Director: Ravikanth Perepu
The "new-gen" in Telugu cinema may not be as big a thing as it is in Malayalam, but even the odd films that trickle out point to a definite sensibility. It's a gentler version of the Hollywood rom-com sensibility: you know it if you've seen Pelli Choopulu. It's the kind of sensibility that begs to be described by words like "casual" and "breezy": if these films were people, they'd be in bermudas and flip-flops on a hammock by a beach. However explosive the situation, the dialogue feels like some variant of "Chill, bro! Let's light one up and talk this over!" And there's an enormous amount of dignity. The premise (or heck, even the title) of Ravikanth Perepu's Krishna And His Leela may sound sleazy: it's about a man who loves two women. But the film doesn't wink at you. It isn't out to titillate you. It treats the problem as seriously as you would if confused between menu options at a multicuisine restaurant. It's "Hmmm… I'll have this… No, wait, I'll have that… Excuse me, sorry, hope it's not too late to change my order, but could I have…", but with women.
The reason we root for Krishna (the affable Siddhu Jonnalagadda, who co-wrote the film with the director) is that his multi-tasking between two women isn't intentional. First, Sathya (Shraddha Srinath), his college sweetheart, grows tired of his clinginess and breaks up with him. Then, he falls for Radha (Shalini Vadnikatti). After a point, she breaks things off, too. And stuff keeps happening: what we call "circumstances". And Krishna finds himself, well, flip-flopping between the two women because — here's the script's loveliest touch — he never stopped loving either of them. They were the ones who called it off. So when these circumstances bring Sathya and Radha back into his life, how can he choose?
What's interesting in these "new-gen" movies — especially in the context of Telugu cinema — is how interestingly, how consistently the women are written. When Sathya breaks up with Krishna, we see that she doesn't like his constant desire to hang out with her. She also says she doesn't need him to take care of her. These aren't just empty break-up words. Later, when Sathya moves to Bengaluru — from Vizag, where the college is — she is defined by these exact traits. She lives alone. Translation: She needs her space. Imagine her irritation when, after the break-up, Krishna sends her a text that says "I love you to death". I laughed.
Now, Radha. It may have been love at first sight (or at least, first meeting) for Krishna, but she has a "boyfriend checklist", and three months after going out with him, she realises he doesn't tick off a single box. "But I think I like you," she says. We see this steadiness, this calm-headedness again when she is mad that Krishna has to move out of Vizag for a job. She tells him, "I'm not blaming you. I rushed into this." Later, when the shit really hits the fan, Radha could have thrown a tantrum. But even at this point, she's steady, calm-headed. She asks Krishna to hand over his phone. She sees what she needs to see. She makes her decision without a single heated word.
What draws us to Krishna is his openness. He doesn't hide from Radha his relationship with Sathya. And vice versa. But when the triangle truly gets underway, everyone changes. Krishna begins to lie. Sathya becomes clingy and less fussy about "her own space". Radha becomes emotional. And physical, too: earlier, she wouldn't allow Krishna to go all the way. In contrast with the giggly bimbettes of Telugu cinema who exist just to serve as arm candy, Krishna And His Leela shows us just how much it takes for a woman to allow herself to trust a man. Falling in love is the easy part. But deciding this man is worth a long-term investment? That takes some doing.
Not for Rukhsar (Seerat Kapoor), though. I liked this character, who's something of an emotional hippie: she believes that love is boundless, relationships are constraining. She's a nice counterpoint to the central trio who see love as a means to an end. But she's never slut-shamed, not even when she says she has had a lot of sex. (She prefers the term "making love".) The script is classy like that. It doesn't overplay things, not even when an unplanned pregnancy comes up. The actors don't overplay it, either. They are uniformly restrained. (It's a beautiful touch that the heroines' dubbing artistes are credited right up there in the opening credits, along with the names of the actresses. They are, after all, responsible for half the performance.)
The filmmaking is equally classy and restrained: the framing, the costuming, the lighting, the cutting, the decor. But if I have a complaint with these "new-gen" Telugu movies, it's that they may be a tad too classy and restrained. You can see these filmmakers wanting to distance themselves from their melodramatic forebears — but in jettisoning everything from the past, they also let go of the sharp emotions some of us want in a romantic drama. I wished the Krishna-Sathya and Krishna-Radha relationships had been more than a bunch of generic moments. I wished their togetherness had been as distinctively etched out as their individual characters.
As a result, Krishna And His Leela never rises above "casual" and "breezy": it doesn't sting. But that's not really a deal-breaker, I suppose, especially on an OTT platform. One relationship that digs deeper — and in a fraction of the running time — is that of Krishna's parents, played by Jhansi and Sampath Raj. In a single scene, we get a sense of an entire history. And later, over just one dinner, Krishna begins to realise that he hasn't turned out all that different from the father he's spent a lifetime hating. It's all still very classily done, but here, we feel the sting. But I didn't hold this against the film, which dusts off the old love triangle and makes it fresh again. It also dusts away the misogyny inherent in the one-man-two-women premise. That's no small achievement.