Writer-director Srinivas Avasarala ventures into a niche zone and succeeds to an extent with Phalana Abbayi Phalana Ammayi, helped by Malvika Nair and Naga Shaurya’s performances
Nearly a decade ago when Srinivas Avasarala debuted as a writer and director with the breezy rom-com Oohalu Gusagusalade, Telugu movie buffs were charmed by the uncanny humour, music and smart writing of the characters. That wasn’t a formulaic Telugu film but it found its audience. This time, he has attempted to present a conversational relationship drama with the vibe of Richard Linklater’s romance trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Avasarala’s story of a certain boy and a certain girl (hence the title Phalana Abbayi Phalana Ammayi), starring Naga Shaurya and Malvika Nair, is narrated in a close-to-reality manner without crowd-pleasing moments. This works in some portions and there is plenty to appreciate.
Sanjay (Naga Shaurya) and Anupama (Malvika Nair)’s journey of friendship, romance and tussles unfolds over a 10-year period and is presented in seven chapters, shifting between their engineering college days in Visakhapatnam and higher studies in London. The non-linear screenplay leaves a few questions unanswered in different chapters, to return to it later.
When Sanjay, a fresher, is about to be ragged, Anupama bails him out; she is a second-year student. Is she a year older than him? The story does not dwell on it since it is not perceived to be a big deal. When the two opt for a live-in relationship in London, again the story does not make a big deal of it. Avasarala acknowledges the changes in urban romance in recent years and knows that what would have raised eyebrows a decade ago would be less scandalous today. He is more concerned about the relationship conflicts as these protagonists grow older.
We initially see Sanjay and Anupama as buddies; the undercurrent of romance is understood by their close friends though. The conflicts begin to show up when they get past the ‘we are just best friends’ phase. Humour pervades the initial campus days in Vizag and London. There’s a friend called Valentine Ravi (Abhishek Maharishi dons the part; there’s a reason, albeit silly, why he is named so) referencing Padamati Sandhya Ragam and trying to romance a white girl , only to realise later that his true love is someone else he has known all along. In the Sanjay-Anupama story, the third character is introduced at an earlier stage (Avasarala himself donning a character named Giri) though he becomes significant only much later.
The London portions — the student apartments, house parties, supermarket visits — are presented in a non-filmi style. Sunil Kumar’s cinematography and the use of sync sound aids in the realistic presentation.
Choosing not to give in to cinematic moments, be it in the conflict points as well as the humour, can be a double-edged sword. Talk about coming-of-age relationship romance drama that spans a few years and Gautham Menon’s Yeto Vellipoyindhi Manasu comes to mind, in Telugu. But that film was in a more mainstream space, fashioned like a musical, with ample scope for drama between characters.
Here, except for one song staged at a pub, the rest are a gentle nudge to push the story forward. Avasarala also does away with the usual ‘interval block’. There’s tension but not in the way you would expect. The handheld style of camera movements capture the meltdown between Sanjay and Anupama; a heated exchange is punctuated by an uncomfortable silence before Kalyani Malik’s score accentuates the emotional drama. This is a musical film of a more subtle kind and Kalyani Malik delivers it in an inimitable style, presenting signature melodies that he is known for, and pushing it further to accentuate the tension in the romance.
The Neelima Ratnababu character (singer Harini Rao in a fun role) brings in a few laughs just when the Sanjay-Anupama story begins to get boring and heavy, though it doesn’t blend into the story. Yet another character (played by Megha Chowdhary) who is shown pining for Sanjay, borders on annoying.
What holds the film together when it gets too heavy are the assured performances of Naga Shaurya and Malvika Nair. Malvika, in particular, is a winner. She understands every mood of Anupama and manages to convey so much with her body language and expressions.
Phalana Abbayi Phalana Ammayi is a slice-of-life romance that largely works. A little cinematic indulgence, perhaps, would not have hurt.