Director: Prasanth Varma
Cast: Regina Cassandra, Kajal Aggarwal, Murli Sharma
Late in Prasanth Varma's Awe, a barista named Meera (Regina Cassandra) finds a Rubik's Cube in the basement of a restaurant. She tosses it into a dark corner – but a few seconds later, it's tossed back at her, mysteriously (and fully) solved. That's the movie in a nutshell. Awe is the Rubik's Cube – it's made up of six stories bordering on (and locking into) one another. And Varma is Meera, tossing his movie-puzzle to the audience in the darkened theatre, hoping we can crack it. (Don't worry if you can't. The last few minutes do it for you.) The first story (after a bit of a prologue, featuring Kajal Aggarwal) looks like a romcom: a girl has dinner with her parents so she can tell them about her lover. The tale comes with a twist.
The second story is another genre: call it existential Disney. It involves a man who applies for the job of a chef, and his co-star is a… fish. The cook's name is Nala. The other characters come with equally mythical names: Krishna, Radha, Meera, Raghuram, Vaidehi, Shiva, Parvathi, Kali, Moksha. Varma doesn't shy away from grand conceits, and his grandest conceit – hat tip, the Bhagavad Gita – is in the lines of the song that plays over the opening credits: "The entire universe is hidden in me." It's a clue. Through the first half, the stories seem disconnected and we wonder what's going on. Does the segment with the watchman who's working on a time machine hold the answer? Now, we're in the realm of sci-fi. Is Awe a compilation of alternative narratives in the space-time continuum?
In recent years, a number of non-mainstream Telugu films have been welcomed with awesome praise, and sometimes, those of us who are "outsiders" end up puzzled. Take Pelli Choopulu. It's a perfectly sweet film, but the reviews made me expect something explosive and form-shattering, and all I saw was a really well-made, well-acted romcom. But to insiders, those steeped in mainstream Telugu cinema, these films perhaps become more than films: they're signs of promise, harbingers of change. But even with this caveat in mind, Awe is genuinely subversive. (It would be equally radical in Tamil cinema, though maybe not in Bollywood.) I laughed at the name of the dish the chef is asked to prepare: bourride. It's a Mediterranean fish stew. It's also the director telling us he's not apologetic about not catering to the "masses." Varma's biggest achievement is that he doesn't water down his ideas.
The other stories are a crime thriller spiced with horror, and a surreal fantasy with Murli Sharma playing an egoistic magician (this is the weakest episode). As it turns out, not only are the plots interconnected, the conceits are too. Parents play an important part in both the Shiva-Parvathi and Radha-Krishna episodes, and both stories toy around with notions of gender and sexuality. The scenes are interconnected too. A character says, "All my doors are shut" – the next scene, another character (in another story) knocks on a door. A man orders coffee and asks for sugar – the barista's phone rings right then, and the name that appears is of her boyfriend, "Sugar". This is the screenwriting equivalent of setting out to acquire six-pack abs. The sweat drips off every page.
Awe is something you appreciate more as you reflect on it, after we see how it all comes together in the end. Its afterlife in discussion boards and comments sections is assured.
Not everything works. I'm not sure a medical condition is showcased correctly, and a lot of the scenes appear overcooked. While it's heartening to see the nature vs. nurture debate on homosexuality on film, it's tacked on – a bit of a "message" in a film that's not really a message movie. The director's philosophies (say, the redemption angle, or the chanting of Asatoma sadgamaya…) are evident, yet elusive – you wish, at times, he'd made one film about one of these issues rather than one about six (or more). Or maybe he wanted to get people talking about why an eyeball was found in the tin of coffee beans, or why a lizard turns into a crocodile, or why we needed an eco-lecture out of nowhere (just wait till you see who delivers this lecture), or why the character played by Nithya Menen was behaving so aggressively when a more non-confrontational approach would have been more reasonable. Awe is something you appreciate more as you reflect on it, after we see how it all comes together in the end. Its afterlife in discussion boards and comments sections is assured.
I wish the final portions were less rushed. I wanted to savour the clue-cracking some more. I also wish the styling had been more subdued. The colours pop in your face, and every episode looks unreal. Even if that was the point, the detailing surely needn't have been so fussy. A nose ring is shaped like an Om. A little girl has blue streaks in her hair. The costumes, the production design, the music – all suffer from a serious case of too-much-itis. But that's vastly preferable to too-little-itis. I'd rather watch an ambitious filmmaker put his flaws-and-all vision up on screen than someone playing safe and hiding behind a big star. Awe certainly leaves you thinking – about the film itself, and about what an exciting time it is in Telugu cinema, with so many rebels plotting these little coups against one of the country's most deeply entrenched cinematic empires.