Director: Sandeep Raj
Cast: Suhas, Chandini Chowdary
Sandeep Raj's Colour Photo (he also wrote the film, from a story by Sai Rajesh) is set in the 1990s, and it has many of the tropes of the romantic melodramas from that era (and even earlier): for instance, the opposites-attract construct, with, say, a rich girl and a poor boy. Here, we have a dark-skinned boy named after a dark-skinned god (Suhas, as Jayakrishna) and a very fair-skinned girl named Deepthi (Chandini Chowdary). What's different—and refreshing—is the depth in the writing, which does a lot to dust the cobwebs off the template. The narrative opens with the news that Deepthi's father is dead. But she's cold, distant. She is unable to cry. A little later, we see that she's unable to feel joy, either. We learn this from her husband, who is not Jayakrishna, and this is not a spoiler as it's out there right at the beginning.
In other words, right at the beginning, we know this love story didn't end the way Deepthi and Jayakrishna wanted. And when your intense first love is crushed, it can have the kind of soul-destroying effect it has on Deepthi: you can't feel joy, you can't feel sorrow, you become numb. We see this in real life all the time, but I think this is the first time I am seeing this in a movie. Deepthi's husband knows about Jayakrishna. How could he not? She has a tattoo of Jayakrishna's name just above her heart. Every time he makes love to her, there's literally another man in bed. But he understands. He's a really nice guy, perhaps nicer than many of us would be in such a situation. He knows how much Deepthi loved Jayakrishna. He settles, quite peaceably, for being told by his wife: "I love you, too."
Colour Photo is filled with these inspired touches. Take the "villain", Rama Raju (Sunil). He's Deepthi's older brother, and when he threatens Jayakrishna to stop seeing his sister or else…, he burns Jayakrishna's school certificates. Jayakrishna is the son of a milkman, and education is his sole hope of a better life. Rama Raju could have had Jayakrishna's father beaten up, but burning those certificates is worse: he is ensuring Jayakrishna will remain a milkman. But also consider why Rama Raju disapproves of Jayakrishna. It's the skin colour. He doesn't consider himself a handsome man (like many Indians, he equates "good looking" with "fair skin"), and this self-loathing makes him want better for his sister.
For that matter, consider the first time Jayakrishna sets eyes on Deepthi. She's dressed up in the costume of a goddess for a dance performance. Even he, you could say, literally worships fair skin: he performs a mock-aarti for her. Later, he wears sunglasses, so that she appears a little darker, and he can feel a little better about the colour contrast between them. The line is tossed off as a joke, but the truth stings.
There's a hangover of other, similar films. Like in Pariyerum Perumal, Jayakrishna is humiliated by being pushed into a "ladies only" room. Like in Ye Maaya Chesave / Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya, we get a double ending (and many lovely songs, courtesy Kaala Bhairava, the son of MM Keeravani). But I wished these fabulous bits had come together better. The film has a lot of flab. (Did we really need a "side villain" in the form of Jayakrishna's college principal)? I wished the framing device had not been some random "story narration" at a random tea stall. I wished the romance had been built with more… romance. I wished we could feel more for this couple.
The dialogues have a studied quality, a tendency to be a little too on-the-nose. The performances, too. The best friends (Harsha, and especially Divya Sripada) are brilliant: they have looseness, spontaneity, and they easily outshine the leads. Suhas and Chandini Chowdary aren't bad, exactly, but they are never more than… solid, competent, earnest. They're all those words you use to say they basically get the job done. But Suhas's underdog-sincerity is unmistakable. He has one of those lost-little-boy faces that makes you root for him, whatever the situation.
Issues and all, Colour Photo is one of the better products of this direct-to-OTT era. It may not come together perfectly, but at least, it's not for lack of trying. The overall-ness could use a lot of work, but the touches almost make the movie. I love this conversation between Deepthi and her best friend: When men face a "love failure", they keep talking about it, but women in a similar position find themselves quickly married off. And because most movies are made by men, these women's stories remain unheard. It's a wonderful sentiment, sadly all too true. Here, then, is a woman's "love failure" story. Among the many small successes of Colour Photo, this one's the biggest.