The film has been released on OTT platform Aha.

Colour Photo review A brave film that takes on caste class and colour prejudice
Flix Review Saturday, October 24, 2020 - 11:10
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Nearly every frame in Colour Photo with a public wall in the background seems to be filled with posters of ‘90s films, like Prema Desam, Pavitra Bandham and Choodalani Vundi.  References to popular films of the time are strewn throughout the film, and iconic songs like 'Telusa Manasa' are woven into scenes rather seamlessly.

While all of this might have been an attempt at frugally establishing the time period, such references to older films — a kind of ‘intertextuality’ —  is quite common in Telugu films. Actors from film families often have references from their father’s or uncle’s or grandfather’s (and soon possibly even their great grandfathers') films written into songs and dialogues of their own films. These allusions to the family’s stardom are meant to excite fans, and fandom and loyalty are also often inherited along family lines and/or caste lines.

But in Colour Photo, now streaming on OTT platform Aha, these period references seem to have been carefully curated, partly to induce nostalgia, partly to appease fans (a Mahesh Babu reference already seems to have  fans excited), but also in part to convey the filmmakers' fondness for the films they grew up watching. 

The film, set in the seaside town of Machilipatnam in the late ‘90s, is primarily about the romantic relationship between Jayakrishna (Suhas) and Deepthi (Chandini Chowdary). Yet, many supporting characters are written to be meaningful and consequential. “I am not the hero, I am a plot device,” Jayakrishna tells his friend Bala Yesu (Harsha Chemudu) as they get ready for a stage play in college.

Jayakrishna is a dark-skinned boy from a poor, oppressed caste family. He works hard and is ambitious. He delivers milk in the mornings before attending engineering college. Deepthi is from a wealthy, dominant caste (Varma) family. She is the topper of the college, has light skin and is conventionally beautiful. Obviously, they fall in love, and obviously, their love is forbidden.

The film talks about multiple axes of inequality and prejudice, through various relationships, and also through the film’s casting, which goes against Tollywood norms. Until now, Suhas, the ‘hero’ of Colour Photo, had been confined to playing the hero’s friend/comedian. The menacing antagonist is played by Sunil, who is a staple in iconic comedy scenes from Telugu cinema of the 2000s. The actor has incidentally played the lead role in several films in the past decade, but hasn’t seen much success since Rajamouli’s Maryada Ramanna back in 2010.

Colour Photo repurposes a couple of Sunil’s famous lines to capitalise on his ‘star comedian’ status, a practice usually reserved for star heroes. Harsha Chemudu, who plays the hero’s best friend Bala Yesu, has also often been confined to roles in which belittling his appearance has been passed off as comedy. But in this film, we get to see a sincere, adorable friendship between his character and Suhas’s Jayakrishna. The laughter isn’t invoked by disrespecting any of the characters, or denying them dignity.

One of the reasons Jayakrishna seems meek (at first), and is often bullied, is his dark skin. But Deepthi’s brother Ramaraju (Sunil) is also dark-skinned, and so is their father, we are told. Yet, Ramaraju is not just confident, but even vain about his looks. He is a vicious bully who abuses his power as a police officer. At first, Ramaraju says he objects to his sister’s relationship with Jayakrishna because of his skin colour. But it becomes evident that his prejudice is based not just in skin colour or class, but caste too. 

The intersections of biases around skin colour, caste and race are extremely complex, and the film doesn’t exactly do a perfect job addressing them. A rousing speech that Jayakrishna gives in college, for instance, reduces the preference for fair skin to a colonial hangover.  But it also doesn’t entirely sweep over these complexities. Jayakrishna slowly becomes self-assured and confronts his oppressors, showing grit and strength of character. But this ‘heroism’ isn’t romanticised to be a simplistic resolution to systemic oppression. 

The film also portrays the inequality in Jayakrishna and Deepthi’s relationship in an interesting way, proclaiming at the very beginning that “true love is when you place the one you love on an unattainable pedestal”. While this is an idea that Deepthi’s sister-in-law articulates and ends up influencing her, this is how Jayakrishna inherently feels about Deepthi. He can never fully comprehend her affection being proportionate to his own, and worries that she might be with him out of sympathy, in spite of grand gestures from her. 

Jayakrishna even insists on keeping their relationship a secret until he has a successful career and is able to convince people that he is worthy of her. He says things like he feels ‘devotion’ towards her, and other lines that would otherwise be insufferably cheesy, but Suhas manages to be goofy and endearing enough as a 20-year-old engineering student to almost get away with them. (“Men’s tears are the purest thing in the world”, is another one.)

The conversations between Deepthi and her sister-in-law (Srividya) have a warmth that is rare for women in Telugu films, as they laugh at Ramaraju’s (Sunil) narcissism, and talk about how women often resign themselves to discontent when they marry. “Men make cinema, perhaps that’s why our stories remain within us,” Deepthi’s sister-in-law says to her. The friendship between Deepthi and Padmaja (Divya Drishti) is also kind and protective. 

The film’s writer-director (Sandeep Raj) and many of the actors had started off working in short films and comedy sketch videos on YouTube. Yet, the film interestingly questions the things that we laugh at and therefore normalise When Jayakrishna’s classmates laugh at his story about being rejected from featuring on his college magazine’s cover because of his skin colour, he says, “It's because we're laughing at such things that our lives are like this.”

Colour Photo also addresses mental health, and we see how access and social support systems dictate how differently people are equipped to deal with trauma. 

But the film may also seem to have tried to talk about too many things. And while all of these concerns do and must intersect, the intersections may have become a little entangled in the film. 

There are elements in Colour Photo that appear to be influenced by films like Sairat, Pariyerum Perumal and Kumbalangi Nights. In the beginning of the film, however, there are dedications to Chiranjeevi and SS Rajamouli. Perhaps unable to reconcile their fondness for these two kinds of cinema, the filmmakers have included two different endings — one as an ode to popular Telugu cinema and the other as ‘the unbearable truth’, as a character puts it. 

In spite of its flaws, Colour Photo has evocative writing, (mostly) impactful acting and great music which inspire all sorts of feelings from warmth and tenderness to immense heartbreak. It’s certainly a nostalgia trip for Telugu audiences who grew up on ‘90s films and have Sunil’s lines from Nuvvu Naaku Nachav and Sontham committed to memory. 


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