Cast: Nani, Nazriya Nazim, Naresh, Rohini, Nadiya
Director: Vivek Athreya
I think I'd love to sit with Director Vivek Athreya through the process of making a film – from writing the script, filming it, and finally editing it. He's one of those exciting voices in Telugu cinema who seem to love telling stories, quite literally on screen. In his films, people are constantly telling each other stories and through this method, he tends to bite into the real meat of his screenplay. He did that to an extent in his debut Mental Madhilo, and he made that the crutch for a thin storyline in Brochevarevarura, and he overindulges the same story-telling format in Ante Sundaraniki. That's not always a bad thing. Especially when you have someone like Vivek Sagar and Nani and Nazariya and other fantastic actors to add layers to a comedy-drama that struggles with the drama.
Sundar (Nani) and Leela (Nazriya) are in love and somewhat childhood sweethearts. But that's not enough for both of them because her full name is Leela Thomas and his is KPVVV something something Sundar Shastry. He is from the kind of Brahmin Hindu family which is steeped in orthodoxy and practices all the rituals to the t with an extended family that's over-involved in each other's lives. She is from a nuclear family that is devoutly Christian. So, do Leela and Sundar manage to get married? Look, you know they do. It's not really a spoiler. But how do they do it? What lies do they tell and worse what truths do they tell?
The reason I am so keen to see Vivek Athreya's process is because he seems to extract such fine work from most departments.
Firstly, his choice of music has always been excellent. Vivek Sagar's talent has never been questioned but Vivek Athreya seems to know exactly what he needs from the composer for the scenes on screen. If you really want to test this I'll leave you with an experiment. Listen to the songs and some bits of the background music before you watch the film. And record your reaction. Then watch the film and revisit the bits of the music once you can associate the moments from the film with them. There's a good chance you were indifferent the first time and tapping your foot and grooving to them the second time. That's because Vivek Athreya knows that music that sticks out or is noticeable might not necessarily be best for the story. 'Rango Ranga' and 'The Panchakattu' songs are woven seamlessly into the film and they truly come alive with the story. Also what an outing for Telugu film's music directors in recent times, with last week Sricharan Pakala walking away with a film and this week Vivek Sagar nearly doing the same.
Similarly, I'm in awe of the way Vivek Athreya shoots and edits his films. I wouldn't be surprised if cinematographer Niketh Bommi and editor Ravi Teja Girijala find it torturous to work with the director because all the cuts seem so precise as if there was no way to extend the scene any further. In this film, Vivek Athreya particularly jumps forward in time and then has characters narrate the sequences leading up to key moments. He constantly cuts, and slices to tell his story in an entertaining manner but it must be a nightmare while shooting and editing his vision. It works most of the time.
On paper, the first half has barely any story and yet it's nearly ninety minutes long. But it feels breezy and there is barely any moment that feels dragged because the constant back and forth feels like a fun puzzle to solve. Niketh Bommi, Ravi Teja Girijala, and Vivek Sagar make life easy for their director but it's hard to believe that it wasn't already visualized in his head.
But this is also where I struggle with Vivek Athreya's films and that is why I want to see how he writes his stories. As someone who can extract so much from his crew, he struggles with adding some complexity to his stories and they are never as brave as the other choices he makes. In Mental Madhilo, a confused man is literally confused between two women and that led to a dull second half. In Brochevarevarura, because he split the story across two timelines, the one involving Satya Dev the storyteller was pale in comparison to the one involving Sree Vishnu. In Ante Sundaraniki, the struggle is different in that it's not one segment that feels off as opposed to a general sense that while individual scenes were fun the film needn't have been this long.
It's commendable that he never chooses melodrama – in lesser films Leela's father might have been more stubborn. Or another director might have caved into the Brahmin orthodoxy of Sundar's family. He doesn't punch up as powerfully as a Pa Ranjith but he at least manages to mock orthodoxy. But the problem with his stories (not his screenplays) is that it never feels like there are any real stakes and there is always the reassurance that in the end, all will be okay. Even the pretense of stakes at the end (someone has a life-threatening illness) never feels like a big problem. It's as if the writer in him loves to write comedy dramas but isn't fully brave enough to delve into the drama aspect of it.
But what he has always got spot-on as a director is the casting and the performances, he extracts from his actors. Let's begin with the supporting cast. Naresh is spectacular as the conservative Brahmin father. What I like about his performance (I'm sure it's Vivek Athreya's touch) is that Telugu films tend to punch up at the Brahmin community by mocking the Telugu they speak and other stereotypes. But that has never felt like a real punch and it's not always funny. Vivek Athreya chooses to punch up or rather satirize the rigidity rather than the cosmetic aspects of religious orthodoxy. Naresh's chemistry with '30 years Prudhvi' (a left-of-center casting choice that is excellent) is hilarious and seems genuine.
Similarly, Rohini and Nadhiya are excellent as women caught between children and husbands who want such different things that they spend their lives dousing fires and "being a mother and wife" as opposed to participating in family affairs. Rohini, in particular, is excellent at selling the melodramatic climax by underplaying it so that the moment doesn't become too loud.
Even Azhagam Perumal is excellent as the rigid Christian father who is liberal in every other aspect of fatherhood but religion. Usually, films tend to set up the heroine's father for hate (ask Prakash Raj about most roles he played from 2000-2015) but Vivek Athreya makes us feel Leela's pain when she has to go against him or lie to him. We get why she has to lie but we hate it that she has to lie to him. There is an excellent touch where his rigidity is given a backstory, giving us just enough empathy to understand his hesitancy. Azhagam Perumal overplays it in only one scene at the end and it's earned.
For a change, this is a film where the child actors are not "rasmalai dunked in maple syrup" sweet. The director knows how to use them creatively. Watch the scene where they linger around and be childish while the adult versions of them are on the verge of their life's biggest moment. It's hilariously staged like it were a play and that isn't cinematic showing off – the fact that it's staged like a play is important to the stories of Leela and Sundar. Here again, Vivek Athreya seems to know what exactly he's doing.
Finally coming to the lead pair. Leela is not Vivek Athreya's best-written "heroine" but Nazriya gives so much to root for her without resorting to "bubbly" or hyper cute. She wants to be a photographer because she feels seen when she gets all the credit – good and bad and because a photographer operates alone, it's what attracts her to that profession. You feel her die a little every time the world tries to club her in any big group. When a choice is almost made for Leela because of something her sister did (an excellent Tanvi Ram), it looks like Leela will stomp and walk away but Nazriya just stares cursing her situation but complying anyway. Even in the second half, when the story requires her character to react to the situations than proactively engaging, Nazriya doesn't let Leela become a puppy who needs to be saved. She does more for a role where the backstory is excellent but on screen, the story leaves Nazriya to do more.
And finally coming to Nani's Sundar. Firstly, it's so relieving to see Nani play the confused and troubled beta-male that he is so good at which he hasn't really played since Bhale Bhale Magadivoy in 2015. But this Sundar really brings to mind his earlier films like Ashta Chamma and Ala Modalaindi where he was lovable while being the butt of all jokes. There are moments where he's almost Chiranjeevi-esque in his humor in that it's not what the lines are but how he says them in the corner that the screenplay has pushed him to that makes it hilarious. I am still giggling at the way he says "Yem kaadhu yem kaadhu" (Nothing will happen, nothing will happen) as the world around him begins to crumble. As the story progressed, I felt that Leela deserved to be a part of the film's title because this is as much her story as Sundar's. But the way Nani makes Sundar so lovable, that even if he killed a puppy and said it was by mistake you'd forgive him, and that lets him walk away with the title.
Ante Sundaraniki feels like a movie that stopped at the precipice of greatness because of the lack of drama in its story but all the king's horses and all the king's men and all the talented cast and crew make it an enjoyable film that gives you a lot to smile about. As for, Vivek Athreya, I'm excited to see which story he chooses next and whether he improves because as a director he's proven consistently that he makes great decisions.