The World of Kancharapalem

There are two versions of this review – a spoiler-free version, and a spoiler version.

Please feel free to read the version that is appropriate for you.

SPOILER – FREE VERSION:
Go and fucking watch the movie already!

SPOILER–FILLED VERSION:
SCARE OF KANCHARAPALEM

The first thing that strikes you is how different the film is. Like it turned up for a fancy dress competition without a costume. There is no fluff, no fail-safe gimmick. Even the dialogues are written without trying to overtly impress you, the viewer.
The film’s initial struggle is to be taken seriously. But how?
There’s the acting – amateurish, with neither heightened drama or finesse. It is a question, then, on our aesthetics – are we attuned to only consume the polished, the fine, the honed and the nurtured?

 

DARE OF KANCHARAPALEM

But director Venkatesh Maha gives you no other way to connect to the film. This isn’t Lagaan – where actors from around the world get together to transport you to another place. Most of the actors in the film are from Kancharapalem. C/o Kancharapalem is a film of Kancharapalem, by Kancharapalem. But is it for Kancharapalem?

This I where the film differs from its predecessors. Films centered around a place – Masaan, Manhattan, Kahaan – are often credited with making the city a part of the narrative.

This film steers clear of those tropes. There is something universal about the place – it could be your hometown, your grandparents’ native place. There is no physical location that binds the story to the place. Unlike Angamaly’s obsession with pork – there is no quirk to latch on to. Which is why you don’t need to be transported to some place else; you dive into it and stay put.

 

GLARE OF KANCHARAPALAM

Each of the four stories weave religion beautifully into their fabric.

Most films deal with religion in two ways – fear or relevance. Devotee or atheist. Blind faith or vociferous challenge. Black or white.
But these two portrayals gloss over an important aspect of the nature of religion. That it is mostly a part of our existence, as internal as blood or DNA, or genes. Religion is an overarching umbrella that shields you from the rain. But try to break free from its shade, and it becomes an all-encompassing dome that traps you within.

Most people have a resigned attitude towards religion. Like family, ancestry, and citizenship – human beings negotiate with religion not with fiery confrontation, but a reluctant resignation. When Bhargavi gives the gym members her wedding card, it is not accompanied by a rousing soundtrack. You want her to fight, but the director is not interested in painting powerful portraits. He is taking Instagram shots of their lives.

Sundaram Raju’s association with god and religion also follow this pattern. He starts off with blind faith and complete trust. When he dares to challenge the divine powers, he pays for it with a deep personal loss.

By the time he meets Bhargavi – he is a changed man. ‘Converted Christian’ on the surface, broken and shaken on the inside. When she gets married to another man due to their religions, he calmly walks away into the evening.

Which is also why Saleema’s religion does not matter to him. Neither does it perturb him that she sells her body for a living. When she is gone, he has no fight left in him. He has been paying a hefty tribute to religion all his life – his parents, his wife, his companion.

It is easy to etch out character who fight valiantly against the suppressive nature of religion. But that is not how most of us negotiate with religion. We are not valiant gladiators, but silent slaves manning the gallows.

FLARE OF KANCHARAPALEM

There is something about a director’s first film. A certain nod to indulgence, a giant ‘fuck you’ to the norms. First films are wild, fierce creatures who later go on to become domesticated. This is true of cinema worldwide – it is true of Trouffat’s 400 Blows, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Closer home, Anurag Kashyap is yet to make a film that simmers like Black Friday does. Tharun Bhascker’s Pelli Choopulu meekly pushed open the door of mainstream Telugu cinema. Sandeep Vanga’s Arjun Reddy was a drunken brawl in the same room. Venkatesh Maha’s film flings a leaky gas cylinder into the room, and throws in a lighter for good effect.

There is a culture of ‘twists’ in Telugu cinema – but most of them could give you brain malaria. They all revolve around the hero revealing that he is a police officer – even though he spent half the film chasing and poking the navel of nubile girls. Or it is a reveal that the heroine’s father is the man the hero had vowed to kill in the first few minutes of the film.

Cliches that leak from a corrupted writer’s pen are passed off as ‘twists’. C/o Kancharapalem delivers the most satisfying twist I have seen in recent times. Not a cheap gimmick, nor a sorry excuse – it is a Hallelujah! moment that makes you sit up, and smile.

Underneath the twist lies a deeper statement of our understanding of India’s villages. We never question why Sunitha chooses to sing Baley Baley Mogadivey as her song. We do not raise our eyebrows when Sundaram gets her a ‘song book’, even though he haven’t come across one in decades.

Our idea of a village has been frozen in sepia shades. Our perception is a prototype that’s dusted off from memories and brought out when needed. And that is why we walk gleefully into the delectable trap that the director set for us.

C/o Kancharapalem relies on nothing but a story. There is nothing else to show here; there are no shiny lamps and syrupy sweets on display. The director sits in the Sunday Market, selling us his story while swatting away flies.
For its ingenuity, its bravery. For the size of its giant metallic balls, for the middle finger it waves at mainstream Telugu cinema – C/o Kancharapalem is the best Telugu film I have ever watched.

***

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