Netflix's Pitta Kathalu Anthology Review: Fifty shades of love
Powered by uniformly strong performances, Pitta Kathalu just about manages to weave four passable love stories that are filled with deception and infidelity
One of the most interesting aspects of Pitta Kathalu is how three out of four protagonists are writers of some sort. One is a successful writer who finds love only in worlds created through words. One is a struggling writer who looks at love as an escape from mediocrity. One writes codes and manages to erase love from the world. I liked how the minds behind Pitta Kathalu fashioned leads out of writers. It is heartening to see filmmakers underselling the "passion" phenomenon and showcasing how passion bears fruit only if you are extremely talented, and I mean Mark Zuckerberg-level talented, or you have an economically successful spouse. Each short in Pitta Kathalu deals with how all it takes for such castles in the air to crumble and plunge into the depths of depravity is one slight push.
The seed of this idea is seen right in the opening credits that feature a flaming heart, two people in love, and one fine day... some strings are pulled, and the flaming hearts are extinguished. I loved how this extinguisher is a woman — it reminded me of Ariana Grande's iconic line, "They say god is a woman." In Tharun Bhascker's short, Ramula, it is caste and class that divide the two lovers. In Nandini Reddy's Meera, it is beauty and power imbalance. The difference lies in the idea of love itself in Nag Ashwin's xLife, while the breaking point in Sankalp Reddy's Pinky is the timing of love. Four stories, four couples. Flaming hearts extinguished by the machinations of four women.
Cast: Amala Paul, Shruti Haasan, Jagapathi Babu, Sanjith Hegde, Eesha Rebba, Satyadev, Naveen Kumar, Lakshmi Manchu, Saanve Megghana
Director: Tharun Bhascker, Nandini Reddy, Nag Ashwin, Sankalp Reddy
Another common theme is infidelity and deception. The characters either resort to an affair or deception to extinguish the once flaming hearts. Each short is sold by the effectiveness of this deception, and that is where Meera stands a cut above the rest. Written by Radhika Anand, Meera stars an in-form Amala Paul in the titular role. She is in a loveless marriage with Jagapathi Babu's Viswa. Throw in some insecurity and we get an intense waiting game to see who breaks first. A sleeveless blouse is met with derision. A gift from a common friend is met with suspicion. A white lie (or is it?) is met with extreme threats of violence. Amala outshines almost every other actor in Pitta Kathalu with her turn as a wife who undergoes physical and mental trauma just trying to save the marriage because she can't afford to walk out of it. It is interesting how Nandini and Radhika portray such compulsions in the upper echelons of society too. Generally, such inabilities are relegated to women of the working class.
It is not just in Meera that we see this stereotype being questioned. In Pinky, too, we see forced marriages and not being able to walk out due to financial constraints. When it comes to discrimination against women, everyone and everything seems to work in unison. However, unlike in Meera, where the narrative ensures an almost edge-of-the-seat thrill, the proceedings in Pinky are bland with little redemption. While the way Sankalp treats love and deception is interesting on paper, very little of this translated onto the screen. Eesha Rebba plays Pinky, a conflicted character in love with an opportunistic Vivek (Satyadev), but we don't necessarily throw in our weights behind either of these characters. Why should we bother about two people who are just using each other and the ones around them (Ashima Narwal and Srinivasa Avasarala)? It is not really about judging these characters, but about not being able to connect with them. This is a death knell for the expository short that spells out its core idea in marquee sentences in the opening and ending credits.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have xLife that deals with a dystopian future where people use VR to live what they think is the best version of their lives. Although this concept is hardly new, it is fresh for Indian eyes. The world of xLife is one where people's dreams and wishes outweigh basic human needs of love. It is a world that is built by a young coder/supervillain, Vikram 'Vik' Ramasamy (Sanjith Hegde), who is somehow a more obnoxious and entitled version of a Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. The social media VR software xLife even allows countries to remove the idea of free will. Now, this might seem dystopian, but is such a reality really that far away? The love story in this loveless world is centred on Divya (an effective Shruti Haasan) who comes into the life of Vik. Even in a film about a dystopian future, full points to Nag Ashwin for keeping an age-old sentiment at the crux of it all.
A similar old trick is used in Tharun Bhascker's Ramula. In contrast to the futuristic xLife, Ramula is stationed right here, right now in a nondescript town. It portrays a love story between the titular character (a charming Saanve Megghana) and the town's impish hero Ram Charan (Naveen Kumar Bethiganti, who is a hoot). It talks about how there are millions of men in our country who are still figuring out the difference between love and lust. And how easy it is for a society to turn against its women rather than posing even a semblance of a question to its men. Tharun tries to stuff the short with insights into gender politics, gender politics in politics, but after a point, it feels like one dish too many. The presence of Lakshmi Manchu as politician Swaroopa is novel, for sure, but it doesn't take the film too far. The effervescent chemistry between a reckless Ram Charan and a naive-yet-resolute Ramula keeps the proceedings afresh till they are given the short end of the stick by conniving politicians and, in a way, Tharun too.
Just as cliches leave a somewhat distasteful aftertaste in xLife, Ramula too suffers from a convenient end that comes out of nowhere. Now, one might argue it is to give the audience a shock value. Not just Ramula, but Meera, xLife, and Pinky too aim to blow our socks off with an ambiguous ending or a major exposition. However, almost none of them land with the expected bang. While Meera does settle down gradually despite the unnecessary red herrings in the form of a doubting cop, xLife has, ironically, the most uninventive of endings, and Pinky ends like a good old Crazy Mohan-esque face-off sans the quick-footed thinking.
Powered by uniformly strong performances, Pitta Kathalu manages to weave four passable love stories that are filled with deception and infidelity. While it is admittedly cathartic to watch most of these troubled love affairs go down in blazes, it is also sad to see a certain blossoming romance ending up in the annals of doomed love stories. But what is most saddening about the four shorts is how none of them really play with the freedom offered by the OTT medium and try anything new. That said, there is definite ingenuity in xLife, and a compelling commentary on feminism in Meera, and in a way, in Ramula too. I particularly liked how every character is given the illusion of choice in Pinky. However, these stories don't really tie up together. While there is no doubt that Pitta Kathalu is a step in the right direction for Telugu OTT content, there is a question we must ask ourselves. Do we praise the flashes of brilliance or criticise the mediocrity and the missed opportunities? Well... that's a pitta katha that time will tell.