Directed by: Rahul Sankrityan , Vivek Athreya , Hanu Raghavapudi  || Produced by: Venkat Boyanapalli , Naveen Yerneni , C. Aswani Dutt 
Screenplay by: Rahul Sankrityan , Vivek Athreya , Hanu Raghavapudi, Raj Kumar Kandamudi , || Starring: Nani [1, 2], Sai Pallavi, Krithi Shetty, Madonna Sebastian , Nazriya Nazim , Dulquer Salmaan, Mrunal Thakur, Rashmika Mandanna, Sumanth 
Music by: Mickey J. Meyer , Vivek Sagar , Vishal Chandrasekhar  || Cinematography: Sanu John Varghese , Niketh Bommireddy , P. S. Vinod, Shreyaas Krishna  || Edited by: Naveen Nooli , Ravi Teja Girijala , Kotagiri Venkateswara Rao  || Country: India || Language: Telugu
Running Time: 157 minutes , 176 minutes , 163 minutes  || 1 = Shyam Singha Roy, 2 = Ante Sundaraniki, 3 = Sita Ramam
As I’ve watched more and more first Hindi (central to north Indian) and now Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, or Kannada (south Indian)-language cinema, I appreciate the intricacies of bland South Asian filmmaking tropes almost as much as I understand the tiresome, overworn, haphazardly executed cliches of Hollywood. South Indian Cinema in total are more action-heavy and less musical-centric than their Bollywood peers, but a broader cultural fascination with reincarnation (a concept central to Hinduism), forbidden romance (e.g. elopements, love-marriages vs. arranged marriages, etc.), gender relations, and ethnic tensions, to name a few, are shared between them. I’ve highlighted a few of them here today with Shyam Singha Roy (SSR), Ante Sundaraniki (AS), and Sita Ramam (SR), three mediocre to bad yet typical mainstream Telugu features that involve one or more of those aforementioned thematic staples. None of these movies would I outright recommend (see below), but combined make for a representative sample of what so many Indians, both non-residents (NRIs) and locals, expect if not outright demand on screen.
SSR, the most competent and “efficient” of this bunch at 157 minutes in length, goes down the easiest not because of its runtime (it’s still far longer than it needs to be) but because of its central romance, good soundtrack, and decent musical set-pieces. Focusing on reincarnation most of all and patriarchal oppression of women to a lesser extent, SSR is divided into a common South Asian film flashback structure; its opening act establishes a largely superfluous audience surrogate protagonist (see Sita Raman below) whose career problems lead to some sort of discovery by the 45-minute to one-hour mark(!), which then prompts a flashback to the movie’s actual story across Acts Two and Three. This establishing act is the biggest weakness of SSR, where Ghanta Naveen Babu’s (also known as “Nani”) present-day version of his double-cast role fumbles with a pointless love-interest (Krithi Shetty) before a series of wacky coincidences lead to his uncovering of a previous influential life from decades ago. SSR kicks into high gear once the flashback storyline explores the principal romance between Nani’s 2nd role and Sai Pallavi’s female lead, which includes a variety of catchy songs, some nice dances led by Pallavi, one entertaining fight sequence, and an altogether satisfying wraparound conclusion with the contemporary subplot.
Ante Sundaraniki (AS; English = “The Thing about Sundar is…”) is a big step down from SSR, with its engorged running time (176 minutes) for an otherwise straightforward romantic drama dependent on a bland protagonist (Nani again). Based on the interfaith romance between Nani’s Hindu male lead and Nazriya Nazim’s Christian female lead, AS stretches its simple will-they/won’t-they relationship to absurd extremes through unnecessary plot deviations to exotic location-shoots (e.g. New York city) and numerous forgettable scenes with numerous forgettable supporting castmembers. I lost count of how many comic asides Nani has with his boss (Harshavardhan), a particularly superfluous character, redescribing narrative details the audience already knows or emphasizing how dedicated the former’s vegetarianism is. Similar culturally specific jokes and details creep up over and over again that fall flat to anyone who doesn’t get the oblique, non-cinematic references to this particular regional popular culture or that. What we’re left with outside of all that filler is a goofy, bizarre (stupid) scheme by which Nani and Nazim trick each other’s family into accepting their marriage through lying about various untreatable fertility problems they have, a gimmick which wears out its welcome by the third act.
Sita Ramam (SR) is an altogether different beast from AS, but almost as bad a movie. Unlike AS, SR boasts a potentially interesting premise: A nationalist Pakistani student (Rashmika Mandanna) in the United Kingdom, banished home after vandalizing the property of her school’s wealthy NRI donor, discovers her grandfather, a former high-ranking officer in the Pakistani military, recently deceased, leaving a conditional will where Mandanna must complete an Incendies (2010)-type wild goose chase in order to inherit his wealth. Long story short, this journey leads her through India where she uncovers the central love story between main characters Dulquer Salmaan and Mrunal Thakur, whose romance dovetails with Mandanna’s grandfather’s military deployment in contested Kashmir territory. It’s not a bad yarn if you overlook the film’s bad pacing over 163 minutes, Mandanna’s unlikable character and one-note performance, and the film’s simplistic, jingoistic commentary that reduces its fascinating geopolitical backdrop to a sideshow. Put another way, this ain’t no Border (1997).
I realize I’ve grown to dread certain cultural taboos highlighted in South Asian cinema as much as I’ve tired of similar yet different Western/American sociopolitics in Hollywood. While I’m fine with a climax where, say, the hero steals the bride away from an arranged marriage at the alter (an oldie but a goodie), other plot-points and screenplay formulas feel like they’ve been drilled to death for no reason other than filmmaker laziness. I appreciate how this trio of films aren’t stupid, slow-motion obsessed action films or preachy, manipulative political dramas, but these three mostly dramatic films still fail to tell a creative story beyond the basic cliches of their industrial heritage. Shyam Singha Roy tries for something memorable almost two thirds of the time, but Ante Sundariniki and Sita Raman can’t even manage that. Like many bland, unimaginative blockbusters, they fail, just on a much smaller scale & budget.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: While none of these films split their “epic” romances across multiple installments like Baahubali (2015, 2017), K. G. F. (2018, 2022), Brahmastra (2022-) et al., otherwise they restrict themselves to the simplest of mainstream South Asian narrative conventions without enough likable performances or impressive set-pieces to elevate them. Shyam Singha Roy comes the closest with its semi-interesting reincarnation plot-device and Pallavi dance numbers, but to get to that part you have to slog through almost an hour of present day narrative setup, most of which turns out to be pointless. Ante Sundaraniki, on the other hand, wastes more of my time than almost any Indian film since Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) with a bloated supporting cast and a near 3-hour runtime that should’ve been 90-100 minutes. Last and almost least, Sita Ramam utilizes a rich geopolitical premise for little more than a similarly longwinded romance, cartoonish villains, and a convoluted wraparound story with an uncharismatic protagonist.
—> I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to Shyam Singha Roy, but CANNOT RECOMMEND Ante Sundaraniki’s quirky romance nor Sita Ramam’s inspiring tale of a Pakistani girl learning to like Indians.
? My nephew sang the “Rise of Shyam” chorus for days after watching that movie.
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