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.

c/o Kancharapalem

Kancharapalem

c/o Kancharapalem is a wonderful début film from Venkatesh Maha that looks at romance through four very different relationships. The first is a schoolyard crush that has unexpected consequences, the second is a twenty-something affair while the third is between a mystery woman and a bottle shop employee. But it’s the fourth story that has the most impact – a gorgeously developed romance between the 49-year old Raju (Subbu Rao) and 42-year old Radha (Radha Bessey). Along the way Maha touches on prejudices associated with caste and religion, adds in excellent characters like a stammering idol maker and a gym-running rowdy with political aspirations. This is life in a microcosm and Maha has produced a film that is down-to-earth and warm-hearted while still making some very valid points about society in India to-day.

The four different stories run alongside each other and intertwine, with the common theme being the area of Kancharapalem in Vizag. The area is separated from the next suburb by a train line, and the passing trains help to isolate Kancharapalem and provide a visible boundary for the residents. We become familiar with the streets too as each of the characters walks around the area and this creates an intimacy with the town –the small shop by the school is recognisable, for example, because a number of the characters at some stage walk past. Having created this small-town atmosphere, Maha continues by using locals as the support cast, ensuring that it seems more as if we are watching a documentary about the area rather than a fictional story that just happened to be set in

.The romances cover every generation and the youngest couple are still at school. Sundaram (Kesava K) deliberately puts himself in situations where Sunitha (Nithya Sree) will see him, but despite sitting next to him in class she barely seems to notice him at all. This all changes when he wears a pink shirt, deliberately as Sunitha has described pink as her favourite colour. While the rest of his class tease him for wearing a girl’s colour, Sunita finally makes a connection and the two become firm friends. Rounding out this part of the story is Sundaram’s father (Kishore) who makes idols for a living but is frustrated by his current employer so with the support of his wife, he decides to set up his own business. Sundaram’s father has a speech impediment and one of the real charms of the film is how it demonstrates the day to day frustrations he experiences. People finish his sentences and cut his stammering words off because they don’t have time to listen. It’s very effective, particularly since his wife is the only person who seems to really listen, but even she speaks for him during negotiations to make a new idol for the area.

The second couple are a little older – Bhargavi (Praneetha Patnaik) is at college and she first sees Joseph (Karthik Rathnam) acting as an enforcer for a gym owner (and ex-rowdy) with links to political organisations (Uma Maheswara Rao). After initial conflicts between the two, they settle into a relationship despite Bhargavi being a Brahmin and Joseph a Christian. While in the first story Lord Ganesha was an integral part of the story, here it’s religious intolerance from Bhargavi’s father that weaves through the narrative and threatens to destroy their relationship. The peripheral characters are excellent here, from Bhargavi’s college friend experiencing harassment from the principal’s son, to Joseph’s friends who urge him to accept meeting the girls no matter what, each is richly sketched in just a few brief dialogues that add further realism to the story.

The third romance is simply brilliantly written and producer Praveena Paruchuri is superb in the role of Saleema. Gaddam (Mohan Bhagat) sees a mystery woman every day as she stops to buy a bottle of Mansion House, and he falls in love with her eyes without ever seeing her face or knowing anything about her. When he does finally pluck up the courage to speak to her, he is shocked by what he finds. Saleema is a prostitute and he has even spoken to her one night when she was employed by his friends. Rather than being judgemental or allowing Gaddam to ‘rescue’ Saleema, instead Maha develops the story in a way that allows Gaddam to accept Saleema’s past while planning for their future together. This is such a mature and insightful piece of cinema and both actors bring the story to life perfectly. Saleema is positive and practical while Gaddam is amazingly supportive, even bringing Saleema condoms to ensure she won’t suffer the same fate as her mother, who died of AIDS. Here the religious attitude is one of indifference from Gaddam while Saleema’s Muslim faith becomes an issue for her neighbours, although never for Gaddam.

The final romance is also the best as Maha brings in caste and age biases while developing a relationship that is comfortable rather than passionate, but no less compelling than the others. Raju works in a government office where Radha is a new officer, newly moved from Orissa. Radha has no time for the class system that forces Raju to eat apart from the officers, and he gradually responds to her warm friendliness. Raju has never been married (it just didn’t happen according to Raju) and has a number of quirks that speak to his long-held bachelor status. He ‘jogs’ every morning, and performs yoga exercises at a shrine, while at night he drinks with his friends. The rest of Kandharapalem just wants to see him married, and suspect that he is gay, but Raju is happy as he is, and more than happy to simply be friends with Radha. She has other ideas and the romance between the two develops slowly but realistically, with the emphasis being on companionship and friendship. The couple face opposition from Radha’s brother who declares she is too old for such nonsense – she’s 42! It seems an odd prejudice to have, but just one of the obstacles both Raju and Radha have to overcome if they wish to finally marry.

The film does become rather overdramatic towards the end, but the final scene brings everything together and all the melodrama suddenly makes sense. But although the conclusion is particularly pleasing and exceptionally well done, what is even better is the intertwining of the different characters and the realistic nature of each romance. The switch between the different romances may sound potentially confusing as the screenplay moves back and forth between each, but with Kancharapalem as a constant background this is never the case. Maha brings the audience totally into the time and place of the film and we can feel every nuance of the relationships as they unfold onscreen.

The music too is wonderful. Sweekar Agasthi’s soundtrack doesn’t feature pounding disco or more commercial songs, but instead takes local sounding tunes and Raghukul Mokirala adds beautiful lyrics that perfectly complement the action. It all fits together perfectly and provides the ideal background for the action. The actors are all impressive in their roles and the untrained support cast are fantastic too. This really is a wonderful film where everything comes together flawlessly and it’s no wonder it was part of the line-up for this year’s New York Indian Film Festival. This is one not to miss – seriously good cinema!