Director: Srikanth Nagothi
Cast: Naveen Chandra, Swathi Reddy, Shreya Navile, Manjula Ghattamaneni, Harsha Chemudu
Available in: Theatres
In one of the most brilliant, recurring stretches of Srikanth Nagothi's Month Of Madhu, we see Madhusudhan (Naveen Chandra, the Picasso of playing toxic characters) and his friend (a superb Harsha Chemudu) sit in an isolated spot, framed against the port of Vishakapatnam at night and drink. The two discuss their past, their friends who moved on in life, their friends' marriage lives and careers, and so on; This one conversation about a friend who has outgrown them financially and socially stands out. Both Madhusudhan and his friend, placing themselves on a higher moral pedestal, declare that they can achieve whatever they want to, but are choosing not to take the illicit path. Now, this scene isn't necessarily played for laughs but seeing two sloshed men trash-talk their friends who are doing better than them with clear condescension and entitlement, is both funny and sad. That's because you know that these two individuals are simply trying to console themselves, making up for their failures with words that hold no meaning. The camera captures it all in one single, wide shot. There are no cuts to close-ups. Both Naveen and Harsha excellently express the futile rage and understandable frustration. The fact that this scene isn't played for laughs mocking two failed men defines how Srikanth Nagothi chose to approach his characters. With a non-judgemental gaze, he extends the same empathy to every character in the film.
The beauty of Month Of Madhu is that Srikanth rarely tries to engineer the screenplay in a way that makes us see the progression of these characters. The non-linear screenplay jumps 20 years in time: focusing on Lekha (Swathi Reddy is simply terrific) who is head over heels in love with Madhusudhan in 2003 but the two are trudging through an unpleasant separation in the present. Early in the film, Lekha undergoes an abortion, accompanied by an agitated Madhu. She's hungry but is advised not to have anything till the medical procedure is completed, but she has already packed Pulihora (tamarind rice) from her home and innocently asks Madhu to have it. See, this is how love is expressed in the film. Using small, mundane gestures. The real way. Nothing is dramatic here. But Madhu's love language is different. He is hot-headed, has anger issues, doesn't have a job, but he is never completely cognisant of his shortcomings... he refuses to acknowledge his flaws. Like real people do. To be honest, it's not at all difficult to understand why Lekha is seeking divorce after 17 years of being together. Neither is it puzzling to see that Madhu believes that Lekha will return to him one day. It's an incredibly humane conflict dealt with such sincerity and explored in detail. It's admirable.
To add to the tale, there's another Madhu (If not for a confident and lively Shreya Navile, the character might have ended up looking like a caricature), the 19-year-old, US-born Madhumitha, who arrives in Visakhapatnam for a cousin's marriage. She's free-spirited, eager to explore her sexuality and find love, although none of these are explicitly mentioned. When Madhumita refuses to return to the US after a spat with her mother, her father approves her one-month stay in the city. When the paths of both the Madhus cross over, you expect the film to go in one direction: where both of these individuals help each other sort out their crises. But the film doesn't make it that obvious.
Madhu, the 19-year-old, has a void in her life, much like her male counterpart; she lacks belongingness (she's too Indian in the US and too American in India), is overweight, and wants to find herself and love. She feels that her life is constricted by the norms the world seems to impose on her. In fact, in a song sequence set in a wedding that doubles up as Madhu's protest, the height of the frame shrinks, alluding to her confinement. Madhusudhan, on the other hand, has spent his entire life in Vizag. "Everyone else has moved on except me and the sea," a remorseful Madhusudhan admits at one point. His problem is that he is unable to let go of his wife. It would have been an easier choice to underline the similarities or contrasts between the two Madhus but Srikanth resists the temptation to make their dynamic the centre of the film. The film is more than that. Other characters get to shine as Srikanth presents different kinds of relationships. We have a couple who are already having issues getting married, a youngster with a punk aesthetic falling for Madhumita, the writer whom Madhumita has a crush on who prefers being alone, a widower who still hasn't moved on, Lekha's 40-year-old benign colleague who wants to marry her, an elderly woman who believes that a woman has to find reasons to keep her husband close to her... well, nothing exists in binaries in Month of Madhu. It acknowledges the intricacies of relationships and people like no other film has done in recent times.
Month of Madhu is a story about finding love, its decaying, and letting go. The way it presents each of these stages through Lekha and other characters is stunning. We see how Lekha, who once loved Madhusudhan despite all his flaws, is now yearning to go away from him. We see her learn from her experiences. In a tiny scene, we see Lekha ask her father whether he likes her. When he responds by saying that he does, she asserts with a smile that he should express his liking verbally more often. Naturally, we connect it to the fact that her husband has been very cold in his expression even though it is never really spelled out. The film is filled with countless little moments that portray Lekha's growth as a person beautifully. In a way, her entire arc is an antidote to Samantha's long-suffering wife character from Majili (2019). The film cares so much about Lekha that it gives the constantly brooding woman a moment to breathe and enjoy life in one of the most poignant scenes of the film. When something nice happens in her life, Lekha takes a day off from work and goes on a day out. She watches a movie, eats ice cream, shops, and visits the beach. It is only at that moment did I realize that this was the first and only time we see Lekha visit a beach happily, in a film where the sea plays a crucial role.
Not just in its writing but Month of Madhu is a wonderfully crafted film. Its structure can be perplexing initially, with the non-linear narrative not making much sense. But eventually, everything falls into place. The juxtaposition becomes clearer with editing, the objects used to pronounce the jump from one timeline to the other start to feel rewarding. At one point, it's idly (Lekha's mother serves her idlis in 2003 during one of her happier moments and the shot cuts to Lekha bringing her ill mother a plate of idlis) and there's a memory with a bakery, a birthday... so on and so forth. It really is a film that appears simple but has a lot going for it if you look in depth. The craft never comes in the way of experience, from editing to music to cinematography... the best thing about these facets is that they never stand out and always remain embedded in the moment.
If I have a qualm with the film, it's that the ending feels a little too abrupt for the mood it has managed to set up. Madhusudhan and Lekha's aching arc finds a wonderful and satisfying closure but Madhumati's arc feels a bit rushed. So does the Madhusudhan and Madhumita arc, but it feels like the filmmaker deliberately chose to not go the conventional way and keep things simple. When asked about why Lekha left him, Madhusudhan keeps narrating an incident that might have triggered Lekha. It's a McGuffin. We expect to reveal itself at the end but what happens will surprise you. Srikanth Nagothi's Month Of Madhu will remain a gutsy film that broke many rules.