Watching Nandini Reddy’s Telugu film Anni Manchi Sakunamule (AMS) is taking a stroll along the winding roads of a hill and stepping into a slow food cafe. The food will take a while but until then, you can savour the warm muffin over a mug of coffee and strike up a conversation with people who run the cafe, curious to know their story. Not all of the conversation is interesting and calls for some patience. However, a moving payoff happens towards the end. Beneath the feel-good packaging of a hillside town, melodious music, affable people and a lot of talk about food, the writer-director serves a solid drama about people who have to rise above their own misgivings.
This is a story of two sparring families with a host of characters and plenty of conversation. It is befitting that very little is spoken in the last 10 to 15 minutes. There are tears, smiles and acknowledgements of the shifts in relationship dynamics in the characters played by Malvika Nair, Santosh Soban, Naresh, Rao Ramesh, Rajendra Prasad, Gautami and others. With it comes the realisation that ultimately people matter, not disputes that are handed down from one generation to another. As the characters quieten down, music composer Mickey J Meyer takes over and soaks the frames in mellifluous notes. The opening words of the title song which translates to ‘everything is a good sign’ is aptly reiterated.
Anni Manchi Sakunamule (Telugu)
Cast: Santosh Soban, Malvika Nair, Rajendra Prasad, Naresh and Rao Ramesh
Direction: Nandini Reddy
Music: Mickey J Meyer
Storyline: A coming-of-age romance of two contrasting personalities and the story of two families that spar over a coffee estate
The premise of AMS is cinematic with a lotof drama. We get a documentary-style of short story about the fictional hill town, Victoria Puram, and its coffee estate patronised by Queen Victoria. Cut to the present and there are two families — led by characters played by Rajendra Prasad at one end and Rao Ramesh and his brother Naresh at the other — fighting over the coffee estate. What are the odds that the women from these two families will arrive at the hospital one rainy night, around the same time, to deliver their respective children? And what are the odds that something out of a recent Trivikram Srinivas movie might happen here? The narrative wants us to believe that everything happens for a reason and it is all a good sign.
Once you get past this cinematic premise, a slice-of-life drama about the two families unfolds. Aarya (Malvika Nair) is the odd one out in the family that is generous with money, and therefore in debt, and Rishi (Santosh Soban) is the happy-go-lucky guy in contrast to his father and uncle who are calculative. What do they say about taking someone out of their milieu but not being able to change their inner selves? A coming-of-age friendship story of Aarya and Rishi is narrated over the years, she being the confident and pragmatic one of the two and he inevitably the one who invites trouble, causing a rift in their friendship.
The hillside setting is a blessing. There is so much drama in the lives of the two families that the environment is a comforting factor. Aarya loves the cheese sandwiches sent by Rishi’s mom while he gorges on the banana bread made in Aarya’s father’s bakery. Each of their family members is given a character trait. A mother (Gautami) who makes do with her hearing impairment, a father (Rajendra Prasad) who is oblivious to the damage he is doing to his son by comparing him with a smarter cousin, an adopted daughter (Ramya Subramanian) who is bestowed with the same warmth as that of the biological daughter, a son-in-law (Vennela Kishore) who sweet talks and pushes his luck with his in-laws and an aged matriarch (Sowcar Janaki) who likes to live life on her own terms… there are several others. It takes some time to get familiar with them. Ashwin Kumar (with voice by Rahul Ravindran), Thagubothu Ramesh, Jhansi and several others also come and go.
Nandini also throws in a trip to Italy that helps to contrast the personalities of Aarya and Rishi. When push comes to shove and she too belittles Rishi the way his father does, it shatters him. Situations like these are well written (screenplay by Nandini, dialogues by Lakshmi Bhupala) and both Malvika and Santosh show they are perfect fits for their respective parts.
However, the tightly knit drama revolving around multiple characters gets a tad generic in the later portions as though to force-fit some entertaining elements. The Andhra-Telangana food fight and the song that ensues have their moments but the family members taking turns to sing and dance to older Hindi and Telugu hits at a wedding seem like a Sooraj Barjatya film of the 90s or a Karan Johar movie of the early 2000s. A proposal on the sidelines holds no charm. Some of the humour is also bland.
I wondered why the story needed as many characters since not everyone adds to the big picture convincingly. Anni Manchi Sakunamule is beautiful when it stays focused on Rishi, Aarya and their parents. The climax, though, tries to make up for all the missteps.
Shivam Rao’s production design gives the hillside homes an old-world charm and cinematographers Sunny Kurapati and Richard Prasad leverage the cosy vibes of the hill station. The film ultimately belongs to some of the actors. Malvika Nair is wonderful as the bratty, controlling teen who grows up to be a sharp businesswoman and also looks at relationships afresh. She needs little or no dialogue and her eyes can do the talking, as usual, and she only gets better at it in this film. Santosh Soban is a fine fit as a cheerful dreamer. Veterans Rajendra Prasad, Rao Ramesh and Naresh are dependable as always. Though Urvashi is cast in a slightly over-the-top part, she makes it work.
Anni Manchi Sakunamule is an imperfect yet warm drama of relationships.