I watched it! Such an interesting movie. A collection of short stories with big name stars and a great visual aesthetic. And all produced by Nani, yet another reason to love him.
I did a big frustrated post when I watched Arjun Reddy back in 2017 about how southern films in general, and Telugu in particular, tend to get pigeonholed as silly action movies with regressive female characters and no serious plots or deep characters, but in fact they have just as many deep ground-breaking movies as any other industry. Arjun Reddy was getting attention partly because of a “can you believe a movie like this came from the Telugu industry?” effect. And that was just terribly insulting to the Telugu industry and all the other similarly groundbreaking films that they have made over the years. And this is yet another evidence of how the Telugu industry is so much more than the action film stereotype.
It’s not just that the construction and concept of the film is groundbreaking. Or that the political statements within it (Lesbians!) are groundbreaking. It’s also that the cast is entirely made up of top mainstream Telugu actors. The industry as a whole is supporting this kind of filmmaking, it’s not shunted off into some sort of art film ghetto with the one mainstream actor trying to prove they are “edgy”, it’s right there in the middle of the mainstream. All the ground breaking political statements, all the off the wall film concepts, all of it has a seal of approval from two major actresses, two more rising actresses, a successful comic actor/director, one of the hardest working and most familiar character actors, a voice over from one of the top two actors in the entire industry, and the whole thing is produced by one of the most promising young actors on his way up. To put it in Hindi film terms, it would be as though Varun Dhawan produced Angry Indian Goddesses and featured in a voice over, Shahrukh did another voice over, Anupam Kher and Kareena Kapoor and Sonakshi Sinha and Parineeti Chopra and Sonam Kapoor and Karan Johar were the actors. That’s just INSANE. For a film industry to have such a commitment to thinking outside of the box.
The good thing is, the movie is actually worthy of all of this support. It could still be better, that’s for sure. The rhythm of the stories is a bit off in the opening sections, and some of them are just plain odd, and go on too long. The visuals are striking, but sometimes feel like they are trying a bit too hard. And the message moment is a little too on the nose and exposition-y. And the ending is maybe a bit of a “say what now?” But it is still a very good, very ambitious, film. It all makes me excited to see what Nani, and his fellow producer Prashanti Tipirneni (costume designer for Bahubali!) and the director Prashanth Varma do next.
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Okay, this has a bit of an odd structure, so my review is going to have to have an odd structure too. I’ll start with how each of the stories are introduced.
We start with Eesha Rabba who is nervously preparing her parents to meet the person she wants to marry. She tells them that she is in love with a doctor, from a good family, and they want to get married. And then “Krish” arrives, and it is Nithya Menon, a woman! First short story ends with a smart twist.
Priyadarshi Pullikonda is desperate for a job, he gets a chance as a chef in a restaurant and fakes it by using youtube tutorials to make the food. But then the wi-fi goes out and he is desperate until he suddenly discovers that he can hear the fish in the tank in the kitchen talking to him. And the fish gives him directions on how to cook, explaining that he has scene many chefs over the years. With the fish’s help, he gets the job. Only to be told he has to make a very important guest a fish dish. And he realizes the only fish left in the kitchen is the one in the tank. Will he kill his friend to get the job?
Srinivas Avasarala is a bored doorman. He spends all his time reading and working on his invention. He starts a little flirtation with a French woman customer, and then is interrupted when he is approached by another woman in a wheelchair who claims that she is his future self, he should already know deep inside he is really a woman, not a man, and this is his future. And she needs him to follow her directions because she has gone back in time to save their family.
And then there is my least favorite story, Murali Sharma is a customer at a cafe who gets into a feud with the little girl who works at the counter, claiming he is the best magician in the world and she is silly to try with her tricks. She directs him to the “real” greatest magician, in the bathroom. And Murali ends up locked in their suffering impossible tricks and torments.
Finally, there is Regina Cassandra, a waitress and drug addict who is planning a heist at the cafe with her boyfriend. But she starts to have doubts when she meets the nice regular customer at the cafe, the former owner of the house where it is located.
All of these stories are seemingly unconnected. They all take place in settings that look totally different, Nithya and Eesha are in a cafe filled with pink, Murali is trapped in an all white bathroom, Srinivas is in front of a redwood building with bit windows, Regina is in a cafe that is all blue and black color tones. And they all work as disconnected stories, and short stories, with little twist endings, Nithya arriving as the fiance, Srinivas being told his future self is a woman, and so on. Plus, there is a nice variety of tone, the gritty heist feeling of Regina’s story, the little light comic vibe to the Nithya-Eesha story, and so on. A nice professional collection of short films.
And then we come back to each story twice more, and we go from short story, to three acts. And we also go from disconnected stories to discovering they are all taking place in the same location, a cafe with multiple differently decorated spaces. And finally, all of the stories collide.
Nithya and Eesha talk about their relationship in detail, and it is a lot more than just a surprising twist. They met when Eesha came to her clinic, talked all night, fell in love, live together, and are planning to adopt a little boy together. That’s the second act. And the third act is to reveal that while Nithya is a lesbian because she was born with an attraction to women. But Eesha is a lesbian because she has been abused by men her whole life and is now disgusted by them. Nithya saved her life by letting her feel safe and loved. Her parents accept them.
Priyadarshi in the kitchen tries to figure out what to do. He talks with the fish, who offers to die, because he will only live a few more years anyway. But also in the kitchen is the spirit of a previous chef living in a tree, Ravi Teja, who tells him not to kill the fish, because they are friends. Priyadarshi almost does it, but stops at the last minute. Instead, his final act is to leave the restaurant and the job behind, instead carrying with him the fish in a plastic bag, planning to take it to a pond or ocean.
Srinivasas at first doubts the woman is his future self, but then comes around to believing it, and instead moves on to trying to decide whether he agrees with her direction that she can fix the future if he just follows her directions. And then he agrees, only for her to order him to do whatever it takes to keep people from leaving this cafe.
Murali goes from fighting with the “best magician” through the bathroom door, to going into the bathroom and living a nightmare, to finally escaping and asking the little girl who it was there, only for the girl to nod towards a statue of Krishna on the counter with her, the greatest magician.
And Regina starts seeing the ghost of the customer’s wife, a woman who died in the house when it was destroyed. She is convinced by her boyfriend to go through with the robbery plan, cutting the power just long enough for him to sneak in and grab a bag of money. But the ghost scares her, and she turns the power back on early, the boyfriend is trapped in the cafe, pulls a gun in desperation trying to get out, and takes the little girl behind the counter hostage. Murali, the magician who was fighting with her, now risks himself to save her, throwing flash powder in the eyes of the thief. The gun goes racing off, and Srinivasas grabs it and holds them hostage.
And this is when it all comes together. All along we have been seeing Kajal alone in a cafe that looks different, scribbling in a book. And now she pulls out a gun in her cafe section and shoots herself, as her book flips through the pages. Kajal was a sad woman, with mental issues. Everyone in the rest of the film was a manifestation of her own traumas. Like Eesha, she was abused over and over again and then fell in love with a woman. Like Srinivasas, her parents died when she was young and she keeps going over and over it wishing she could have prevented it. Like Murali, she is trapped in a nightmare where nothing seems real. And so on and so forth.
It’s a really ambitious structure for a film. The idea of all of these stories taking place in one location and coming together at the end, that alone was good and original and interesting. Adding on the “it’s all in Kajal’s head” layer was something else entirely. And maybe it was too much? I think the film might have been better as a film if it was left at the “we are all in the same cafe” moment. Or maybe if the twist was that it was taking place in the same place but not the same time, for instance I would have liked it if the little girl behind the counter was revealed to be Eesha as a little girl or something. Making it all in Kajal’s head is the kind of exciting twist that will get people talking and make the film memorable. But it may not be the best for the film as a film. It doesn’t quite work, for one thing. There isn’t a super strong line between the stories, it’s kind of a reach at the end when the voice over tries to tie things in like Prayadarshi needing a job, and therefore being like Kajal who sometimes needed a job.
In the same way, I really appreciate the frank discussion of a Lesbian couple, and a transsexual, but maybe it could have been handled better as a film. I loved Nithya and Eesha so much, and their story was immediately intriguing, it made me resent leaving them for silly stuff like Murali trapped in a bathroom. On the other hand, Srinivisas gender re-assignment was handled with a few lines only and then never came up again. Maybe make the same-sex couple less charismatic and sexy together, or else tie the other stories more directly into them. One idea that floated through my head was that maybe Srinivasas was their son, the little boy they planned to adopt, that there was some time change shenanigans going on and the reveal would be that Srinivasas was going to be adopted by them but missed his chance because they were killed in a robbery. They were the start of the film and the best part of the film, they should have had more focus.
This is one of those films that I appreciate but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. They show up in every industry, and they are a good thing. Filmmakers need a chance to try things out and see what works and what doesn’t if they are going to be able to grow. No one is perfect right out of the gate.