In #WatchWithTNM, we revisit the 2011 film written by Nandini Reddy, one of the extremely few women filmmakers in Telugu cinema.

Nani and Nithya Menen in Ala Modalaindi sitting together and laughingScreenshot/Zee 5
Flix Flix Flashback Friday, September 04, 2020 - 19:52

In Ala Modalaindi (That’s how it began), there are many beginnings to the romance between Nithya (Nithya Menen) and Gautham (Nani). There’s chemistry from the beginning, but circumstances drive them apart each time until they finally overcome them. That’s it. That’s the plot. Both Nani and Nithya were just starting off as actors and it was Nandini Reddy’s first film as a director. Yet, Ala Modalaindi was one of the biggest hits of 2011, and even won the Andhra Pradesh government’s Nandi award for Best First Film of a Director.

Of course, the film had good actors and writing going for it. It had audiences shrieking with laughter in theatres. Some of the funny lines and scenes are still recalled with fondness, like Gautham’s enlightening tips on TV sensationalism to his colleague, a crime show host. Or the drunkard in the climax played by the actor now called ‘Thagubothu’ (Drunkard) Ramesh. Ala Modalaindi is one of the quintessential parts of popular culture celebrated by Telugu middle-class millennials. Like any cultural product, the film’s impact has been a result of the socio-cultural context it was made in, and has also been re-examined over time.

Multiplexes, millennials and the Telugu rom-com

Ala Modalaindi was released in 2011, when ‘multiplex’ films were not uncommon in Telugu. These were films that featured urban middle-class characters and also seemed to be directed at audiences that could ‘relate’ to these characters. There were of course many Telugu films made earlier, with themes of romance and comedy. For instance, films made by Jandhyala, Vamsy, Bapu, and later by Vijaya Bhaskar, Teja and others. But these films did not fit into the genres defined by conventions in the West (and they shouldn’t have to).

Before Ala Modalaindi came Sekhar Kammula’s Godavari (2006), and Chandra Sekhar Yeleti’s Prayanam (2009). These films had urban middle to upper class (and of course upper caste) leads, who had the liberty to simply explore their romantic relationship for the most part of the film, without excessive drama from parents or villains.

The ‘meet cute’ in Ala Modalaindi (if it can even be called one) happens when Gautham sees Nithya throwing up at a wedding after drinking too much. Both of them have been dumped by the bride and groom, and engage in drunken shenanigans to get over them. The second time they meet is at a pub, when Nithya shoves Gautham aside to barge into the men’s loo because the women’s line is too long.

Apart from the trope of bizarre coincidences stopping the couple from getting together, the film seems to consciously avoid clichés — especially the ones from Tollywood — by going really close to them but giving us the opposite. There are no dramatic declarations of love, no overly intrusive parents.

Both Nithya and Gautham see other people in between, but they never turn into the bad guys. Gautham has a chance to save Nithya from street harassment, but she manages on her own. Written by a woman, the film also had ‘relatable’ women (to some sections of the audience) doing relatable things like being heartbroken, losing weight for a man, and dealing with failed relationships.

Women writing women

Nandini Reddy is one of the extremely few women filmmakers in Telugu cinema, and this seeps into the way the men and women are written in the film. Nithya’s heartbreak is shown without putting her down or making her look helpless. When Gautham complains about her elaborate shopping trip, she tells him that shopping is one of the few things that offer women (of means) a modicum of choice and freedom. Kavya (Sneha Ullal), one of Gautham’s girlfriends, is introduced while dancing at a club. In the next scene, she becomes an ordinary woman, a vet dealing with buffaloes.

Although the film would barely pass the Bechdel test, Gautham’s character is written as a vulnerable, sensitive, non-toxic male – aka a basic decent human being. He deals with road rage calmly, and is even apologetic. He tries to beat up Nithya’s harassers on a later day, but immediately apologises, saying he was angry about something else. But just as we are about to celebrate the possible arrival of the SRK-like metrosexual hero (Gautham even says “Main aa raha hoon Simran”), the gay jokes are inflicted on us.

The film has been criticised for its insensitive portrayal of homosexual men. Gautham being mistaken as a gay man is a recurring ‘joke’, which eventually triggers the end of his relationship with Kavya. The director herself has admitted that the portrayal was insensitive.

The prejudice isn’t even central to the plot, and the film could probably even be re-released with a few tweaks that could remove the unpleasant parts that mar the otherwise fun experience. But cultural products are essentially time capsules of a kind. As Nandini Reddy said with reference to the portrayal, “It’s something I’d never again want to do in my career. But having said that, back in 2010, ‘gay’ wasn’t even a word that was used in the common parlance. There was very less awareness on the nuances of depicting the queer community.” Things haven’t necessarily changed vastly since then, but the director, while looking back, said that there is hope for better representation in the future.

Meanwhile, films like Ala Modalaindi offer new insights on the continued adoration for them, each time they are revisited.

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