Directed by: Sekhar Kammula [1, 3], Shiva Nirvana  || Produced by: Dil Raju, Shirish , Sahu Garapati, Harish Peddi , Narayan Das K Narang, Puskar Ram Mohan Rao 
Screenplay by: Sekhar Kammula [1, 3], Shiva Nirvana  || Starring: Varun Tej , Sai Pallavi, Naiga Chaitanya [1, 3] Samantha Akkineni, Divyansha Kaushik 
Music by: Jeevan Babu, Shakthikanth Karthick , Gopi Sunder, S. S. Thaman , Pawan Ch  || Cinematography: Vijay C. Kumar , Vishnu Sharma , || Edited by: Marthand K. Venkatesh , Prawin Pudi , || Country: India || Language: Telugu
Running Time: 134 minutes , 154 minutes , 165 minutes  || 1 = Fidaa, 2 = Majili, 3 = Love Story
It’s been a while since I reviewed any Telugu films, but as a further nod to my distaste for splitting theatrical movies across multiple installments, it’s time to group multiple movies together into a single review, no matter how little they have in common! As fate would have it, the films Fidaa, Majili, and Love Story are some of the latest work by prolific South Indian stars Naga Chaitanya and Sai Pallavi, young, prolific actors known for their variety of roles and genre projects, and across multiple languages in the case of Pallavi. I stumbled upon their work almost by accident thanks to my wife, and have found their recent romantic dramas a nice palette-cleanser from the often tiresome, cliched slow-motion action endemic to most South Indian blockbusters (see the works of Mahesh Babu, Puneeth Rajkumar, Allu Arjun, etc.).
Fidaa, Majili, and Love Story feel like a sort of midpoint between the over-the-top, melodramatic excesses of big-budget, romantic Hindi musicals and the reserved, bland romantic dramas of Western major film studios, including enough colorful music and occasional dance numbers representative of much of South Asian filmmaking to give their stories audiovisual style, but building their narrative cores via the relatable yet mundane drama of everyday relationships.
All three are low to moderate budgeted pictures that, for the most part, eschew distracting digital FX, composite backgrounds, and various methods of post-production trickery for true location-photography, both rural and urban, and efficient editing to compensate for all three films’ engorged runtimes. None of these movies are cinéma vérité-style “independent” productions either, as they all use stylized camerawork, prominent soundtracks, occasional time-dilation FX, and quasi-diegetic musical numbers to create a sort of heightened romantic realism that most Western audiences would find odd. You’ll find little to no handheld camera techniques nor sudden political diatribes by any major characters, which feels refreshing to me after so many Oscar-bait dramas and wannabe transgressive indie projects made Stateside.
First off is Fidaa, one of the few Indian productions about Nonresident Indians (NRIs) I don’t hate; the film portrays a nontraditional trio of adult (Varun Tej and Raja Chembolu) and adopted (Aryan Talla) brothers, inexplicably without any parental connections or older relatives whatsoever, who reconnect with their South Asian homeland when Chembolu arranges a marriage to a Telangana village girl (Sharanya Pradeep). A series of wacky hijinks, culture clashes, and awkward misunderstandings ensue, most notable of which involve Tej’s incidental romantic involvement with female lead Sai Pallavi, who plays the younger sister of Pradeep’s character. Though Fidaa is the shortest of these three spotlighted Telugu films (134 minutes compared to Majili’s 154 and Love Story’s 165-minute lengths), it feels far longer than it should given its modest, uncomplicated narrative (the “will they/won’t they” flirtation between Teja and Pallavi), and probably would’ve collapsed under its weight had it not been for Jeevan Babu and Shakthikanth Karthick’s memorable soundtrack. On the other hand, I appreciate writer-director Sekhar Kammula’s dedication to great location-photography and clever usage of Pallavi’s dance skills.
Next in line is Majili, a more typical urban Indian drama by writer-director Shiva Nirvana and starring then real-life married couple Naga Chaitanya and Samantha Akkineni. Though Majili’s runtime is even longer than Fidaa’s, it feels somewhat less bloated due to its love-triangle plot-device between Chaitanya, Akkineni, and supporting castmember Divyansha Kaushik, which adds decent melodrama to this otherwise conventional love story. The narrative is further assisted, like most cinematic Indian romances, by effective background score and fun dance numbers, no song more notable than “Priyathama Priyathama,” which subverts typical genre conventions by describing a woman (Akkineni) pining for a man (Chaitanya), rather than the other way around.
Last but not least is 2021’s Love Story, starring both Chaitanya and Pallavi and also written and directed by Sekhar Kammula, which puts far more effort into diversifying its classical romantic premise than its lazy, formulaic title might suggest. Love Story uses the occasional composite background, unlike Majili and Fidaa, which results in several ugly outdoor sequences that stand apart from the in-studio dance scenes and location-photography that dominate the film’s engorged 2-hour, 45-minute length. Like Kammula’s Fidaa, Love Story could stand to feature additional musical numbers given how strong yet sparse its few song-and-dance numbers are. The dearth of cinematic music feels even more extreme here given Love Story’s massive length and poor pacing, which transitions in its third act from the likable relationship drama between Chaitanya and Pallavi into a comical series of vigilante chases involving the latter’s child-molester uncle, Rajeev Kanakala. This 3rd Act action farce further devolves into one of the most abrupt, sudden, and sloppily edited conclusions I’ve seen in years, leading me to believe the film’s production was hobbled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Love stories on film vary in their execution as much as any cinematic genre or narrative formula. Fidaa, Majili, and the half-assed titled Love Story provide varying examples of the formula within a South Indian context, borrowing different tonal, narrative, and cinematographic flavors from different industries within the Indian subcontinent. All three films are inconsistent enough in terms of either pacing (Fidaa), predictable storytelling (Majili), or modest production values (Love Story) that I wouldn’t recommend any of them to those unfamiliar with Indian filmmaking in general or those who aren’t fans of film romances in particular. Then again, I enjoyed my time with all three and found myself rewriting or reediting certain sections of each movie rather than regretting any part of my viewing experience, which is a sign of significant cinematic engagement by any definition.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Straightforward romantic dramas seem more the purview of Bollywood, or at least 1990s-2000s Bollywood, than that of its Southern counterparts, but the likes of Fidaa, Majili, and 2021’s Love Story argue that sweetheart relationships are a reliable staple most anywhere throughout India’s national film culture. All three feature likable characters with relatable problems, good soundtracks, and just enough identifiable cinematographic style to maybe recommend…
— However… these movies are also bloated, often poorly paced narratives that devolve into the clunky green-screen composite shots, preachy monologues, and hamfisted melodrama that plague Indian film industries. Love Story, for one, showcases one of the worst executed conclusions in a mainstream film I’ve seen in a while.
— ON THE FENCE; if you like Indian melodramas or a good love story on film in any language, Fidaa, Majili, and Love Story are worth your time, but perhaps only then.
? Was it that hard to find a bridge spanning a river on which to film?