It is not wrong to love your country, but you don’t need to harbour such hatred for a neighbouring country, a wise man tells a young woman in the film. In another scene, when she is given a few references, with all the names pertaining to one religion, she asks in exasperation if there isn’t anyone from her community. Director Hanu Raghavapudi’s Sita Ramam is a lot more than just a love story. The story, screenplay and dialogues by Hanu, Raj Kumar Kandamudi and Jay Krishna ride on the idea that humanity matters more than war, boundaries and religion. The idea is ever relevant especially in times when discussions of ‘them’ and ‘us’ threaten to take over the discourse all around us.
Sita Ramam unravels the mystery surrounding its title characters, Sita Mahalakshmi (Mrunal Thakur’s debut in Telugu cinema) and Lt Ram (Dulquer Salmaan) through two timelines — 1964 and 1984. Afreen (Rashmika Mandanna), a Pakistan-origin student arrives in India from London, when she is tasked with tracing Sita to hand over a 20-year-letter written to her by Ram. She takes the help of her college senior Balaji (Tharun Bhascker), who is now in Hyderabad.
There is the unmistakable Mahanatihangover in these two characters trying to piece together a story from the past, like Samantha and Vijay Deverakonda. Beyond this broad similarity, thankfully Sita Ramam is a wholly new canvas. The discovery in Mahanati begins from a space of ignorance and the reporter’s need to find a good story while here, the journey proves to be transformative and makes a character empathetic and shed preconceived notions of looking at people through the lens of religion and nationality.
The 1960s are presented like a dream. Posted on the borders of Kashmir on the snowy terrains is Lt Ram. His fellow soldiers are his world; there is a dear friend (played by Shatru), a jealous officer (Sumanth as Brigadier Vishnu Sharma) and a commanding officer Major Selvan (Gautham Menon). An All India Radio journalist (Rohini Molleti) terms Ram a lone ranger and requests listeners to write to him. Letters pour in, Including one from Sita who chides Ram for forgetting that he has a wife back home and that he isn’t an orphan.
We hear Sita (Chinmayi excelling at her dubbing game) much before we see her. Vishal Chandrashekhar’s music taps into the retro mood for both the Indian classical flourishes in the songs as well as the western-influenced playful score in a few scenes.
Cinematographers P S Vinod and Shreyaas Krishna present the hostile, icy terrain in all its glory and eeriness. The breathtaking landscapes apart, they navigate the cold interiors artistically. For instance, observe how the light streams in through the patterned walls when Major Selvan is addressing soldiers before a mission.
The effort to make the romance appear poetic is evident from the time Ram embarks on a journey to meet Sita; the technical team and the actors pull all stops to present a charming, old world romance that can sweep someone off their feet. At first glance, Sita might come across like a character from a costume drama of the past, turned out in her best at all times, with winged eyeliner to boot. As the story progresses and we know her for who she is, the regal demeanour seems all the more appropriate.
Costumes by Sheetal Sharma, production design by Sunil Babu, art direction by Vaishnavi Reddy and Faisal Khan, contribute to defining both the 1960s and the 80s.
There’s Ram, Sita and a Hanuman (Vennela Kishore as Durjoy, a theatre actor). But the film pulls a surprise at the intermission point that changes everything thereafter.
Cast: Dulquer Salmaan, Mrunal Thakur, Rashmika Mandanna, Tharun Bhascker, Sumanth
Direction: Hanu Raghavapudi
Music: Vishal Chandrashekhar
Certain beats of the story and some of the twists can be foreseen. Occasionally the narrative wavers or tries too hard to make the story appear poetic. The ‘kurukshetra’-like situation (sic) in which Ram saves Sita, for instance. But these are occasional niggles. The romance remains absorbing and can keep you invested.
The writing does not use its female characters as props. In her first Telugu film, Mrunal gets to play a character that is powerful and yet vulnerable. She does it with a lot of poise and conveys the emotional upheavals.
Sita Ramam is among Rashmika Mandanna’s better films. She is not presented as an eye candy and given the scope to play a self-centred character with preconceived notions, she plays it sure-footedly and shows that she is game to take on well-written parts.
Ram is a character that seems tailormade for Dulquer Salmaan and he channels all his charm to portray it with grace and innocence. Tharun Bhascker is effortless in the supportive part that speaks a distinct Hyderabadi Telugu.
Several others make their presence felt in brief parts — Sachin Khedekar, Sunil, Priyadarshi, Bhumika, Jisshu Sengupta, Prakash Raj, Praneeta Pattnaik, Rahul Ravindran… the list is long. Sumanth is convincing as an officer showing his mean streak.
Not everything about Sita Ramam works to the extent of making it a classic love story the makers wanted it to be. Yet, the earnestness with which they attempt to narrate a moving story of romance holds it all together. The key characters may be called Ram, Sita and Afreen. Change their names and religion but the essence of what the story conveys will still hold true. Therein lies the beauty of the tale.