Director: Vignesh Koushik
Cast: Price Cecil, Subhalekha Sudhakar
The reality and experience of Telugu people in America is not often depicted in Telugu cinema. It's most fun depiction to date is still Padamati Sandhya Raagam that released nearly three decades ago. Since then, directors like Dev Katta tried with films like Vennela to give us that peculiar mix of foreign and Telugu identity. Cinematically, the struggle seems to be getting the language right because it's impossible to have characters speak in Telugu without dubbing over non-Telugu characters.
At a political level, Telugu cinema has seen a resurgence of protagonists (belonging primarily to oppressor castes) who discover and rediscover 'home' or their roots. So, is there a way to show the American experience without eventually glorifying the motherland and becoming predictable?
These dilemmas seem to be partially answered with the OTT revolution where language doesn't seem to be a barrier and there are takers of cinema that isn't about 'sons and daughters of the soil'. The American Dream rests in this epochal moment where it gets to tell a story without the barriers its predecessors had to tackle.
And the film is a spectacular let-down because it takes that gamble near midpoint but fails, despite a promising first act.
Rahul (Prince Cecil) belongs to a lower middle-class family where it's just him and his father (Subhalekha Sudhakar). There is tension between these two because Rahul thinks his father is lazy and doesn't aim for much in life. Therefore, Rahul buys a ticket to America because that could be his metaphorical ticket out of the financial prison he finds himself in. Once there, he realises that working at a chocolate factory isn't as fun as it seems and life is harder than it looks. But meeting Riya Verma (Neha Krishna) changes his life. Or does he change hers?
Directed by Vignesh Koushik, the film wants to be a tale of losing innocence in the big-bad world of America, in which you either get killed by the country or be wicked enough to steal and betray. But the problem is the film never gets its tone and genre right. For the first twenty minutes, it begins like a classic Telugu film about a young man who is soon going to understand why his parents were right and why there's no place like home. Then for about another twenty minutes, it gets into this excessive music video category with multiple montages of his struggles in the US.
This part has the strong scent of The Viral Fever workplace/educational institution relatable comedies such as Kota Factory, Aspirants, and Pitchers. Then once Riya enters, it becomes one of those yuppie Bollywood rom-coms about two desis discovering the moral greyness in relationships like in Love Aaj Kal and Cocktail. And finally in the second half, it progresses into a Scream like thriller before settling on The Usual Suspects type twist and build up of the final villain.
If reading that was tiring, imagine watching it. It's as if the director wanted to showcase all his influences at once like a hungry child at his first buffet. The dialogues by all the extras are awkward because they clearly seemed to have been dubbed over the original actors and the lip-sync is all over the place. There is a student short film level of cheesiness to the dialogues particularly in the second half.
But it's the actors who power through the cheese and give something to root for. Prince gets the right mix of winning our sympathies at first and then becoming unlikeable towards the end. Neha Krishna, who gets the worst lines and the most awkward reaction shots, salvages them with her performance. She seems to get Riya. And the conflict of murder not being new to her until she has to deal with a 'real' one should have been explored further.
But in the second half Riya jumps through all the hurdles too easily because unlike the dialogues which hint at a great conflict, the screenplay makes her difficulties easily surmountable. Even as Rahul's friend Raviteja Mukkavalli works well because he's never the sidekick and is equally unlikeable in the few minutes of screentime that he gets. In fact, the veteran Subhalekha Sudhakar melodramatises his father's character and makes it unintentionally funny when he breaks down and begins to lecture his son.
This film would have worked better had it stuck to one genre. I think that should have been the relatable comedy space where Rahul suffers adjusting to life in America. Those twenty minutes are the film's strongest and Prince seems most comfortable here. Maybe add a little bit of rom-com and somewhere in there is the talent to make that perfect film that gets to tell the story of the Telugu people in America.
But the gamble it takes to become a thriller makes it fall flat on its face and therefore we have to wait longer to get that seminal film because, The American Dream is not that film.