As usual I’m a little late entering the reviewing game. I find it difficult to do anything, see anything that comes with a tag of majoritarian approval: send your kid to school, everyone has done it since time immemorial, watch Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo, it’s a huge hit; 48% of the country voted for Modi, they can’t all be wrong; you get the drift.
So when ℅ Kancharapalem released two years ago to rave reviews and paens, I firmly turned away and wasted money on Dhadak instead, which was released around the same time, I think. Forgive me, I’m so used to fighting for the underdog in the constant face of resistance, I didn’t notice this little-shaggy-mongrel-with-puppy-dog-eyes of a film begging to be noticed.
℅ Kancharapalem is a sweet, honest, earnest film and truly befits its position in romance section of Netflix films. No Indian film has celebrated love so unabashedly in recent times. And this is no A for effort review, for the debutant writer-director Maha Venkatesh has an emphatic, assertive voice, a craftsmanship that belies his age and above all an endearing eagerness to tell a tale, the hallmark of all great storytellers. This eagerness is palpable as he beguiles you willy-nilly into the sleepy hamlet of Kancharapalem, crisscrossed by railway lines and trains, alluding to the schisms that divide and unite the communities within the community, into following four love stories that traverse age, caste, religion, class and time. And yet, these weighty, heavy-duty subjects are dealt with a good-natured acceptance of the multidimensional ethos of our country: The Brahmin girl who loves the Christian boy, refuses to have chicken but contrarily declares that she’ll convert to her lover’s faith upon marriage. The love stories of tweens Sundaram and Sunitha, 20-somethings Joseph and Bhargavi, 30-somethings Gaddam and Saleema and not in the least, 40-somethings Raju and Radha weave in and out so seamlessly you don’t notice the clues that the director is leaving, leading you to a twist in the tale so reminiscent of an R K Narayan story, you are blown away. Pay close attention to the clothes, the electronics, the modes of transportation, notice what people are eating and drinking and saying, notice the background lighting and you’ll know what I mean. Calling the art direction and cinematography and acting unfaultable is to undersell it. What a mountain of talent has backed this director.
So no false notes, no missteps? Not, until you start thinking about it long after the film has come to an end. Perhaps I’m nitpicking on the nit, but here’s what occurred to me after I spent time thinking about this little gem of a film: this film would not pass the Bechdel Test. No female in this film exists outside of the male gaze. Don’t get me wrong, the gaze is not a bad one. M Venkatesh clearly loves his women. These are strong, fiery, articulate, courageous women. Not one of them is objectified or sexualized, not even Saleema who’s a common prostitute, not even when she’s in bed plying her trade. Saleema (astonishingly well-acted by the producer of the film, Praveena Paruchuri) refuses to give up her job when Gaddam proposes marriage to her. She even makes him drop her to work at her street corner where she solicits customers! Where’s the problem then, you ask? Well, all the female characters are cantilevered on one side by the everyday boorish patriarchal male and on the other side by the unwavering, non-judgemental, Forrest Gump like lover. And this is where they exist, to either make the man look good or bad. Once in love, they have no life outside of the lover’s admiration nor any agency to fight their oppressors. We end up admiring the saviour-like lover rather than the woman’s gumption and then you begin to wonder if the director in portraying earthy, full-bodied, dark-skinned, ‘real’ women as love interests was merely being self-congratulatory.
Maybe I’m being unfair, because the female characters are unbelievably well-etched and this is after all a collection of hetero-normative love stories and an exceedingly well-told one too. Upon finding out that Raju doesn’t believe in any God, Radha asks him, “What do you believe in, then?” Raju replies, “ Humanity.” And that love for humanity you can sense in the director too. Every face, every gesture, every arched eyebrow, every hunched back, has been shot with such reverence, no frame is a wasted one. I believe this is the coming of age of modern Indian cinema. I can’t wait for M Venkatesh’s next outing.
℅ Kancharapalem available (with English subtitles) on Netflix.