At the press meet ahead of Gargi's release, Aishwarya Lekshmi was in tears. The actor had turned producer for the Tamil film starring Sai Pallavi and emptied out all her savings because she believed so strongly in the script that deals with the issue of child sexual abuse. "Gargi is not Gargi if not for Sai Pallavi. I've seen the film before, and every single scene is running through my head while I'm standing here. As an actor, I look up to her," said a visibly emotional Lekshmi, who is Pallavi's contemporary in the film industry.
The critically-acclaimed Gargi comes seven years after Pallavi's debut as lead actor in the light-hearted Malayalam film Premam (2015), in which Pallavi as the unassuming Malar Miss broke into a spontaneous 'Rockankuthu' dance. Although she is from Tamil Nadu — Pallavi belongs to the Badaga tribe, which has its own culture, language and way of life — the actor has done only a handful of Tamil films. In contrast, the Telugu film industry has welcomed her and nurtured her talent over the years, with films like the romantic drama Love Story (2021) and period romances Shyam Singha Roy (2021) and Virata Parvam (2022). And it all began with Sekhar Kammula's Fidaa (2017).
Fidaa is a romcom set in Banswada, a small town in Telangana, and populated with characters straight out of a Jane Austen novel — two sisters who are close to each other and on the verge of marriage; an affectionate, supportive father; and suitors who must pass the test of character. Much like Austen's novels, the story unfolds from the perspective of a young woman with a mind of her own, Bhanumathi (Sai Pallavi), the 'okkate piece' (unique one) of Banswada who is also a Pawan Kalyan fan and a student of BSc Agriculture.
Bhanumathi's elder and more sedate sibling is Renuka (Sharanya Pradeep). Both sisters are close to their father (Sai Chand), who is a single parent. Their aunt — their father's older sister — completes the close-knit family. Theirs is a content, bucolic life. On the other side of the globe are three brothers – Raju (Raja Chembolu), Varun (Varun Tej) and Bujji (Aryan Talla), who have lost their parents and live in the United States of America. These two disparate families are brought together when a match is arranged between Renuka and Raju.
While Renuka has made her peace with leaving her parental home after marriage, Bhanumathi is troubled by this convention. Isn't it unfair to expect a woman to give up all that she has loved since childhood only because a rajkumar (prince) comes into her life, Bhanumathi asks.
So when Raju arrives with Bujji, Bhanumathi wants to be assured that Raju is worthy of her sister, and at the same time, she doesn't want Renuka to leave for the US after marrying him. Raju and Renuka have the mandatory awkward chat between bride and groom with Bhanumathi eavesdropping. It all seems to be going well until Raju says that he'd like Varun's "approval" too of the bride.
That is enough for Bhanumathi to take offence and cast Varun as the unwitting villain of the drama. When the young doctor from America arrives, Bhanumathi, who is sent to receive him at the railway station, is determined to put him in his place. She's decided he is the typical non-resident Indian (NRI) who cribs about bad Indian roads and whenever she suspects he's attempting to mansplain, she hits back with some sharp repartee. Varun is puzzled by Bhanumathi's attitude, but is charmed in spite of himself.
What follows is an enjoyable banter in the Telangana dialect, with a suggestion of the 'Vachinde' song in the background that serves to build up the attraction that they feel for each other but are reluctant to admit. Bhanumathi could have careened into the infamous Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché if not for the nuance that the actor brings to the character. Whether she's expertly steering a tractor in the verdant fields of Banswada or pranking Varun with lizards (he's phobic), Pallavi never goes overboard.
When Bhanumathi becomes comfortable with Varun and starts contemplating a life with him, she agrees to his suggestion that he help her prepare for her exams. In the scene when they're together in her room, Varun giggles when she says 'rubber' for an eraser. He hesitantly goes on to explain that a rubber means 'condom' in the US, but Bhanumathi only laughs and tells him that there's no need for him to feel so shy and that she's well aware of what condoms are. Kammula subtly overturns the viewer's expectations on what a small town Telugu heroine ought to be like, and the little surprises keep the film engaging.
There are few actors who can switch emotions as quickly as Pallavi does, and this is used to beautiful effect in Fidaa. Watch the sequence leading up to the moment when her sister gets engaged. She's playfully pulling Varun's leg, but just as the couple exchanges rings, her face reveals both the sadness she feels as well as her feelings for Varun. Without speaking a word, Pallavi adds poignance to the moment.
For his part, Varun Tej gamely allows himself to be Pallavi's satellite in Fidaa, playing the besotted young man. Just as the two of them are ready to confess their love for each other, a misunderstanding crops up (but of course). Bhanumathi rejects Varun, and he goes back to the US, heartbroken. The two of them have to work through their (considerable) pride and prejudice to find their way back to each other in a love story that traverses continents.
Though Kammula occasionally gives into populist ideas of romance – Varun gets a needless fight scene and Pallavi wears chiffon in the snow – Fidaa is never boring. We buy into Bhanumathi's allure to the extent that when Varun decides to chuck his medical practice in the US and move to Banswada to dance with Bhanumathi in the rain, we only feel like congratulating him for this rather befuddling career move.
When it premiered on YouTube, the 'Vachinde' wedding song in which Pallavi dances in an aubergine lehenga broke the record held by Dhanush's 'Why This Kolaveri Di', becoming the most viewed south Indian song at the time. (Incidentally, it was Dhanush and Sai Pallavi's 'Rowdy Baby' that finally broke the 'Vachinde' record a year later.) 'Vachinde' was a major reason for Fidaa's success, bringing the audience to theatres in droves. Composer Shaktikanth Karthick's other songs in the album, including 'Hey Pillagaada' and 'Edo Jaruguthondi', were also big hits.
Made on a budget of Rs 13 crore, Fidaa earned Rs 90 crore. It received a TRP of 21.3 for its television premiere on Star Maa, which was the third highest ever at the time (the first two were the Rajamouli films Magadheera and Baahubali 1). Till date, it remains one of most rewatched films among the Telugu audience. The word 'fidaa' means 'spellbound' in Urdu, and that's precisely the effect that Pallavi's Bhanumathi continues to have on the audience.
Fidaa is available to stream on Prime Video.