What are some of the attributes of the quintessential Tollywood/Telugu film?
Long run-times? Scenes added just for laughs? A dance sequence in front of Prasad’s Multiplex?
Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu (The Jasmine Vine in Seetha’s Courtyard) is a film that has all those things. But the reason my love for this film knows no bounds is that it entrances me back to Andhra on every viewing. It has become a two-and-a-half-hour substitute to what used to be two-month vacations that got cruelly reduced to week-long visits over the years. Thanks to the Pandemic, even a two-day trip is out of the question now.
Set in Relangi, a village in Western Andhra Pradesh, the film follows the lives of a family headed by Mavayya (Uncle), played by Prakash Raj and his wife, played by Jayasudha. Our protagonists are their sons, Chinnodu (Younger one) and Peddodu (Elder one), played by a very refreshing Mahesh Babu and a solid Venkatesh. Also living with them is their grandmother and the titular character of the film, Seetha, their cousin who was orphaned when she was a child.
Writing an enticing logline for a film this simple is a tough ask. The film is not about a piano player pretending to be blind and caught up in a murder case. It’s not about one man deciding to take on or scam the system and institutions of the country. It’s not about anything that makes headlines. It’s about the everyday, god-fearing people who read these headlines and pray that they never find themselves in the middle of any of this.
Mavayya may once have been a wealthy man, but he isn’t anymore. He has lost or given away his material wealth and property owing to his good nature and kindness. This comes under constant reproval from Seetha’s paternal side of the family who are affluent and live in Vijayawada. None of this bothers Mavayya. As far as he is concerned, being kind and having a smile on his face is living the good life.
Brought up in this humble home are Chinnodu and Peddodu who develop inferiority issues on account of the opportunities they have been deprived of owing to their lack of affluence and having the other, more successful side of their family as a constant reminder of their misfortune. This drives them to grow into extremely converse personalities: Chinnodu is the extrovert who hides behind his wit and words while Peddodu is the introvert who is stubborn about his tactless ways. We follow them throughout the story as they circulate between Hyderabad, Vizag and Relangi, looking to get stable jobs and to get ‘settled’.
Seetha is fond of Peddodu and her paternal cousin, Geetha, falls for Chinnodu. But in a culture obsessed with material wealth, being jobless is often looked at as a condition which renders you ‘unqualified’ to be a prospective groom and is a silent, perceived attack on your masculinity. So much so that their mother does her Dishti ritual to ward off evil eyes every time the brothers leave or enter the house together. This didn’t feel excessive until I imagined someone doing this in a non-Telugu film.
But the film is far from a simplistic, poor-guy-gets-rich-girl love story. The story takes its time to unfold and show us the richly constructed layers of both the protagonists. One wishes the same were true for the female characters of the movie. Much like the state in which it takes place, the film also suffers from a lack of feminist awareness in a scene or two.
Mahesh Babu steps out of the skin of the heavyweight, larger-than-life star that he is and blends in perfectly with the cast and milieu as the street-smart younger brother. This grounded and subtle performance reminds us what a good actor he really is. He is joined by Venkatesh who delivers a solid act as the unsociable older brother in his first big multi-starrer in Telugu cinema in decades. The film is devoid of the fight scenes and item numbers that Telugu cinema had become rife with and takes us back to the 50s when multi-starrer culture was prevalent, with the ANR-NTR family dramas at the forefront.
None of the main characters except Seetha are ever addressed or called by their actual names and never does this come off as odd or unnatural. The nature of the language, dialect and locale allow for this. If you’re from Andhra, you have seen the paddy fields, the heaps of dried grass, the older men perpetually dressed in white and carrying a newspaper, the starched sarees; and you have heard these conversations, these jokes and this gossip. Each dialogue, scene and sequence embodies
Teluguness Teluguthanam. That is also the reason for its limited popularity outside the state and the lack of literature around the film online. The dialogue and humour are so distinctly Telugu that it doesn’t lend itself to effective, accurate or even functional translation without losing all of its essence. Furthermore, dubbing the film in Hindi proved to be impossible without inventing names for the protagonists. Very imaginative ones at that: Mahesh and Venkatesh.
The film shows how these relationships develop and what it really means to be ‘qualified’ and to have made it in life. Prakash Raj delivers a heart-warming performance, especially in the climax that’s bound to want to make you believe in the goodness of people. In times when everyone is in a state of perpetual anxiety about progressing in different areas of their lives, this film provides a compelling argument to put one’s feet up in the face of it, smile more and relax.
These are everyday people with everyday struggles. Perennial underdogs, like most of us. Perhaps that is the reason for its endless re-watch value. You’re not just re-watching a film for the umpteenth time. You’re watching life unfold, just as you were before you hit play.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.