Baby Review: A promising narrative held back by its own misogyny

Sai Rajesh’s ‘Baby’ starring Vaishnavi Chaitanya and Anand Deverakonda is filled with troublesome people. If it all comes together, it is only because of the way Vaishnavi is written and the way she has performed.
A poster of the film Baby starring Anand Devarakonda, Vaishnavi Chaitanya and Viraj Ashwin
A poster of the film Baby starring Anand Devarakonda, Vaishnavi Chaitanya and Viraj Ashwin

Vaishnavi (Vaishnavi Chaitanya) and Anand (Anand Devarakonda) are neighbours in the same basthi (slum). They both go to the same school and Vaishnavi has been in love with Anand for a while. Anand finds out and readily reciprocates. When Anand fails the Class 10 board exams, he starts driving an auto. He hates his mother, who has a speech disability, for vague and derivative reasons, with minimal emotional payback. Vaishnavi, meanwhile, goes on to study engineering in a 'big' college. Here, she meets Viraj (Viraj Ashwin), a man who has everything and more. This is an engineering college that is crowded with 'rich' kids with enough spare money to buy someone else an iPhone. Despite the glaring opulence, their pop culture references still amusingly include 'Vantalakka and Doctor babu' from a Telugu television serial.

Baby is written and directed by Sai Rajesh, who has previously written the story for Colour Photo, which also had characters doing extreme things in the name of love. While Baby has its protagonists (especially the men) saying and doing highly questionable things, it also gives Vaishnavi the voice to call them out. At one point, Vaishnavi even asks Anand if he fancies himself as ‘Arjun Reddy’, the protagonist from the film of the same name which triggered a polarising debate on abusive relationships and misogyny.  

Anand drives Vaishnavi away with his controlling behaviour. He thinks he is building a golden cage for her, but all she sees are guard rails. We can see that she is merely trying new things, but he cannot. When he hurls abuses at her in the garb of affection, Vaishnavi walks away in anger. After a few beats, she gives it back to him in a way that suggests that she is better than him. 

But Vaishnavi’s character isn’t far from reproach either. In her eagerness to experience a new world, she readily leaves her old self behind. Instead of creating a space for herself, as Kusuma (her friend who comes from the same world as her) does, she changes herself to match the drapes. We see how unsustainable her behaviour is, she doesn't. Viraj, the ‘golden boy’, doesn't know how to love someone without ‘owning’ them. We know he is a jerk, he doesn't. 

“What is the moral of my story?” asks Vaishnavi in a state of distress, and proceeds to answer it herself. Baby worked for me because it knows that there isn't always a moral to be found in life. Throughout the first half, the story moves in so many different directions, it's impossible to take a side. This is by design and a great way to go about a film with multiple protagonists. Telugu cinema loves conforming, so much so that most films introduce the moral core of the film before introducing the characters. They tell us whom to side with before telling us who they are. Baby is refreshing enough to not do this. It separates Anand and Vaishnavi's arcs into two stories where you can still empathise with Vaishnavi while being on Anand's side or vice versa. 

A big problem with Baby is its verbosity. The characters talk a lot, often repeating themselves. When Anand and Vaishnavi start dating, we see Anand getting ahead of himself and making grand statements about their love. This is a decision by the filmmaker to punctuate their meeting place as sacred, but it only makes Anand seem short-sighted and naive. But this too works to an extent, because Anand Deverakonda approaches the character with a doe-eyed innocence, which only makes his aggression seem that much more out of character and wrong. He is especially impressive in the scene where he finds out the truth about Vaishnavi. You can see the anxiety of his whole world crumbling in front of him in his eyes and body language.

We also hear Vaishnavi proclaim her love for Anand a lot. But because Vaishnavi Chaitanya is great at portraying the character's constant friction and inner turmoil, we see it as necessary: sometimes a symptom of guilt, and other times a mere fact — either way, a genuine expression of emotion. Speaking of which, Vaishnavi Chaitanya is wonderful as a girl whose coming-of-age story is intertwined with two other men's stories of love and heartbreak. Unlike the other two, her character's relationship with the viewer changes a lot throughout the film. She works perfectly in tandem with the writing, where there is a constant push and pull. The film is teeming with troublesome people. If it all comes together, it is only because of the way Vaishnavi is written and performed. 

Visually, the film doesn't bother with creating its grammar. Consequently, MN Bal Reddy's camera is merely functional. The film has only two instances of decent blocking, and both happen in or around an auto. The only cinematic detail that amused me is how when Anand and Vaishnavi are getting closer at the beginning, aided by the wonderfully faint rendition of the song 'O Rendu Prema Meghaalila', there is always a drizzle, but they are never wet. If the headiness of first love can be visualised, it would probably look like this. Two people who are so overcome by this intense feeling, they are too busy to notice or care that the laws of nature are bending for them.

I went in expecting a film in the vein of Luv Ranjan’s Hindi film Pyaar Ka Punchnama, where the filmmaker isn't astute enough to realise that every story has at least two points of view. But while watching Baby, I was intrigued by the many dilemmas Sai Rajesh was throwing at us. 

That said, I didn't like the way the film undoes all this hard work by playing Vaishnavi’s dilemma for laughs at places. Her considerable trauma is only sporadically registered. This is where the choice of the first and last shots of the film come into play. They essentially suggest that the film is Anand's to tell, which might encourage the viewer to see the girl as the villain. Yes, Anand is in pain, but so is Vaishnavi. It is disappointing to see a promising film that cannot escape its own misogyny. 

There is a scene in the latter half of the film that is very reminiscent of Dileesh Pothan’s Maheshinte Prathikaram. Vaishnavi's eyes are brimming with tears at the sight of Anand, and she is just as much of an open wound as him. The only difference is that a man in this society has the luxury to wallow in his pain, while a woman is aggressively nudged to cover it up and move on. I think the film understands this. Here's hoping the viewer does too. 

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

Sankeertana is an engineer who took a few years to realise that bringing together two lovely things, movies and writing, is as great as it sounds. Mainly writes about Telugu cinema because no one else would. Views expressed are the author’s own. 

Sign up to get film reviews in your inbox

* indicates required

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute