Ambajipeta Marriage Band review: A compelling drama led by a splendid ensemble cast
Ambajipeta Marriage Band (Telugu)(3 / 5)
Dushyanth Katikaneni's Ambajipeta Marriage Band is a film that is fully aware of its end goal right from the word go, but something prohibits the narrative from hitting the ground running. That is to say that circling the essence of the story, is a bunch of tiny yet pleasant distractions that attempt to add value but do not fully succeed. They could arise in the form of comic relief scenes, a romance angle, or even as a cheeky promise of a film about a "hero" who must rise beyond the confines to get what he deserves. And yet, quite interestingly, all these distractions manage to supplant our expectations and eventually guide us through a completely different experience.
The year is 2007 and as the title suggests, the film is centred on a marriage band. Ambajipeta is a recognisable place in the East Godavari region and the world is imbued with simplicity - there's a place to buy audio cassettes and "songbooks", there's a place to hang over a cup of tea, a makeshift wooden cabin salon also part of the mix and if there's any important occasion, from a wedding to a funeral, there's the eponymous marriage band to save the day. And Malli, our protagonist, is the band's integral part as one of its drummers.
It won't be incorrect to say that Malli is the spiritual leader of the band, except that he doesn't wear the title as a tag. Instead, he wears a beaming face that helps him navigate difficult situations, including that of falling in love with the sister of the village's loan shark, the bad guy Venkata Babu (an impressive Nithin Prasanna). Malli's father is a barber, a person of the lowered caste and the loan shark is his conspicuous oppressor. Of course, there is going to be a lot of strife for the love story to warrant an upbeat ending.
But that's not where the film lies because we have Malli's twin sister, Padma, in the realm. If the boy is happy-go-lucky, she is feisty, confident, and unrelenting to any kind of societal pressure. The whole village speaks in whispers about Padma's "affair" with Venkata Babu but despite it being false, she does not bother to quash rumours. All she seeks at the moment is to teach children at any cost, maybe find a life partner of her choice, and somehow hold her head high. But the reality of our country has revealed countless times that caste oppression, almost always, finds synonymity with sexual violence against women.
Does that mean Padma, the victim here, is now rendered as a mere pawn so that Malli can take over the narrative? The answer, much to our delight, is a resounding no and the main charm of Ambajipeta Marriage Band exists right there. In a matter of minutes after the incident, we gather that the film isn't a singular effort but a collective one that is led not just by the male lead but also by his sister. We see that Padma isn't the one to cower or hide behind walls and that she instead wants to become the face of a social crusade. We don't see her shed a tear or wish to dial down the intensity and it is here that Dushyanth Katikaneni scores the most as the writer-director. Not only does he refreshingly allow the brother-sister dynamic to take centre stage but he also makes sure that he isn't making a wishy-washy endeavour to make a "hard-hitting" film.
And right on cue, Ambajipeta Marriage Band starts to come together because almost every element in the film becomes significant to the story. The marriage band, which wasn't fully explored up till now, grows in significance and each member is lent a touch of personality as the stakes rise (especially the character of Sanjeev played by Jagadeesh Prathap Bhandari). Katikaneni throws in small but tender moments that add to the emotional strength of the film and it really helps that almost each of them works. The endearing bond that Malli and Padma share, the fact that they look out for each other with such passion, or even the unspoken feelings that Sanjeev has for Padma – the film is full of "light" moments that work sometimes even more than the graphically powerful ones.
Where Ambajipeta Marriage Band falters, though, is when it tries to linger a bit too long on certain not-so-important beats. The first half, in particular, ends up spending too much time and energy on the romance angle which, ultimately, fails to contribute much to the narrative. Be it the meet-cute scenario that feels stretched or the use of punchy, melodramatic music to evoke sentiments in us, there's no doubt that the film would have benefitted from a more nuanced and focused approach. Somehow, Dushyanth Katikaneni makes sure that everything is rounded up but had his script been economical, the result would have been a far more effective film.
That said, the film is an engaging watch because it packs in several interesting surprises for us. At the face of it, it's a slice-of-life drama that has the ethos of a Malayalam film of the same ilk. However, with the help of real-life events and a good eye for detail, the film subverts our idea and presents a compelling tale of social injustice, bonhomie, and much more. It helps that the ensemble cast, led by an in-form Suhas and a superb Sharanya Pradeep, fits the requirement perfectly and accentuates the world with a lot of flair.
For those seeking an authentic film, that is self-aware and also inventive in parts, Ambajipeta Marriage Band deserves a visit to theatres.
Swaroop Kodur is a freelance film writer, critic, and also a fledgling filmmaker.
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.