Director: Buchi Babu Sana
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Panja Vaisshnav Tej, Krithi Shetty
*Minor Spoilers Ahead
When an actor plays a fisherman in a Telugu movie, there's almost always an ode to the sea. It's the same with farming. In a drama about agriculture, you can surely expect a song that romanticises the relationship between nela (soil) and vaana (rain). There's a fancy metaphor, in Uppena, as Aasi (Panja Vaisshnav Tej), the hero, sees the sea in the eyes of Bebamma (Krithi Shetty), the woman he loves.
He sings, "Nee kannu neeli samudram, naa manasemo andhutlo padava prayaanam." The line roughly translates to — my soul goes on a boat trip in the blue-sea of your eyes. It's a beautiful expression, and in that instant you wonder how poetry can make a language so irresistible. But when the song ends, that lyrical dream also ends, and you're back to watching Aasi follow Bebamma until she takes notice of him. These clichéd scenes are a dime a dozen, and they make no impact since we have witnessed this trope since the 1980s.
Bebamma appears cute to Aasi, and his world rotates in slow-motion when he's stalking her. But he doesn't have enough courage to approach her and talk about his feelings, as he's the son of a fisherman and she's the daughter of Raayanam (Vijay Sethupathi), a guy who owns half the town. Therefore, this isn't merely a story about a rich girl falling in love with a poor boy; it's also about the kind of role that caste plays in society and the place that women occupy in the family tree — they are considered the bearers of honour. Early on in the film, it's revealed that Raayanam turns a blind eye to Bebamma when she complains about her cousin's behavior.
He doesn't admonish his nephew because the latter belongs to the same caste. Yes, Raayanam is a first-class casteist prick. And he's the sort of guy who takes pride in casually pacing around his office admiring his own pictures and the laurels he has brought to his great family. These segments bring out director Buchi Babu Sana's vision perfectly.
The entire first hour runs pretty quickly as it's packed with songs and courtship scenes. But Uppena gets better only after it swings towards the darker side of the tale. In movies such as this, we, undoubtedly, root for the underdog. We cheer when the hero beats up the goons, or when the heroine gives it back to the misogynists. Though Aasi is introduced as a man who can certainly fend off about four people at a time, he's still a mortal.
He cannot tolerate pain, for he's not Baahubali. When Aasi gets hurt, he can't get up. This is one of the things that the filmmaker must have mulled over while penning the screenplay because the movie relies heavily on this aspect.
While Uppena builds the narrative around this particular ant versus elephant story, where Raayanam is the elephant and Aasi is the ant, it's easy to guess what happens when they come face to face. Also, Babu Sana tries to highlight the struggles that plague the poor. What will the fishing community do if it's sent far away from the sea? How can they travel four kilometers every day to reach their boats in the morning? And why do they have to move to another neighborhood in the first place — to help the rich get richer? This is precisely what Vetri Maaran's Tamil movie Vada Chennai was about. But this burning issue gets buried under the weight of Aasi and Bebamma's fears and it is inserted as an extra nugget to remind us of Raayanam's wickedness.
We can understand that Raayanam is a poisoned egg, but we can't take him seriously, as there's a huge gap between his face and his voice. They blatantly come across as two different elements. Vijay Sethupathi is a brilliant performer in Tamil films. However, here, without his original voice, he seems vacant. Just for a moment, imagine Prakash Raj with his voice in this role, and you probably can't sleep well tonight.
Sethupathi may have accepted the role in the hope of addressing social problems. He has been vocal about some of them on social media for a while now. Since casteism ranks higher on the scale of inhumanity in our country, he may have given his nod to lend his support. If this were a Tamil film, it'd have been his home ground and he'd have hit the ball out of the park.
The performances aside, there's a major flaw in the politics of Uppena. It forgives the perpetrator of the crime while it sympathises with the survivor — while Raayanam is simply given a lesson on what love actually entails, he's not punished for the atrocities he commits. Well, if punishment sounds like fulfilling a wish, then there needs to be some kind of a reaction, at least. Do you remember how Deepu (Chandini Chowdary) cuts all ties with her brother Rama Raju (Sunil) in Colour Photo for messing up her relationship?
In the Tamil short film Love Panna Uttranum, which is part of the Netflix anthology Paava Kadhaigal, Vignesh Shivan also lets a casteist criminal walk away freely. Should Dalits always have to beg to be accepted? Ugh!