So I'm at Amba
in Mehdipatnam, and there are large posters of "Natural Star" Nani with several fans' names and awkward pictures on them. Lots of men and quite a few women have thronged the B-rung theatre. And when I walk in, I hear the crowd roaring in anticipation of the film.
It's official - Nani is a star. And that's a huge responsibility. You'll be obliged to cater to your fans. You're obliged to go after some good-looking chick (who's also a woman with aspirations, but who cares?) despite having no academic or financial success yourself. What "despite" - it is quite necessary that you're an underachieving given-up-on-life bloke that the average engineering graduate can relate to. Additionally, your getting the chick will feel all the more gratifying when you trump an honest cop in winning her hand. Also you'll be expected to floor the said chick's father with nothing but the sheer size of your balls.
Nani delivered this admirably in Nenu Local
(or so I hear - I skipped that film). And the screaming crowd seemed quite convinced that their star would deliver once again. Which is why everybody fell silent when, in a big plush house in San Francisco, Pallavi (Nivedha Thomas) and Arun (Aadhi Pinisetty) start off the film being very happy and, umm, very married.
Just what is this film upto? How can the heroine be married to this... this... non-hero? And when did Aadhi Pinisetty take the second fiddle mantle from Adivi Sesh?
Before I could find time to ponder over these questions and muster up the courage to ask the guy next to me to quickly finish off that video call with his girlfriend, Arun leaves for office and Pallavi makes a dash for the airport. The catch is that Arun doesn't know that Pallavi is heading somewhere. She lies to him that she's home when she is taking a flight to meet Uma Maheshwara Rao (Nani), who is very drunk, and umm, very bearded.
So is this what the film is upto? Nani will win back his girl from the second fiddle?
But that unleashes a host of more difficult questions. It is one thing when your hero wins a girl in a contest with a more worthy suitor, but a whole different one when your hero goes ahead and breaks up a marriage (a happy one at that). The moral trappings aside, is it even allowed for a Telugu star to settle down happily ever after with a girl who's lost her virginity?
Possibly because he was plagued by similar concerns, the guy next to me finally bade goodbye to his girl and started watching the film when it plunged into the Vizag flashback which shows Uma as a studious Ph D student in Andhra University and Pallavi as a gullible grad student in Gitam. The film decides to be absurd for a while because our writers aren't really sure how to write a budding romance without making it look like all parties involved are airheads.
But soon the romance is built and it's time for the story. Along with the story comes Murali Sharma as Pallavi's father, and thereafter, Ninnu Kori becomes a pleasant exercise in story-telling.
The story details why Uma and Pallavi had to split and how Uma is destroying his life under the worry that Pallavi married someone she doesn't love. He's convinced she isn't happy, and wants to save her from her "torture" despite her repeatedly telling him that she's quite happy with Arun. Exasperated at his assumptions, she invites him to stay over at her place for ten days so he can be convinced that she is legitimately happy with Arun. Uma's stay at Pallavi's leads to all sorts of situations where people end up being childish sometimes and very mature at other times.
And there you have the curious case of the Telugu film hero who isn't really there to deliver to his fans. Ninnu Kori is not a star vehicle. The reason we say this is also the answer to our earlier questions. Nani's Uma is not a hero. He isn't going to win the world. He is just another character in this mix of well-defined characters who are all trying to make sense of their situation and do what's right. And this lack of obsession with its star lets Ninnu Kori be a film in the true sense of the word - a story told by means of a visual medium.
Shiva Nirvana's direction is refreshingly story-focused. He uses whatever he has at his disposal primarily to tell his story. There's quite a lot of fluff and frill aimed at making the film saleable - like the pretty visuals by Karthik Ghattamaneni bathed in yellow, the ever-pleasant score by Gopi Sundar and the frequently hilarious lines by Kona Venkat - but Nirvana untiringly reminds us that his business is not to sell the film. He wants to tell his story, and he wants you to be moved.
His actors, for instance, are beautifully in character. Murali Sharma plays the avuncular Vizag man with convincing mannerisms that can easily feel affected in the hands of a lesser actor. Aadhi and Nivedha both sell their characters' motivations so easily that we never see any reason to question them even when the script pulls goofs. "30 Years" Prudhvi finds that rare film that isn't trying to use his comic image - it's just a delight to watch him act instead of growl.
However, it's Nani who reminds us why we loved him before he started sending people flying in the air. It isn't just charm, you know. He acts. He acts in a way we've forgotten to expect from our stars. He acts like he's feeling those things he's saying. And he acts like he knows that there is still some sensitivity in his audiences, and maybe if he found the right directors he could touch some hearts.
Ninnu Kori deeply benefits from its director's keenness on telling the story and its star's ability to suppress his inhibitions. So you unexpectedly end up with a film that's both sensitive and entertaining.