Gods of Dharmapuri (2019)

Director/writer/actor Anish Kuruvilla’s latest, Gods of Dharmapuri (G.o.D), is a ten part series currently available with English subtitles on Zee5. (You can sign up for a free trial – just remember to cancel before the billing date). The action is set in a remote mining settlement, opening with the arrival of Pratap Reddy, his wife, and kids. But this is not a heartwarming underdog story, or a Kaala Patthar-esque industrial relations primer. Think more like Animal Farm as the new arrival starts his climb to the top of the muck heap.

A taciturn and surly man, I’d love to tell you Pratap has a heart of gold but he is driven by ego not empathy. After becoming a spokeman for the miners, he forms a political alliance with Ranga Rao (John Kottoly) and opposes D.N Reddy (L.B Sriram), the incumbent member and dictator. The men of the community accept Pratap as their leader, and D.N Reddy loses the blind obedience he had commanded. But Pratap moves further away from being a voice for workers like him and resents being a tool of the party. He asks what has the power – the hammer or the arm that wields it. Raj Deepak Shetty imposes himself on every frame, looming like a dark cloud. He may not say much but his rage and hunger are palpable. He doesn’t have relationships so much as he gathers retainers and servants.

Pratap has two sons. Venu (Satyadev Kancharana in an impressively nuanced performance) is the eldest and a clean cut good guy who likes to keep his hands clean. Other people do the dirty work and then he agonises over it. Ravi (Karthik Rathnam) is 80% penis and 20% hair. He loves movies, sex, booze, and his hairdo. Subtlety is not his thing and Rathnam goes all in to portray that. The brothers are so different and they are perpetually in disagreement over how to handle problems. But they love each other and are each other’s most reliable friends. The boys always assume they are in the right because they have the power to punish anyone who insults them.  And Venu certainly wants to win at any cost, despite preferring to manipulate rather than go full machete. He was going to get out, but Ravi caused a problem and suddenly Venu couldn’t escape. He asks Pratap how much longer they have to keep stopping him from acting on his rage and digging them into a deeper hole. You can see the dynasty shaping itself as they jostle for position.

The wives are always on the fringe of things, listening and quietly organising and sharing resources. The husbands all turn a blind eye, trading their wives bodies to sleazy managers for job security. When Saroja (Sruthi Jayan) is raped by a supervisor she suffers in silence. The rape was horrible, but that wasn’t the only sexual violence in her life. And women have to pay for men’s crimes with their own bodies time and time again. Saroja was deprived of a much wanted baby because of Pratap’s pride and entitlement. Acutely aware that one day her family will pay for their actions, she tries to shake some sense into the boys but Pratap dominates their lives. Sruthi Jayan is effortlessly expressive, and the moral burden Saroja carries is etched on her face. It’s not all gloom, and she does have a loving and warm relationship with Venu. Maybe because he was the best bet for breaking the cycle of violence and scheming.

Divya Mathews (Samyukta Hornad) is the young reporter, a professional woman sent to do a story about the family dynasty. She doesn’t wear a saree and  she has sex with Venu, her interviewee, so we know she is Modern. I understood why her character was needed but there was something a bit off, and a sizeable mismatch between her career and the scale of the stories local politics could sustain. I also felt that her taking a cheap shot at Venu’s wife Swapna (Chandini Chowdary) was a misstep by the writers. She had plenty of grievances without resorting to petty and uncharacteristic jealousy. And for a reporter, maybe a bit more fact checking and insight into motives would have helped establish her career and credibility as a character. Or finding a different boss.

Writer/director Anish Kuruvilla also stars as Rao, a slimy rural Rupert Murdoch who manipulates the news he publishes to get the political results he wants. It might be a good indicator that I hate this character with the fire of a thousand suns. Media and politics in bed together is no surprise, but Rao has no real convictions. He just wants what is advantageous to him, and presumably for the bigger shark somewhere in the shadows.

The significant supporting characters are relatively few in number, which made the story’s world feel too small for the stakes we were meant to believe in. However I really enjoyed getting to know more about the various That Guys who enabled Pratap’s rise. Chalapathi (Jagadeesh Prathap Bhandari) is a relative of some sort, and he remains steadfastly with Pratap. Chinappa and Seenaiah are the peanut gallery, freeloading when they can and passing commentary on everyone. I didn’t mind their shenanigans as they gave a cynical fly on the wall perspective. Some supporters became disenchanted with Pratap’s tactics, some like Raghu were resigned to staying with the horse they had picked, most would go wherever the wind took them. One of my favourite scenes is when a woman insists on her right to vote. Seeing her stand up to male indifference and dismissal and claim her name and her democratic right was beautiful, and it anchored the story back to the the little people who had no control over the poltical wheeling and dealing.

I liked that the episodes are not uniform in length, but seemed to stop and start where it made sense to do so. While there are some stylised visuals they mesh well with the beats of the story.  For classic mass fans, there is a significant gold tooth and a significant horseshoe. Many of the male actors looked a lot happier from episode 5 onwards when the tight fitting retro wigs were left in the past.  I was very unimpressed by the prosthetics team. A scene that should have packed a visceral punch was ridiculous due to the amateurish crafting of dismembered bits and pieces. Depicting sexual violence is often problematic with a tendency to voyeursim or sensationalising the act. I was both horrified by what was happening on screen and impressed at the restrained direction that left no doubt but also left a lot to the imagination.

The subtitles are mostly good, and the saltiness of the language is appropriate to the setting and characters. There are a couple of episodes where it felt like a different person was writing the subs and sometimes the translations were too literal. Are fish smilies a thing? I want to know. Not enough to really research it myself, but still. The original soundtrack is excellent and yet sometimes too fresh and modern, not always suited to the rural recent past.

If you like your dramas to come with a kick in the head, this is highly recommended.

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