Did you know Nagarjuna was in Khuda Gawah? I didn’t! And I’ve seen that movie way more times than anyone should see Khuda Gawah. How did I not notice him back then? Because now, I love him!
This was such a fun movie! I know it’s “just a rom-com”, but sometimes all I want is “just a rom-com”. Especially a rom-com with a kind of unusual romance to it! Or at least a kind of surprising one.
I don’t want to spoil too much, so I will just say that it is a love triangle between Nagarjuna and Shriya Saran (From Manam!!!!) and Aarthi Agarwal (who had a very sad life, my goodness!). And it does not play out the way I expected it to play out AT ALL, but it does happen the way I hoped it would.
(Pretty, but sad! And she wasn’t looking quite as healthy and happy in this movie as she does in this photo)
And because the love triangle plays out in an unexpected way, the “expected” romance is able to take on a lot of the standard trite cliches about male and female interactions, while the “unexpected” romance is free to be it’s own thing and develop a natural bond between the two characters.
Without getting into any of the SPOILERy details, I can say that the other thing I really liked about the romance is that it was so focused on the heroine getting what she wants. That’s the best thing about romance films in general, that they tend to be driven by the heroine’s emotional needs, instead of business or gangsters or whatever else it is that hero-lead films are about.
This is definitely a “hero” film, Nagarjuna is perfect and brave and smart and wonderful and all of that. But he uses all his perfect brave and smart stuff in order to help the heroine achieve what she wants.
(Perfect, brave, smart, etc. Also, did you see that his son just officially got engaged to Samantha? Which adds an additional layer of awesome to Manam (as if it needed even more awesome!))
And it’s not even the usual “she falls in love with him and what she wants is him, so he helps her by eloping with her” thing. She wants all kinds of different stuff! It even changes as the film goes on, from one thing to another. And no matter what it is she wants, he is there for her, helping her get it.
Best of all, she isn’t “punished” by the narrative for changing her mind. Women can change their minds! It’s okay! They don’t have to be just one thing all their lives.
And female friendship is important! It would have been more important, except Aarthi Aggarwal was not so great in this film. I feel mean saying that, knowing that she had a sad short life, but it’s the truth. She wasn’t very interesting onscreen, she didn’t sell me in her emotional moments, and she didn’t even look that good, kind of sad or something about her face. And that’s not just me projecting because I know her story, the reason I know her story is because I was watching the movie thinking “what is wrong with that one actress?” and I looked her up.
On the other hand, Shriya Saran is great! Even though I thought she was Asin most of the time. Not just because they look kind of similar, but because I felt like I knew her, and Asin and Genelia are the only southern actresses I really know. But now that I know it is Shriya, I want to give her credit for making a character who is traditional and modest and kind, feel strong at the same time.
And now I am getting perilously close to SPOILERS. So, let’s just dive right in! SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
We open with a childhood flashback which sets up the love triangle in an interesting way. Our hero buys flowers and then a little rich girl comes up and demands he give them to her, because they are the last of that version of flower (I’m not good with flowers) and they are her best friend’s favorite, and she needs them for her friend’s birthday. Our hero gives them up, even though he bought them for his mother. And of course we then see that his mother is dead and he was bringing them to her grave. And the flowers are delivered to a slightly poorer little girl.
Now, taking it as a given that everything is destiny and fate, this means he is going to end up with one of the little girls. But will it be the girl he met, the one who demanded the flowers and he gave them to, or will it be the girl he never met who ultimately received the flowers? It is unclear!
It continues to be unclear as they meet again as adults. Our hero has fought his way to success as a contractor based on innate talent and ability. Which in a different movie would be the whole plot, but this is a romance, so it’s kind of secondary to his romantic complications. He meets the rich girl as an adult when he stops her unfairly yelling at someone. She switches to yelling at him, he puts her in her place and then snatches her necklace to teach her a lesson, and gives her his address, saying he will return the necklace when she comes and asks nicely for it.
If it weren’t Nagarjuna playing this, I would find it a pretty yuchy first meeting. But he manages to play it as though he isn’t enjoying some kind of strange S & M power thing by yelling at her, but more as though it is just something he would do if it was a bratty young rich man. There is no attraction or sexual component at all.
He stays with that in all his interactions with Aarthi (she is the rich girl). While she is flirty and sexy and in love, he is just kind of amused and uninterested. Uninterested to the point of possibly not even realizing she is interested. Just assuming that her flirtation and so on is just how she is.
That’s kind of what is so neat about the whole movie, that the romances don’t “feel” like romances. They are just people getting to know each other as friends. There’s no huge sexual tension or mis-understandings or hate-turned-to-love. It’s just good people spending time together.
And part of that is because the people spending time together have such a firm barrier to any romance, that romance isn’t even part of the equation. See, Nagarjuna’s business enemy’s son is eloping with Shriya, the sweet singer and daughter of a priest who is Aarthi’s best friend. Nagarjuna’s employees arrange for them to be arrested and the elopement stopped. Leaving Shriya in limbo, no longer welcome at her parent’s home, but not yet married to her boyfriend.
Nagarjuna steps in because he feels some level of responsibility, but mostly because he is just a decent person. And it is clearly and emphatically NOT romantic. Shriya is heartbroken and miserable over her failed elopement. And Nagarjuna is primarily concerned with fixing her problem, as he would be with any young woman in such a strange position. And he is so unromantic towards her, that he invites her back to his house. Seeing it only as the best way to make sure she keeps a roof over her head while she waits for her situation to resolve, and not even considering that society might look at it differently.
Their time living together is what made me start thinking “boy, I wish this couple could get together! Although clearly they can’t.” He cooks for her, she surprises him with a birthday party, they form a strange little family (he’s an orphan remember, so he never had a family before).
But then there’s Aarthi being all sexy and in love, and being the available sexy rich girl that the hero always ends up with in these movies. And there’s Shriya, still in love with her boyfriend, who we see is in love with her as well, dreaming over her photo even while his father says he can’t be with her.
Clearly, this is the end game couple. “Pehle Pyar” and all that. A good Indian girl, as Shriya is, will always choose her first love, especially if they were at the point of marriage. And Nagarjuna believes that too, working hard to reunite the two loves. So it looks like Shriya’s whole purpose is just to give a direction to the plot (defeating Nagarjuna’s business rival by marrying the two kids) and a reason for Aarthi to keep coming around to the house and interacting with Nagarjuna.
And Nagarjuna actually succeeds! He gets the kids together, brings them to a temple, even has the wedding ceremony with the priest there. But, in the middle of it, the “bad guy” arrives, and manages to convince his son that Shriya is a fallen woman because she has been living with Nagarjuna all this time.
Gosh darn it! (I thought) I’ve seen this movie before! The guy is clearly horrible, but once the “sacred thread” is tied, the only possible happy ending for the woman is to end up with him. That’s the hero’s goal, because nothing is worse than for a woman’s marriage to be broken, even if the other option is being tied for life to someone who doesn’t even love her.
And at first, it really looks like that is the direction we are going in. Shriya is all sad and tries to kill herself, Nagarjuna stops her. And then he decides that he will help her to win a singing competition, thus restoring honor to her family and winning over her father, and making her more desirable as a daughter-in-law for the yucky family.
Only, as the singing competition prep goes on, there are more and more scenes where Nagarjuna seems to care for Shriya a little too much and vice versa. She is teased at school, and immediately threatens them with the wrath of Nagarjuna. Who of course shows up as soon as she calls for him, almost magically connected to her. So I just don’t know what to think! This is very hero-heroine type behavior, but the sacred thread! She is already promised to another, even if she is clearly too good for him.
Until, finally, they learn that her husband is being engaged to someone else. Nagarjuna brings her to the engagement party and threatens everyone into silence so she can speak. And I’ve seen this scene before too. She’s going to give a speech about the beauty of a marital promise and how all she wants is her husband, even now. And then Nagarjuna is going to fight everyone until he beats an admission out of her husband that he wants to stay married to her. And I sit on my couch and yell marital murder rates at the screen and generally complain about it.
So I’m sitting there, all ready to get made again, and she says “I have kept this sacred thread for the past 3 weeks with care…” (I start to prepare my mental rant) “so I could tear it off and throw it in your face!!! I don’t want you and I pity any girl who does marry you!” WHAAAAAA?!?!?! They never break the sacred thread! It’s sacred!
And not only does Nagarjuna go along with this, he defends her! It’s not like in Amma Nanna O Tamil Ammai when even if the girl says she doesn’t want the guy, he is still forced down her throat. No, Nagarjuna is a little surprised, but has a clear “Hey, if it’s what she wants, it’s what she wants! We’re done here” reaction. So great!
That’s kind of the peak of the movie for me. But the rest of it has similar kind of satisfying trope breaking stuff. For one thing, the love triangle resolution. Aarthi’s parents learn she is in love with Nagarjuna and are fine with that, all ready to set up the wedding. Which is the first shock, that there is no parental negativity about the love match. And then when Shriya learns this match is heading along, she immediately steps aside for her friend. And then Aarthi does the same! As soon as she learns that Nagarjuna is in love with Shriya, there is no moment of selfishness or jealousy. All along the female friendship has been established as really supportive and non-judgemental. And that comes through all the way to the end. It’s not that one girl is “bad” and one is “good”, it’s just that Nagarjuna prefers one to the other, and both girls respect that and support each other.
There’s also the way the singing competition is handled. Nagarjuna and Shriya are both in love at this point, although they haven’t talked to each other. But they still get separate rooms as a matter of course, and Nagarjuna is kind of amused but not terribly worried about the bellboy judging their arrangement. Because men and women can just be friends and it’s not a big deal. It’s not even a big deal when Shriya gets sick in the middle of the night and Nagarjuna goes over to help her. It kind of reminded me of ADHM in that way, in a different movie it would be all sexualized and uncomfortable. But in this movie, it’s clear that they are in control of their own behavior and their own morals and it’s no one else’s business what they do.
Oh, and the competition itself. It would be so easy for Shriya’s professional aspirations to be forgotten now that she is in love. And her family problems. But instead that is still the main goal of Nagarjuna, to have her win and for her family to be proud of her. Okay, it turns romantic at the last minute, when goons show up to fight him outside the auditorium and she ends up singing a hymn of protection while he fights kind of thing. But ultimately, it also reunites her with her family who are proud of her accomplishments, and gives her awards and acclaim.
In the end, they are able to come together as equals. She is no longer a poor abandoned eloper with no family or support while he is her strong wealthy rescuer. No, she is successful and beloved by her family again, and only then can they come together as a couple.
I don’t know, maybe I was just really in the right mood for this or something, but it really worked for me! It hit that sweet spot of romances which are feminist because they are so focused on female wishfullfillment. Oh, and there were also a bunch of fight scenes, which were fun.