In Telugu cinema, love inadvertently translates to attraction and lust. This has something to do with the fact that most love stories are stories of love at first sight, and then they stop there. They do not go beyond their attraction for each other, neither do films get conversational about what makes their relationship tick, beyond the ‘oh, he saved me from the goons. Again.’ So, if one has to discuss romance and desire in Telugu cinema, it would be through songs, particularly the lyrics. And if words are up for discussion, the most viable choice has to be Sirivennela Seetharama Sastry. Even when he is given a generic template to write about, he somehow manages to come up with a song like ‘Emo Emo Emoo‘ from Devadas.
Things get that much more poignant and meaningful when the song has a reason to exist beyond a formulaic placement—a few great ones even manage to convey what the film fails to, punctuating emotions. A man and a woman in love, trying to navigate their desire, don’t have to make one cringe and Sirivennela knows this more than most film poets. And when the filmmaker has the same vision, things get even more graceful, the way they do with ‘Mayeedho Cheyava’, from Mani Ratnam’s Ok Bangaram. It’s foreplay, but it’s also two people slowly coming to terms with their desire for each other. In his words, desire, especially female desire, feels delicate yet intense. Some of my favourites are listed below:
Ok Anesa. Teenagers in love. Parental pressures. Fear and excitement in equal parts. This song is about a boy and girl deciding to see their love story through despite apprehensions—”Kadha Modhalanuko Thudhi Varaku Nilabadagaladhaa” (The story did start, but will it stand until the end?) He then asks for her hand, and she gives him her trust—”Parigedadhaam Padhavey Cheli…Endhaaka Annaana” (Let us run, come my dear. Her: Did I ask you where to?)—followed by a reassurance of unconditional courage—”Kanibedadhaam Thudhi Majilee…Ekkadunnam”(Him: Let’s find our final destination. Her: Wherever it is.) In the end, she is a bit skeptical—”Pakkanuntey Phakkumantoo Navvinaadaa Priyathamaa“(By my side, the lover laughs unabashedly) “Chikkuluntey Bikkumantoo Lekka Chesthaavaa”(When there are troubles, would he panic and give in?) A question that is supposed to be answered by the film.
Evaraina Epudaina. From the film Anandam, Shastry wrote two songs for the same tune, both surmising two different love stories between four very different people. While the first version talks about a new beginning for a tormented girl, the second version talks about the unlikely friendship, and eventual romance, between two people who used to hate each other. As such, the first one is filled with lines like “Chusthune ekkadi nuncho chaitram kadhilosthundhi” (Spring comes out of nowhere unassumingly), “Poga manchuni popo mantu tharimesthundhi”(And it hastily forces the fog to leave). And the second song has this line to punctuate the warmth and improbability of all that’s happening at that point of time in the film: “Gaganaanni nelani kalipe veelundhani chupelaa ee vinthala vanthena inka ekkadidhaka?” (To show that it’s possible to bring the sky and the ground together, how far is this bridge of wonders going to go?]
Nuvvunte. Aarya, the film this song is from, is pretty unhealthy in its portrayal of one-sided love. The only time their romance feels healthy and sweet, even, is when this song is playing in the background. We see the heroine blossoming in his presence, as she eventually starts to develop feelings for him as well. The poet tries to put this man’s obsession into words that at least feel like love, so that the audience can get behind the idea of them as a couple. “Unnachota unnaana aakasamandukunnaana”(Am I still where I was a second ago, or am I touching the sky?) “Cheliyaloni ee kotthasambaramnaakurekkathodigena” (This new joy in the woman I love must’ve given me wings.)
Chiguraku Chaatu Chilaka. The first charanam is a masterclass in how a perfect chain of words can have a rhythm of its own. A silent woman is the eye of the storm, says the poet. A sudden change in her manner and glance, and the guy is wondering what it might be. “Gala gala veeche pilla gaali enduku aagindi” (Why did the ever moving breeze stop suddenly?) “Kompalu munche tufanochche soochenemundi” (Probably a sign of a coming hurricane that’s going to wreak havoc.)
Jaamu Raatiri. I know this isn’t strictly romantic in the film’s context, but what’s more romantic than a man singing a song, weaving in beautiful metaphors about the very jungle you are surrounded by and scared of, so you can sleep? Nothing. “Manasulo bhayalanni marichipo, magathalo marolokam teruchuko” (Forget all the fears in your heart and open doors to a new world, slowly slipping into unconsciousness), is one of the remarkable lines in this unbelievably soothing song.
Nuvvu Nuvvu. A song so visceral and sensual in its treatment, you had to feel guilty about watching it even though there is nothing PG-13 about it. A woman so immersed in her love for her man is a beautiful sight. “Naa sigguni dachukone kougilive nuvvu” (You are the embrace that steals my modesty), “Naa vanni dochukune korikave nuvvu”(You are the desire that steals my everything). Even so, the words don’t feel borrowed or voyeuristic, despite them coming out of a man’s mind. Instead, they feel enriched with thought and femininity. Interestingly, even though this song is our only way into their relationship, it was powerful enough to keep us invested in the man’s grief after he loses her.
Oke Oka Maata. A lovely song that talks about the oneness of love. Two people in love enjoying the fact that they don’t know where one stops and the other begins. With lines like “Nee tanuvuloni sparsagaa thagiledi nenani” (I am what you feel when you touch your body) or “Nee adugai nadavadame payanamannadi paadam” (Walking step in step with you is the only journey my legs are willing to take), this melody has been a part of many favourite lists.
Niluvadham. People change in love, at least some do—”Niluvadhamu ninu epudaina nuvvu evvaru ani adigena” (Would a mirror ever ask you ‘who are you?’). Here too, the guy finds himself changing into someone else and he is trying to playfully blame the girl for it—”Nanninthaga marchendhuku neekevarricharu hakku” (who gave you the right to change me so much?), “Nee premane prasninchuko aa nindha nakendhuku”, (Go ask your love that question instead of blaming me), says the girl.
Oohalu Oorege. Two people getting to know each other. Wondering whether there is a next step or not. And what should they do, if there is. “Paravasamaa maree ilaa parichayamanta ledugaa” (Why are you so overwhelmed, you’ve only known her for a short while?) The guy questions himself. “Porabadipoku antalaa nanu adigaava mundugaa”(Don’t hurry and make a mistake, did you ask me first?) says the woman trying to reign his enthusiasm in. Supported by a beautiful melody, the song discusses consent in a tiny yet important way.
Unna Mata Cheppaneevu. A man is being pursued by an engaged woman, who realises her feelings a little too late. The man, even though he has feelings for her, tries to move away from her fearing conflict. “Voddanakoddi toontariga tiragakala na venaka” (Stop being childishly egged by my refusal) “Niddarlo kooda vontarigavadhalavuga” (You won’t even leave me alone in my sleep) —a simple way of saying it’s complicated. Another example of an ingenious line and the imagery it invokes—”Amayakamga choodakala vedookala chilipi kala” (Stop looking at me innocently like a celebration that’s waiting to happen, you naughty dream) “Ayomayam ga veyakala haayi vala” (Don’t cluelessly throw a soothing net—be careful with the way you are trying enticing me, in other words).