It has been two decades since Sekhar Kammula released his first film Dollar Dreams (2000), for which he received the Golden Lotus. Even without the recognition, many believe that his first outing still is his best, and I tend to agree with them on most days. I say most days because the other days I'd be watching either Godavari and Leader, and I cannot pick a favourite among the three of them. I am not saying he always succeeds in making an engaging film — even Nayanthara couldn't stop Anaamika from being an under par remake, but the attempt to bring in perspectives that are not readily heard or valued in Telugu popular culture is always present in his cinema. This is exactly why the most moving scene from Leader doesn't come from its leading man.
It comes from a disappointed old man who has nothing to do with the film's arc. No matter how many times you watch it, the old man leaving with his hands folded saying, 'Bussulo potham. Naluguru untaru (We will take the bus. There will be other people)' manages to break your heart anew. Here is the hero, as ideal as a politician can get, who is doing all he can to ensure good governance and is failing despite it. Here is an old man who would not accept our hero's gallantry and goodheartedness. In any other film and by any other writer, the old man would not have been allowed his weariness. Or, if he is allowed to be skeptical, it would only be to show him as an ungrateful man — not here.
This skill of Sekhar Kammula, where he can accommodate as many perspectives as possible, while letting them collide and contradict one another is what makes him unique and important in the often simplistic and homogeneous landscape of Telugu cinema. It also gives him the freedom and luxury to be outlandish and illogical at times as well. Even if you are taken aback when an animated dog starts speaking, you slowly warm up to it, and look forward to it after a while. The world he builds in his films is not rigid. Even if they seem to mirror the society we live in, they are discreetly improved upon.
Kammula had said in one of his interviews that the filmmaker duo Bapu-Ramana are a huge influence, and it shows. Godavari may not look or sound like a Bapu film but it is one, in spirit. While Bapu uses gods to back his brand of feminism, Kammula takes Veturi's help to suggest 'Devudaina Raamudainadhi prema kosam kadaa (Didn't god reincarnate as Rama to seek love?)' and leaves it at that. Bapu's films, for all their merits, still have a gaze that is predominately male. The women are allowed to be multi-dimensional, but they are still expected to be walking pieces of art. Kammula, thankfully, expects honesty — not grace — from his women. Take the scene from Anand where Rupa cuts her hair. She is already in a bad mood and when she tries to wash the anger off her face, her vaalu jada gets in the way. She throws it towards the camera the way Bapu's heroines do, the BGM corroborates it, only to cut it off, cold-bloodedly. Nothing about her, or any other female character in Kammula's films, is for someone else's pleasure. Nothing is beyond their control.
None of this is to suggest that Kammula's films are only worth watching for his women, no. In an industry perpetually starving for well-written female characters, it is understandable that they would take precedence in any conversation surrounding someone like Sekhar Kammula. But, I am here to tell you that there is more to his films than the endearing Bhanus and Sitas.
For me, the men in his films are as refreshing as the women, if not more so. For one, none of them looks like a "hero". In fact, conventionally good-looking men in his films are made to play the bad guy. Male protagonists in his films are tall and lanky, and they smile when a woman asks them to shut up. They let a stranger take their Lay's, because they don't want to create a scene. Some fight, some don't, but their masculinity is not narrow enough to be defined by their ability to throw a punch. None of them are perfect — no Sekhar Kammula character is, but they are conscious of their flaws. This is why even when we see Ram, from Godavari, pine after his maradhalu, we don't feel sorry for him or hate her for rejecting him. We understand before they do that they are not good for each other. Same goes with Arjun from Leader, who follows the same dreadful path of deceit and manipulation to get Archana to fall for him. Instead of defending this act, Kammula uses it to point out his protagonist's slow fall into immorality. He writes Arjun as someone who is acutely aware of his betrayals. Arjun loses his mother immediately after helping a murderer get out of jail. Consequences are important and he understands that.
Satya Krishnan's character in Dollar Dreams is a great example of why Sekhar's female characters are special. She is a married woman, who is happy staying at home and doing nothing. She is still smart and opinionated, and she is still heard. If you think about it, most of Kammula women aren't "strong women". Some of them have jobs but that is not what defines who they are. They are allowed to be weak and vulnerable. Their strength, then, comes from the fact that they are real. You adore, say, a Sita not because she is an achiever. In fact, she is a failing businesswoman who begs her mother for money, but because she feels familiar, like a friend would.
Most of his women are fragile with very delicate egos. They make throwing a tantrum seem like an art form. The beauty lies in the fact that they still manage to convince you that they are unbreakable. Rupa refuses to marry a man over a saree, despite everyone's suggestion that it is not a big deal. Sita refuses to look like a damsel in distress even when she is in distress — no one looks as in-control with a broken sandal in her hand as Sita does. Even Leader's Rathna Prabha is not your typical "bubbly girl", even if she seems like one at first glance. She is uncomplicated, but not incapable of holding her place. She is the only one to acknowledge Arjun's privilege. 'You don't even know one can have cracked heels, do you?' she asks playfully. I would even argue that she is more vital to the film than Archana. She tries to keep Arjun, and, in turn, the film grounded. And the way she leaves him after figuring out his agenda is not what a Haasini-esque woman would do. Maybe they would, but not as convincingly.
Dollar Dreams begins with Ravi leaving for America in lieu of a job. His parents don't want him to leave, but they don't oppose him either. When someone asks the father, 'Why don't you ask him to come back, uncle? He will help you with the work', the father says, 'We don't raise our children to do our work.' For Telugu cinema to understand that children are not eternally indebted to their parents is nothing short of a miracle. This template of a parent — someone whom you love and respect, but don't fear — can be found in almost all Kammula films. May it be Sita calling her mother from a boat and saying, 'Godavari lo Oka abbey nachithe okay na? (Is it okay if I like a guy in Godavari?)' Or Madhu, from Happy Days, having a conversation with her parents about Chandu and his sexual advances. Even when Suhasini's character in Leader asks her son to take after his father, it is more about what the people deserve and less about her wishes as a mother.
Love, too, takes a different shape in his films. It begins with friendship and it gradually turns into something else. Even love at first sight isn't quite as shallow as you expect it to be. Anand may not have taken more than an hour to decide that he is in love with Rupa, but what happens in that hour matters, and so does their history. Rupa, on the other hand, moulds her life around her mother's last words to her: "Evaraina vasthe adagakunda thalupu theyaku." So, for her love is never going to come as easy as it did for the two men who are after her affections. The one who is patient enough to understand this finally gets to be with her.
Then there are Sita's feelings for Ram. Ram's grandmother is putting gorintaaku on Sita's hands, and is telling her that people might not always see it, but Ram is a good man. Sita is listening keenly, and as if to suggest agreement, a tear falls down her cheek. We don't know what she realises at that moment, but we realise that she admires him as much as she likes him. And even if the grandmother was quicker to get there, it dawns on us too that Sita is the one for Ram. Nothing monumental ever happens in his films, just the simple conversations and the silly misunderstandings. These small wonders are enough to make one wistfully remark, 'Manasu maatalu kaadhuga. (Matters of heart aren't easily understandable.)'
Content as style
Sekhar Kammula is a simple filmmaker. His auteurism comes from the choices he makes in his writing. For a fleeting minute, in Anand, we see Rupa and Anita discuss detergent brands. 'Marchedham. Surf Excel thesukundham. Adhe better (Let's use Surf Excel the next time, it's better)', they conclude soon after. As refreshing as this feels now, I did not understand why it needed to exist when I first watched it as a clueless 15 year-old. Realism can be a tricky thing in the context of Telugu cinema, or any cinema in our country. Too real and it is labeled an Indie, something people who are interested in escapist cinema — which is most of the country apparently — are supposed to avoid. If it's too flashy and commercially-inclined, it foregoes all sense of reality for the sake of universality.
Somehow, Sekhar Kammula seems to have managed to find the balance as early as his first film. Dollar Dreams is still as entertaining as any other film, even if it begins with an overlapping dialogue — realistic cinema's staple. In fact, the unpolished conversations, the bustling cafes, and the seemingly uneventful sequences are the most charming aspects of this film. His frames are almost always busy, where the background is filled with lives that have no relevance to the story.
Even the way he explores a place he chooses to set his movie in feels immersive and authentic. It can be the Hyderabad we see in Dollar Dreams or the boat ride in Godavari or Banswada in Fidaa. He somehow managed to retain this sense of context and culture even as he grew as a filmmaker. Ali, Arjun's righthand from Leader, who also happens to be a Muslim man, doubtfully lifts his hands up to pray to a Ganesha idol when he needs something to happen. It's not ceremonial, neither is it a forceful remark on secularism in our country. He needed to pray at that moment and he sees a Ganesh idol. It is as awkward as it should be.
He also trusts his ability as a filmmaker and his viewer's ability to retain information. Flashing back to a scene to create context or using a previous scene to juxtapose it with the present in hopes of creating a better dramatic moment is a tool used by insecure filmmakers. Thankfully, Sekhar Kammula isn't one of them. When a woman comes and intimates Arjun, from Leader, that exactly one lakh women have come to visit his mother's dead body—the same amount of people who were bought and brought to visit his father's body, we understand the intentions even without a throwback. And since it's our own memory that makes this connection, it feels that much more personal. 'Laksha mandhi', even though unrealistic to count, becomes the keyword. That is what makes Arjun realise that he is only failing because he chose the wrong parent to follow. Just two words and everything changes.
Songs as bridges
The problem with the genre Kammula makes his movies in is that there is no organic scope for a voiceover or an expository dialogue that tells us exactly what the character is thinking and feeling. This is where the music and the words it carries come into play. He is fortunate enough to work with greats like Veturi and Sirivennela. From the way, "Aamanosthe kommalanni koyilammalu kadaa//aame neekai saagi vaste prema ruthuve sadaa" informs the film's ending, to the way 'Avunana Kaadhana' gracefully moves between Archana's joy and Arjun's guilt, they all paint the picture of a filmmaker who understands and appreciates the power of a well-written song.
For his debut film he used Lucky Ali's album Sifar and its sprawling emotional range to punctuate his film's mood. "Dil aise na samjhna ke tu hai akela mushkil mod sahi", Ali begins slowly as the camera stays on the father whose son is leaving for America. The same tune reappears when the son comes back and saying, "Jinke saath dil lagta hai, unke saath holo." Even an imperfect film like Life is Beautiful has a great line about single mothers, written by Vanamaali: "Chinni chinni thagavule maku lokamaina vela//Nee vyadhalu manasepudaina polchukunnadha."
In Anand, Veturi comes to our rescue and tries to tell us what Rupa and Anand are too arrogant to say to each other. "Neeru gundelona daachi merisi mayamouthavu", accuses Anand. To which Rupa tauntingly says, "Puvvu lanti gundelona dharamalle dhaguthavu//Nenena nee roopena."
And to anyone who did not understand why Fidaa takes as long as it does to get its happy ending, here is Sirivennela's take on the seemingly expendable, yet unavoidable miscommunication:
Thanalo unnadhedho edhurugaane unnadhi
Aina manasu dhanni polchallekunnadhi
Thaanem vethukuthondho dorikinatte unnadhi
Aina cheyyi chaachi andhukokunnadhi.
Even if the circumstances are straightforward, people rarely are.
With most Telugu films you have to always be alert; something offensive is always around the corner. But a Sekhar Kammula's movie is where you can let your guard down and relax. The first film of his that I, and most of us, have watched is Anand. Films, famously, used to have a tagline in the 2000s — some of them still do — and 'Manchi coffee lanti cinema' is Anand's tagline. And that is exactly what every Sekhar Kammula movie is or tries to be — warm and welcoming.
I want to end this piece by acknowledging that he is not above making mistakes. Even if it can be argued that the item number from Leader has a purpose to serve, it is still an item number. Juvenile science experiments that keep reappearing, film after film, and the fact is that most of his female actors are not Telugu women. Even the way Sangeetha's character in Happy Days is handled leaves a lot to be desired. But those missteps seem easily forgivable considering the fact that he is the only filmmaker in Telugu cinema who is actively trying to create space for a newer kind of cinema — where the characters are soft despite their sharp edges, and where it's easier to be hopeful about the future.