'C/o Kancharapalem': A Telugu film that rejects toxic masculinity, embraces real women

The film gives us empathetic male and female characters in realistic set-ups, without any of it looking like tokenism.
'C/o Kancharapalem': A Telugu film that rejects toxic masculinity, embraces real women
'C/o Kancharapalem': A Telugu film that rejects toxic masculinity, embraces real women

*Spoilers ahead

Post the release of C/o Kancharapalem, we’ve all been talking about the film’s emotional aptitude and empathy. For a film that has a big chunk of heart, beating and bloody, C/o Kancharapalem is also surprisingly levelheaded and intelligent with what it is trying to say.

Take the trains for example. For most of us, train horns elicit a knee-jerk reaction of rush and movement—either to get on a train or to move off the tracks. The film uses this cultivated rush to alert us into not losing interest. Added to this is the train cutting through the frame or coming at the camera. It is psychologically unsettling and symbolically a suggestion of impending doom. 

At one of its most animated moments, the film shows us a perplexed Radha, a widowed mother, being bullied by Aditi, her daughter, into eloping with Raju, our hero. As fun as it is to watch a film be subtly scandalous, the best thing about the scene isn’t this exchange. It’s hidden within the way the two characters, whose first language is Odiya/Hindi, effortlessly switch to Telugu in the middle of the conversation. This is the film’s way of letting its audience know that whether anyone likes it or not, Raju and his village have already found a place in Radha’s words and, by extension, her heart.

Every other scene between Radha and her daughter is layered with lines on feminism and the need for it to be intersectional and inclusive of people from all ages and backgrounds. I have never experienced silent feminism—where the film interweaves its ideology in minute ways, rather than turning towards tokenism—in the context of Telugu cinema recently, so the dignity of it all was reassuring.   

C/o Kancharapalem is a film about love and its universality. We see many forms of affection being portrayed—between friends, between a boss and his handyman, between a father and his son—of which four stories are at the core of the film.

The innocent connection between Sundharam and Sunitha. The volatile, almost hormonal, attraction between Joseph and Bhargavi—notice the undertones of desire and provocation in the scene where he hits a guy while looking at her startled face. The ever accommodating and unconditional love between Saleema and Geddam—the Mansion House proposal is one for the ages. And the companionship between Raju and Radha, a love that sprouts between two tired and lonely souls.

Tucked under the heavy threads of matrimony is another story of love, one between Sundaram’s parents. She finishes his sentences and corrects his path not out of complacency or mistrust, but out of understanding and genuine care.

It’s one thing to make a movie against a rural backdrop adorned by tanned stars and “funny” dialects. And it’s a completely different thing to find people who can act well enough to be a part of their own story. The former, more often than not, stinks of condescension and artificiality, while the latter brims with life and earnestness.

Director Venkatesh Maha knows this or so it seems, as the film earns some of its freshness and strength from the cast and the genuine disbelief in their eyes, which peeps out from time to time. They are interesting enough as they are.

That said, C/o Kancharapalem isn’t all emotions, it’s socially relevant and layered as well. Take the scene with the potter and his boss where the boss is the only one who cannot read or write. It discusses the class division and the unfair advantage some people have in the name of caste and family without turning it into a speech or a declaration. That’s another good thing about this film: its ability to let subtext be.

The construction of a gigantic Ganesha is used as a parallel arc to track the development of the other characters. As long as he is a mere drawing on a piece of paper, he had powers to grant Sundharam’s wishes. The minute he is turned into something ornamental and ceremonial, he becomes unreachable and powerless.

Likewise, the Independence Day marks the beginning of troubles for the characters. As soon as the kids are done singing the national anthem, the women start to lose their freedom one after another, starting with Sunitha. If you want these two instances to be dialogues on religion and freedom, and what they mean for those who are underprivileged and marginalized, they can be. But if you are content with being haunted by a child’s eyes looking up helplessly, too young to understand life’s love for irony and too dumbstruck to be angry, then that is fine as well.

Varun Chaphekar’s and Aditya Javvadi’s cinematography feels perfectly attuned to the director’s vision. With a camera that is mostly stationary, and thus omnipresent and orienting, and frames that bring out the beauty in the mundane and the forgotten, they facilitate an atmosphere that feels rather intimate and poignant. The film uses sync sound, and through this we experience the village go through an average day—from the bustling mornings to the lazy night meetings of friends and lovers. It’s not just trains and bells that get captured, one can also hear the sound of a knife cutting an onion into two, if one is keen enough. Added to this are Sweekar’s melodies, earthy and light. They provide the film with the necessary momentum it needs at times. That said, the songs that come when Raju and his friends are having their nightly peg slightly mess with the film’s on-the-spot vibe.

One of the things that stay with you is the film’s dismissiveness of toxic masculinity. The instances of male domination we see are irrevocably destructive. The film achieves this balance by writing women who are vulnerable, yet intractable—both Bhargavi and Radha, despite their reservations, are women who aren’t afraid to speak their mind—and men who are secure in their sense of being—Raju is happy to listen and follow the women his life, which he gets from his father who takes business advice from his wife.

Then there is Saleema, played by the unapologetic Praveena, who isn’t ashamed of her roots, neither is she easily pleased. But for our sake, the film decides to deal with her profession through Geddam, played by Mohan Bhagath with boundless amounts of innocence and compassion. The way it treats a middle-aged woman and her reasonably delicate health—the scene where Radha’s co-worker offers her sweets and she reveals that she is diabetic was delightfully liberating—is commendable as well.

With a gaze that is decidedly non-judgmental and its tone, matter-of-fact and authentic, it makes for an amiable experience. In an intimate moment, we see Saleema kissing Geddam on his cheek and then they embrace. There could’ve been an actual kiss, but that would’ve felt urban and borrowed. Similarly, when Saleema says that her mother has died of AIDS, we see Geddam’s concerned face and we think, ‘This is it. This is where he messes it all up’. If he is anything like the loose-tongued Mathan from Mayaanadhi, he might have too. But, to our surprise, he discreetly hands her a packet of condoms after dropping her at her usual spot and tells her to be careful. You have to admire a film that chooses to be empathetic when the average template tells it to be crass and/or moralistic, even if it’s too idealistic.

C/o Kancharapalem is one of those rare films that can make you feel like a better person for merely having seen it. As far as the make-believe world of cinema is concerned, that’s the best kind of pretence there is. Even the ending that comes at you like a thunderbolt hits you only to leave you on a happy note. Calling it a twist makes it sound like a gimmick, when there is nothing scheming about an acutely perceptive screenplay. We would not see someone like Raju and think that he might’ve had an eventful life filled with love and loss. The film uses this blanket rationale of ours to pull the rug out from under our prejudiced feet, but yet manages to give us one of the best endings in the history of Telugu cinema.

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