SR Kalyanamandapam Is A Father-son Drama That Struggles To Make Its Leading Man A Star
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Director: Sridhar Gade
Writer: Kiran Abbavaram
Cast: Kiran Abbavaram, Priyanka Jawalkar, Sai Kumar
Language: Telugu

There is a confession to be made before writing the review: it’s the first film I am seeing in a really long time. Along with me, those in the auditorium were generally in a forgiving mood (the film does provide a lot to forgive) and eager to watch visuals play out on a large screen. Even the graphic anti-tobacco ads were received with familiar groans like a friend whose bad sense of humor continues even after many decades.

Personally, there was also excitement of seeing Kiran Abbavaram, the lead of the film and its writer, who had impressed with his subtle performance in the underrated OTT release Raajavaaru Raanivaaru which released last year. There he played a meek man who could barely express himself let alone his true feelings for the woman he loves. 

However, in SR Kalyanamandapam it’s obvious that the actor has taken the leap from an OTT platform to the large screen quite literally. Here he chases a heroine who is sick of him, he beats up others who harass the girl he loves, walks away in slow-motion to rousing music (and the background score by Chaitan Bharadwaj is definitely rousing), he slaps the heroine twice to school her, he’s obsessed with her waist, and even gets a friends circle whose lives revolve only around him (compare that to the softer Rajavaaaru Raanivaaru where he’s the friend who is the butt of the jokes). If all of the above sounds out-dated and cringey the film isn’t apologetic about any of it. The tone is set early on in the film in the scene where Kalyan (Kiran Abbavaram) is introduced. 

It’s set in a run-down bar so you know the hero has come of age to drink. He downs a bottle and the following scene is replete with references to films from the 90s and early 2000s beginning from Chiranjeevi’s Gang Leader, Balakrishna’s Samarasimha Reddy, and Rajnikanth’s Narasimha (the dubbed version of Padayappa). Even the posters that adorn the walls of the bar are of heroines of the 90s such as Roja. And inebriated, Kalyan gets into a brawl with people who harassed his ‘girlfriend’ (in quotes because she hasn’t called him her boyfriend yet). So, the film has already told the audience what to expect and what it sets out to do — give you a taste of the type of films that might have been forgotten. This isn’t the only time the film reminds the audience of forgotten good old times. There is a speech that Kalyan gives about how weddings aren’t the same as earlier when each wedding in a village was a communal event and how they are too mechanized now.

The film’s simple premise is about saving SR Kalyanamandapam which once hosted the best weddings in town under the guidance of Venkatachalam, a respected man in the village. But it’s lost its sheen under the care of his son, Dharma (played hammily by Sai Kumar) who whiles away time, loses reputation and family wealth by resorting to alcoholism. His actions lead SR Kalyanamandapam into decay and that’s not the only thing that’s decaying. Dharma, and his son, Kalyan haven’t spoken for around ten years whereas when Kalyan was a child, they were inseparable. 

The film tries to juggle three conflicts — the father-son drama, a tiresome love angle with a wasted Priyanka Jhalwalkar as Sindhu whose midriff is given more screen time than her face, and the struggle to save SR Kalyanamandapam. And of course, the secret fourth conflict which is pushing Kiran Abbavaran into the star material zone where he is devoid of vulnerabilities. And here’s where the problem lies because what made Kiran Abbavaram’s earlier movie work despite its wafer-thin plot was the actor’s ability to show vulnerability and his character’s inability to get over his own inner demons. 

But in SR Kalyanamandapam everything is too easy for him. The love has no flavor because Sindhu forgives him and falls in love too easily. Even SR Kalyanamandapam is restored to its former glory far too easily and the ‘struggles’ are papered over a song. Even the ‘first’ wedding between a college topper and his girlfriend whose family is denying the alliance is sponsored by the college principal. The girl’s father agrees far too easily. In fact, before the interval SR Kalyanamandapam is up and running and Kalyan and his friends’ struggles last through a montage song and a few comedy scenes. 

It’s only towards the end that the father son conflict gets some meat and the actors within Kiran Abbavaram and Sai Kumar are explored. There is a stretch where father and son are on a bike and the father is doing all the talking with Kiran Abbavaram not saying a single word. This is where we see glimpses of what is the actor’s strength — his ability to make the audience feel pent up emotion that’s unable to be expressed. Sai Kumar tones his character down a notch and the audience feels the angst of a man who is a son burdened by the legacy of a great father and a father to a son who is disappointed in him. 

The father and son are also connected through their love for alcohol and throughout the film the father and son never utter a single word to each other. All of this sounds so full of pulp and drama on paper but on screen they end up damp and disappointing. There is another terrific scene right at the end between Kalyan and a character called Abbaya who has been Dharma’s friend and partner-in-alcoholism despite Dharma being abandoned by friends and family after losing all his wealth. In a way, Abbaya is Dharma’s only true friend. In this scene Kiran Abbavaram, the vulnerable performer, shines when he finally manages to convey why he is unable to talk about his relationship with his father. It’s easy to see why the director chose not to intercut this single-shot with montages of father and son bonding and saved those for later. 

There should have been more scenes showing such vulnerability. In the same scene a meaty premise is revealed where the audience is made to understand why the grandfather, who is considered such a great man by the village, and SR Kalyanamandapam the embodiment of his greatness, are actually the real villains of the story. But this needed to be explored more to feel the jagged cracks in the father-son dynamic. Kalyan even mentions how he wishes to see his father through the eyes of his ten-year-old self — powerful, and confident, and respected (maybe this is a subtle nod to Sai Kumar the actor too, who once was so commanding in screen presence, but whose characters and performances of late have become far too familiar and cliched).

But the film focuses far too much on familiar tropes, and pays tribute to all Telugu star heroes and even the late YS Rajashekhar Reddy, the former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh isn’t spared in a hero-shot. The film is set in Rayachoti, Kadapa and it tries hard to drill that into the audience with the accent of the characters and locations but like the exposition in the film it’s uneven and feels forced. 

I might be an exception because the other audience members in the theatre enjoyed the jokes and there were a few whistles and claps during the shots that emphasized the heroism. The film may have served what it promised — dish out something familiar in unfamiliar times with a new-ish face leading the film. There is a stray shot early on in the film with a frog struggling to make it out of the water it’s in and that could be a metaphor for what Kiran Abbavaram might be aiming for. For now, he’s taken two steps forward as a bankable star but definitely a step back as an actor who is comfortable with being vulnerable on screen.

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