she is talking about and just keeps pursuing her.  Finally, he asks Akkineni to invite her to his birthday party, and to make a special arrangement for them to talk.  And the arrangement is the same balloons that they set up for their son in the past-life way at the beginning of the film.  And when the balloons blow away, there he is, in glasses and a mustache, just like he had in the past.  And he explains that he KNEW ALL ALONG!  He recognized her too!  But then he saw that she remembered the past as well and was still mad at him.  So he decided to romance her, to give her the “love marriage” she deserved all along.  And now he is laying it all on the line, explain that he loves her now, and he loved her then, he just never got a chance to say it.  And he starts to pull off the mustache, but she rushes over and smooths it back and kisses him.  So I guess that means she has made her peace with their past?  She doesn’t mind his mustache look any more?

But this also means that NONE OF THIS MATTERED!!!  They both remembered their past, they were both just play-acting at a new romance, and as soon as they have a conversation, all their problems are solved.  Even these seeming conflict, was just a fake conflict, a pretense that their lives weren’t completely fated.

All of this fate stuff does make the ending a little more believable, when both couples are rushing to the clock tower intersection, the place where they all died in their last lives, on the exact same day and minute of their past life deaths!  You really believe that they could die again, because FATE.  But, thank goodness, ANR is there!  He rushes after them, jumping on a motorcycle, and arriving just in time to save them all.

And then the ending gets odd.  The motorcycle guy takes off his helmet, and it’s Akhil!  The one remaining male member of their family.  But, he’s not a character in the movie.  He has no significance to these fictional people and their made up story.  So it’s an odd note to end up, privileging the real life connections over the fictional.  This had happened a couple of times before, Amitabh makes a cameo (his first appearance in a Telugu movie, maybe?) and so does Akkineni’s wife.  But ending the movie on a cameo just takes it to a whole other level.

But I don’t care, I still love it!  Just such a warm loving happy movie.  It will be in heavy rotation every time I am sick.

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