Director: Mallik Ram
Cast: Payal Radhakrishna, Harshith Reddy
'Oh Cheliya' from Shankar's Premikudu plays loudly in the background the first time Krishna (Harshith) sees Jasmine (Payal) from across the road. A line from the song written by Rajasri goes 'adharamu udharamu nadumuna edo alajadi regenule.' A wonderful line that, when crudely translated, talks of the unease one's heart feels before bursting open with love for the first time. Teenage love is all about this unease. It is happening for the first time, so you don't even know what to call it. It's every extreme emotion felt all at once—all-consuming, reckless, volatile, and extremely embarrassing. But to watch it on a screen, from afar, is great fun. So, I was looking forward to watch this show on a platform where the rules are less rigid and the incentive for taking a risk is high.
Krishna is your average shy, small-town boy—all he is missing is a 'Handle with care. Something fragile is inside' sticker on his forehead, who has a penchant and passion for cooking. Both his parents are lecturers, who also run a tuition centre in the evenings. You immediately identify their priorities, but you also see that there is wiggle room in their aspirations for their son. Jasmine just lost her mother and that's all we know about her. And that her private/favourite spot she shared with her mother is, of all the places, the very public beach. Harshith Reddy is good at playing vulnerable men without it coming off as ignorance or cowardice. So, it's no wonder that the character fits him like a glove. Payal Radhakrishna does an adequate job, but the show doesn't allow her to be anything but a template.
The premise of the show is derivative, but then again so is teenage love. This doesn't have to mean anything bad as long as there is newness in the way the story is handled. To his credit, Mallik Ram, the director, does a great job with the first few episodes. He uses songs not just to evoke nostalgia but recognition. But as the show progresses, the same songs become a crutch and are used to compensate for the lack of a narrative. Instead of giving us scene like the one between Krishna and Jasmine inside an auto failing to hide their excitement while awkwardly navigating their feelings, we are constantly bombarded with songs.
Even the interesting idea of naming each episode after a song gets old pretty quickly. The same goes for Nikhil Devadula's take on the excessively animated friend, the charm wears off. That said, the dynamic he shares with Madhu (Snehal) at least tries to explore something unique and complex.
The parents of these teens are written with the understanding that they are their own people. The actors playing them do a great job as well. Especially, Ramana Bhargav as Krishna's father, who transitions from sympathetic to strict in a minute's notice, is fantastic. Using him as the narrator also allows for smooth scene transitions, aided greatly by the editor, Vinay. Praneeth Prattipati, the additional writer, does a great job adapting the story to a different setting and a different sensibility. Some of the credit must go to the Kittu Vissapragada's simple and rooted dialogues and Monish's camera work that knows how to recreate the intimacy of a small-town, while also not losing on aerial shots of the sea.
A few plot devices do get modern touches, like the meet-cute facilitated by AirPods and ad placements. The VFX company that worked for the show inserts itself via Instagram search history. It's subtle and smart, even though the same cannot be said about the awkward 'Centerfresh' inserts. Another thing the Insta search screen does is establish Krishna's love for cooking. He also learns where Jasmine is from and why she looks "different" through her Fb profile, and so do we. It's refreshingly succinct and effective.
Despite all this, the conflict and the relationship dynamics are still trite. I am all for young people trying to be mature and responsible, but not at the cost of entertainment and authenticity. First love is rarely synonymous with sensibility and forethought, is it? This would also be fine, if we were to go by something Krishna says in the show: 'Producers don't have the budget to show love the way it is in real life.' This pre-emptive defence is really not accurate, though. You don't need greater budgets to show two people in love going through the motions of it. You need time, both on-screen and off-screen, to make way for better writing.
What are OTTs good for, if they aren't providing writers with better pace and space to explore something that a two and half hour film simply couldn't? Despite stretching across five episodes, each averaging 20 minutes, the show has nothing new to say. Forget new, we don't really get the heady hormonal romance we are trained to expect.
The butterflies of Kotha Bangaru Lokam, the sappy first love from Happy Days, and the contextualisation of different upbringings leading to friction shown is Oohalu Gusagusalade, they are all missing. This is not to say, every new film/show has to resemble something old. But when you have an abundance of past references, you also have to mindful of your audiences' expectations. More so when you have everything else going for you. I didn't watch TVF's Flames beforehand. But after finishing this show, I watched bits and pieces I could find. The original show came in 2018 and from what I can gather, it looks outdated even for that time. Why would you remake a show that holds little promise when you are doing well enough with original writers— Mail and Kotha Poradu from the same platform are formidable examples of this?