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Uppena (‘high tide’ in Telugu) is a film that can evoke conversations. The romantic musical discusses the divisions of social strata. There is a lot of talk about honor, but fortunately the film probes for something other than honor killing. It’s about masculinity, which is a welcome move.
After Color photo, this is another story of romance set in a time before cell phones became widespread in inner cities. Debut director and writer Bucchi Babu Sana leads us to a seaside hamlet near Kakinada from 2002.
- Featuring: Vijay Sethupathi, Panja Vaisshnav Tej, Kriti Shetty
- Direction: Bucchi Babu Sana
- Music: Devi Sri Prasad
A mix of awe, fear and mystery envelops Kotagiri Rayanam’s (Vijay Sethupathi) daughter Bebamma alias Sangeetha’s (Krithi Shetty) traveling to her university. It seems a bit silly when two youngsters are assaulted for venturing near the car to get a glimpse of the aristocratic girl. But when the puppet show is unmasked within minutes, it shows the ominous and almost insane degree to which Rayanam would go to protect his honor.
Casting Vijay Sethupathi is a sign that we won’t be seeing a cardboard antagonist. There is room to show something sinister and Uppena does this, while still operating within the realm of mainstream Telugu cinema.
The story has been told for decades and will still ring. A poor boy falls in love with a rich girl and her father will not tolerate it. The divisions of social strata are stark. The love that Aasi (Vaisshnav Tej) has for Bebamma is worship laced with innocence.
The romance is poetic, with Devi Sri Prasad’s lilting compositions matching the ebb and flow of the waves beautifully captured by Shamdat. Aasi belongs to the fishing community, which offers a lot of space for music and cinematography to romanticize the sea. Some songs are earwigs and beautifully portrayed, but there are one too many as the movie progresses.
Yet we stick with it because of the freshness with which the romance is portrayed. The girl travels all alone in a bus (a sign of privilege) and the couple manages to steal some time along the way. It’s hilarious when he tries to overcome his stutter and pronounce her real name.
However, fear lurks around the corner. Bebamma is not safe in her own home when a scary relative comes to visit. Despite all the thunder from Rayanam, he doesn’t take the creep to the test, because honor!
It is in this context that a few thoughts about masculinity shared by an assistant professor (Geetha Bhaskar in a guest appearance) have an impact on Bebamma. By then she has found Aasi who makes her feel comfortable in his presence and even calls out to him with a term from her biology class; and this contains the indication of what is to come.
For a while, Uppena explores well-known figures of speech of the wealthy man who wants to expel fishermen from their homes and later make a threat when the daughter goes missing. The reason Rayanam insists on honor is superficial. His indifference to his sick wife also deserved better discussion. In contrast, the warm bond between Aasi and his father (Sai Chand, reliable as always).
The age of the pre-cell phones makes sense because the story navigates a rainy night when the couple is stranded on the high seas and later when they move from one city to another.
Uppena loses some of its steam as it progresses. Something has also changed between the couple. The latest revelation puts things in perspective. Had Uppena sharper and less melodramatic, it could have had an even better impact. Still, it is commendable that it enters an uncomfortable area and talks extensively about masculinity.
The presence of Vijay Sethupathi gives the film more gravitas and it is formidable. I wish he had dubbed to himself though. Ravi Shankar’s dubbing is good, but those who have seen Sethupathi’s Tamil movies know that he has a knack for conveying threat even when he speaks the dialogues in a normal tone. Here the ‘enti… ‘Is thunderous, with an echo.
Krithi Shetty is excellent in the climax in which she takes on Setupathi. Throughout the film, she portrays the naivety and the initial rush of romance just right. In her, Telugu cinema has found another new talent to tap into. Vaisshnav Tej is also adequate in his portrayal of Aasi and fortunately, although he comes from a star clan, this film does not support him as a larger than life hero. The story is central, which makes the difference.
Uppena was originally scheduled to hit theaters in April 2020 and did not take the OTT route. It is an auditory and visual feast that deserves a theatrical look. Not only in the representation of the high seas and the life of the fishermen, the cycle light sequence in the middle of the night also deserves a mention. For a moment it is reminiscent of the killing Fields series by RangasthalamPerhaps it’s Bucchi Babu Sana’s hat tip to director Sukumar, who co-produced this film.