Yeats poems were said to be like “stethoscopes held up to the hum of a mysterious world”. Without sounding disingenuous I would like to posit that the early cinema of Sekhar Kammula pretty much fits the description of Yeats’ poems if the “mysterious world” is upper middle-class Hyderabadi lifestyle.
Kammula got his mojo back with a sleeper hit like Fida after spending much of the 2010s in hibernation. However, his latest offering Love Story is a meandering mess that never rises above its good-for-OTT-viewing vibe.
The movie starts off with the travails of Revanth (a perfectly functional Naga Chaitanya) who wants to start his own business in Hyderabad and somehow manages to set up a Zumba centre with the help of his mother. He gets smitten by Mounika (an intoxicatingly honest Sai Pallavi) who dances like a dream but intends to take up a decent corporate job the escape the clutches of her evil uncle (a menacing Rajeev Kanakala) at her village. When Revanth comes to know the massive caste chasm between them, it’s Mounika who takes the charge. How they fight the insurmountable odds stacked against them forms the crux of this morose, low-energy movie.
What works for the movie is Vijay C Kumar’s cinematography that is lush, natural and splendid. The Kammula regular makes the bylanes of a remote Telangana village look like a tangy, sexy inferno. Pawan Ch, an alumnus of A R Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory, makes a barnstorming musical debut with Love Story. His music makes the movie watchable, at least intermittently. His sense of melody, the trademark of a Kammula movie, is spot on. At least three tracks are instant chartbusters and the background music is spellbindingly inventive considering how much of an emotional movie it is. The song ‘Evo Evo Kalale’ has been shot like a fevered dream and its brilliance is to be seen on the big screen to be believed.
Kammula’s story definitely has some material to rouse the viewer but it’s nowhere near as primal and raw as Sairat. Unlike Nagraj Manjule, Kammula takes up too much time on exposition and the story only takes off in the second half albeit for a short while. Kammula made a splash in Telugu cinema with his winsome Dollar Dreams to shatter the myths around the allure of a suburban American life for someone from India. He followed it up with the urbane Anand, which shot him into the orbit of fame for getting the nuances of upper middle class Telugu existence in such a pitch perfect manner. Kammula’s strengths are his breezy cinema rather than preachy cinema, which still worked in Leader but falls flat in Love Story.
With Fida, Kammula had returned to familiar territory while giving us the powerhouse of a talent called Sai Pallavi. The restless stillness of her acting makes one believe she’s the one miraculously good actress every decade produces. While her character is more of an extension of what was seen in Fida, even she couldn’t enliven the proceedings because Kammula decided to chew far more than he can eat. Naga Chaitanya is good as the brooding protagonist but he barely gets to flex his acting muscle. Here’s a quintessential Sekhar Kammula hero that gets wasted in the oddest movie made by the film-maker.
Telugu cinema in 2021 seems to be going big on the shock factor. While Uppena had a dramatic climax, Love Story has an equally shocking climax with some dark pre-climactic portions. Kammula treated these sensitive portions in an almost flippant manner by leaving the audience high and dry with a hurried ending. Kammula should either trust his audience or steer away if his inner censor says the Telugu audience is not going to lap up a smorgasbord of difficult subjects at a time when going to the cinema is nothing less than a chore.