The 'National Award Winner' tag sits awkwardly on Tharun Bhascker's debut Pelli Choopulu, for it's a film whose charm works unassumingly. Going in with grandiose expectations would be like waiting for the bass to drop in an Ilaiyaraaja song. This was Vijay Deverakonda's first film in a lead role, but the film doesn't really belong to a single actor, or even a single department. It's a larger sum of smaller, less visible successes, and watching it five years after release, moments that flew under the radar in 2016 began to surface.
For one, there's the way it opens. Prashant's family sits crowded in a car anxious about getting to the Pelli Choopulu on time. Prashant (Vijay Deverakonda), however, is relaxed, looking out of the window, chewing gum. He spots an idli place and asks the driver to stop, much to his father's displeasure. The first scene tells us everything about him, even before he recounts his story to Chitra (Ritu Varma) — not just that he's a connoisseur of food, but that he's a passive character being driven to a destination in life by those around him, while he looks on in vague comprehension.
Tharun Bhascker's gag-a-second dialogue has become somewhat of a signature, but here it reveals character while being funny. When he arrives at Chitra's house and they get locked in her room, Chitra asks him — meeku first time aa ila? She means the matchmaking, but he replies that it isn't, that it happened once before when he was asked to go to tuition and he slammed his door. This is a comedic exchange, but it also hints that Prashant is frozen in adolescence: he's been compelled to attend the matchmaking by his parents, just as he was with tuition.
What has received less attention is the visual craft of his films, the way they are shot, directed and edited — the bus-stop prank scene is aided by the fact that it's all done in a static shot that only pans to Prashant's father for the punchline. One of the funniest sequences in Tharun's sophomore film Ee Nagariniki Emaindi is built upon a series of match-cuts, orchestrated around Sai Sushanth Reddy lying knocked out on the floor.
Mainstream Telugu cinema produces hundreds of "comedy scenes" that succeed because of the actors, but a lot of Pelli Choopulu and ENE's gags are products of crafty filmmaking — acting, blocking and editing come together to make the scene work.
The bus stop scene is one of several comic set-pieces in Pelli Choopulu — the famous call-centre rant is another — but there are smaller moments of acting that contribute to the tone, precisely because the actors don't lean into them. There's Ritu Varma's reaction when Prashant tries to walk out of a door he's forgotten is jammed and Vijay Deverakonda's sycophantic nod that is eroded by shame when his father tells him to pass his supplementary exam even if he has to cheat.
This lightness-of-touch informs even the punchier lines meted out by Priyadarshi's Kaushik, — the "eucalyptus" gag, the "achievers" monologue, and the famous one about meeting one's demise without suffering voyeurs — are all delivered in Bill Murray-esque deadpan.
On rewatch, I picked up on another unostentatious detail. Chitra's friend who doesn't know when to stop talking — she's in the background, drowned out by the score, when Chitra is bidding her boyfriend farewell. Later, when Prashant and Chitra need to have an important conversation in private, she doesn't get the hint to leave them alone. It turns out she's an RJ — the one who interviews them in the denouement — she's doing what suits her personality the best — another reiteration of the film's "follow your dreams, don't climb up the wrong tree" message (which the director would return to in Ee Nagariniki Emaindi).
The follow your dreams messaging necessarily means the battle lines are generational, and who is a bigger antagonist to the unemployed Telugu hero's dreams than his father? (Think Okkadu, Julayi, Maharshi, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo) But there's also Chitra's father who seems to arrange a Pelli Choopulu every 10 minutes, and Prashant's prospective father-in-law who wants to marry his daughter against her wishes just because their horoscopes match.
Prashant and Chitra's beef with their parents is one regarding conformity — their parents had to play safe to survive and didn't have the luxury of entertaining wild, individualistic dreams. This conflict has a metatextual resonance: the film itself does away with safe tropes: the traditionally masculine hero and the heroine without a romantic history. In genre, tone and chipping away at social mores, Pelli Choopulu shares some DNA with Sekhar Kammula's Anand and Nandini Reddy's Ala Modalaindi, but you could argue that the tradition is older — that the film plays out like a Vijaya Productions' comedy ala Missamma or Mayabazaar rejigged with the visual muscle of Judd Apatow and Edgar Wright.
Have there been songs that have gently chided a protagonist like Rahul Ramakrishna's lyrics in Pelli Choopulu's 'Ee Babu Gariki?' One of the underappreciated parts of Telugu films in the past five years has been the lyrics. Sample Brochevaaruevarura's 'Vaale Chinukule' (Hasith Goli) and C/o Kancharapalem's 'Asha Pasham' (Vishwa). (Rangasthalam may play out like a commercial 80s-style revenge drama, but its political undertones are tucked away in its songs.) These are lyrics that complement the themes of these films without verbalising them. But then there is the sound that Pelli Choopulu brought to Telugu films. It's apparent that Vivek Sagar loves Ilaiyaraaja, but the soundtracks of Pelli Choopulu and Brochevaaruevarura are reminiscent of the free-spirited eclecticism of 60s' pop with its infusion of folk-rock, jazz, and Indian classical music.
Prashant and Chitra's food truck (based on a real-life business) could stand in for the film itself — the small-scale venture that managed to thrive in the industry of the star vehicle, its success a consequence of the fact that it didn't cave in to norms. In its wake, there have been a slew of small-scale films that have found financing and distribution — Arjun Reddy, C/o Kancharapalem, Brochevaarevarura, Raja Vaaru Rani Gaaru, Colour Photo and Palasa 1978.
Despite its irreverence, Pelli Choopulu is far lighter fare than several of these, but to overlook its craft because of its lightness would be a mistake — a soufflé is light and airy, but famously hard to get right. This is a film that opened up doors through its indieness, the language that it spoke, who it spoke to, and the tightness of its craft. The trailer song goes Paramparalu Thalapattayi Padakottandoi (a clumsy translation: traditions have clogged the mind, break them down). As far as Telugu films are concerned, that's exactly what Pelli Choopulu and its successors seem to be doing.