Director: Nandini Reddy
Cast: Santosh Sobhan, Malavika Nair, Rajendra Prasad, Rao Ramesh, Naresh, Gauthami, Sowcar Janaki, Vennela Kishore, Ramya Subramanian
Halfway through Anni Manchi Sakunamule (AMS), I was confident that this will turn out to be Nandini Reddy's best work since her ground-breaking debut with Ala Modalaindi in 2011. By the intermission, I bought the interpersonal dynamics the film was effortlessly establishing, I found the characters instantly likable despite their flaws, and although its world is presented through a soft tint of privilege, it was comforting as a whole. AMS could be fittingly described as a family trip to a hill station; a montage of kids and adults gathered around a grandmother, eagerly listening to her, summarises this vibe. Micky J Meyer's soothing score and cinematography by Sunny Kurapati and Richard Prasad capturing the lush and calm landscape set the mood just right.
The film's intention to present a sweet, moving tale of humans and their flaws is tangible. You can feel the spark. And it's a film that relies so much on feelings, both for the plot and the way you process it. It wants you to feel the joy of being a part of a loving family, and the disappointment you have to endure when a loved one dislikes you... so on and so forth. And honestly, I could 'feel' this film and its charm throughout the film's first half. So what happened in the second half? The characters, tonality, and conflict remain unscathed but generic choices (I'll come to these later) intervene and suddenly, I stopped feeling many of its emotional beats for a chunk of the runtime. And then, the climax changed it all, for good. But then, I still wish the promise of the first half was kept in the second.
The story of AMS is simple and complex at the same time. In the fictional hillside town of Victoriapuram (its origin story is hilarious), two families have been in a legal battle over the ownership of a coffee estate for many generations now. In the present day, on one hand, there's the humble Sudhakar (Naresh), and on the other, the wealthy, money-minded Prasad (Rajendra Prasad). When their pregnant wives are rushed to the hospital for delivery one rainy night, thanks to the alcoholic doctor Jagadamba (Oorvasi) and her ignorant staff, the babies are swapped after birth. Sudhakar's son Rishi (who grows up to be Santosh Soban) is raised by Prasad, whose daughter Arya (Malavika Nair), in turn, is brought up by Sudhakar. The film doesn't have an expansive story but it's filled with multiple themes that run parallel. The themes the film chooses hold some gravitas by themselves. The contrast between the cut-throat Arya and the indecisive Rishi is central to their arc and the plot, and is spelled out consistently. For instance, when both of these characters have to confront something severe at one point, Arya, being the clear one, immediately takes a stand to deal with it after a brief period of denial while the first response of the indecisive Rishi is to run away.
This contrast also extends to the different scenarios they are brought up in and the perspectives of their fathers. Not only does this baby swap angle create an undercurrent of humour (an intercut contradicting the personalities of Arya and Rishi in the second half is a scream) throughout the film but it also ensures there's a constant commentary on materialistic happiness vs real happiness. Rishi, for instance, believes in 'living the moment' while the ambitious Arya toils to save every penny and build her own business to support her modest family eventually. This might be an over-exploited trait but where AMS stands apart is that these characteristics of Rishi and Arya are not just embellishments but are employed to drive the plot forward and send the message home.
AMS, while it may appear like the childhood love story of Rishi and Arya, is not really one. It's much more than that. It's a human drama in which the best bits of writing are reserved for the characters played by Rajendra Prasad, Naresh, Rao Ramesh and Gautami Tadimall. These four characters own the film and how! They get so many solid moments that when they are on screen, we forget that they are 'supporting characters'. Neither does the film treat them like supporting characters.
Rajendra Prasad as an agitated father and Gautami as a benign mother get the best characters in the film. Let me give you an example, Gautami's character has a hearing disability, which serves as a recurring gag but it never ridicules her. Sure, this aspect works superbly on the humour front—two phone call scenes centered on it are uproarious. But the beauty is how it is used emotionally too! A moment involves a young Rishi removing her hearing aid when his father is on an angry rant about his inefficiency. The mother and the scene take a moment to smile at each other. This, to me, encapsulates the beauty of AMS and the film has many such moments.
Another tiny moment, which also alludes to one of its themes comes in a marriage set-up when Prasad's family is tasked to find a cook. Prasad is the more affluent one but Rishi suggests they seek help from Sudhakar, a doctor, who treats most of the people in this town and commands respect, to procure what they want. The fact that Sudhakar is a homeopathic doctor isn't mentioned anywhere apart from a gag that involves an allopathic doctor saying that his homeopathic medicine treated her acidity perfectly. But when it's done even as a passing reference, it ends up adding value to its meaningful themes.
And two actors who stand out, despite their limited screen time, are Sowcar Janaki as this loveable granny and Vennela Kishore as Prasad's annoyingly pleasing son-in-law.
The cracks in the film start to show up when certain generic choices begin to be introduced in the second half. For a while, AMS begins to look and sound exactly like a 'film' while it had, until that point, managed to convince us to like these characters effortlessly. The whole explore-the-world track feels extremely superficial, and so does the whole marriage angle. For a brief period, AMS begins to feel like a completely different film, an unbearably cloying collation of cliches like a love triangle and a letter from the past to name some. A debate about Andhra and Telangana cuisines is staged with such loudness that it feels extremely forced and instantly puts you off.
The film still makes up for its flaws in the final 20 minutes see a bittersweet cloud of love, longing, and bittersweetness bursting with such wholesome emotions that work only because we have developed a strong affinity with these characters. The mother's hearing aid is used for an emotional payoff. A scene featuring Rajendra Prasad and Santosh Soban in a car, which marks the culmination of a beautiful arc might be the film's most moving scene. AMS' ending is one of the best to come out of Telugu cinema in a long time. It's tender and has a heart of gold, two qualities that fittingly describe the entire film.