Before I started freelancing and made it my job to watch every Telugu film that releases, I was a different person. I thought I was too good for Telugu cinema, and frankly, I was for a few films. But even through my disenchantment, I never failed to watch a Sekhar Kammula film. My superiority complex, although all-consuming, couldn’t stop me from seeing that he is a filmmaker worth making an exception for.
I watched Anand (2004) when I was in Junior college. I remember the theatre I watched that film in—Surya Mahal, Srikakulam. I remember the dress I wore that day—parrot green salwar, then favourite colour and then favourite dress. But for someone whose memory is hazy at best, this vivid recollection means something. Even if I didn’t understand that then, Anand changed things. Maybe not the film industry, but it definitely changed what a viewer can expect in the future.
Now, every once in a while, a filmmaker comes with their take on a “strong female lead”. Although any effort in that direction is welcome, more often than not, they don’t amount to much. Which brings the question, what does Kammula do differently?
My answer to this is simple: the lack of any agenda. Their character traits aren’t a checklist. Their loud behaviour is as amusing as it is annoying. They don’t always gain something by being strong-headed. They are who they are, even when the situation needs them to be someone else. They aren’t just strong, they are well-written.
9. Anaamika (2014)
The film begins promisingly enough. It’s rooted, a Sekhar Kammula’s film is nothing if it’s not researched and rooted, and feels like the setting translates well, from Kolkata to Hyderabad. The idea of introducing the titular character with her signature is also clever considering her name and the film’s plot. But from then on, it slowly dilutes and diverges into something uninteresting.
The changes that are made from the original Kahaani (2012) are well-intentioned, but they don’t add much to the final outcome. It’s just unmemorable, and that’s very unlike him as a filmmaker. Anaamika is the least Kammula film, not just because it is someone else’s story. The genre is new to him and it needed a filmmaker who can compartmentalise the character-driven and plot-driven sections of the script with enough detachment and ease. Nevertheless, you can understand Kammula’s attraction to this script, and he is the first one, after Bapu’s Sri Rama Rajyam, to reimagine Nayanathara as a star capable and charismatic enough to carry a film.
8. Life is Beautiful (2012)
I might make fun of this film every chance I get—the premise is comically far fetched—but every time I catch the little girl talking about her mother at school, I am moved. Kammula said that the film would’ve succeeded had he named it ‘Happy Days 2’ and I agree. If nothing else, it would’ve set appropriate expectations, and when seen through that lens, the film isn’t that bad.
It wants to establish the rich vs. poor divide in a simplistic manner, so it materialises two colonies with different economic backgrounds that are separated, or as it turns out connected, by a lake and a tree. This premise is what hinders any kind of connection with the characters and their problems. Also, the writing isn’t pithy enough to keep the viewer engaged. Despite many emotional moments, it all feels a bit juvenile. Having said that, I’ve been living in a gated-community for over a year, and I’ve seen enough silly North vs South fights to find some merit in this film if I watch it now.
7. Happy Days (2007)
The number of films that tried to imitate, or improve upon, or subvert this film is painfully high, which shows the momentous effect it had, and still has, on up and coming filmmakers. Kammula himself tried to recreate that magic in Life is Beautiful and came short. It is the only film of his that doesn’t warrant a rewatch from me.
It’s a smart and entertaining film about college life and love. The senior pestering Madhu is perfectly contrasted with Tyson pursuing Shravs. It’s the same context, but the woman’s reaction and the power dynamics make all the difference. The film is prolific in the way it manages to portray all that goes in an engineering student’s life, but not all actors are good. And I still don’t know what I’m supposed to feel about Kamalinee Mukherjee’s English lecturer.
6. Fidaa (2017)
Sai Pallavi sells it marvellously, but Bhanu is a very inconsistent character. I don’t mean it as a criticism. People are supposed to be uneven and contradictory. For a woman who has lived her whole life in a village, she is evolved. She questions traditions and she knows enough to stop people from giving her unsolicited advice. When a conversation suddenly turns toward a condom, she isn’t the one being shy, the man from America is. But she still expects the man she likes to fight the guy who teases her.
When you think about it, all the characters—the father, the sister, and the aunt—are not what you expect them to be. The father knows to care about his daughters’ happiness more than anything else. What’s great about it is the way none of it feels out of place. Nonetheless, the most memorable thing about a romance shouldn’t be the father-daughter relationship. Something feels amiss between the couple. The chemistry’s there and the resolution too is bold in the way it doesn’t try to explain itself, but the middle section is a bit flabby.
5. Love Story (2021)
I have the opposite of recency bias when it comes to Kammula’s films. Love Story has all the charm you expect from the filmmaker, but it also has all the pitfalls you expect. Despite being long, the ending feels rushed and abrupt. The screenplay has a stitched-together vibe to it with some jarring transitions. But it also has great music and rooted writing that makes it easy to overlook the mistakes.
There is a scene between Mounika and Revanth where she is hurt that he didn’t meet her when she asked him to, so she makes a casteist remark. Here is a woman who feels insecure and vulnerable, so she goes against her instinct to hurt him. Here is a man who feels broken by her comment as he fails to understand why it was a big deal to her.
It’s a great way to flesh out the intersection of caste and gender, where each has their own shortcomings and baggage that clouds them from seeing the other person fully. It also shows the power dynamics at play and how easy it is for Monica to turn nasty, and how it is expected of Revanth to be the bigger person and forgive her. It says so much in those few beats. (I still think this is where the film should have gone for the intermission—they have literally reached an impasse.) For a filmmaker who is beginning to explore caste, he manages to depict the micro aggressions of the oppressor and the restlessness of the oppressed rather effectively.
4. Anand (2004)
There have been many films before where protagonists are orphans, but it’s rare for the female protagonist to be one. It’s rarer still for a film to then not use that fact to elicit pity or excuse bad behaviour. Rupa isn’t a helpless character; a tragedy happened to her, but she isn’t defined by it. When we are introduced to her, she has her life together and is about to get married to a seemingly nice man. It is heartwarming to see a woman creating a family of her own in the absence of her biological family.
Even the premise of this woman having to forgive the man who, accidentally, kills her family is refreshingly complex for a culture that insists on things being either black or white. No one makes exposition seem organic as Kammula does, and Anand is a great example of that. We learn about the protagonists and the people around them slowly but intimately. They all have their quirks and their backstories, and a film is never going to be long enough to tell us everything, but Anand proves that if they are well-written the tiny glimpses can carry great meaning.
3. Leader (2010)
Good political dramas that aren’t biopics are very hard to come by in Telugu cinema. Other than the topnotch Prasthanam (2010), Leader is the only film that doesn’t shy away from the amorality that lurks around in any kind of political scenario. Unlike Prasthanam, where the greys come from expected places, this film uses its protagonist to discuss the inevitability and futility of trying to be ethical in a world that’s anything but.
The most interesting part of the film is the way it sketches the journey of this man. He begins from a place of privilege as an idealistic absolute. He then loses his way, only to realise that the same privilege he gains from being his father’s son is also the thing that’s stopping him from being a better version. It is idealistic and a bit dreamy, but it works because it’s driven by a character who is approachable and real, who makes mistakes and learns from them.
2. Dollar Dreams (2000)
If you are a first-time director who is trying to introduce your unique style of cinema to the viewer, you would want to keep it simple and easy. But not Kammula, no. He will have a beautiful woman dressed in white conveniently appear every time a character needs to process something important. He will create a diverse group of friends from different communities, speaking different languages, and having lived different lives, and he will show us how they manage to stay together and make sense.
What’s more interesting about Dollar Dreams is that the viewer gets used to it and accepts it because Kammula has a great sense of place and setting. If you have enough conviction and respect your viewer, you can get away with anything. The film is glitchy at times and it even looks a bit amateurish, at parts, but the writing is charming in the slice-of-life manner it’s written. Any film that’s after realism hopes the viewer would forget that they are watching something that’s made for their consumption. Much like Archana’s documentary and its participants, this film has a casual earnestness about it. It’s sweet but not overbearing, talks about country without getting preachy.
1. Godavari (2006)
Two kinds of couples’ whose journeys are parallelly traced, brings interesting contrast to the idea of an arranged marriage and a marriage arranged by love. Despite being densely populated with subplots—some work and some don’t, Godavari somehow manages to fuse them together into a cohesive tale of love and conviction.
Chinna, the boy who sells balloons, has as satisfying a character arc as any main character and the film never allows or invites pity in his direction, in fact it condemns it via Pullama’s character. Sita is my favourite female character ever written in Telugu cinema. She is vain and temperamental—her father mockingly calls her ‘Queen Victoria’ and she concurs, but the film never celebrates her vanity. The conversation between a daughter and a father about how a stranger, a man, is making it hard for her to continue with her business seems simple, but it takes a lot of work and skill to make it appear so.
Godavari is vital in that it establishes Sekhar Kammula’s style and preferences strongly, and presents him as a filmmaker with a vision.
Despite waxing eloquent about Kammula’s work, I must admit that there are people thoroughly unimpressed. His filmmaking can be sloppy and indifferent to the form. From his interviews, I conclude that it is intentional. He only cares about the message and whether his writing is coming through on the screen. It is a choice, one that is not entirely fair to the medium, but he is firmly who he is. This worked until now, because he has a niche audience that are loyal to him, and family audiences are entertained by his sensibilities. Which is exactly why I’m equally excited and nervous for his pan-Indian project with Dhanush.
Whether he’ll take his uniqueness to a grander stage or the stage will make him a little less Kammula-like — only time will tell.