Ilayaraja’s music was one of the best things that happened to South Indian cinema, especially in the 80s. Many mediocre films that sailed through the box office owe it to the maestro’s music. So when Ilayaraja is at work for a film set in the mid 80s, there’s magic. He treats us to songs and background score reminiscent of the 80s and even uses a composition from his first film Annakili (1976). More on this later, but first a closer look at this refreshing film.

Debut director Kumar Nagendra’s Gundello Godari, based on the book Godavari Kathalu by BVS Rama Rao, unfolds in the backdrop of the devastating flash floods of 1986. Without much ado, the director takes his viewers into a hamlet on the coast of river Godavari where Malli or Mallesh (Aadi Pinisetty) and Chitra (Lakshmi Manchu) tie the knot. Their body language is uncomfortable, revealing they are strangers thrown together in a match. Minutes after Aadi ties the knot, Sarala (Taapsee) walks in and gifts him a gold ring. The bride, too, is gifted a gold chain by Ravi Babu. The newly-weds squirm as the gathering whispers and exchange curious looks. But there’s hardly time to ruminate as authorities issue a flood warming and ask the inhabitants to relocate to safer zones.

In one of the best scenes of the film, the focus is on the couple that’s still shaken up by their individual gifts, each perhaps contemplating the troubled journey together. Everyone, except this couple, runs for safety at the first sign of water. Thrown together by fate and bound by destiny, Malli and Chitra stick to each other and make their way to the top of a floating house and narrate their past.

Gundello Godari is not a linear story of how these two protagonists battle the fury of nature. It’s a story of how they share their secrets, battle their inner demons, rise above their tumultuous past and discover love.

The story of Aadi and Taapsee is new for Telugu cinema. You may or may not agree with Taapsee asserting her sexuality and thereby changing the path of fisherman Aadi but it is commendable that the script doesn’t get judgemental about her actions.

The seaside, fishermen, their boats, their daily catch of fish, their effort to make a few rupees more all seem believable and to top it off, cinematographer Palani Kumar’s visuals are a treat to watch.

On the contrary, the story of Lakshmi Manchu and Suri (Sundeep Kishan) starts off well before getting absolutely predictable, saved only by earnest performances of the two actors. By now, we know Lakshmi is a performer and here, with an author-backed role, she goes all out to show what she’s capable of.

Sundeep and Aadi are actors to watch out for. Given the right platform, these actors have the potential to make it big. Taapsee pulls off an unconventional role with ease, though her expressions get repetitive in a few scenes.

Apart from handling a theme rarely seen in Telugu cinema, Kumar Nagendra needs to be appreciated for keeping his milieu as real as possible. There’s no effort to gloss over and romanticise the rural setting. Be it a village wedding or a mela with garish lighting or the in-famous cockfights, there’s a fair amount of authenticity to the frames.

The visual effects showing the furious Godavari in spate deserve special mention.

The item numbers, clearly added for mass appeal, stick out like a sore thumb despite the effort to make them part of the narrative.

Gundello Godari has its pitfalls (we never know who was instrumental for the alliance between Aadi and Lakshmi or what happened to Taapsee) and is painfully slow in places. But all these can be overlooked for the novel effort. The film is worth a watch. As a bonus, there’s the maestro’s musical treat. We hear snatches of hit songs from the 80s in some scenes. From the sounds of gushing waters to the violins that create the mood of the fury of the river, there’s an apt background score for every part of the film.

GUNDELLO GODARI

Cast: Aadi, Sundeep Kishan, Lakshmi Manchu and Taapsee

Direction: Kumar Nagendra

Music: Ilayaraja

Plot: Swept away by the Godavari in spate, a young couple battle their inner demons

Bottomline: An admirable effort.