How Chandra Sekhar Yeleti's films bring layers and moral ambiguity to Telugu cinema

Yeleti has a knack for misdirection, making the audience believe something while cleverly turning it on its head later in the film.
How Chandra Sekhar Yeleti's films bring layers and moral ambiguity to Telugu cinema
How Chandra Sekhar Yeleti's films bring layers and moral ambiguity to Telugu cinema

In Anukokunda Oka Roju (2005), Yeleti’s second outing, a song—poignantly written by Sirivennela—plays in the background, close to the climax, that tries to underline the film’s conflict for us. Other than being an effective form of a pre-climax refresher, it also acts as a silent testimony of the filmmaker’s skill. There is a particular scene in that song where Sahasra (Charmy Kaur) is shown smiling at a kid. But then she sees a shovel in his hands and she gets up and leaves, scared. For all we know, he is an innocent boy but to her, he might as well be the next person trying to kill her.

In the former portions of the film, we are shown her love for kids in the way she interacts with them, and when we contrast this to her reaction, we know exactly how broken her world has become. Incisive and mighty effective.

When Chandra Sekhar Yeleti’s debut film Aithe released in 2003, the Telugu film industry was predominantly filled with releases that were either family entertainers/romantic comedies or action entertainers/faction dramas. So, when a film with a rather smug tagline that said “Anni Cinemalu Okela undav” (Not all films are the same) came out, it naturally managed to turn a few heads.

For one, the film was a thriller with an ensemble cast filled with new faces. Four men and a woman, who are close friends, and the fact that the director lets them stay so without succumbing to the trope of romantic love having to seep in, is an admirable thing in itself. But what makes it rather unique is the way the characters—albeit generic tropes—and their varied reactions are used to carry the plot forward, while not losing heat.

Another important technique that’s common and important in all three successful films of Yeleti is his knack for misdirection. Any thriller thrives on its maker’s ability to play with the audiences’ minds. Even though Manamantha (2016) isn’t a thriller, the way he chooses to move the narratives towards a common point makes its treatment feel similar to one. In Aithe, we are made to believe that the four men chosen by the gangster are the same as our guys. We trust that narrative even when we never see them interact because we are used to films being transparent. So, when we are about to lose interest, we are told that our guys have a plan of their own and that keeps the adrenaline going for a while.

A film that successfully distracts us by pretending to confide in us is a film worth its weight in gold. Chandra Sekhar achieves this primarily by employing a tight screenplay and tighter edits. The movies mentioned above rarely have a dull or an indulgent moment, except for Manamantha, which lets the teenage love story take more time/space than it deserves.

Notice the way Pavan Malhotra’s character in Anukokunda Oka Roju is seen digging a hole in a chase sequence. The camera hovers on him matter-of-factly and moves away. Even though we register his presence, we aren’t given a minute to think it through. And when the final reveal comes along, we are chuffed to see the same man and this makes the whole ordeal seem more impressive than it actually might be otherwise. Because when you think about it, most thrillers fail with the final reveal and the way they make this revelation. They are either too far-fetched or simplistic to be worth the chase. Take the recently released Manu, directed by Phanindra Narsetti, for example. The movie has a strong first half, but it derails the moment we get to the first reveal, and things only get worse after that.

Yeleti does it the other way around. He makes his reveals well-crafted enough to make up for prior mistakes. Maybe that is why Manamantha, an ordinary drama except for Mohanlal’s arc, seems like a bigger deal than it is. He gradually ties the loose ends together—two at a time—and instead of realising the flimsiness of it all, we are busy admiring his ability to hide important details in the open.

Aside from the necessary technical backing—editing, cinematography and lighting—Yeleti’s films use setting to drive home the suspense and unease. A well-written script is effective no matter where it takes place, but if it happens in our city, to people who look and speak like us, living in homes that look like ours, it raises the stakes by bringing relatability and familiarity to the plate. The subtle ways in which colour is used deserves a mention as well, especially in Anukokunda Oka Roju. The colour red is predominantly used by the main characters for the first half of the film, and then later the same colour is associated with the men who are pursuing our heroine. So, when we see the police officer’s subordinate with a perpetual disgruntled face wearing a red shirt, he becomes the film’s final red herring, literally. It’s not relevant that he had nothing to do with the film’s ending because his only purpose is to inject that doubt, to keep us on toes for an extra few seconds.

Yeleti's uniqueness also lies in the way he handles the moral greys. The best example of moral ambivalence is Mohanlal's character, Sai Rao, in Manamantha. A man, who was idealistic enough to compare himself to Gandhi, decides that it is okay to kidnap his colleague for a few hours because he needs the promotion more. We see him panic and repent, but would he have felt the same guilt if the plan worked as envisioned? One doesn't think so. The extent to which a middle-class man in need of financial security can go to rationalise his wrongdoings is shown with empathy and understanding.

The same goes with the corrupt cop in Anukokunda Oka Roju. We aren’t given a backstory to redeem the man, we aren’t asked to forgive him. He is an immoral man who decides to help a girl in danger and that’s all there is to it. Yeleti isn’t busy convincing us of his intellect; instead, he fleshes out his characters and their place in the film to the tee. The fact that Sindhu’s character in Aithe is a painter isn’t a mere character trait, it has to do with the gangster and his many disguises—something we wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn't been mentioned explicitly that the gangster would be hard to recognise for our guys.

Jagapathi Babu’s obsession with “Real” juice suggests that he isn’t your average, alcoholic, filmy cop. Charmy’s broken family and the absentee mother make her missing a whole day seem possible and plausible. She is an aspiring singer and that is why her singing a song with the apartment kids feels like a natural extension of her personality. When the same film is about to end, Charmy’s character finds out that a seemingly stern old man from her complex helped her reach home safely. She announces this to everyone, saying, “He is the one that saved me”. The cop gets up and says, “He is one of the people that saved you.” The insistence feels jovial and petty even, but knowing that he is a shady cop who is in suspension, it is understandable that he wants the person he saved to not forget his good deed.

Yeleti insists on staying homegrown and rooted. If he takes something away from the masters of world cinema, it is the technique, not the story. This is why Chandra Sekhar Yeleti and his style of filmmaking are relevant and important in an era where bound-scripts and proper plot progressions are as mythical as unicorns, if not more.

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