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.

Double Seat (2015)

Sameer Vidwans’ Double Seat tells the story of newlyweds Amit (Ankush Choudhary) and Manjiri (Mukta Barve) starting out their married life in Mumbai, a city where space comes at a premium.

The film opens with a montage of a luxury resort honeymoon passing in lazy days, huge beds with drifts of crisp white linens, peace, and privacy. And then Amu and Manjiri arrive at his home in a chawl in Mumbai where they share a very compact apartment with his parents and brother Alpesh. Amu seems content with the way he lives, but maybe he just needed some encouragement. Manjiri is a pocket rocket, excited by achieving her dream of moving to Mumbai and her career in insurance sales. She sees nothing wrong with taking the occasional calculated risk and having aspirations. And so as they get to know each other, the dream of getting their own home is born.

I like the way the relationship between Amit and Manu is portrayed. They genuinely like each other and they’re dead keen to spend time alone together. They get around the limited privacy by texting each other, even in the same room, with little in jokes and hints. They get each other’s humour and enjoy talking about their hopes and dreams. They go out on late night dates, checking out the homes of the rich and famous, and talking about wonders like having a bath in your flat. Amit never wants Manjiri to change. He enjoys her cheerful blend of ambition and pragmatism, and encourages her. I loved how achievable and relatable some of her dreams were – like getting her first pair of jeans or learning to drive. She doesn’t want things out of greed as much as she wants to make the most out of her opportunities. Being so close to his parents, who are very warm towards her, still has an effect on Manjiri as time passes. She becomes a little less demonstrative and more concerned about what other people might think. She still gives as good as she gets, but she seems stifled.

Amit sees that change and doesn’t like it one bit, partly because it’s killing his nascent sex life. But he too has been squashing some of his aspirations and wishes in order to avoid causing ructions at home. I love the way Amu raises the subject of getting their own place, and how it’s what he needs and not just a thing to make his new wife happy. And then Manju falls pregnant. Both actors deliver likeable and well calibrated characterisations. When things take a turn for the worse Ankush Choudhary nails the blend of self-pity and fear that drives Amit to behave in a disappointing way. Mukta Barve gives Manjiri a spirit and energy that dims at times but is never really overcome. And I liked seeing a nod to realistic pregnancy with Manjiri looking more and more tired and uncomfortable as her due date drew closer.

Nothing ever runs that smoothly, or we wouldn’t have a 2 hour 20 minute film. There are a couple of incidents and scenes in the latter part of the film that I felt were a bit too clunky, but by and large the focus stays on the relationships and domestic life. Amu and Manjiri have some issues but realise they need commitment and communication to resolve their problems. And when financial woes hit, there is little blame or hysteria. Instead of wailing and moaning, Manju tells Amit to get his tears out today because tomorrow they start anew. But he has to remember he has not failed and he did nothing wrong by trying. Some people are a tad more dramatic than others, and some take a little longer to show up with practical support, but they get through things by coming together.

Vandana Gupte as Amit’s mother is delightful. She is very supportive of Manjiri having a job, but she is accustomed to certain rules for living so there is a little bit of friction between the kids and her husband. She usually aims her complaints at Amit though, expecting him to communicate the expectations to Manjiri. She bonds with her daughter-in-law over the mega popular soap Chhakuli Mami. And when she accepts the move will happen, she gets right on board to help the kids out. Her entrepreneurial spirit fires up and she takes to business like a duck to water. Vidyadhar Joshi is the mercurial and comfortable self-centred father and good at showing the wounded dignity that lies under some of his more inflammatory remarks. He’s not bad, he’s not horrible, he’s really quite friendly and tolerant to a point. But when his son wants move up in the world it exposes a tension between the generations and opens up a lot of anger and disappointment that Amit has been dutifully suppressing. He does come round to seeing that his son just wants to fulfil a dream. And as an almost full time dreamer himself, that is something dad can understand.

The remaining support cast are all good. I liked the contrast between Amit’s policeman buddy (Sandeep Pathak) and his wife with Amit and Manjiri’s relationship. Asawari Joshi plays the lead on the addictive soapy and appears as a kind of chain-smoking guardian angel for Manjiri. Shivani Rangole has a small role as Sapna whose proud and supportive grandfather was intent she complete her studies and get a good job.

This reminded me a little of the excellent Love and Shukla, although I like the couple’s dynamic more in Double Seat. See it for a thoughtful and engaging exploration of evolving values and relationships in the big city hustle. 4 stars!

Nana – A Tale of Us

poster.jpg

A few weeks ago I was in Edinburgh for my brother’s Graduation, which he had very thoughtfully timed to coincide with the Edinburgh Festival of Indian Films and Documentaries. I was able to catch the closing night film, Nana – A Tale of Us, an excellent Nagamese film from director Tiakumzuk Aier, who deservedly won the Best Director Award at the festival. Despite having just got married a few weeks earlier, Tia was in Edinburgh and took part in a Q and A session which revealed just how difficult it is to make a film in Nagaland. It made the film even more impressive when he described filming conditions (only 2 cameras!) and revealed that for many of the actors and crew it was their first time working in the industry. Nana is also the first ever film from Nagaland to make it to an International Film Festival and hopefully its success in Edinburgh will ensure it travels to more Film Festivals and gets a larger audience. Do see it if you get the chance, it really is well worth watching for a completely different view of India and glimpses of a region that few ever get to visit.

The film is set in a village located in the mountainous area of Mokokchung in Nagaland where work is scarce and resources are limited. Malay (Zhokhoi Chuzho) struggles to find work to support his wife Ano (Mengu Suokhrie) and their young daughter Nana (Watipongla Kichu) since their small farm doesn’t provide enough food to keep them going. For Malay, as for many of the men in the area, the only option seems to be to work for the local Minister as a thug-for-hire during election time, where wide-spread corruption means there is plenty of opportunity for those who don’t mind getting their hands dirty. Malay works with his friend Thiru (Ariensa Longchar) as an enforcer for the Minister and threatens everyone with violence unless they vote for the party he works for.

Malay’s home life provides a stark contrast to the violence of the corrupt political process. The film opens with a violent confrontation at night that’s immediately followed by a domestic scene as Ano grinds spices in the kitchen where two cats sit close to her cooking fire. At home there is peace and quiet, light and laughter, and above all an abiding sense of love and happiness despite the family struggling to make ends meet. Nana is the light of Ano and Malay’s life and a source of both joy and hope as they struggle with the harsh realities of life in their small village. But away from the family, Malay is a very different man indeed and he represents of the conflict within Nagamese society. On one hand there is the old political structure, corrupt, violent and desperate to hold on to power, while on the other there is the new drive for equitable, clean and fair elections which appears to be gathering pace, even in the rural areas where Malay and his family live.

Although the film tells the story of Nana and her family, it is set against the backdrop of the political elections and shows a different perspective to the thugs and rowdies who usually get short shrift in Indian cinema. However, the corruption and abuse of power is just one facet of the film. The domestic scenes are also very well written and evolve slowly, contrasting perfectly with the more intense and fast action sequences when Malay is acting as an enforcer. Nana is a real charmer too, and she makes a wonderful centre to the film as well as stealing the limelight every time she is on screen. Watipongla Kichu is a real find, and she is incredibly natural and honest in her portrayal of Nana. The other actors are all very good too, and it’s hard to believe that many of them are novices to the screen, but the beauty of the film lies in how well Tia brings the different threads together and makes such a complete whole that is completely satisfying. It’s a stunning film visually too. The scenery is spectacular, and many of the aerial shots are beautifully done to showcase the mountainous terrain and precarious farmland of Nagaland. MT Akum Aier’s cinematography is excellent thoughout while the music from Akok Imsong, Atsa Lang Roths and Along Longchar also complements the action well.

Nana is a message film, but it doesn’t feel preachy, and the point that everyone deserves to have their voice heard as part of the political process is well made without overpowering the rest of the film. I found this a fascinating look at the Indian political process and also appreciated the chance to see day-to-day life in a tribal village in rural Nagaland. With such a winning combination, Nana- A Tale of Us is a very impressive film and has definitely whetted my appetite for watching more from this fairly unknown region of Northern India. I highly recommend watching this film if you do see it playing at a festival near you and hopefully this is the start of a wider exposure for Nagamese films outside of India. 5 stars.