Cast: Rana Daggubati, Sai Pallavi, Priyamani, Nivetha Pethuraj, Nandita Das, Naveen Chandra
Director: Venu Udugula
In a film starring Sai Pallavi, Rana Daggubati, Priyamani, Zarina Wahab, and featuring the return of Nandita Das to Telugu cinema, I was most thrilled about the fact that this was the second film of writer-director Venu Udugula. His first film was Needhi Naadi Oke Katha which was impressive in its ability to capture society’s obsession with excellence and disregard for those that “fail”. It was an angry film that also served as a fitting tribute to Kamal Haasan’s Akali Rajyam in capturing the dysfunctional relationship between a purist father and an inadequate son struggling to fit into society.
Despite a weak third act, the film’s dialogues kept the film from becoming dull. Sree Vishnu and Devi Prasad’s performances definitely helped too. Directorially, it felt like the arrival of a fresh angry voice in Telugu cinema. Was it Telugu cinema’s Pa Ranjith moment?
With the announcement of Sai Pallavi and Rana Daggubati as the leads in Virata Parvam, it felt like the acceptance of Venu Udugula’s bubbling rage into mainstream Telugu cinema with capable performers who are also reliable stars. Virata Parvam tells the story of Vennela (Sai Pallavi) a young girl in rural Telangana. She gets hold of the banned revolutionary literature of Aranya which is the pen name of Comrade Ravanna (Rana Daggubati), a Naxal leader loved by the members of the oppressed castes because he turns up when all legal measures fail. Her appreciation turns into obsession and love, and Vennela decides to pursue him into the forests to win his love. Does she win his love? Does she take on his cause? Will he reciprocate the love? Can love exist and feel real in the middle of such tragedy and injustice?
These are the questions that the film wants to answer. But it struggles to get there. The film suffers because it makes a dubious structural choice with its protagonists, then it has secondary characters who have excellent backstories and conflicts that are never explored, and finally because it fails to grapple with its own ideology.
Firstly, Venu Udugula makes a questionable storytelling decision with Comrade Ravanna, in that for large stretches we only see Vennela’s obsession with Ravanna but we don’t see the man on screen. For nearly half the film Ravanna is absent so we don’t fall in love with Ravanna but we just see her falling in love. This means that not only did I find myself detached from her obsession but I began to find holes in it. I found all those opposing her love as the reasonable ones and her unreasonable. Early on Venu Udugula establishes that Vennela is a stubborn girl right from her childhood. Her mother throws a toy into a well and Vennela jumps into the well blindly to retrieve the doll. When she grows up and begins to fall in love with Aranya whom she’s imagined, we don’t fall in love along with her and her obsession to go into the forests, rather Vennela comes across as a nuisance.
Part of it is also because when we do see Ravanna in action the portions feel generic. He comes across as any do-gooder vigilante hero of Telugu cinema. He writes great poetry but the man doesn’t feel fresh. The film constantly drills in that Vennela’s obsession is like Meerabai’s devotion to Krishna. But that’s the problem. We needed to see love, not devotion. And Vennela’s infatuation feels flimsy and no matter how many times she implies that “love doesn’t have reasons”, that justification feels like a cop-out by the storyteller.
And once I never felt the connection with the love story in a film that wants to be the next epic romance of Telugu cinema, the attention begins to bleed out and the mind wanders away from the leads. It takes a special kind of poorly conceived film to take your eyes away from Sai Pallavi.
Secondly, there are interesting threads in other characters that are never fully explored. Ramesh (Rahul Ramakrishna) believes since birth that he’s destined to get married to Vennela and even she thinks so too. When he first hears that she doesn’t want to marry him he isn’t angry or burst into a fit of rage. He thinks she’s being childish and he tries to talk her out of it. But eventually, he understands even if he doesn’t agree with her. The tragedy in his character hit harder than the core one running through the film. Similarly, Naveen Chandra’s Comrade Raghu Anna is a hot-blooded Naxal leader who has been demoted because his actions caused needless deaths. But he still means well with respect to Maoism and Naxals. He is first angry with the appearance of Vennela because she threatens his position. His anger also is exacerbated by the guilt he feels. What a story that could have been – a Naxalite unable to come to terms with guilt but also unable to let go of his ideology and is full of anger and channels that towards a young Comrade. Priyamani is absolutely wasted as Comrade Bharathakka who has a tragic past but again is bound by her ideology. But all this is what-could-have-been. On-screen, she is restricted to a secondary role and her character is forced to make poor choices to drive the plot forward.
Nandita Das who plays Shakunthala, a government school teacher with Naxal sympathies, is such an awkward fit in this universe because not only are her dialogues awkwardly delivered but also because she is one of those characters whose backstory is far more interesting than the story on screen. She too loved a Naxalite and now lives the life he would have led had he survived. What an excellent love story that is but sadly that’s pushed only through one or two stray dialogues. Nandita Das surprisingly feels out of place with her diction and compared to the realism of the casting and the costumes of the rest of the cast she comes across as a Fab-India Maoist. Venu Udugula who makes such consistently good casting choices and gets fresh faces to light up the screen did not need Nandita Das for this role and she seems out of place.
The cosmetic touches and the way Venu Udugula captures the life in rural Telangana are almost documentary-like. During a casual conversation between Vennela and her mother (Eshwari) we see her mother making plates with dried leaves (vistaraakulu), and her father (an excellent Sai Chand falling victim to poor writing) is fixing the drum that he uses when he tells stories in the temple. Venu Udugula wants to show us a Telangana rarely seen in cinema but rich research is only fantastic when backed up by a great story.
Finally, the film struggles with its stance on Naxalism. This film definitely believes it was the right thing to do for most parts. But even then, a cop (the police represent the system in this film and are the proverbial bad guys) quips that the Naxal cadres are a reflection of the very society they fight against. The top brass of the Maoist parties belonged to oppressor castes and the lower rungs which fell victim to police brutality often had members belonging to the oppressed castes. I don’t have a Ph.D. in the Naxal movement in Telangana but even perfunctory reading on this subject proves this to be true. The Communist parties were often labeled as ‘Kamma-nist’ parties because of members of the oppressor Kamma caste hogging some of the top positions of these parties. The same can be said about the Brahmins and Reddys. Once this hits home and the castes of Bharathakka, Ravanna, and Raghu Anna are never revealed or fully explored, somehow the ideology rings hollow. Even Vennela’s claim to do the “right” thing when a wounded police officer lies in front of a few Naxals seems hollow considering that she was happy throwing bombs at them a few scenes ago to protect her love. The change feels convenient and for the sake of the plot than an organic change.
The film takes an unconventional route for its ending in a bid to make the romance feel epic. But it comes across as rushed and contrived. Maybe if we bought the romance in the first act, then this ending would have felt as epic as the film wanted it to.
Venu Udugula struggles to handle some of the technical aspects of the film. Suresh Bobbili’s music was pleasing but not what was necessary for this film. Its quasi-Carnatic nature when showing that Vennela’s romance with Ravanna is like that of Meerabai’s obsession with Krishna feels odd with the folk elements in other places. At times the editing feels jumpy.
One aspect I enjoyed was the documentary-like texture to the frames and given that the film is inspired by true events, I think it was the one right step in making the film feel epic.
But by the end of the film, I was glad it was over because a film that wanted to show the inherently violent nature of the status quo and how love feels like a paradox ends up telling a dull romance that’s never as epic as it thinks it is.