Directors: Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam, Nandini Reddy, Nag Ashwin and Sankalp Reddy
Cast: Shruti Haasan, Amala Paul, Lakshmi Manchu, Abhay Bethiganti, Satyadev Kancharana, Saanve Meghna, Abhay Bethiganti, Jagapathi Babu, Ashwin Kakumanu, Anish Kuruvilla, Eesha Rebba, Srinivas Avasarala
Ram Chander is one of the most wonderfully written idiots of Indian cinema. On the surface, he is just that: an idiot. He tells a woman he likes her because she is so "white". It's one thing to be attracted to a woman because of her fair complexion. It's quite another to blurt it to her face! ("What soap do you use?" "Rexona!") But that's who this man is. He tries to feel up his girlfriend, Ramula (Saanve Megghana), in a movie theatre, and when she slaps him and orders him to fetch some popcorn, he obeys meekly. Normally, such a scene would come across as creepy. Here, you almost (not really, but almost) feel for the guy. And a large part of that is due to the amazing actor who plays Ram Chander: Abhay Bethiganti. He gets exactly who this person is, and he runs with it.
"Getting a character" shouldn't be all that much of a consideration for praising a performance: that is, after all, part of what acting is. But what makes Abhay's work so remarkable is the tonality of the short film he is in: Ramula, directed by Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam. I was reminded of Vignesh Shivan's episode in Paava Kadhaigal, Netflix's Tamil anthology. Tharun does something similar. His story is super-"serious": it's about a woman, Ramula, manipulated by Ram Chander on the one hand (she really loves this idiot) and by a female politician (Swaroopa, played by Lakshmi Manchu) on the other. The text is powerful: it's not just men who screw women over, women do that, too. But the treatment is the kind of quirky you get with accordions and mariachi music. Put simply, the screenplay tells one story. The slo-mo visuals and the "BRAKKAPP" scene (Ram Chander's spelling of "breakup") and the music tell another.
The sound design is so deliberately odd that we are meant to assume that a woman standing on the terrace will not hear a brass band that's playing at ground level, just outside the building. Even the visuals are wonderfully odd. After a sexual encounter, we get two top-angle shots of the man and woman: one of them is giggling like a kid who's been surprised with ice cream, while the other is distraught. Again, the similarity in the framing unifies two very different emotions. But look beyond the filmmaking, and you may find yourself wondering why the episode is named after Ramula when she is essentially a pawn in an emotional power-play (with Ram Chander) and political power-play (with Swaroopa). The man gets the meatiest character arc, transforming from a coward to a ballsy stud after performing a very "manly" act. And Swaroopa gets her own little arc, which involves an orchid garland.
But perhaps that is the point. Ramula is the story of a young woman who wants a certain kind of life, but has to fight tooth and nail to get it. Some may wonder what she sees in an idiot-loser like Ram Chander, but if everyone was sensible in matters of the heart, the world would be a much happier place. There's just one bit that bothered me. When X-rated footage is shown on television, wouldn't the faces be pixelated? But then, this isn't a "logical" film, and it's Tharun's best work in his short career. A Pelli Choopulu is a more "perfect" film, all round, but it is also a more conventional film. Ramula takes big risks with form, and it's inevitably imperfect. But it shows a filmmaker who's more than what the cinemas and the Telugu mainstream allow him to be.
Next up is Meera, by BV Nandini Reddy. Amala Paul plays the titular character, a writer who's married to the much-older Vishwa (an OTT Jagapathi Babu, and I am not talking about the platform). Like many men with a beautiful wife, he is insecure, and this insecurity manifests itself in abusive behaviour. It's an interesting set-up: Can a writer of books rewrite her life? Can she use her imagination and her fictional techniques to give herself a Happily Ever After? Can she manipulate her husband to the extent that the director manipulates us, the audience, making us believe it's one thing when it's actually something else? But the writing is unconvincing, and the twist in the tail doesn't sting like it should. The edge in the concept is blunted by the very "mainstream" execution.
Nag Ashwin's xLife is a Gen Z variation on The Matrix. Vikram (Sanjith Hegde, in a distractingly hyper performance) has created the most advanced virtual reality software, and all of Hyderabad is addicted to it. People have forgotten the real world, and inevitably, rebel forces assemble in revolt. This is very literal sci-fi, without the transcendence that we got from, say… The Matrix. The writing tries to connect the software with the disappearance of love, but the beats are so broad and generic that this angle barely registers. And the twist is seen from a mile away. Shruti Haasan plays Divya, a kitchen worker in Vikram's company. Their relationship could have really been something: a man who's created a virtual world finds his most meaningful connection with a real person. But like everything else in this installment, it's an idea waiting to be fleshed out.
Pinky, by Sankalp Reddy, is a pleasant surprise. This director has made his name as a genre specialist (The Ghazi Attack, Antariksham 9000 KMPH), but he appears very comfortable in this zigzag relationship drama about two couples in unhappy marriages (Satyadev Kancharana, Eesha Rebba, Ashima Narwal, Srinivas Avasarala). You can be so hung up on the past that you can fail to see how wonderful the present is. This is one of the many lines of inquiry in this episode, which slowly unravels the nature of relationships. There's a constant sense of instability, incompleteness — that something is always off. There's no attempt at tying up all the loose ends, either. I wished the writing had been tighter, but it gets better as it goes along and the last scene is perfect. Closure is easier said than done.