There is a Telugu aphorism that goes like this: veyyi abbadaalu aadayina oka pelli cheyyamannaru (tell a thousand lies if you have to if it is to have a wedding). It's usually offered as justification when families hide things from one another in order to 'close the deal' on a wedding. Ante Sundaraniki (the thing about Sundar) inverts this standard operating procedure. In director-writer Vivek Athreya's film, instead of the families, it's the couple that dishes out lies in order to get everyone on board with their wedding.
Sundar (Nani) and Leela (Nazriya Nazim Fahadh) are a couple in love and hoping to get married. The only problem is that Sundar is Hindu and Leela is Christian, and neither is confident that their families will accept this interfaith marriage. Leela's father, Mr. Thomas, (Azhagam Perumal) is ostensibly a wonderful man, but Leela knows he's faced bigotry before and that will make him stand opposed to her choice of husband. Sundar, on the other hand, has grown up to become a habitual liar because it is the only way he can manage any agency in a household dominated by his father, Mr. Sastry (Naresh), his paternal grandmother (Aruna Bhikshu) and the pronouncements of the family astrologer.
You hear the prevarication when Sundar's mother (played by the always wonderful Rohini Molleti) begins broaching a subject to his father — it could be anything from Sundar's dreams of becoming an actor to his prospective wedding — only for her voice to trail off. Or when Sundar stammers while replying to his father when asks who the "girl" is. They're all petrified of the patriarch's response (for a number of reasons).
Athreya's film is about a series of cons that Sundar and Leela pull off to get their families to agree to their wedding. It's some of the most fun you will get out of a Telugu movie this year. Ante Sundaraniki delivers (in spurts) the pleasures of a traditional romcom, but adopts the storytelling devices of a heist, with many Ocean's Eleven-style, who-had-the-last-laugh rug pulls. Divided into chapters, the film's narrator is Sundar who recounts his story to different people in his life — think Rashomon, but spicier — and as it progresses, you realise there are omissions in each telling. What is being omitted depends on who the story is being told to, and why. If the grammar of Ante Sundaraniki is that of a heist film, it's because in a patriarchal society, the act of love itself is often a heist.
Some may find the structure confusing, but this is the most formally inventive a commercial Telugu film has been in years. In its first half, the film rambunctiously leaps from scene to inventive scene. For instance, when Sundar gets a chance to star in a Chiranjeevi movie, his hopeful dreams burst into the greatest Chiranjeevi tribute committed to film (it also somehow manages to pay homage to Mani Ratnam, Kodandarami Reddy, Michael Jackson and Ilaiyaraaja). At another point, as Sundar and Leela cook up their heist, their childhood versions chime in with ideas. Sometimes, they hang out in the background while Sundar and Leela argue, taking selfies with a polaroid camera (they grew up in the Nineties).
One of Athreya's great strengths as a screenwriter is his gift for grounding Ante Sundaraniki's capers in intimately-observed relationships that never feel melodramatic. Nazriya Fahadh as Leela is arguably the heart of the film and Nani, who complements her, is in fine form (like when as Sundar, he tells Leela she'll move on from a break up like he learnt to adjust to a bad haircut). The film belongs equally to its stellar supporting cast — Naresh, Molleti, Perumal and Nadhiya who play the couple's parents; Vinny and Harika who play the adolescent Sundar and Leela; and to Harshavardhan, who plays Sundar's boss. Look out for the scenes that Fahadh has with Nadhiya, which not only show off Fahadh's acting skills but in terms of story, bring home what Sundar is inadvertently putting Leela through.
Another hero in Ante Sundaraniki is composer Vivek Sagar, whose jazz, Carnatic and R&B score reflects the film's inventiveness.
Ante Sundaraniki is the latest addition to a wave of inventive and textured small-and-medium budget Telugu films that began with Tharun Bhascker's Pelli Choopulu in 2016. Under its fun and frolic is a film about patriarchal conditioning. Sundar and Leela force their parents to figure out whether they love their children for who they are, or if the premise of parental love is seeing children as vessels to fulfil the parents' dreams. Not all the answers to the questions raised in Ante Sundaraniki are answered in obvious terms. Many of them are answered subtly — look out for the way Athreya conveys Sundar's father's casteist thinking in the film's opening scene that shows an adolescent Sundar acting as a domestic help in a play.
Is the film radical enough in its social critique? It is about a flawed man with a flawed plan that wants to jugaad his way into marrying the woman he loves, and about a woman who reluctantly agrees to go along with a plan that, almost immediately, begins falling apart. Sundar is no revolutionary. He's playing an obnoxious bluff, hoping it'll play out in his favour. When the end credits rolled, I found myself hoping, for Leela's sake, that the couple move out and get their own place.
The film goes on for a few minutes longer than it should and has one twist too many, but its motivations are noble. The film points out that often, the happiness we see in a family is built on convenient hypocrisy. The journey to its resolution is long-winding and somewhat convoluted, which is perhaps why Athreya was asked about the runtime of 176 minutes. Athreya replied, "Illu dooramani ellakunda untama?" (Won't you return home, even if it's far away?) It's one of those curious phrases that shouldn't make sense, but somehow, with Ante Sundaraniki, it does.
Ante Sundaraniki is streaming on Netflix.