Pitta Kathalu: Trudging on a Thin Line Seperating Bland and Compelling

The title Pitta Kathalu doesn’t expound the theme of the films like Netflix’s prior anthologies did, which I found to be a sensible decision because trying to identify the theme of each film was more engaging watching a few of them. 

Movie-watching is not only about liking or disliking the film, right? Let alone the craft of filmmaking, you need to feel something as a viewer. Like Luis B. Mayer says in Mank, cinema is the only business-model in which the consumers don’t obtain anything substantial for the money they are spending, apart from the feeling the film leaves them with. 

On that front, Pitta Kathalu is emotionally shallow for the most part, even though human emotions are used as a plot point in Nag Ashwin’s xLife, easily the least exciting of the lot and it stands out for all the wrong reasons. Beginning with its aspect ratio, xLife squeals it is different; once again, not in a good way. The film uses voice-over to tell that what we are watching is indeed a pitta katha, indirectly asking us to stop thinking critically about logic. It’s a futuristic world, similar to Ready Player One, where people find joy in a virtual reality, simulated by the eponymous xLife – world’s biggest organization, supposedly – sliding away from the decaying reality. Towards the end of Ready Player One, there is a conversation about why real, human world always has an edge over the artificial virtuality between James Halliday, the creator of xLife OASIS, a virtual gaming world, and the protagonist Wade Watts. This conversation is where xLife finds its roots in and builds up the screenplay towards the message – nothing can replace real human emotions. 

A still from xLife. Source: Netflix

At times when social media has become ingrained in our day-to-day life, the message feels important, but boy, it is treated as a sluggish message movie, with every dialogue and scene building up towards the message. When the screen cut to black, I was expecting the quote “We cannot have a society in which if two people wish to communicate, the only way it can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them” by Jaron Lanier to show up on screen considering how many dialogues in the film draw analogy between people and data. Thankfully, it didn’t, but each and every line mouthed by Vik (Sanjith Hegde) – the young, overtly cool founder of xLife with ‘I’m the kingpin of coding nerds’ written all over him – serves the exposition duties so we can catch the point when it is thrown at us like a ball. Instead, the point rolls over us like a snowball by the end. There are a couple of interesting dialogues that reflect our over-reliance on the virtual world, but there is little to care about in this glossy, techy, gadget-surrounding interiors, where the majority of the film takes place in. We see too little of the external world because the filmmaker wants to nudge our preference towards the virtual world over reality, confining us to the aforementioned interiors where digital-screens all over the place. While the feel has the look, it certainly lacks the feel, which no amount of production design, lighting, and color-correction can make up for. Being an uninspiring love story between Vik and Divya (Shruthi Haasan, in a character whom we have to believe is an average-looking lady) and the film ends in a place called the heart of life. Wish the film had one.

The other three films, which are all named after women – B. Nandini Reddy’s Meera, Tharun Bhascker’s Ramula, and Sankalp Reddy’s Pinky – are more interesting, but not without their own flaws. Among these, Sankalp Reddy’s story and its woman leave us to brood on. It is also the film that I liked a lot for its indecisiveness, although it is very much possible that the writer was in a very similar state of mind while penning the story. Although the film is named after her, it is not just about Pinky (Eesha Rebba) and is more about how her actions influence people around her. Right at the beginning, it is revealed that Pinky and her ex-husband Vivek (Satya Dev) have been seeing each other, although both of them are living with their respective spouses from their second marriage. Vivek is struggling to get his second novel published, while his wife Indhu’s career is flourishing. He cooks for her and is not quite like Goutham from World Famous Lover, although he is an unfaithful husband. Sankalp sprinkles tiny toppings to paint a picture of the difference between his relationship with Indhu and Pinky. In addition to naming the heroine in his second novel after her, Pinky knows the password of Vivek’s laptop, while his wife Indhu doesn’t, which obviously means he shares a much intimate relationship with the former. Even a bookshelf, which Pinky and Vivek had bought during their time together, acts a metaphor for his relationships with his wife and ex-wife. Early in the film, the bookshelf trips over and Vivek rearranges the books, foreshawdowing the unrest and disorder that awaits him in his seemingly well ordered life. It’s these subtle details in the writing which I felt were missing in other films. 

A still from Pinky. Source: Netflix

Moreover, it’s interesting how the filmmaker leaves the judging part to the viewer, while he remains impartial, leaving us to pick sides. Sankalp- and Tharun Bhascker’s films are not really concerned about labeling characters good and evil. For instance, Pinky lies about her pregnancy to gain what she wants to, clearly knowing the repercussions it is likely to generate; but she doesn’t care. While it may seem like a selfish act, it is fair according to her. This is the most interesting aspect of a film. Beyond good or bad, it tests where our sympathies exist, and that is something films are expected to do. 

Easily the smallest of the four films by scale with just four characters, it is unlike anything Sankalp Reddy has done before, especially in terms of writing. It does feel incomplete and leaves you wanting for more, especially with a tricky character like Harsha (Srinivas Avasarala), Pinky’s husband who might or might not be knowing about his wife having an affair. With conflicting personalities on the verge of a breakdown at his fingertips, the drama could have been intriguing, but it only leverages the opportunity to a limited extent. 

Speaking of sympathies, we can acutely recognize that B. Nandini Reddy cares for her protagonist Meera (Amala Paul) – also a writer like Vivek – in an abusive marriage with Vishwa (Jagapathi Babu) who is 18 years elder to her. Vishwa is perpetually bursting with insecurity that his young and attractive wife might leave him for someone better. He is everything Vivek could have been. There is no hint of insecurity surrounding Vivek, though. Right at the beginning, it is established that story is told from Meera’s point-of-view and she – being a writer who might be penning her secrets through the characters she writes – may not quite be the faithful narrator, which is perhaps why Jagapathi Babu’s Vishwa is as violent and forceful like his characters from masala flicks like Aravindha Sametha and Legend. In fact, President Phanindra Bhupathi in Rangasthalam – who is known to get people murdered – is way cooler than Vishwa. Vishwa is not a saint either, he subjects Meera to domestic violence and is unlikeable from the word-go. It is also fascinating how calm and loving he is with his children but is downright harsh and unempathetic with his wife, because we are seeing Vishwa through her eyes. On a level, the film feels conventional in its story-telling – rain to underline the emotional outburst of its characters, the sound of thunder when a character learns something shocking. But behind these cliches, I feel this is a thriller masquerading as a drama in which the abusive marriage is used as a set-up for the ultimate pay-off, although it’s not rewarding as a thriller nor emotionally captivating as a relationship drama. 

A still from Meera. Source: Netflix

While Pinky and Meera share writer in common, Meera and Raamulu share a minute aspect – a bangle – and a macro aspect – women carefully plotting things to achieve their goals – in common. Vishwa forcefully holds Meera by her hand and her bangles hurt her wrist. Similarly, Ramulu (Saanve Megghana), in a heated conversation with her boyfriend Rama Chander (Naveen Kumar Bethiganti), hits him on his back, breaking her bangle while doing so. What’s common is the women being hurt in both the cases. While it’s a man who hurts Meera, things take a turn with Ramula. Set in the interiors of Telangana, Ramula and Rama Chander are seeing each other and the latter fears disclosing their relationship with his father, an ex-MLA. The film is not exactly about their relationship, though. It is about what happens when Swaroopa Akka (Lakshmi Manchu), a politician, and her thirst for power collide with this simple love-story. As a story, unlike his features, it is certainly Tharun Bhascker’s most distant film. As a writer, he has always largely relied on affable characters. His films were never plot-heavy; the characters by themselves became the story in Pelli Choopulu and Ee Nagaraniki Emaindhi. There isn’t much space to develop characters in this case, and yet it’s the most interesting of the four, when purely judged by the craft. From stretches of slow-motion montages to the usage of a Tamil song to superbly blocking something as simple as two characters speaking over the phone through cinematography and intercuts, there is a lot of interesting stuff happening filmmaking-wise. Likewise, the dark humor had me laughing more than I should be, considering the characters are not in a very pleasant spot, but you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity while a threat is clambering up right in front of your eyes. Among films that tried to stand out from the rest, Ramula does it with ease. Like it is with all the films, the majority of Ramula feels like a set-up for that one final amusement, and it does deliver a memorable one.

A still from Ramula. Source: Netflix

Neither of the segments in Pitta Kathalu is perfect. However, there are aspects to like in each one of them. The comic nature of Ramula, the unbiased exploration of the titular character in Pinky, the sympathetic yet deceiving treatment of Meera, and Shruthi Haasan’s hair buns in xLife.

Pitta Kathalu is available to stream on Netflix.

Watch the trailer of the film here:

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