The night before watching this film I was complaining to friends about how I hadn't watched a 'great' Telugu film in a while. There were brave attempts and good films and a few bad ones but nothing that was great. And in twelve hours my prayers were answered. If the film would have had its way, maybe it would want me to thank both Goddess Lakshmi and Jesus.
Love Story is set in Hyderabad whose most famous love story is that of Quli Qutub Shah who swam across a river during flood times to save the love of his life, Bhagmati. This love story is between people who are from two different religions and social positions, and the only thing binding them is love. Hyderabad's foundation is built on love. So, can love prosper here? What dangerous waters do lovers have to swim to realise their love? And what bridges do they have to burn and build for love to thrive?
The film begins on a simpler note because it wants to lure us in. Shekhar Kammula narrates the story of two people. The first is Revanth (Naga Chaitanya) who is an undereducated young man who has entrepreneurial dreams of opening a dance and fitness studio. He is struggling to make ends meet in the city. The second is Mounika (Sai Pallavi) who wants to break free from the orthodoxies of her home and join the IT boom and become a financially independent woman. And when she doesn't value her own dancing skills, Revanth convinces her to join hands with him. Do they succeed? What are the obstacles in their way? Does the fact that they are from the same village hamper their journey or help them?
But the story is so much more because it wants you to think that things are as simple as they seem. It's a meta-narrative about the film from the titles and all the way to the climax of the film. The title seems to be about an innocuous hint at a rom-com: Love Story. Been there and done that.
The film slowly stars peeling itself and you can see so much deceit and tension simmering underneath the top layer. When we first meet Mounika she's bargaining for five rupees and she's cheated in the big city but later we find out that she's running a bigger scam for herself. But before we can judge her, we realise those in her household are giving her no option but to do this.
Then there is Revanth who has been raised by his mother that one must work for money and that money should be earned as a right and not as charity or alms. He now wants to earn that money and make something of himself like most young men with big dreams struggling in the city. But you peel away and you realize how he has no option but to make it big in the city because he belongs to an oppressed caste and a minority religion and there is no respite for him in his village. He worships Jesus and Ambedkar is given a godlike status too. There are shades of blue throughout the film and every time Revanth has victory in life, the blue is more pronounced.
And that brings us to some of the questions asked by the film: can two people ever be equal? Can there be love between two unequal people? Can we learn empathy despite our past?
Revanth resents his unequal status and is wary of Mounika because she comes from a family that belongs to an oppressor caste where the men run the affairs from the village — beginning with a person's birth to their life, land, love, and eventually their death. He thinks she is probably one of "them". So, he suppresses his attraction towards her.
And this brings us to my favorite scene and thread in the film. Mounika has told him that if they are to be partners (in business and dance) he can't "touch" her. This scene too feels simple like something played out in a hundred films where the heroine casually warns the hero not to make any unwarranted sexual advances. Usually, the hero will whine and feel bad that the heroine isn't "letting" him.
But after a long time, a film asks why shouldn't he touch? And why does the "hero" get to feel bad when he touches her waist by mistake and his act gets misinterpreted. Where other story tellers leave such scenes with surface level banter, Sekhar Kammula relishes the scene and bites into it like it's a juicy piece of steak.
There is a reason she's uncomfortable with a "touch" that she's not expecting. And for him? Why does he get mad? Because he's been told all his life by people like Mounika that he's so below in the hierarchy that his touch is impure. Her discomfort is real and his feelings of being rejected are rooted.
So, when there is a pay off to this scene where Mounika "touches" him first and goes a little further, there's an explosion of music. You've seen this scene too a hundred times and almost always it feels like the director is spoon-feeding the audience rather than letting you feel it. But here you feel it. It's so important for them to touch each other with consent and respect. I've never seen a "kiss" scene in Telugu carry so much weight and still retain the innocence of young love.
Sekhar Kammula has many such touches in the film that never undermine the audience or their intelligence. At first it looks like Shekar Kammula is afraid to fully delve into the complexities of caste and that's why the references of Revanth belonging to an oppressed caste are left to an Ambedkar photo, or the colour blue, or casually wondering who the Christian God for money is. But it's deliberate because Revanth too wants to keep it a 'secret'. Not because he is ashamed but rather he wants to not be defined by it and he is scared he'll forever be trapped. So, when a character (who works at Google no less) suggests that he get a government job because it's easy for "people like him" the humiliation is not just a slap on his dreams but it's a knock-out punch to the fact that he can't escape his caste or religion. And as this realization dawns on him he speaks more openly of his caste, and his Dalit identity culminating to the climax in a graveyard…in "their" graveyard.
Similarly, when Mounika enters the city and it's revealed that she's poor in academics, faints when stress gets too high, and considers herself above some kind of work it's not used for comedic effect or to show her as an arrogant shrew to be tamed. But rather that she's a product of her childhood: the good, the bad, and predatorily ugly.
Even supporting characters are respected and given depth. When Gangavva finds out that Mounika is born to an oppressor caste man, she asks "Why did she choose to be born to him?" It's a casual comedic throwaway dialogue but packed with so much depth because of which character says it and about whom.
Towards the end, Revanth's mother (Easwari Rao in sublime form) is yelling at him from bringing "this" girl home. She's all trouble and could lead to their death and yet his mother still has the kindness to also yell at his son for bringing a girl without footwear and making her run. And it is these same slippers that are used as a weapon in the film's most punchy dialogue (deliberately not using the term "punch dialogue"). This moment also goes to Mounika and not Revanth.
And that comes to the other dominant theme that Sekhar Kammula explores through Love Story. He seems to ask what masculinity is. Is it a guy chugging alcohol when he wakes up on a terrace or is it a guy who can buy pads without feeling ashamed? Is it the guy who hoards wealth or is it the guy who has a dream and will do any amount of hard work to achieve it without hurting others? Is it the guy who expects the girl to sacrifice her family and run away with him or is the guy who understands why she can't do that and realizes that despite her oppressor caste status she too faces inequality in her family? Is it a Hero who'll make himself the face of a superhit song or is it a man who can hold his own in dance next to Sai Pallavi and still let her take center screen?
Even in the songs the gaze on Sai Pallavi is never voyeuristic but rather it's how she experiences dance and how she enjoys it. It's not because Shekar Kammula wants to show us a sanitized understanding of romance. But how can we as an audience be voyeurs when she struggles with a gaze that strips off her consent? Watch her cower in fear when Narasimham (Rajeev Kanakala) enters a room or when she drapes a dupatta around her neck when he walks in. I also think it's terrific to cast Rajeev Kanakala in this villainous character because so often he plays these earnest characters who die for a good cause. For the first time, I enjoyed his on-screen fate.
Naga Chaitanya excels in this role as Revanth because he is so good at coming across as "weak" in the hyper-masculine Telugu hero-sphere. He nailed it in Majili but there the story didn't have the weight and here he's found probably Telugu cinema's bravest champion of a "weak" neo-masculinity. He never overplays a scene and his chemistry with Eshwari is perfect. They fight with each other, they protect each other, she hits him, he shouts at her, and it's just so damn real. Sai Pallavi as Mounika is near-perfect and in the hands of filmmakers like Shekhar Kammula she hits the perfect balance between a "song and dance heroine" and an actor.
And nowhere are these characters perfect. Mounika in moments of anger still abuses Revanth by using his caste. Revanth is selfish and forgets about the sacrifice Mounika has to make in their grand plan to be together. But Sekhar Kammula gives his characters space to breathe and apologize and grow as human beings in each other's company. Love and a love story really seem like an answer to the world's biggest problems.
Pawan Ch's music is never intrusive and works perfectly to amplify every moment. Even Vijay C Kumar and Marthand K Venkatesh (the cinematographer and the editor respectively) always let the audience be in on the moment as a silent jury. If there is any grouse with the film it's that the green screen portions are poorly done and what could have been a celebration of the "middle-class" neighborhoods of Hyderabad end up being flat and uncharacteristic of Sekhar Kammula.
But otherwise, it's so charming to see Sekhar Kammula grow from a filmmaker who served movies that were like fresh coffee in the morning to now serve a heady cocktail of toddy and love served with beef. An angry Sekhar Kammula film has been a long time coming (think Leader's references to Kaaramchedu Massacre, Anamika, or the implied class and caste conflict in Life is Beautiful) and finally the film and the moment have come.
Unlike in Quli Qutub Shah and Bhagmati's story, Revanth and Mounika don't have to swim across a river but they just have to take a leap of faith into the cement-grey area (literally) between their terraces in Hyderabad. That's enough for their love to find a home. But I think Sekhar Kammula is swimming across an angry river of mediocrity to save Telugu films he so dearly loves. If that metaphor seems too much, you have to forgive me. I just saw a great film.