Debut director Venky Atluri’s rom-com builds its tempo gradually and before you know it, sweeps you off your feet. The writer-director gives us 2018’s first memorable Telugu film, packing in solid performances and nuanced writing.
Coming-of-age romances in Telugu rarely go beyond the mush to explore both the obvious and subtle emotional conflicts. In the late 90s, Pawan Kalyan and Keerthi Reddy’s Tholi Prema pitched an ordinary guy against a pristine woman who seemed beyond his reach.
A lot has changed since then. When a much younger Varun Tej, from the same family, is cast as Aditya, he’s on a level playing field with the damsel, Varsha (Raashi Khanna). Aditya is a six-footer, handsome, tops the university and draws female attention. The attention isn’t forced like in some films that do so to praise its lead actor. Varun channelises his natural suaveness to play Aditya. The hall erupts in laughter each time he addresses his seniors, led by Vidyu Raman and others, ‘akka’, much to their dismay.
Aditya’s charm is offset with his temper and his impulsiveness to take up challenges — it could be saving his girl from goons or just proving his point. In one sequence, Aditya breaks into a fight armed with a sac of cola cans. You sense the conflict from a distance and know that a fight will follow, but the way it plays out and changes the course of the story shows Atluri’s deftness in rethinking done-to-death templates and his ability to delineate the characters of Aditya and Varsha.
It feels good to see a well-written female character. Varsha doesn’t believe in love at first sight or declaring her love for a stranger on a train journey, though she is attracted. He lets his heart rule while she also pauses to think of consequences. When she’s sure, she declares her love amid a sea of people. The scene where she hopes for the first kiss but plays coy is a hoot. Years later she asks Aditya if he ever thought of the college conflict from her point of view. She has grown up, sees it from his perspective and apologises; he holds on to that moment with anger.
The triumph of Tholi Prema lies in the way it tracks the journey of its troubled characters. It begins like several other romances — a bespectacled girl on a train (a nod to Kajol in DDLJ ) and the first flush of love. The entire sequence on a small railway station at night and the song in the drizzle is filmi, but stealthily works its charm, helped by George C Williams cinematography and Thaman’s hummable ‘ Ninnila ninnila ’.
The narrative is laced with fun thanks to Priyadarshi as Ravi and later Hyper Aadhi in a riotous monologue. The setting seems familiar as the protagonists battle their inner demons against the backdrop of their friends’ wedding but it works. Varun Tej and Raashi Khanna deliver the best performances of their career. Raashi gets a good role after years and she revels in it.
The subtle jibes at Naresh’s character, holding a mirror to the hypocrisy of caste prejudice in a foreign land, deserves a thumbs up too.
Cast : Varun Tej, Raashi Khanna
Direction : Venky Atluri
Music : Thaman