The first time Anu comes on screen in Tholi Prema, the viewer can’t see her face clearly. You see almost an angel-like lady in a white dress on a foggy night before Diwali enjoying firecrackers with children. You don’t really see Anu more clearly or closely in the subsequent scenes because this is Tholi Prema’s male protagonist, Balu’s story. It’s about his journey as he discovers himself and his purpose through Anu. You mostly see and feel Anu through her interactions with Balu. For the first half of the movie, she’s just a beautiful enigma. Yet, the movie shines as it shows how transformational a character Anu is.
Balu and Anu are starkly different. While Balu is struggling to complete his education and seems to be passing time without any clear direction in life, Anu is keen on finding purpose. Anu is a clear departure from many Telugu women of her times and even men. Anu is driven, intelligent and mature. The movie spans her visit to her grandfather after her parents’ accidental death and how she and Balu become close amid strokes of serendipity and tragedy.
Anu seems to be invested heavily in almost everything she does. She approaches strangers for autographs when she notices their kind acts of service. When her cousin mocks her for following strangers for autographs, she explains that she likes to encourage thoughtful people. When her grandfather finds her up late at night, he assumes that she must be emailing her boyfriend as most youngsters are awake at that hour for love. Anu disagrees and explains that she highly values her youth and she wants to do her PhD at Harvard and aspires to be an Einstein.
I first watched Tholi Prema as a child and though I remember thinking highly of Anu, I didn’t deeply understand the nuances of her character until I watched the movie again recently. I uncovered a lot more of Anu now and feel that she is still relevant even after few decades. The most striking and refreshing characteristic of Anu is that she’s very unassuming and nonjudgmental.
It is extremely surprising to see a woman who’s very goal-oriented and ambitious not judge Balu or his friends. While most of his family members overlook his strengths and dismiss him, Anu has a high regard for Balu. When she observes that Balu is confused and uncertain about his future, she does not refrain from giving tough advice and even reprimands Balu. She says “Are you a child, Balu? Your plans seem to be changing every hour. Please take care of your future.”
However, she accepts Balu’s shortcomings and appreciates his strengths. Anu picks on Balu’s empathy and talent, which does not conform to traditional notions of professional success. She gifts him a cricket bat on her birthday and writes to him “I heard you are a great cricket player. I feel everyone should have a great purpose and a goal. If cricket is your interest, I hope you can concentrate and realize your purpose through cricket.”
Although Tholi Prema is mostly remembered today for establishing Pawan Kalyan, when it released in the late 90s, the movie’s unconventional, novel and ingenious female protagonist and ending became the talking points. For those who reflect deeply and take stories seriously, Anu offers a distinct take on how to approach relationships. Anu encourages us to reassess our criteria when judging people. In a world where we thrive on comparing each other and judging becomes an instant reflex, Anu’s approach was so rare, fresh, and inclusive. She made me lean into a more empathetic side and question whether traditional metrics are indeed the right way to measure the potential and greatness of others. Anu was a whiff of fresh air and can be aspirational to all, irrespective of genders.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.