Having just lost her husband in a tragic set of circumstances, Indira (Jaya Prada) returns to his ancestral home in the village of Puliyanmalai to find a way to rebuild her life. But fate has more in store, as the desperately drought-stricken village on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border has only one possible source of drinking water – an old well on Indira’s property. In a cruel twist, however, a resurvey has transferred a portion of the land with the well to the neighbouring village.
As the village residents struggle without water, there is a cabal of politicians waiting to drive them out and take over the land for profit. Indira has to fight powerful forces to give her fellow residents a chance at life. In summary, the plot of the Tamil-Malayalam bilingual Keni sounds powerful and moving, a timely and hard-hitting drama.
Unfortunately, writer and director MA Nishad, takes a strong plot backed by an amazing set of actors, including Revathy, Nasser, Parthiban, Anu Hassan and Rekha, and delivers a flat film that never quite gets off the ground.
One of the biggest problems for Keni is that it wants to have its say about virtually every issue imaginable. So there are men falsely accused of terrorism and arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), women who face sexual harassment from cops, corrupt politicians, water wars, poverty, debates about journalistic ethics and a whole lot more. By the time Nishad has delivered his sermons on all of these, there’s little time left for any of these issues to develop into any kind of dramatic conflict.
The film also struggles to throw up a powerful heroine in Indira, and loses the chance to put on centre stage the important issues it is trying to deal with. So you hear nearly every other cast member talk about how man’s greed creates drought, and how the compassion of a woman helps sustain life and create an agricultural utopia in the village. But, as Indira’s story unfolds, you’re left wondering just what the revolution is that she heralds.
The film also finds itself burdened by a weak performance by Jaya Prada, who adeptly conveys the vulnerability of a woman whose life is initially turned upside down, but never rises up to deliver the heroic punch the script demands of her.
The rest of the cast is fairly wasted, since they are only required to appear at regular intervals with sage sermons about the hardships caused by the human propensity to draw artificially dividing lines in the ground.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything enjoyable in Keni. Pleasing visuals in an aesthetically captivating landscape and lilting melodies provide agreeable distractions in the film. Even the plotting shows the seeds of dramatic possibilities, with devices such as three journalists who come by different routes to the same story of Indira’s struggle. But all of these are sapped by sluggish storytelling.
In the end, Keni is much like the bilingual song “Ayya Saami”, sung by KJ Yesudas and SP Balasubrahmanyam at the start of the film. Genial and overflowing with old-fashioned platitudes, but lacking any real commitment to deal with the grainy details of reality.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.