First-time director Dushyanth Katikaneni’s Telugu film Ambajipeta Marriage Band is not an easy watch. The emotional rollercoaster drama can leave its viewers with a lingering sense of dread, in a state of turmoil, thinking about the characters and their plight well after the film is over. Suhas and Sharanya Pradeep put in terrific performances as twin siblings in the story of the fight for dignity in Andhra Pradesh’s Ambajipeta.
The setting is a village in which caste discrimination runs deep. ‘Based on true events’, announces the title card and though we can guess the broad strokes of the storyline, the characterisations and the questions the narrative brings up make an impact.
The 132-minute film is tautly written and narrated and wastes no time drawing attention to the undercurrents of caste oppression. In the course of the story we learn that several elders in the village have taken loans from Venkat Babu (Nithin Prasanna) who, not surprisingly, has usurped lands when they are unable to pay up.
The generations of exploitation is the backdrop in which the present-day youngsters have to find their voices. A young woman in the village might have earned her post as a government school teacher on merit, but the oppressor will make it sound like she got the job thanks to him. Padma (Sharanya Pradeep) is one such woman who works as a teacher and does not hesitate to address Venkat by his name rather than attach a ‘sir’ or ‘babu’. As expected, this doesn’t augur well with Venkat and his coterie. Her character is the film’s backbone.
Ambajipeta Marriage Band (Telugu)
Director: Dushyanth Katikaneni
Cast: Suhas, Shivani Nagaram, Sharanya Pradeep
Storyline: In a village where caste discrimination runs deep, twin siblings have to fight for dignity.
Padma’s twin brother, Malli or Mallikarjun (Suhas), is part of the titular marriage band and the twins’ father runs a salon. The setting is 2007, when the movie songbooks were still being old. Setting the story in the years just before the smartphone boom gives the makers scope to look at what could have happened in the village before social media and YouTube videos were possible. In an interview with The Hindu, Suhas stated that the film is partly inspired by real events that Dushyanth had observed in his village.
A love story unfolds on expected lines between Malli and Lakshmi (Shivani Nagaram is impressive), Venkat’s sister. Even before Venkat learns of this and things blow up, Dushyanth builds the tension by showing how rumours are often targeted at women who hail from humble families and Padma is at the receiving end.
While Malli is characterised as a happy go lucky person who charms his way to Lakshmi’s heart, Padma is comparatively restrained and is the more responsible sibling. She does not believe in an eye for an eye while he can get into a scuffle. In an early scene, he admits to being scared of nocturnal animals when the family sleeps outdoors. She does not cower in fear. As this scene played out, I wondered if Padma would give in to fear later on? Dushyanth springs a surprise in how he shows the siblings fight back to have their dignity after being pushed to the brink, particularly Padma.
Suhas is the face of Ambajipeta Marriage Band and gets ample scope to display his acting prowess. He portrays the native swagger with ease and is on point in showcasing the vulnerability and rage required for the later portions. He does not miss a beat and turns in a solid performance. What is heartening is the equal scope that Sharanya gets in a well-written character. She even gets a mass moment and the audience befittingly clap and cheer for her. In the several films where she has been cast in supporting roles, Sharanya has often come across as a dependable actor. Ambajipeta… taps further into her potential and she is nothing short of fantastic.
Dushyanth also makes the supporting characters count, especially Jagadeesh Pratap Bandari as Sanjeevi. This is a character that we root for as the film progresses. The same goes for Goparaju Ramana as the bandmaster and the actors who play the twins’ parents. At one point, an elderly character is asked if being indebted to a loan shark means losing all self respect, and the question hits hard and changes the course of action. Ambajipeta… raises many such questions, including that of dignity of labour for those in the music band and the salon, when it stays in the realistic zone of portraying relationships in the backdrop of social discrimination. It takes huge cinematic liberties, especially towards the end, and not all of this hits the bull’s eye. However, the narrative is mostly impactful.
The film also shows how violence against women is used as a tool of oppression and some portions are disturbing. Dushyanth contrasts the dignity with which Malli treats Lakshmi as opposed to how his sister is treated by the oppressors.
Had the characterisations of Venkat Babu and his brother been more multidimensional, the drama would have been better. Nevertheless, there is plenty going for Ambajipeta… Shekar Chandra’s music works its magic through the background score that fits into the zone of band music and goes from playing popular film numbers to some hummable original numbers. The band music also becomes a tool for rebellion.
Ambajipeta Marriage Band is an absorbing drama anchored by winsome performances, and Dushyanth Katikaneni makes an assured debut.