Uppena was like a breath of fresh air in the Indian thriller genre. It follows the romance between Aasi, a Christian fisherman, and Sangeetha (affectionately called Bebamma), a zamindar's daughter. Vijay Sethupati plays Raayanam, Bebamma's father, who places great importance on caste and honour. He, as expected, does not approve of their love.
The protagonists, debutants Panja Vaisshnav Tej and Krithi Shetty, blended so effortlessly into their roles and had me rooting for them right from the start. Vijay Sethupathi was, as usual, terrifyingly perfect. The dubbing might throw you off, especially if you are used to Vijay's subtlety in his dialogue delivery. (Although, he mentioned that he is learning Telugu to become more fluent and sign more Telugu films.) The final scene was what stood out for me; Raayanam's silence and reluctance and Krithi's ability to steal the screen from Vijay Sethupathi.
At one point in the film, Aasi says, "Love as famous as Laila and Majnu, Devadas and Parvati, Romeo and Juliet, our love should be as special and unique."
The foreshadowing dialogues, the antagonist father, and the caste divide hint at a tragic ending. In fact, in many instances, it reminded me of Dorasaani and Colour Photo. A 'routine love story', as we Telugu folks might call it. But despite the stretched second half and some predictability, the film is held together by its sincerity in telling a slightly different tale.
Though the story seems as old as time, debutant director and writer Buchi Babu Sana focuses on the relationships between the characters. Certain moments like Aasi and his friend (Jai Krishna) wondering who the man is between Romeo and Juliet, Aasi trying to say Sangeetha with his stutter, or Bebamma's idea that anger makes one age faster, all have their charm.
Caste was essentially the core message of the film. Raayanam goes to brutal lengths to protect his family honour by preventing his daughter from having a future with a boy from an oppressed caste. But this message is lost in the final scenes as the narrative shifts to the power of love and toxic masculinity. This again becomes a bit preachy, but I can appreciate Buchi Babu's effort to include a topic like toxic masculinity, which is rarely discussed in Indian cinema. The issue of casteism never really strikes a deep chord in your heart like perhaps Sairat did.
Uppena means high tide in Telugu, and the concept is weaved so poetically into the film's cinematography by Shamdat Sainudeen and soundtrack by Devi Shri Prasad and Sukumar. The town's coastal shots and the strong sea waves show parallels to Aasi's and Bebamma's vast love. The lyrics by Sri Mani, Chandrabose, and Raqueeb Alam, particularly in the songs Nee Kannu Neeli Samudram and Jala Jala Jalapaatham, which include sea metaphors, beautifully capture the blossoming love and desire of the couple. These two elements definitely made me wish I saw the film in the theatres.
I would recommend giving the film a weekend watch for the charming chemistry between the lead actors and the songs that will stay with you long after the film has ended.