Director: Karuna Kumar
Cast: Sudheer Babu, Anandhi, Pavel Navageethan
I was curious about Sridevi Soda Center because it was directed by Karuna Kumar whose debut film was Palasa 1978. While it wasn’t a great film, it was definitely an ambitious one dealing with caste and revenge. I was impressed with how he managed to immerse the casual viewer in the milieu he set his story in. In Sridevi Soda Center he promised a more mainstream outing but I wanted to see how many of those same muscles he flexed in Palasa 1978 he would bring to this film.
But sadly, he leaves the flexing of the muscles to Sudheer Babu, who plays the protagonist Lighting Suri Babu. There are shades of what set the filmmaker apart in his debut film. It is important that Lighting Suri Babu is known by his profession because the film is saying caste hasn’t ended in the world of iPhones but it has adapted to a new language. The most cinematic sequence of Sridevi Soda Center comes towards the end — one where two pairs of dangling feet are juxtaposed. It’s trying to tell you how a relationship has changed for the worse. It started out with love but caste came in between.
The impact is even stronger considering Mani Sharma’s consistently good background score but by then it’s too late. The film wants to tell us the love story of Lighting Suri Babu and Sodala Sridevi (Anandhi). Both are defined by their professions but the problem is that Anandhi belongs to an oppressor caste and Suri Babu belongs to an oppressed caste. Anandhi’s father has a problem with their relationship purely because of caste and his ideas of honour are steeped in tradition.
It’s a familiar story not only in terms of its central conflict but also in the recent past many Telugu filmmakers have achieved commercial and critical success trying to tell a story whose romantic conflict revolves around caste. Whether it was Rangasthalam, or Uppena or Kanche they manage to speak about the politics of the film under creative guises.
But Sridevi Soda Center’s romance is so bereft of originality that the politics it stands for come across as preachy and the dialogues are tonally off. The film places its playful romantic scenes immediately after scenes that are supposed to invoke extreme pathos. Something horrible has been done to Lighting Suri Babu’s father, and he’s in a court because he extracted revenge, and within seconds he’s trying to flirt with Sridevi. It’s awkward for the audience to feel the romance, like wanting sugar-less coffee when attending a funeral.
The lead actors lack chemistry and Sudheer Babu struggles to hit the note of doe-eyed young man who is madly in love. His accent and acting are a bit too manicured, much like his beard in the film. He pronounces ‘stock broker’ and ‘pukka’ and other English words too perfectly which takes away the audience every time his performance begins to hit the right note. This is not to say that he needs to stretch the vowels or sing the words but he just needed to be more imperfect.
Anandhi is a fine actor but it is only in the final scene that she’s given something to do. The haunting background music helps pull her up while the dialogues want her to stumble. She asks her father why their business (the film’s titular soda center) has a painted board in a world of plastic flex banners. He is an old-fashioned man so even his business sense follows that pattern. Therefore, the film’s title is not a celebration of Sridevi but rather a monument to her father unwilling to adapt.
The film’s meatiest role goes to Naresh who plays Sridevi’s casteist father. He tries to make a convincing case for hierarchies, tries to cajole his daughter out of love, and sweet talks others into believing the problem is really his and he’s the victim. And when the plot turns into melodrama at the end, Naresh plays it up to an extent that seems contrived but passable. But it’s a great casting choice given that he’s someone who is so likeable on screen. This is the one area where the film scores above Rangasthalam and Uppena where the villains were too predictable.
The film begins well in a jail with a convict telling his life story. There is a lovely set-piece with a boat race (obviously the hero wins) but the subtext is that local made products might be stronger and more adaptable than something that’s imported from outside. Similarly, when there is a discussion about responsibilities to organize a village fair, Kasi, the local village headman (Pavel Navageetham) wants to get electricians from far away (Vizag and Vijayawada). Everyone protests saying Suri Babu who is a local boy will be better and cheaper. To the film’s characters, people from a few districts away are relative foreigners. A character even says that there are only two types of people in the world – “Swadeshiyulu” and “Videshiyulu” meaning insiders and outsiders.
There is a dialogue about “he who tills the land is the owner of it” and an upper-caste, flag-bearing character who wants to educate people about their rights over land. I’m deliberately avoiding using the word ‘Marxist’ because in the film’s world-view that too is imported ideology.
But all of this is ornamental and irrelevant because the film’s central romance and how it unfolds on screen is outdated and stale. When the lead pair pine for each other, the audience doesn’t feel the angst. And the film separates its lovers and re-unites them and repeats the process till it reaches what it thinks is a clever heart-wrenching twist. It’s heart-wrenching but the drama is unearned.
In fact, the film’s saddest but also its cleverest moment was seeing the late Katthi Mahesh (outspoken film critic who was an unabashed Dalit voice in mainstream Telugu media) play the part of someone who helps the oppressed caste protagonist and his partner escape caste-ist forces. This moment made my heart twinge harder than any other moment in the film.
The film didn’t have to script the pathos in this moment but where the filmmaker did script it, the scenes weren’t powerful enough. The film struggles to find the right mix of what should have been a great cocktail of masala, romance, and politics leaves a bitter taste.