Weaving Gold...

Weaving Gold...

In some ways, Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession, 2008) reminds of another film that released the same year – the Oscar winning Departures. Not only because these films are two of the best melodramas of recent times, but the fact that both these directors had been making pornographies, real or figurative, for quite some time. A while ago, looking at Priyadarshan’s series of inane films, one could almost joke that Priyadarshan is distracting us while he is laying the groundwork for some sinister master plan. Only that it has come true. In Kanchivaram, he creates a film of high cinematic and dramatic values that I wouldn’t think much about calling it ‘the’ movie Indian cinema has been waiting for. Having witnessed, now, that Priyadarshan’s film can lick Departures any day, it is only saddening to recollect that they sent that educational video about dyslexia for the Oscars. Not because the Oscars are the greatest recognition for movies or that the Academy would have easily nominated Kanchivaram (which is actually unlikely), but the fact that we should be careful about the quality of films that we choose to give a boost to.

Priyadarshan’s script, quite simply, follows the life of Vengadam (Prakash Raj), a silk weaver in Kanchivaram, Tamil Nadu during the pre-independence era. Vengadam is one of the best weavers in that region and has just got married to Annam (Shreya Reddy). The screenplay gradually adds detail to Vengadam’s every day life until Vengadam and Annam have a daughter Thamarai (Shammu). At Thamarai’s naming ceremony, Vengadam, as per customs, avows that he will adorn her in a silk sari during her marriage.  And this event becomes the focal point of the story, the object of desire for our protagonist and the fodder for some neat writing by Priyadarshan. The narrative starts two days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and we see Vengadam, now in the police custody, being taken somewhere. The film shuttles between, ironically, the pre-independence era and the newly independent nation as Vengadam recollects his past during a bus journey. This is one of the most worn out devices in cinema but, surprisingly, it works for Kanchivaram because it tells us beforehand of Vengadam’s fate and in essence, removes the unnecessary element of suspense from, what would turn out to be, a character-driven movie.

Evidently, the facet that stands at the podium is Priyadarshan’s script, which perhaps is the kind Indian cinema has been having a go at, unsuccessfully, for years now. Stringing together a chain of massive ironies, honest observations and relevant details, Priyadarshan concocts a script that doesn’t merely derive its characters like many a potboiler, but lets them evolve. That is to say that it doesn’t just take its characters through preordained dramatic checkpoints, but allows them open up at their own pace. Save for the two inevitable turning points that are required to stitch up the three acts, never does Priyadarshan feel the unwarranted need to see the story through to a climax just for the sake of it. Rather, he relies on accumulation of detail to unravel Vengadam’s world. Consider the scene when Vengadam presents the worker’s petitions to his “boss”. Or the scene where he declares the protest. Or even the scene where he and his daughter get caught throwing pebbles at a bystander. One would otherwise have expected a spat of sorts in each one of these petty situations. Instead, Priyadarshan squelches every possible avenue of exaggeration and manipulation.

KanchivaramThat is not to say that Kanchivaram is not a melodrama. On the contrary, I believe, it is precisely how a melodrama should be. The word “melodrama” has been used very loosely and often as a derogatory remark. Most of our mainstream movies have been put down because of the same reason, and rightly so. Where these ordinary films tried to exaggerate emotions through copious amounts of words, leaving no margin for discovery or imagination, Kanchivaram lets cinema do that for it. Its exaggeration is not the weak over-emphasis of words, but the subconscious amplification by images. Priyadarshan realizes that subtlety is the essence of art and places immense trust on his audience, yet never lets the movie lurk near ambiguity. His melodrama is not made of music cues or slow motion shots, but of cinematic compositions. Consider the final scene where Thamarai, who had earlier taken over the responsibility of taking care of her father from her mother, breathes her last. Vengadam takes her in his arms to show the sari he has been weaving for her. Earlier in the film, Vengadam had does exactly the same thing when his wife is in her death bed. Instead of having Vengadam break down, and cry out aloud the unfairness of it all, Priyadarshan merely uses the same camera angle – looking at the pair of actors through the weaving machine – to nudge our memory, make us work and only then earn the tragedy of the moment.

But what is most striking about the script, which treads a very risky and usually avoided territory in mainstream cinema, is the way it examines what politics means to common man. Even though the novel idea of communism aids Vengadam to realize that he is being exploited, in summary, it amounts to nothing. Personal, emotionally charged motivations overwhelm conscious political ideologies. Importing an alien political system without any concern for existing social structure has resulted in more harm than good. In fact, reminiscent of what fellow Keralite John Abraham did three decades ago in Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1978), Priyadarshan explores the implications of porting any foreign system to suit a completely different environment. The caste system, which was initially used to classify professions, has mutated into an organized system for exploitation, which is passively accepted by both the oppressors and the oppressed. There is even a subplot in the film, which acts as comic relief and satire at the same time, where a policeman, who is to take charge of the convicted Vengadam, finds the official emblem dislodged from his hat and panics at the thought of losing his job just because of that.

KanchivaramAlthough attention-craving at places, Priyadarshan’s direction shows the signature of a mature director who knows his craft. He seems to know where exactly to use expressionist lighting and where to focus deeply. Speaking about cinematography, Kanchivaram would not be what it is without the contribution of three fine pieces of work. The first is Sabu Cyril’s production design. Though aided considerably by what looks like post-production processing, Cyril nevertheless does a terrific job in creating a uniform earthy tone to the film which eventually blends into the red of communism that later becomes the central point of the film. All the people in the film – the leads and the junior actors – look straight out of grandpa’s albums, with clearly defined facial features. The second is Thiru’s cinematography, which speaks for itself. This veteran cameraman had already proved his worth in Hey Ram (2000), Kanchivaram is just second witness.  And equally noteworthy is M. G. Sreekumar’s soundtrack, which is befitting of the period and shuttles between classic Carnatic, which was at one time everyman’s art, and emphatic choral, going hand in hand with the communist theme of the movie. But needless to say, the greater credit goes to the director for retaining the necessary and weeding out the superfluous.

The performances are all fine (except for Prakash Raj’s diction, which sometimes betrays his roots) and would be the first things to amass praise. But I find it kind of funny that a Malayalam film director casts a Kannada actor and a Telugu actress as the lead in a Tamil film! Talking about languages, it is also interesting that Priyadarshan sets his film in Tamil Nadu and not Kerala, given that communism is central to the plot of the film. And one more thing, I would definitely have loved see more of the actual weaving process, the machines and the graceful movements of the workers who churn out such world-class products, just in order to sink into the world of Kanchivaram. Priyadarshan does show these images early on, but cut away too early to have any effect. Furthermore, with clever use, these gestures could have well increased the vitality of Vengadam’s character manifold. Well, let’s just stick to what is present in the movie, which itself is pretty darn awesome. I may be slightly overrating this movie, but what the heck! We are not going to see such an uncompromising Indian film for a long time to come. No, not from Priyadarshan at least. De Dhana Dhan is slated for a 2009 release.

 

Verdict:

P.S: Here is a hilarious article by an American about his experience of working as an extra in a Priyadarshan comedy.

(pics courtesy: Impawards, Rediff, Salisbury International Arts Festival)

Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1978) (aka Donkey In The Elite Colony)
John Abraham
Tamil

“I felt a living thing had come to me for love and affection. I hadn’t the heart to drive it out.

 

Agraharathil KazhuthaiJohn Abraham’s Donkey in the Elite Colony (1978) begins before its imagery does, with the narrator passionately reciting a fiery poem by Subramanya Bharathi, in praise of fire, during the credits. The first visual of the film follows up the verbal worship of fire in the poem with an extended shot of a sunrise. The tone is set for a leftist kind of film with revolutionary overtones. The seventies was a notorious decade in Indian cinema – both parallel and mainstream – as the permissiveness of American cinema had started showing its influence. And fortunately, it was also the period when cinema was taken most seriously and for the good. Malayalam film director John Abraham’s second film, and his only film made in Tamil, is a controversial film from the era and continues to be rated as one of the most important non-mainstream movies from the country.

Professor of philosophy, Narayanaswamy (M. B. Sreenivasan) returns home one day to find a little donkey at his doorstep. He comes to know upon enquiry that its mother has been killed by a mindless mob and decides to provide refuge to the animal. But staunch opposition from college officials and his students forces him to transport Chinna (that’s what he has named his pet) to his native village, only to trigger a chain of apocalyptic events. The neighbourhood is an agraharam, the settlement of Brahmins (considered one of the higher social classes in ancient India), where the mere notion of a donkey (an icon of the working class) replacing the sacred cow as a domestic animal breeds hostility. Narayanaswamy is single and has a brother who is married but childless. Chinna is taken care of by the mute Uma (Swathi), who is as devoid of the notions of class and caste as Chinna  is and whose fate clearly mirrors the donkey’s.

Agraharathil KazhuthaiDirector John Abraham and scriptwriter Venkat Swaminathan evidently draw inspiration from Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966, even overtly referenced early in this film), where too the protagonist’s fate was tied up with the donkey’s. I say fate because none of the central characters (the women and the animals) seem to be able to affect the direction of their lives. Both Chinna and Uma are mute creatures who end up being victims of insecurities and questionable intentions of certain individuals who take refuge under the cover of their social standing. But Abraham is far from being a Jansenist (that Bresson is often claimed to be). He is more interested in doing away with the oppressive forces than in contemplating about the harrowing state of affairs as his opening and closing sequences testify. Towards the end of the film, when the professor finally searches out the whereabouts of Uma, he finds her sitting listless among the ruins of a temple, amidst abandoned idols, subtly raising an intriguing question – Has God forsaken his subjects or is it the other way round?

It is so good to see an Indian film, after a long time, which respects the cinematic form and not just its scenario. Venkat Swaminathan’s script would have been just a hard hitting short story if not for what John Abraham does with it. Although Abraham’s style does become showy at places and the film feels like an uneven student film, the director’s conviction that form underscores and enhances content overwhelms. He draws inspiration from Eisenstein (montage is used regularly in the film), the neo-realists (location shoot and use of non-professionals) and, more extensively, Bresson (lot of detail is conveyed through off screen speech while the camera lingers on the characters’ actions). It is enough to witness just the opening few minutes of the film to see the formalist urge of the film. Following the prolonged shot of the sunrise, using simple cross cutting between the professor and the little donkey, Abraham starts presaging the intrusive and iconoclastic nature of both of them, which will be elaborated upon later in the film.

Agraharathil KazhuthaiBut most interesting is the central piece of the film, where Abraham achieves a unique effect through repetition and montage. It is a sequence where Narayanaswamy’s father is recounting the villager’s complaints about the donkey. Each scene of complaint begins with a villager shouting out his gripe, after which, Abraham cuts to what actually happened. It is revealed to us that in none of the cases, is the donkey guilty of what the villagers are accusing it for. In contrast to the verbose ranting of the villagers, these flashbacks are completely devoid of words, with only a soundtrack playing throughout each one of them, as if stressing the inherent dubiousness in human words. At the end of each scene, we see Chinna and Uma walking past the father-son pair almost in the same fashion every time. This is followed by a section that shows a working class man taking advantage of Uma’s condition, much like the villagers making use of the donkey’s inability to object. The whole sequence of events repeats three or four times and constantly calls attention to itself, making it a bit of an overkill by today’s standards.

Donkey in the Elite Colony has been called an attack on the Brahmin hegemony in rural Tamil Nadu. But Abraham’s film is much more than a simple tirade against a particular caste or class. It, in fact, talks against any system that tries to imitate itself for a reason it can’t understand and imposes upon itself, laws and practices that are either irrelevant to the present or plainly irrational (In one scene, Narayanaswamy tries drinking coffee without sipping – a practice considered a characteristic of the Brahmin household – in front of his mother, only to fail). Donkey in the Elite Colony presents one such social system which blindly attempts to sustain its oppressive structures like class, caste and family and goes any distance to weed out anomalies that may harm the setup. The class divide is as much perpetuated by the submissiveness of the working class as it is by the domination of the elite. The fact that Narayanaswamy is single and his brother’s family is childless seems to be a big taboo. Status quo is restored only when his brother’s wife bears a child. Even the college where Narayanswamy works insists that he get rid of his pet since it is “demoralizing” for the institution.

Agraharathil KazhuthaiThe final act of Donkey in the Elite Colony begins on an ambiguous note, which, in a way, feels like a weak link. We are first shown Brahmins who are repenting for their actions, haunted by the implications of their sins, and then the workers rising to revolt. Is Abraham suggesting that a change has to come from within, rather than through an organized movement (This is a plausible explanation, for Narayanaswamy himself is one of the Brahmins)? Or is he of the opinion that a revolution is the only way for progress? The climactic act, at times seeming indecisive, is brought to a final resolution with the help of another Subramanya Bharathi poem – Dance of Death. The penultimate image in the film is that of burning houses, rendering closure to the film’s first sequence (the opening poem is recited in the soundtrack once more) and providing us with a clear solution rather than an introspective question. Abraham’s leftist tendency overwhelms, taking the film with it into an agitprop mode reminiscent of the Soviet cinema of the twenties. The film closes with a shot of the setting sun – a rather unusual metaphor for a propagandist showdown, for the revolution has just begun.