Uppena (high tide in Telugu) is a film that can trigger conversations. The romantic musical discusses social strata divisions. A lot is spoken about honour but thankfully, the film probes something other than honour killings. It discusses masculinity, which is a welcome move.
After Colour Photo, this is another story of romance set in a time before mobile phones became widely prevalent in the interior towns. Debut director and writer Bucchi Babu Sana leads us into a seaside hamlet near Kakinada of 2002.
A mix of awe, fear and mystery shrouds Kotagiri Rayanams (Vijay Sethupathi) daughter Bebamma a.k.a Sangeethas (Krithi Shetty) trips to her college. It seems like a chip-off-the-old-block trope when two youngsters are manhandled for daring to venture near the car to get a glimpse of the aristocratic girl. But when the charade is unmasked in a few minutes, it shows the ominous and nearly insane extent to which Rayanam would go to protect his honour.
Casting Vijay Sethupathi is a sign that we arent going to witness a cardboard antagonist. Theres scope to show something sinister and Uppena does this, while still working within the realm of mainstream Telugu cinema.
The story has been told over decades and will still ring true. 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) nurtures for Bebamma is adoration laced with innocence.
The romance is poetic, with Devi Sri Prasads lilting compositions matching the ebb and flow of the waves captured beautifully by Shamdat. Aasi belongs to the fishing community, which gives ample scope for music and cinematography to romance the sea. Some of the songs are earworms and beautifully picturised but there are one too many of them as the film moves along.
Still, we stay with it because of the freshness with which the romance is portrayed. The girl travels all alone in a bus (a mark of privilege) and the couple manages to steal some time en route. Its hilarious when he tries to overcome his stutter and pronounce her real name.
However, fear lurks around the corner. Bebamma isnt safe in her own home when a creepy relative comes visiting. For all of Rayanams thunder, he doesnt take the creep to task, because, honour!
Its in this context that a few thoughts on masculinity shared by a college lecturer (Geetha Bhaskar in a guest appearance) has an impact on Bebamma. By then she has found Aasi who makes her feel comfortable in his presence and even calls out to him using a term from her biology lesson; and this holds the clue for things to come.
For a while, Uppena explores familiar tropes of the rich man wanting to oust fisherfolk from their homes, and later issuing a threat when the daughter goes missing. The reason behind Rayanam harping on honour comes across as shallow. His indifference to his ailing wife also merited a better discussion. In contrast to this is the warm bond shared between Aasi and his father (Sai Chand, dependable as always).
The pre-mobile phone era setting makes sense as the story navigates a rainy night when the couple is stranded on high seas and later, when they move from one city to another.
Uppena loses some of its steam as it progresses. Something has changed between the couple too. The final reveal puts things in perspective. Had Uppena been crisper and less melodramatic, it could have had an even better impact. Yet, its commendable that it enters an uncomfortable territory and discusses masculinity at length.
Vijay Sethupathis presence lends the film more gravitas and he is formidable. I wish he had dubbed for himself though. Ravi Shankars dubbing is good, however, those who have watched Sethupathis Tamil films would know that he has the knack of conveying menace even while uttering the dialogues in a normal pitch. Here, the enti is thunderous, with an echo.
Krithi Shetty is excellent in the climax where she takes on Setupathi. All through the film, she portrays the naivety and first flush of romance just right. In her, Telugu cinema has found one more new talent to tap into. Vaisshnav Tej is also adequate in his portrayal of Aasi and mercifully, though he comes from a star clan, this film doesnt prop him up as a larger-than-life hero. The story takes centre stage, which makes all the difference.
Uppena was originally scheduled to release in theatres in April 2020 and did not take the OTT route. Its an aural and visual feast that merits theatrical viewing. Not just in its depiction of the high seas and life of the fisherfolk, the cycle light sequence in the dead of the night also deserves a mention. For a brief moment, its reminiscent of the killing fields sequence from Rangasthalam. Maybe it is Bucchi Babu Sanas hat tip to director Sukumar, who has co-produced this film.
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