Hi Nanna Movie Review: It is all about loving your family in this sweet, albeit contrived tale

Hi Nanna Movie Review: It is all about loving your family in this sweet, albeit contrived tale

Rating:(3 / 5)

Cinema, more often than not, errs on the side of the exceptional. We are told once in Hi Nanna that the probability of a positive event happening is 0.1 per cent. And unsurprisingly, it is the improbable odds that trump reality and save the day. Doctor-turned-filmmaker Shouryuv imprints his career transition in Hi Nanna. Medicine is reality. Cinema is the dream. Cystic fibrosis and traumatic amnesia pose improbable, insurmountable challenges to the film's do-gooder characters. And hope, in its filmy avatar, comes to the rescue through the willpower of Viraj (Nani), the perseverance of Yashna (Mrunal Thakur), and the innocence of Mahi (Baby Kiara Khanna). It is no coincidence that Mahi is short for Mahima, for the film never runs short of miracles. Remnants of a marriage resurrect after six years, pushing back the barriers of memory and regret. The most banal set of villains turn into gods, their consciences popping out like rabbits in a hat. In a world where couples get the 'will-they-won’t-they' treatment in stories, Shouryuv makes us wonder. Will a mother and daughter unite or not? Will they? Won't they? With two uncommon mother-daughter relationships orbiting the universe of Hi Nanna, I am tempted to recontextualise the film as Hi Amma instead. 

There is something odd in the way we are introduced to Viraj, a single father. His responsibility towards Mahi, his daughter, is more deification than representation. When he picks her up from school, Mahi gives him her bags one after the other before asking Viraj to carry her. There is a flash of resistance on his face before he dissolves into a smile, a smile that comes from carrying his child for the umpteenth time. He is seen narrating bedtime stories. Tending to her medical needs. Attending her parent-teacher meeting amidst a sea of mothers. When his daughter applies nail polish on his fingers while he is sleeping, neither the moment where he is oblivious to it happening nor the moment where his co-workers chuckle after looking at his hand is mined for humour. To address the elephant (an animal, I am told) in the room, heroism in Hi Nanna is progressively defined by the actions of an ever-present father, as opposed to the consequences of an absent one. It is a far different role than what Nani attempted with Jersey (2019), where the father-child dynamic, even in the glorification of the father’s flaws, was pierced on all ends with a viscerally inescapable tension. Viraj’s characterisation is also trying to ask the question that Vijay Deverakonda from Family Star’s promo asks. Does being heroic necessarily involve breaking iron? Can't a man be a hero for doing the menial, domestic work a woman usually does in real life, the unsung labour women have done for generations? To make up for this streak of domestication-as-heroism, Nani’s professional life (he is a photographer) is all sheen and panache, playing out like a fictionalised version of a young Dabboo Ratnani or Avinash Gowariker’s career. Nani’s Viraj is rarely a father, he is mostly a vessel for a neo-hero, held afloat by sensitive, progressive posturing. Viraj’s characterisation, thankfully rises above the pithiness a sanitised, first-world aesthetic can create, when his attempts to save Mahi’s life emerge as a function of good old-fashioned adversity. 

Nani is not the only actor to get a hero treatment. Mrunal, in her second Telugu outing after the swooning magnum opus Sita Ramam, is (re) elevated to star status in a rather befitting capacity. Playing Yashna and Varsha in the film, we see her in four different looks. A bohemian wardrobe in Coonoor, with flowy skirts and old-school blouses. A tastefully curated middle-class look in Mumbai, with sarees and minimalist accessories. Upper-middle class SoBo chic, representing a detachment from reality. Magazine centerfold lehengas for the film's Goa portions. You know an actor’s face card means business when this is the kind of investment that goes into how she looks. Away from the milquetoast landmass of Hindi cinema, where Mrunal’s work mostly feels generic and shortchanged, the celebration of her screen presence in Telugu cinema is heartening. Mrunal, aided by Chinmayi Sripada’s histrionic voice acting, puts out a performance, waterworks and what-not. The camera also lingers longer on Mrunal’s face, especially in the second half, as she continues to raise the pitch of her sadness to Hesham’s rousing background score. 

There is a certain happiness I felt while watching Nani and Mrunal characterised in Hi Nanna to proportions befitting their steadily enduring stardom. These two are primarily known as actors first, then stars, which makes their transition to bigger levels of stardom all the more pleasurable to watch. That said, I could not help but feel like Hi Nanna would have been a much better film if Nani and Mrunal were allowed to be more actors than stars. Stardom can benefit from acting. I'm not sure the reverse is possible, at least here. Forget the actors, even the story wants to rise above the limits of realism. Outside of worldbuilding that raises questions of how accessible Hi Nanna truly is to the masses, the film's modernity also reflects in the editing. In what definitely feels new to Telugu cinema, Hi Nanna uses L-cuts and cross-cutting to heighten drama. If the first half of the film suffers from a lack of dimensionality, the second half acquires that bounce with these editing techniques. As much as I can appreciate most of the elements that went into Hi Nanna in isolation, as a whole it remains unfinished and hasty. Can acting and stardom co-exist here? Or should the former have paved the way forward for the latter? Would it have fared better for Hi Nanna to embody more grounded realism than gloss? The story itself takes place outside of Telugu lands, in Goa, Coonoor, and Mumbai. What did Shouryuv want to convey when Yashna’s mother, who is practically the film's antagonist comes off as a North Indian, with her fair skin and her trip to a Gujarati thali place and her insistence on Yashna marrying a boy with the last name Bhatia, while her more benevolent, sensible, caretaker father is a South Indian? Why does the elevation of the two fathers in the film come at the cost of depixelating the emotional arcs of the two mothers? Why is a middle-class boy, whose only source of ancestral wealth is oorulo rendu acrealu polam, named Viraj? Atleast another guy whose real name is Viraj is cast in a fittingly unlikeable, upper-middle-class role. I have not found many answers to these questions, so I will just quote a character from the film to summarise my experience of watching Hi Nanna.

“This does not add up.”

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