Director: Deepthi Ganta
Cast: Sathyaraj, Adah Sharma, Aakanksha Singh, Varsha Bollamma, Ashwin Kumar, Rohini, Sunaina
Streaming On: SonyLIV
Meet cute, written and directed by debutante Deepti Ghanta, aims to narrate the stories of five chance meetings that change the lives of the ten people involved in them. The anthology features stories that share the same spiritual discourse – a life-changing conversation is around the corner whether we are prepared for it or not. The people are familiar – an IT employee struggling to say no to a marriage she's not ready for, a mother worried about the secrets her near-perfect son is hiding from her, and a newly married woman who is frustrated by her husband's coldness, and so on.
Meet the Boy
There is this trend in Telugu OTT content to restlessly reflect the urban Telugu speaking population, both within the state and those that are spread across the globe. The storytellers want to make the protagonists speak English off the cuff and casually in romance. The courting methods and the language of love are now deliberately Western – dates, chivalry, bars and pubs, etc. This isn’t a criticism. That we have an assertive, angry, and spicy biryani-eating protagonist in Swati (Varsha Bollamma) as the someone who isn’t judged by the narrative gaze is a welcome change. Similarly, Abhi (Ashwin Kumar) , the other protagonist, who doesn’t over react to a young woman drinking alcohol and platonically hugging another male friend is a net positive. But in an attempt to be new and urban, Meet the Boy congratulates itself for its gloss but forgets the D word of storytelling – Drama.
Swati doesn’t want to get married to the man of her mother’s choice. A nagging mother is enough to make Swati cave in but she makes it incredibly hard for Abhi to like her, as she thinks he’s the kind of man her mother would have chosen as someone who misses Telugu cinema’s more outwardly chauvinistic protagonists from a decade or so ago. Luckily for her, Abhi is not that man. And over the course of their meet-cute she finds herself falling for him. The film has a twist so mild that it’s barely even a crooked line.
Ashwin Kumar struggles to lend the casualness required for the role and purses his lips with nearly every dialogue. Varsha Bollamma has the mannerisms required for the character but the material given to her lets her down. This brings me to the other D word that the episode fumbles with – Dialogue. When a story decides to be conversation-heavy and keeps the filmmaking grammar simple, the dialogues should really give the film a much-needed crunch. But Meet the boy’s dialogues have the taste of a wrapper chewed while hastily devouring a muffin. The film’s ‘money’ moment is a call back dialogue repeated by Abhi and yet when it is uttered, it feels inauthentic.
That Swati can exist with her choices and her choice of man is a victory, but for the sake of cinema, could we also have some engaging drama and dialogue?
Old is Gold
Old is Gold tells the story of a chance meeting at a visa office between Sarojini ‘Saru’ (Ruhani Singh) and Mohan Rao (Sathyaraj). They are strangers but Saru happens to be the name of Rao’s wife. And that initiates a conversation between them, leading Rao to change the marital life of Saru for good. And then the film ends with a twist that the background music thinks is gut-wrenching, but the effect is painfully dull. This short has shades of OK Kanmani, Darlings, The Intern, and maybe a sterilized version of Lost in Translation, but it features none of the risk-taking that these films did.
The film is clever in setting its premise in a Visa office, indicating that both characters need to get to foreign lands – physically and emotionally. And yet this conceit needed more depth. It wants to have the sentimentality of Tuesdays with Morrie, it rather has the obsequiousness of a person who diligently follows everything a conservative grandparent says.
Even the performances are confusing – Ruhani Sharma never seems to carry the burden of a failing marriage. Her body language reduces her strife to that of someone who has to deal with misplaced stationery. Sathyaraj is at his best when talking about Rao’s wife, but when he has to talk to Saru about her life, he seems to get into an exaggerated mess. Similarly, Raja Chembolu (who plays Saru’s husband Jai) seems aggressive to the point where it feels wrong to pass his behaviour as a misunderstanding between the couple as opposed to depicting the toxic trait within himself.
With a title as cliche as Old is Gold, it is not surprising that the film is contrived, proving that sometimes all sermon and no plot makes a short a dull watch.
Just when it felt like the series would continue to bore me with its artificial conversations and drama-less stories, it dished out In L(aw)ove, which has the most dramatic meat in the anthology. And it is here that writer-director Deepti Ghanta’s command over the crafts surfaces. It tells the story of Padma (Rohini) a single mother who catches her son Siddharth (Deekshith Shetty) lying to her to spend time with his girlfriend Pooja (Akanksha Singh). Padma then manufactures a situation where she talks to Pooja, with the two women sharing a not-so-serendipitous meet-cute.
The uneven nature of knowledge that Padma and Pooja share, along with the tension that the screenplay consistently holds, makes this episode a clear winner. Rohini even brings a certain aggression and cheekiness that is usually lacking in her other ‘mother’ roles, making this feel a few shades newer. She teases, quips, is sarcastic, and is aware enough to know when she is being regressive. Akanksha Singh picks up where she left off in Malli Raava (2017) and that is not a bad thing. As someone with a secret that society might judge her for, she excels at reluctantly displaying vulnerability.
Only this episode generates the required narrative structure to prove the life-changing impact of a meet-cute. It’s a clever subversion of the societal and pop-cultural tropes of antagonistic in-law relationships. Its weakest link is probably the terribly outdated pun in its title.
What if Notting Hill (1999) was remade as Banjara Hills? Or Jubilee Hills? That’s the broad space Starstruck wants to operate in. Starstruck asks all the right questions. What if our monotony is someone else’s ideal life? What if the predictability of our lives was the escape portal someone needed? What if a star was starstruck? And best of all, like all life changing events in cinema, what if this too happened on a dark and stormy night?
Shalini (Adah Sharma), a popular actress, is stranded in the rain, until Aman (Shiva Kandukuri) offers her a lift. Aman, a busy doctor, has no clue who she really is. Shalini who is surrounded by a society that only turns its gaze at her any time she walks into a room, encounters a gaze and a conversation that treats her ‘normally’. She is drawn to that. And Aman, who thinks Shalini is a makeup artist/costume designer, looks at Shalini’s glamorous life like a fever dream. In this film again, Deepti Ghanta excels in creating tension by making her characters play on an uneven informational space.
And yet the ideas remain…just that. Ideas.
On screen, Shalini seems too trusting and accepting of Aman. Maybe the film needed to showcase Shalini’s struggle a little more before her meet-cute with Aman. Because now it doesn’t feel like a necessary escape as much as a lucky break. And without this setup, Aman’s ordinariness seems too plain. It even reflects in his lifelessly sterile and carefully calibrated apartment, dripped in FabIndia aesthetics.
The final shot that inverts the gaze of fame – where a large hoarding of Shalini overlooks the city – captures the intent of the plot much better than the preceding twenty-five odd minutes. Before she leaves, Shalini says that she will remember this night even if she forgets the rest of the events in her life. Sadly, that seems unbelievable because Aman comes off as memorably plain rather than beautifully normal, like the film wants him to be.
Ex-girlfriend perfectly places itself at the end because it feels like a highlights reel of all the weaknesses and strengths of the entire series.
It tells the story of Anjana (Sanchitha Poonacha), who bumps into her husband Ajay’s (Govind Padmasurya) ex-girlfriend Kiran (Sunainaa). That too, after a fight. On paper, both of them are on the same page – they hate the man, one seemingly in an impulsive fit and the other theoretically in a reflective state. But yet they hit it off and learn about the man that connects them and themselves.
But for this plot to have worked, Ajay had to be more likeable and less grizzly. Padmasurya’s aggressive version makes him unlikeable, making you wonder what’s the fuss about him. The film wants us to think of him as a socially inept loveable asshole who gives the best hugs. Except he comes across as a socially inept asshole.
At some point, Anjana chides Kiran for defending Ajay, justifying his curtness and romanticising his rudeness. Kiran’s response needed to have been a solid defence but what we get is a wistful and empty answer. Therefore, we never disagree with Anjana’s position for us to root for her change.
In its defence Ex-girlfriend is the most ambitious of the above five films. Most of it can be attributed to the manipulative twist the film has up its sleeve. It drops all the clues you need and though one can sense it coming, the film retains curiosity over how it will unfold. But in the end, I wasn’t sure if Anjana had enough reasons to not join the metaphorical ex-girlfriend club with Kiran.
Meet-cute is akin to the joy we derive from eavesdropping on conversations in a cafe — fragments that are heard give the listeners enough dots to connect a whole life. It wants to say as listeners we are also part of this meet-cute. Maybe this conversation is going to change our lives except that we just get to listen and not talk.