Readers Write In #482: To Sita Ramam, With Love

Posted on September 3, 2022

21


By Aman Basha

Celebrating the most wonderful and surprising film of 2022

“Inthandam daari mallinda, bhumipaike cherukunnada”. Goes the opening salvo of Sita Ramam’s first romantic song, wondering if such a beauty had lost its way, for how else could it be that she’s here today. That sentiment must have been universal with audiences watching it in theaters today, wondering which accident of fate had brought this uniquely remarkable film into theaters when, going by conventional wisdom today, it should have never been made. 

But that is the thing with love, isn’t it? That it happens, defying conventional wisdom but satisfying a far greater longing, overriding considerations of caste, class and distance. That success or failure aren’t the point, just the satisfaction is? How else would you explain trading the ornate glitter of palaces for the stark cold of barracks, all for a warm embrace? How else would you explain a director of promise, tainted with two consecutive flops, getting the opportunity to make his biggest film yet?

The bigness of Sita Ramam is not only in its scale, the sets and costumes but also its emotional sweep. It’s set on a canvas that crosses nations, locations and eras to tell a tale explicitly fashioning itself after what Gandhi called India’s greatest love story, the Ramayana. Yet despite its title, the Ramayana allusion in this film doesn’t seem deliberate as much as organic, unlike Raavanan but much like Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi.

It isn’t just the Gods of Indian mythology that make their presence through character names, traits or costumes, Sita Ramam is also a reframing of the themes, tales and quirks of Indian Cinema deities like Mani Ratnam and Yash Chopra. Not just a take on Veer Zaara but a far better, braver film in dealing with the former’s themes and situations. 

The similarity to the Roja aesthetic is obvious and so is the plot point of an extremist Kashmiri (looking quite like Pankaj Kapur) asking for forgiveness from the patriot hero for his lack of humanity. Not only does the touch of Mani Ratnam come up in the scene with a train going through a tunnel and its use of light and darkness for amping up emotion or the frequent use of mirrors, but also in the concept of its fantastic heroine, dressed in fine sarees, classy, smart with a brain and a heart. It also seems that had the film been made in 1992, the film would have opened with a bigger Indian flag burning, but would it have been as gutsy then?

Its gutsiest choice is not this, but using Pakistani characters not just as stock villains, but as characters with arcs who grow and gain empathy, despite some missed steps in the set up. The empathy seems inevitable in a film so suffused with love, so much that you cannot help but feel compassion for a traitor or a terrorist, no matter how heinous their actions seem to be. A brief stretch in a brothel evokes Mahanadhi in its humanization of pimps and sex workers. 

Part of me wondered if this was a function of the time it is set in, when distance carried greater weight than it does today and turned ordinary men and women into poets pouring out their feelings in letters that would take days to deliver. It was also an era where there was still some hope that Partition could be undone, and much to the consternation of many, an era when India was, as accurately depicted, popular in the hearts of Muslim Kashmiris in the valley. 

Is it that romance is truly dead today, and can it only be resurrected in the past? But as Ram says, is the end not inevitable? A flame can be extinguished but its afterglow can still live on, much like the the finest Devdas, ANR, whose image is impossible to shake off when you see Sumanth here and more so, the great SP Balasubrahmanyam whose afterglow lights up the entire music of Sita Ramam ably channeled by his son. This is not an endorsement of nepotism, with examples like Vennela Kishore who reaches Brahmanandam level genius here as a great many films and artists seem to channel themselves into the flame lit by the frames of Sita Ramam through the talents involved. 

Sita Ramam is much like that undelivered letter from Ram, shattering stereotypes and assumptions about the tastes and politics of cinema audiences today. It’s only a humble hope that the love showered on this film by the audience will leave an afterglow strong enough to inspire others in art or in life, to love, to be brave in love and so much more.

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