Uppena movie review: Vaishnav Tej, Kriti Shetty's romantic drama leaves you with a major sense of déjà vu
Uppena, written and directed by Buchibabu Sana, explores what it means to love in a world defined by patriarchy and casteism, but it struggles to break free from several cliches.
In director Buchibabu’s Uppena, the sea defines the lives of all its characters. The fishermen who live closest to the sea respect it and depend on it for their livelihood. Because, if they leave everything behind and live far away from the sea, then their lives are akin to fish out of water. They are bound to die. And then, there are others, who live far away from the sea, whose lives and aspirations are as vast as the sky. They control everything, right from the lives of people beneath them in the social ladder to the bodies of women in their family. These two worlds are not meant to collide or even mingle, even if the horizon gives an illusion that it’s possible.
In a way, Uppena is the story of two characters, Aasi and Sangeetha, who are chasing a distant dream, where the horizon itself feels real. Caught in the swell of the sea, the duo realise that life, unlike their dreams, is harsh and the walls of patriarchy and casteism are too high to scale.
But themes like these have been explored several times over the years in Telugu cinema, and Uppena, despite its backdrop, leaves you with a major sense of déjà vu.
Set in Uppada, a coastal town in Andhra Pradesh, the film follows the lives of Rayanam (Vijay Sethupathi), who wants to build a fishing yard in the region. His daughter Sangeetha (Krithi Shetty) is the apple of his eyes, but he treats her more like a symbol of his pride, dignity, and caste which has to be protected at all costs. Then, there’s Aasi (Vaishnav Tej), a fisherman’s son, who falls in love with Sangeetha, who, after a point of time, reciprocates his feelings for her. The rest of the story is about what happens when Aasi-Sangeetha’s love for each other bears the brunt of Rayanam’s fury.
Buchibabu lays down the rules of the land through Rayanam’s eyes, and right from the beginning, he equates his daughter’s mere existence with his dignity. His prestige is interlinked with the whereabouts of his daughter. His anger also stems from the fact that he doesn’t have a male heir, and so, he is indifferent to his wife, who is bed-ridden. Little wonder that Sangeetha grows up in a household where there’s no love or affection, and when she meets Aasi, for the first time in her life, she understands what love means. This is what Uppena is primarily about. The more Sangeetha gets to know about Aasi, she values and understands what it means to be in love when, except for Aasi’s presence in her life, nothing makes her feel safe and happy. The subtext is hard to miss, but the portrayal of their lives is cliched for most part of the film. The rich girl-poor boy, separated by caste and class, has been one of the most overused tropes in Telugu cinema, and the only thing which sets Uppena apart is its backdrop. Everything unfolds near the sea, and so, visually the film looks new and aesthetic, even if the underlying emotion is familiar.
To its credit, the chemistry between the two lead actors, Vaishnav Tej and Krithi Shetty, is dazzling, and both the debutants make a strong impression throughout the film. Both their characterisations are well-written, and they really make you invest in their love story. Krithi Shetty is remarkable in an emotionally-driven character and she steals the show, even from Vijay Sethupathi, in the film’s most crucial moment. And Vaishnav Tej channelises the moral dilemma and anger that his character goes through quite well. For Vijay Sethupathi, the role is a cakewalk, and his ruthlessness, even when he doesn’t talk much, is palpable. The film’s climax, in particular, is well-handled and it leaves a long-lasting impression.
On the other hand, the film’s narrative takes its own sweet time to unfold, and the turn of events becomes quite predictable. Everytime you expect the story to take a dramatic turn, Buchibabu steers the boat into a familiar setting. Thankfully Shamdat’s cinematography and Devi Sri Prasad’s music come as a welcome distraction. The sights and sounds of the film are more interesting than the emotions that the characters go through. This is the problem with Uppena. It makes you stare at the sea for so long that you lose yourself in its vastness and there’s nothing but water all around you for a long time.
At a run time of close to 150 minutes, Uppena feels a tad too long. It has its share of emotional moments, but on the surface, it walks, runs, and swims on familiar turf. The real drama, however, is on a deeper level, when it takes a deep dive into how society defines masculinity and virility. Uppena asks us if that’s the only thing that matters in a man’s life? For Rayanam, it’s the only means to continue the caste hierarchy the way he sees it and for Aasi, it’s all about keeping Sangeetha happy. But it’s Sangeetha’s perspective that’s more interesting. All she wants is to be with someone who respects her and makes her feel loved, when people around her are all interested in only one thing - her womb and her body.
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