Director: Vinod Anantoju
The opening stretch of Vinod Anantoju's Middle Class Melodies sets the narrative up like a dream. Over a black screen (the credits are on), we sense that we are in some sort of traditional gathering. (It turns out to be a house-warming ceremony.) The problem is the cow, which refuses to drop dung and sanctify the home. Holy shit! What now? Someone suggests that inserting a stick might help. But no matter. The black screen vanishes, and we get the film's first image: a healthy splat of cow poop. A sigh of relief reverberates around the gathering, after which we get the borderline-surreal visual of the cow descending the stairs. (The function was on the upper floor of the building.) Meanwhile, we see people moving appliances and furniture into the house. Why the hurry? Because there's free manpower available. Otherwise, you'll have to shell out money to the movers, no?
That's small-town Indian middle-class life for you. It's filled with science-defying beliefs. It spills over with family and friends who are practically family (unlike city life, where you barely know your neighbours). It's certainly some sort of surreal. Money is always on your mind. And sometimes, circumstances make you think of forcing things to happen, and then — like a miracle — you get just what you want. Like the cow, a mango tree — later in the film — drops a "gift" that blesses Raghava (Anand Deverakonda). In a different kind of movie, he'd be the protagonist. Here, he is one important character among many. In a different kind of movie, his relationship with Sandhya (Varsha Bollamma) would be the "romantic track". Here, it's one narrative thread amongst many. Raghava's best friend (Gopal, played by Chaitanya Garikipati) gets not just a "romantic track" of his own (with Divya Sripada), but also subplots that involve family and money and a science-defying faith in horoscopes. Middle-class life isn't about the individual. If you're into Star Trek, it's like the Borg: it's always about the collective.
In other words, as in Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya earlier this year, we are in a Malayalam movie-flavoured Telugu movie. Middle Class Melodies isn't as transcendental as some of those films, which exist on a different plane of screenwriting and performances. But after a slightly expository start to set things up (I got a bit fidgety, I'll admit), it becomes a warm embrace of memories: even as things happen to these fictional characters, you feel them happening to you, as though in a previous life. As someone who won't throw away a bar of soap until it's reduced to a subatomic size, I completely understood the character trying to squeeze the last dabs of toothpaste from a tube. You can take a man out of that kind of middle-class. You can't take that kind of middle-class out of a man.
The screenplay is dotted with very small middle-class concerns, like Raghava's aim of escaping his small town where customers of his father's small hotel yell if they raise the price of a dosa by a small amount: a rupee. He wants to open a small hotel in a bigger place. Is he referring to Hyderabad? Vizag? No. Think smaller. It's Guntur. But this move means money, and for the middle class, that usually means selling off property, and that means Raghava's father ends up in a business transaction with… Sandhya's father. Note how organically everything comes together: love, money, relationships. The one track I wish had been written better is about a small-time financier who fails his customers, but we still feel the ripples of his actions in this small community.
Even the laughs land so organically. I split my sides during a scene where Sandhya finds herself in a mobile-needs-recharging crisis… and this is connected to her father and Raghava and his father, too. Goparaju Ramana, Surabhi Prabhavati and Prem Sagar are terrific as the elders. They infuse fresh shades into standard-issue tropes like "caring mother" and "gruff father with a golden heart". The drama goes down as easy as the laughs. A husband massaging his tired wife's feet doesn't feel "sentimental". It just feels warm. Like the situation with the cow in the opening stretch, nothing is forced — not even the "star cameo" in the brilliant slapstick finish, set around a "pelli choopulu" scenario.
Anand Deverakonda, at times, feels like he is waiting for a cue to start acting, but mostly he fits beautifully into this ensemble. Varsha Bollamma, Divya Sripada and Chaitanya Garikipati are all perfect, and this quartet creates a set of characters that you just want nice things to happen to. As much as everyone keeps touting the "big-screen experience", the biggest boon of OTT platforms may be that they are helping these smaller films find an audience beyond the home state. I have no doubt I would have enjoyed watching Middle Class Melodies in a theatre. I am equally sure that my "enjoyment" wasn't diminished one bit on a smaller screen. If anything, this type of viewing for this type of film feels more… intimate. It's something like how you'd feel in a small-town, middle-class family.