Cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Rashmika Mandanna, Mrunal Thakur
Director: Hanu Raghavapudi
When the title of the film was announced as Sita Ramam, I groaned thinking do we need another film where the protagonists are called Sita and Ram to convince us of their love story. But as the story unfolds you realize that as a viewer you are being deceived, and in a good way. This is one of the pleasant ways that Hanu Raghavapudi surprises the audience with some of the screenplay choices he makes. His previous films struggled with pacing issues. He'd have a fantastic set-up but the film would whimper out as it reached the climax. The superb love triangle in Andala Rakshasi gets nowhere near the dramatic meat promised early on. The hilarious first act of Krishna Gaadi Veera Prema Gaadha, which I consider his best work till Sita Ramam, becomes very simple and flat in the third act. Padi Padi Leche Manasu suffered more seriously from the "boring second half" syndrome than Sai Pallavi's Vaishali suffered from a mental condition in that film.
To make up for those lost opportunities, Hanu Raghavapudi this time, has chosen two stories to tell. First is the one that's familiar from all the promotional material. Lieutenant Ram (Dulquer Salmaan) is an orphaned soldier who loves his country, believes in religious tolerance, and is of the belief that Pakistan Army and Pakistan citizens are two different entities. One day an act of valor at the border, which saves a riot from breaking out, makes Ram famous across the nation. And soon he begins to get letters from various parts of the country with each person claiming to be his mother, sister, aunt, with all strangers promising him that he's not an orphan – a country that's his whole family. But amidst them is a letter from Sita Mahalakshmi (Mrunal Thakur) who claims to be his wife. Who is Ram? Who is Sita? Are they really married?
The other story tucked in Sita Ramam is that of Afreen (Rashmika Mandanna), an India-hating Pakistani student, who teams up with Balaji (Tharun Bhascker) to find the truth about Sita and Ram. But she's a stand-in for the religious bigotry plaguing the country, she's a stand-in for disharmony between India and Pakistan, and someone torn between the notion of whether a good Muslim can also love Indians and Hindus. I think the film also serves as one of the finest mouthpieces for the Indian army's legitimacy in Kashmir, the infantilization of Kashmiri men and women, and also shifts the blame for the mess in Kashmir on the Pakistani Army. But we'll get to that later.
The structure of the film is reminiscent of Veer-Zaara, Loving Vincent, and Dulquer Salman's own Mahanati. And that's not a bad thing. Hanu Raghavapudi is in fine form when dealing with the love story between Sita and Ram. There are deliberate Mani Ratnam-esque touches that he uses to emphasize the love between Sita and Ram. I know I know, it feels like every film writer in the country can't wait to use the term "Mani Ratnam-esque" the minute there are mirrors and trains in a film, but I think Hanu Raghavapudi is more eager than most to cite his inspiration. If Padi Padi Leche Manasu felt like a tribute to Geetanjali, here, one can't help but see the similarities to Roja, where a wife goes looking for her husband stuck in captivity. Hanu Raghavapudi, along with cinematographers PS Vinod and Shreyas Krishna is deliberate in showing Kashmir as a place of eternal beauty and conflict. Even the early courting scenes between Sita and Ram that begin on a train and end with the two lovers exploring the city while the girl hides the secret from her family, are reminiscent of Sakhi and OK Bangaram.
Dulquer himself amps up that boyish charm when he knows the lines are weak. He struggles in the initial portions when he has to be an army man and he doesn't have the bubbling anger or the restrained rage his character needs, but once it requires him to light up his eyes when he sees Sita or smile at her from a distance, he proves that there aren't too many romantic leads who can do pure romance like him. This is a man who made Mahanati's version of Gemini Ganesan likable, so imagine what happens when he plays a more likable version of Adi from OK Bangaram and a more innocent version of Gemini Ganesan from Mahanati. In the scenes with Sunil and a superbly in-form Vennela Kishore, who plays a theatre-obsessed Durjay, Dulquer holds his own next to them while performing comedy and not in the sense of being the "cool" guy who lets the comedian ham it up, but bounces off them to create moments of genuine humor. I didn't expect Vennela Kishore and Dulqer Salmaan to be such a convincing "pair". More of that, please.
But it's Mrunal Thakur who nearly steals the film away from him. In parts, the writing doesn't do her much justice i.e. once she resolves the "big conflict" of her character early in the second half she's not given much to do than mope around or look lovingly at Ram. But aided by Sheetal Sharma's costumes and Chinmayi's voice, it's hard to take your eyes off of her on screen. It shouldn't have come down to Chinmayi and the costumes had Hanu Raghavapudi decided not to resolve the romantic conflict so early in the second half.
And that brings us to the other story in the film, that of Afreen, Brigadier Vishnu Sharma (Sumanth), and Abu Tariq (Sachin Khedekar). With the treatment of this story, Hanu Raghavapudi reminds us of his previous films, and this for sure I don't mean in a good way.
Afreen hates India and her introduction is set to banging rock music and I could see that had India been a more tolerant country, Hanu Raghavapudi would have made Afreen burn a bigger Indian flag and create a more kickass entry for her so that the ultimate change in her arc would have been rewarding. But her hate seems to stem from just the fact that she's Pakistani and it's all the more unconvincing because her grandfather Abu Tariq who raised her, is a peace-loving man, who despite working in the Pakistani army, respects both nations. Rashmika Mandanna seems hammy without a proper backstory for her actions.
Even the film's apologetic tone towards the Indian army and its lack of research into the complications in Kashmir seems to have the idealism of a Facebook post from pre-2014 India that ended with a joke on Manmohan Singh. There is a lot I find problematic with Hanu Raghavapudi in what he extols through the film such as Kashmiris being too easily influenced by Pakistani propaganda, a Hindu man named Ram saving riots from spreading, thrusting a Quran in the palms of a dying terrorist, and saying "I hope you understand this better in your next life", or having his characters say dialogues to the effect of 'Kashmiris loved the Indian army before Pakistan messed it up.'
But there are two reasons I won't delve into it. First, it'll take forever to get into everything and you are not reading this to find out my opinion on Kashmir. Secondly, I trust that Hanu Raghavapudi means well, and much like the film Khadgam, which spoke of national unity, this film too has its heart in the right place even if the research is misplaced.
This film doesn't seem to have a conflict once Sita and Ram get together in the second half so it needs to spend more time with the other big conflict that of Afreen. But once the film shifts its attention there, it becomes a different film about nations, religions, and conflict, and a once personal love story suddenly becomes about metaphors, and characters become stand-ins for ideologies. Even the one good arc of Vishnu Sharma is done with dollops of overacting and doesn't fully utilize Sumanth's acting range. I fully cheered at the thought of Sumanth and Bhumika Chawla reuniting as a couple nearly two and a half decades after Yuvakudu. But Bhumika is given too little to do and Sumanth is told to act too much. TOO MUCH. When he hears the name of someone from his past, he drops the object in his hand in shock; when narrating a flashback, he swivels his head to the side to indicate the flashback is coming, and he bellows when he's angry.
Towards the climax, Hanu Raghavapudi makes another pedestrian mistake when a letter that's traveled time and three countries is supposed to be delivered by Afreen. It's the culmination of her change and her journey. Story-wise, she has to give it to the person to indicate that she's changed. But rather the moment is robbed from her and given to Balaji, an utterly inconsequential character in the universe of Sita Ramam.
Even the music by Vishal Chandrashekar from whom Hanu Raghavapudi extracted such fine albums in Krishna Gaadi Veera Prema Gaadha, and Padi Padi Leche Manasu seems a little stale in Sita Ramam compared to those two albums. It's SP Charan who holds the music together with his singing, which is nearly identical to his father's (SPB) and that's never a bad thing.
Hanu Raghavapudi still struggles with handling the second story but given that he has such likable leads and that he's so deft at handling love stories, this is easily his finest work. He should be making better films, but for now, he's made his best film.