Cast: Lavanya Tripathi, Naresh Agastya, Satya, Vennela Kishore, Gundu Sudarshan
Director: Ritesh Rana
If you've ever felt like you've wasted spending time on the Telugu corners of the internet, Ritesh Rana has the perfect gift for you. He's given you a gift box full of so many references that you could spend the next decade listing all of them and you're sure to miss at least one. My favorite was Mouli Talks' Mouli saying "Laddu Lagz Unnave Pilla" (You look like a laddu). But honestly, at this point, I might have laughed harder at others but I just don't remember.
It's hard to even review a movie that's trying to throw a punchline at everything it is influenced by starting from Chiranjeevi films from the 80s and 90s to Pushpa's 'Oo Antaava' to Jabardasth to the latest goof-ups on YouTube. This is the kind of film which makes you feel smart for getting all the references.
This exists in the same plane as shows like Community, Angie Tribeca, or even the old Epic Movie and Scary Movie Franchises although this one has a lot more class and barely any crass. In fact, there hasn't been a movie so outlandishly internet-reference heavy. Happy Birthday uses meme language and memes to punch up a few scenes? Are we on the verge of a new film grammar where writers can insert memes for humor? Will Scorcese find Marvel Cinema as art if he hears about this concept?
But who cares when Happy Birthday marks such a seminal moment in Telugu pop culture, which consolidates almost all the landmark internet moments of the last decade or so while also incorporating spoofs and satire on politics and cinema.
The plot is simple. In a fictional country called Zindia, there is a state called Zelanagana and its capital is Zin City. In that city, someone has a need for money and someone is out to stop them. And each one has a person above them who thinks they're running the game. Until they're not. The chain keeps adding on until there's a semblance of a circular structure to it. I'm not being cryptic. This could apply to Lavanya Tripathi's Happy, Satya's Max Pain, Vennela Kishore's Rytwik, or Naresh Agastya's Vicky.
For Ritesh Rana's plot is perfunctory at best and an inconvenience at worst. For him, style is the message and the punchline. Therefore, the film's structure gets tiring because there is no straight-faced protagonist. Think of the film Idiocracy, which wanted to pass a comment on the intellectual decay in America. It's not art but its foreboding message lends it some timelessness.
Here, there is no such protagonist and everyone is the butt of the joke and everything is reduced a to a joke. So the only emotional state the audience find themselves is happy, shock (at a reference that we get), and surprise at a twist. But Rana stretches the plot into so many knots at some point I was wondering if that was deliberate too. Is he telling us 'Look how silly these thrillers get?' Is everything a joke?
What I love about Rana's work is that he knows that Telugu actors deserve better scripts. For first Lavanya Tripathi is amazing and annoying as the protagonist but to even envision her in this role after the kind of work she does usually in Telugu cinema is a brave move. She relishes the part too even in the moments when she's not getting the comedy right. Her imitations of Telugu actors and the campiness of the second half lets you at least smile as if she were a friend being goofy just to make you laugh. She even gets her own reference in the film and that was sweet.
Similarly, Naresh Agastya who has been traditionally used for roles of meek and emasculated men gets all the jokes that play on this aspect. And finally, he gets "his" hero whistle shot but that's offset quickly by some slapstick humor. It's actually with Sathya's Max Pain and Vennela Kishore's Rythwik Sodhi that Rana struggles because he barely gives them lines and lets them too loose. Rana seems to be aware of the fact that those comedians deserve so much better and they leave us with enough charm. But the script needed to give them more. The one scene that explodes in the second half is the one that feels most scripted where Sathya translates for Venne Kishore. Everywhere else the two of them mostly are left to themselves because sadly Ritesh Rana doesn't want the tightness of a story with some emotional weight.
I was disappointed that Sunil and Brahmanandam didn't make it to a film replete with so many references and given that all the comedians in this film are rehashes of the kind of work those two did through the 90s and 2000s. The world conceived and made by Ritesh Rana is absurd and surreal and is executed to near perfection despite the limitations of the budget. The visual comedy that his cinematographer Suresh Sarangam executes and the funky techno music given by music director Kaala Bhairava add style to what could have been a PowerPoint full of memes. It doesn't mean the memes aren't funny. It's not the director but the others that make Happy Birthday a movie. Or rather the beginning of a cinematic universe because…you watch the film. He spoofs the cinematic universe obsession that's clearly going to take over every film industry while launching his own. That's a gift that can keep on giving.