Thursday Telugu: Awe, a Movie Where the Stories Are the Star

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.

Image result for awe telugu poster

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.

Image result for awe nithya menon
Another way this movie is Lesbian-y, I know for sure that my bi and gay friends are going to be super attracted to Nithya. Tastes vary and all of that, yes, but the way she is presented isn’t a version of Lesbian to be sexy for men, but what is actual sexy for Lesbian women.

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.

Image result for awe regina cassandra
Regina also is kind of sexy Lesbian friendly, come to think of it

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.

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19 thoughts on “Thursday Telugu: Awe, a Movie Where the Stories Are the Star

  1. Even I felt that the director used too many plot points just to divert our attention so that they could have a big twist at the end.
    But it is a good film that needs to be appreciated.

    Also checkout c/o kancharapalem.

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    • Yeah, it deserves to be watched, it could be better, but it is so imaginative and original in so many ways that it is still worth a watch.

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  2. First I must say – OMG the song in the beginning of the movie is so depressing!

    I agree with your review. I’m very happy such movie was done, and with mainstream actors so it was seen by many people and not only by who likes arty movies. But personally it didn’t make me say: oh it was so good! And the final revelation that it was all in Kajal’s head didn’t turn upside down my brain, like, I think it should. I was thinking it should have an impact like in The Sixth Sense, or in The Others, but the little stories were too odd and too different.

    I think that what I liked the most was the fact all those talented women had their occasion to do something different, especially Regina Cassandra. I hate drug scenes in the movies, but I loved her part. And btw doesn’t her boyfriend “Sugar” look like Shahid Kapoor?

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    • Yes he looks like Shahid Kapoor! And also, the head bad guy in A Gentleman (I may have watched that movie too many times).

      I feel like they came up with the twist and the stories separately, instead of making sure they all worked together. They could have cut some of the stories and made it all feel more tied together, but I think the stories are actually stronger than the ending, so I would say cut the ending instead.

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  3. First I liked the scientist story the most, but after seeing all story it disappointed me. First it was great: scientist, time machine, and the twist about him becoming a woman- I was thinking: oh that’s something new. But in the end it was only mess. Or maybe I didn’t get it? But she came to ask him to not fix the time machine, and later it didn’t matter.

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    • Yeah, it was such a mess that I thought there was going to be a clever tie in at the end. She said don’t fix the time machine, you can’t save your parents. I thought the reveal was going to be that he had already traveled back in time and they were presently in the day his parents would die. And at the end, she tries to have him save the parents anyway (going against her argument), plus again implies they are dying today, not in the past. But none of that is ever really answered! How could he be saving his parents in the past by his actions in the present? Why did she keep coming back to this moment and still try, but also tell him not to bother making a time machine? In a way, that section is the one that works best with the final reveal, because it is so illogical it feels like a dream or a hallucination.

      On Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 1:35 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • The only thing that worked for me was that the lady scientist said: everytime you let go one of them, and our parents die. so when later we see all those characters are Kajal’s different personalities, I thought: maybe her parents left her when they discovered she is sick, and that’s why she want to keep them inside, but it doesn’t have sense if the parents are dead.

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        • Or maybe Kajal is the parents? If she lets her demons out, they kill her?

          On Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 4:27 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Oh this would be an interesting movie! (very dark, so I would not watch it, but interesting without doubt)

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          • Or what about: one of Kajal’s personalities killed the parents? That’s why she said: if I let one of you out, they die.

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          • Oh, that makes even mroe sense!

            On Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 5:03 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. This was an interesting one. I’m with Angie, the sad opening song almost lost me before it began, it was the candy tone of the meeting the parents that brought me back. I agree that story deserved a bit more time, though Nithya’s part in the final confrontation as the rational diagnostic voice was interesting.

    The fish story was odd and illogical but ended up winning me over. I wasn’t bothered by the wizard, felt kind of Willy Wonka to me and I like the actor. The time machine was the most incomplete to me, it felt like they tried to tackle a few different complex ideas and there wasn’t enough time to let them spool out. I really liked Regina’s performance and it fit the best with the structure they were trying to build at the end. Wasn’t crazy about the framing device from the beginning, though it did create enough mystery to make me wonder how it was going to fit together and keep going.

    My biggest yikes about the ending is that, like Fan, suicide is presented as an aesthetically beautiful resolution to a complex story. I don’t mind the twist so much as the fact that it’s the answer to her suffering.

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    • Yeah, the suicide was lovely and a nice perfect tying up the threads ending. But you know what could also have worked? Her taking a series of pills to calm the voices in her head as we watch them fade away one by one.

      The Fan suicide doesn’t bother me as much because we get to see Aryan-SRK’s horrified reaction, and are reminded of his parents right before, so the actually moment is beautiful, but kind of horror-beautiful. While this one was a moment of finding peace.

      On Sat, Mar 16, 2019 at 10:38 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. Srinivas Avasarala’s character was the most confusing one for me (and one of the biggest lose ends of the movie). I actually watched another movie that he was in, Pilla Zamindar. It also has Nani in it and it somehow manages to be lighthearted and serious at the same time. Anyways, I always thought Srinivas Avasarala is underappreciated as an actor and director, but he never disappoints.

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  6. Nice review – you’ve narrated the plot in simple but clear terms, which is a tough task for this movie. A special thanks for that 2nd para in this post.

    This was the only movie I watched in theaters in the last 2 years, and I could see at least half of the audience confused at the interval (as they have in India) and “awe-stuck” at the end. I was glad that I went to theater – you don’t get that full kick watching on TV leisurely.

    I don’t mind a little bragging here, but I recommended this movie when you mentioned you had seen very little of Regina in a post on Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Tha.
    https://dontcallitbollywood.com/2018/12/27/trailers-ek-ladki-ko-dekha-toh-aisa-laga-and-final-simmba/#comments

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    • Thank you! I remember someone recommended it to me, because I recognized the title and stuff when it popped up on Netflix, but I couldn’t remember who.

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