Director: Charukesh Sekar
Writers: Charukesh Sekar, Padmavathi Malladi (dialogue)
Cast: Aishwarya Lekshmi, Naveen Chandra, Bobby Simha
Streaming On: Amazon Prime Video
Ammu, Amazon Prime’s first Telugu original, is fabulously directed and is replete with fine performances, particularly its central, accomplished turn by Aishwarya Lekshmi. For the duration of its first half, I couldn’t help but compare it with The Great Indian Kitchen, sometimes favorably, sometimes not. In its second half, you realise that isn’t exactly the kind of film it's trying to be. And it is exactly when the film takes this turn that the film begins to soar.
We open with a scene in Ammu’s house — the electricity seems to have gone out and candles are being lit to enable a pelli choopulu. The prospective groom, Ravindranath (Naveen Chandra) is her neighbor — a tall, handsome, and confident man beginning his career as a police officer. Yet, there’s something strange about how wide his eyes are when he’s smiling. There’s a hint of red in them — but is it a play of the makeshift light? We don’t see him as clearly as we’d like to, and before we can catch a good look, the wedding is done and consummated. There is love in this marriage. He holds her by the waist and lifts her, making her spill her coffee. She has to wipe the floor after this, ofcourse, but that’s every marriage, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
When he comes across victims of domestic abuse and molestation, he suggests that the local police station begin a volunteer program to monitor the streets and aid women in need. And yet, he’s annoyed when his wife doesn’t bring his lunch to the police station on time. Slowly, we discover that the boundary between the patriarchally defined gender roles is important to this man — and that he will guard it ferociously. It is important to him to feel like a man, but it is perhaps more important to be seen as a man.
We discover he’s capable of subtle emotional manipulation and gaslighting— when he blows the lid with his wife, he gifts money to her parents. In a riveting, magnificently directed scene, he hits her for the first time — and then immediately holds her, consoling her with an outpouring of affection. He does this not out of regret, but because he’s terrified that he will be seen for what he is, when what he wants to be seen as is man — paternal, provider, protector. Not a pathetic monster. Naveen Chandra has suggested this kind of menace before, but this is his meatiest role, and he does it justice.
It is after this that the film falters for a stretch — Ammu is conflicted, dealing with the rift between the two men within her husband — the lover she imagines really exists, and the monster. She thinks she can get rid of the latter when she showers him with love. But because we know this is a doomed endeavor, the escalation of abuse becomes difficult to sit through. And yet, one can’t help but recognise the abuse — we have all heard of it somewhere, socially, or in the news. The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) dissected tradition to expose oppressive patriarchy — Ammu doesn’t quite do this, and it is possible most will walk away from the film saying “Oh yes, bad men like that exist, we’ve heard of them”, rather than examine the air they breathe and the water they drink for signs of toxicity.
When she encounters Prabhu, a murder convict, at the police station, Ammu begins to see a way out, and this is when the film becomes an effective, rooted thriller after the unevenness of the preceding drama. Bobby Simha is wonderful as Prabhu, and the writing in this stretch is also insightful — when Ravikanth tells Bobby to clean toilets in exchange for going easy on him, the film suggests that domestic abuse and class/caste-based violence both emanate from the same entitled privileged urge to dehumanise, to dominate, to take pleasure in the subservience and the reduction of another. The burgeoning bond between Ammu and Prabhu is a reprieve from the ugliness of the central relationship, as are the couple of scenes with frequent comic actor, Raghu Babu.
Ammu, creatively produced by Karthik Subbaraj, is a bold choice by Prime Video for its first Telugu Original. There is a perception among filmmakers and producers that the Telugu audience doesn’t appreciate stark reality —that it craves escapism. It is precisely for this reason that Ye Maaya Chesave (2010), the Telugu version of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya (2010) ends with Jessie and Karthik together. But the success of films like Care of Kancharapalem (2018) has exposed that perception for what it is — a lie.
Ammu is an imperfect film in which there is a lot to admire, not least its Ilaiyaraaja-evoking orchestral music (Bharath Sankar), and its intricate, naturalistically lit cinematography (Apoorva Anil Shaligram), but one gets the feeling that writer-director Charukesh Sekar’s best work still lies ahead of him.