In a recent directors roundtable interview with Rajeev Masand, which had SS Rajamouli, Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, RS Prasanna, Konkana Sen Sharma, and Alankrita Shrivasata on board, there came a point where the directors debated on whether filmmaking, as a profession, was as important as that of a doctor who saves lives.
On the periphery, the answer was a clear ‘no’, but SS Rajamouli shared an interesting perspective about why films, or for that matter storytelling, matter.
“Sabu Cyril, the production designer of Baahubali, once told me that the storytelling began several millennia ago when men were primarily hunters. Their lives were at stake all the time and it was a tough environment to survive in. So, by the end of the day, all of them would gather around a fire camp and share their stories, which could be real or fictional. For that brief moment of time, they would forget everything else and feel energised to move forward the next day. Cinema too serves the same purpose. It helps you switch off from reality for couple of hours and take you on a ride to a different world.”
As I kept thinking about my own tryst with watching movies, I narrowed down my choices to four films which helped me tide over tough times in my adolescence.
The first three of them are – Gladiator, The Matrix, and Mahesh Babu starrer Okkadu. The heroic deeds of the protagonists in these films filled me with determination to aim higher and never give up. So, every time Star Movies would play Gladiator or The Matrix just before I had to take an exam the following day, it saw it as a good sign. Back in 2003, I could heave a sigh of relief that I got admission in BITS-Pilani, the university that I had been dreaming of. But nothing prepared me to make sense of how challenging and different my college life was going to be.
The thing which no one tells you in college is how to cope with failure. And once you realise that you’re in the bottom 10% of the sack, only a miracle can save you from tumbling further down the rabbit hole. It didn’t take me too long to realise that I’m going to be stuck at the bottom, so instead of fighting back, I embraced my reality of being a five point someone, and looked for a way to help me cope up from depression.
And since then, my life has been intertwined with Manmadhudu, a romantic comedy starring Nagarjuna and Sonali Bendre, which had released on December 20, 2002. Back when it had released, although I loved it, I was too busy with my studies to really understand how much it was going to have an influence on me. And 15 years later, it all makes sense now.
My routine in college was simple. The moment I was given a question paper, I knew I was going to fail again. So, an hour later, I would submit my answer sheet, walk back to my hostel room, play Manmadhudu on a computer. Couple of hours later, I would sip chai, eat cut mirchi bajji along with it, and then, meet my friends over lunch where they would be bickering over what the right answer to a certain question was. I had the audacity to smile, despite knowing that I was going to fail. Why? I don’t know. Maybe deep down I knew that I had a secret formula to tide over depressing days. And that was a film about a guy who can’t stand women. This went on for two years and I lost count of how many times I revisited Manmadhudu in those days.
After all these years, there’s hardly a day where I don’t think about the escalator scene from the film when I go to a mall, and I have to resist my urge to say – “They paid, no?” – every time I’m handed a bill at a coffee shop or a restaurant.
For the uninitiated, Manmadhudu, directed by K Vijaya Bhaskar, tells the story of Abhiram (Nagarjuna), who’s the manager at an ad agency owned by his uncle (Thanikella Bharani). He hates women and the film begins with a monologue saying, “Ithanu magadu. Ithanaki serve chese vaadu magadu. Ithaniki vandi pette vaadu kuda magade. Ithani lawn lo perige mokkalu kuda magave, andhuke vetiki poolu undavu (He’s a man. The one who serves him and cooks for him are all men. Even the plants in his lawn are all male, which is why there are no flowers).”
And thus, we are introduced to Abhiram’s idiosyncrasies, where he would greet men in his office but ignore women, reprimand his colleague for even thinking about falling in love or getting married. “Transformer-laki ammayilaki entha dooranga unte antha manchidhi. Current theegalu ekki adukuntanu antav enti vayya. Kaki la madipothav (You should stay away from transformers and women. Why do you want to play with electric cables? You’ll get electrocuted and become as black as a crow),” Abhiram tells his employee, who’s in love with a colleague.
One fine day, Abhiram’s uncle appoints Harika (Sonali Bendre), as an assistant manager. Few days later, Harika gets so upset with Abhiram’s attitude towards her that she resigns from her job. This in turn prompts Abhiram’s uncle to reveal a flashback where we are told that Abhiram had fallen in love with Maheshwari (Anshu), but when he’s told that she got married to someone else, he makes up his mind to never fall in love ever again. And to everyone’s surprise, he begins to hate women. Soon, Harika is promoted as a manager and Abhiram gets suspended. The rest of the story is about how Abhiram learns to fall in love again, after he goes on a business trip to Paris with Harika and S Lavangam (Brahmanandam).
The film, written by Trivikram Srinivas, was clearly inspired from Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt starrer What Women Want, but its charm lied in its ability to make us laugh almost till the climax sequence. One of the prominent things that stands out in the film is its usage of satire and quirky characters to convey a point across. When Bunk Seenu (Sunil), the younger brother of Harika’s fiance, visits her house, all of them are shocked to know how short-tempered he is. In one particular scene, Bunk Seenu even yells at Harika’s mother for serving way too much food! Then, there’s Brahmanandam himself, in one of his funniest roles, whose camaraderie and conversations with Nagarjuna bring the house down.
The film made me even dream about visiting Paris and reliving all those scenes in the exact same locations where it was shot, particularly the bridge which Nagarjuna refuses to walk on because he’s scared of water.
15 years ago, everything about the film – the dialogues, the onscreen chemistry between Nagarjuna and Sonali Bendre, Nagarjuna’s styling, Devi Sri Prasad’s music – had become a sensation. But in all these years, neither its comedy nor its characters seem dated. Every dialogue has become a pop culture phenomena and today, the film inspires several memes. The film also made the concept of of ‘counters’ more mainstream than ever before.
For instance, when Sunil quips, “Antharvedi lo Pelli aithe, Hyderabad lo pandhiri vesaaru. Ento! (The wedding is in Antharvedi, but they’ve decorated the house in Hyderabad), an old man retorts, “Penam meedha dosalu vesthe, manam plate lo pettukune thintam kadha (We make dosas on a tawa, but we can’t eat it on that. We have to use a plate for that).” The film is filled with more such puns, which are more like words of wisdom coated with dollops of satire.
In the end, Manmadhudu is a story about love and finding love when you least expect it. That it brought together some of the finest talents in the industry back then and delivered an experience that continues to be funny to this day is nothing short of an achievement.
The title ‘Manmadhudu’ became some sort of a prefix to Nagarjuna’s name, and the film showed us why Trivikram became ‘Guruji’ of Tollywood. But hey, I know, – Meetho satire esthe, nenu retire aipotha ani. Some lines are best left without translation. 15 years later, the film still feels like sunshine on a cold day and this might very well be true a decade from now as well.