Grahanam is about superstition, mistrust and sex. The story is based on a novel by Telugu writer Gudipati Venkatachalam, also known as Chalam, adapted and directed by Mohan Krishna Indraganti. The story follows the aftermath of superstition made fact by belief.
Set in a village in the recent past, the story has a timeless feel. Saradamba (Jayalalitha) is the wife of Swamy (Tanikella Bharani). They are the premier family in the village, and she is renowned for her charity and community support. Kanakayya (Monish Thallavajhula) is a poor boy with academic promise. Saradamba provides a meal for him each day, and is clearly fond of him. She is a strong advocate for education, and encourages the villagers to send all their children to school.
Swamy lets his wife deal with the daily routine, trusting her to do the right thing for the family prestrige. Sarada is adept at biting her tongue when her mother-in-law is demanding, and has a strong sense of duty. Their relationship seems happy enough, and there is certainly a strong physical chemistry. They joke about his tyrant of a mother, tease each other about their marriage and seem to be compatible. Sarada is not above flirting to get her own way, but Swamy doesn’t appear to mind one bit.
All seems tranquil. But Kanakayya falls ill with a fever and conventional medicine doesn’t seem to be helping. His uncle suggests consulting Gopayya (Sundaram Thallavajhula), a Kali devotee from the next village, who is purported to be able to cure mystery illnesses. Gopayya’s diagnosis is the catalyst for major drama. He says Kanakayya is sick with ‘doshagunam’, explained as an illness caused by having sex with an older woman.
No one seemed to have heard the word before, but before long it is bandied about as though it is an established fact. Kanakayya’s parents reject the idea that their son would have done anything immoral, but he continues to sicken. In desperation, they seize on the cure Gopayya prescribes – a cure that requires blood from the thigh of the woman who ‘infected’ him.
Suspicion falls on Saradamba and all the small kindnesses that used to be evidence of her charity and good nature are now seen as proof she seduced the boy. Lapses in protocol are twisted to show she was betraying her husband. Swamy is plagued by doubts. He accuses her of lying, of whoring behind his back and ruining his prestige. Sarada denies the accusations, but is she really as innocent as she claims?
The crux of the story is that a rumour, a suspicion, a superstition can take on a life of its own. Women are spoken of as impure, carriers of sin and ruin. Their sexuality is toxic and men cannot save themselves from a predatory woman. People are all too ready to believe the worst and seemingly only because she is female. Once Saradamba is accused, she is attacked verbally and physically. The damage done is real, regardless of the reason. But why are people so ready to believe in ‘doshagunam’ and to accuse a previously blameless woman?
The story develops through a flashback structure, narrated by Surya as Doctor Raghu. This allowed me to work out the internal chronology of the story. The black and white film does give a sense of things happening a long time ago, but the events are quite recent. I thought this device worked well as it made the point that while Saradamba and Kanakayya’s story may be set twenty or thirty years ago, it’s not that remote from the present day. A short segment in colour adds a dreamlike note and made me question my assumptions about some relationships.
Tanikella Bharani is excellent as Swamy. He shows the doubts and frustration gnawing away and the bitterness that creeps into his marriage. His confrontations with Sarada are threatening and venomous. Even though I thought Swamy was a fool at times, I could see the way the rumours poisoned his mind, and his resistance disappeared. It’s an unsympathetic role in many respects but he gives Swamy a dimension of sweetness that made me see what Saradamba saw in her husband, and made their estrangement even more painful. And after seeing him play uncle, sidekick or victim in so many films I really liked seeing him in a leading role for a change.
Jayalalitha is well cast as Saradamba. She has an earthy sensuality and a physical confidence that suits her character, and she dominates the film. When she is on the verge of losing her home and family she seems almost feral – all teeth and claws. The confusion and indignation are evident but Jayalalitha also creates some ambiguity with her reactions and expressions. Those slight hesitations and the glimpses of behaviours that could be open to different interpretations or doubt were really well done. It meant that the story was a bit more complex than a ‘pure woman is besmirched by rumour’, even though my sympathies lay with Saradamba. I questioned whether I completely believed her, if she had done anything ‘wrong’, and if she had seduced the boy did that warrant what was happening.
The black and white film is very atmospheric but the garish yellow subtitles on my DVD were a bit distracting. The interiors and doorways provide a frame or concealment, alluding to the secret lives of characters. Even the ornately carved bed changes from bed to barrier over time. The physical environment is used to illustrate the mood and emotion of the inhabitants. The camera sometimes sneaks up behind characters, sometimes settles in amongst a group of people talking or takes on the role of an observer judging what it spies. It adds a dynamic note to what is a very dialogue based movie.
I can’t opine as to whether it is a good adaptation of the original story, but there is a literary flavour to the dialogue and the concepts are clearly articulated. The dialogues are strong and meaningful, and reveal a lot about the people speaking. Mohan Krishna Indraganti seems to have an interest in what makes people tick and there are also scenes with no dialogue where small interactions, or reactions, speak volumes. I have seen Ashta Chamma and Golconda High School and I think his translation of story to screen is becoming more assured. I like his interest in everyday type people, and seeing what they do when confronted with a challenge or problem. The supporting cast are all very good but the focus is on Jayalalitha and Tanikella Bharani.
This isn’t the kind of film I want to watch every day as it is a bit self-consciously artsy and I alternated between being depressed and angry as I watched it. But I was interested to see a non-commercial Telugu film, and to see character actors take on leading roles. The story kept my attention, and made me think as well as made me want to throw things at the screen. It won a swag of awards and I can see why so many people have recommended it to me. 3 1/2 stars.
Katherine at Totally Filmi is coordinating a month long celebration of women in Indian cinema. Links will be collated at Delicious so keep an eye on that page for lots of other articles and blog posts to be added throughout March.