C/O Kancharapalem: A Telugu Movie That Is “Quietly Revolutionary”

When a friend of mine recommended the Telugu film C/O Kancharapalem (2018) last year, I looked up the film’s premise on Google and it said this:

Now being a Malayali who has been treated to some fantastic small-town stories, this gist didn’t intrigue me as such, and I let it pass. Months later, as fate would have it, it showed up on my Netflix recommendations. With no background information (and hence zilch expectations), I decided to give it a try…

Two hours later: MIND WAS BLOWN!

I was dying to discuss the film with my go-to cinephile friends, but then I learned that none of them had watched the film. In fact, most of them hadn’t even heard of the film in the first place. And that’s when I realized how underviewed it was, at least among the non-Telugu diaspora. 

What I’ll try to do in this article is maybe nudge you into the world of Kancharapalem, tease bits of the four plots (enough to intrigue you). Because that generic Wikipedia gist is a huge injustice to this nuanced film! 

As real as it gets

Director Maha cast the entire film using non-actors from Kancharapalem (yes, it’s a real place). Of course, we’ve had Lijo pull this off magnificently with Angamaly Diaries. But here, the performances aren’t as nuanced as AD, and surprisingly this becomes a plus. Even at its most dramatic moments the film feels very real, because the actors don’t overdo expressions and constantly give us a feeling that we’re watching the events unfold from a rear window of sorts. 

Unconventional, yet unpretentious

You don’t see these two words together often. Because when the attempt is to present an offbeat idea, there’s usually an effort to project it as something bigger than it actually is. C/O Kancharapalem addresses quite a few social issues along the way. The characters offer solutions to some, while they fall prey to others. Anyway, at no point does the film make a huge hubbub of itself. 

The four tales are –  in Baradwaj Rangan’s apt words – “quietly revolutionary”. 

Mild spoilers ahead.

Shuns classism

Raju is a clerk. Radha joins his office as a superior. When she asks him to join her at lunch, she sees disapproval among her peers. This workplace classism has become an unspoken rule in our society; probably a descendant of the caste system. Anyway, Radha acts against this – not by delivering a two-minute punch dialogue – but by simply saying that she does not approve of this, and signalling Raju to join the table. Subtle, but efficient. 

Humanizes sex workers

Gaddham falls in love with a veiled woman who comes to buy alcohol at his liquor shop everyday.   When he learns from her that she’s a sex worker, he is initially shocked. But he sits up that night, thinking; and realizes that this news did not change his feelings for her. Before their courtship, she makes it clear that she will continue to work until their marriage, to which he agrees.

One day, she recounts to him how she was an illegitimate born to her mother who then succumbed to AIDS. That evening when Gaddham drops her to work, he gives her a packet of condoms and in a sombre tone, says “Please be careful”. It’s a beautifully written relationship, that sheds light on the human side of a profession that is often seen through a sleazy tint.

Gives its women characters agency

Writing this as a strength to the film is just a testament to how rarely we get well-written woman characters. In each story of C/O K, the woman has a crucial role in driving the plot forward. Whether its Radha making the first move on Raju, or Bhargavi deciding to take revenge on her friend’s abuser with violence, or Saleema asking her boyfriend to tell his friends that he is dating a sex worker or Ram Murthy’s wife who charts out his business plan, it’s wonderful to see them all act on their own terms. 

Depicts the society’s gaze on an unmarried man

Raju is 49 years old, and hasn’t been able to marry or raise a family. His inability to do so incites a very repulsive reaction from his colony: the women spread rumours that he is gay, and the men in the residents association tell him to either marry to prove he is heterosexual, or pack his bags and leave the colony. And (sadly) this is what prompts Raju to seriously consider marrying Radha. The story makes you wonder how the society’s reaction is wrong on two levels: one, its love for spreading misinformation (and defamation), and two, it’s regressive ideas on homosexuality. 

Be warned, kurachu heavy spoilers ahead. Please watch the film before reading the rest of this article. 

Its take on religion

Somewhere in the third act, the viewer realises that all the stories address religion. But it is the big reveal at the climax that reaffirms this: the clever use of different names for the four stories manipulates the viewer into eliminating the possibility that they could, at all, be connected. Here’s what I understood about Raju’s equation with religion:

As a kid, Raju Sundaram was a staunch believer in God (Lord Ganesha) and attributes all the good in his life to Him. But when a personal tragedy strikes, he is furious. He foolishly destroys the Ganesha statue his father was working on, prompting the latter to commit suicide. He begins to think that he is following the wrong God and so he converts to Christianity. But tragedy strikes again, when his lover’s bigot father marries her off. He begins to lose faith in the idea of religion. Years later, he falls in love with Saleema and he isn’t at the least bothered to know she’s a Muslim. But she is killed by religious fundamentalists for being a sex worker, and he is left devastated. He draws from his experiences and becomes an atheist. Over the years, despite mending his ways and trying to be a good person, he suffers due to the existence of a social construct and its blind followers.

Gives one blow to patriarchy too

Patriarchy essentially plays the role of a second villain. In each of the 4 stories, the overpowering voice of a man over a woman, sets up the conflict. In the first three stories, the women stand up against this voice but end up falling prey to them physically or emotionally. In the final story, Radha manages to overthrow the system (by eloping with Raju) with the support of the villagers of Kancharapalem. Maybe hinting that to tackle patriarchy, the society at large should come together?

The devil is in the details

The way the film holds onto its suspense, and yet teases the viewer with easter eggs galore, is a masterclass in screenplay writing. For example, the songs that play in the background of scenes are indicative of the time the story is set in. Raju’s friends in each phase are basically the same characters, and there are explicit references to their professions in the first act. Raju’s dialogues in one phase make so much more sense in light of events that happened in previous phases, and a second viewing makes you go ‘Ahaaaaan!’ every 15 minutes of its runtime. 

Apart from all this, the film also boasts of some fantastic local music as well as clever editing and cinematography.  

******************

Half an hour into the movie, two girls wait in a room overlooking the village gym. Seeing the bodybuilders work out, one girl says to the other: “They look better than movie stars, don’t they?”

And that’s exactly what I wanted to say about these actors at large, as the end credits rolled. Because there’s no starry aura, no dilutions, no distractions, and a thorough suspension of disbelief that’s hard to achieve. Just some plain, heartwarming, good ol’ cinema. Do give it a watch, and let’s discuss in the comments!

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