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!

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Rani Kasula Rangamma (1981)

I’m conflicted about this film. This was an Adventure Without Subtitles so I know there are some crucial dialogues I have missed but the action kind of speaks for itself. I’m going to go for a spoiler right off the bat as that sets the context for my thinking, and there are more spoilers to follow. And it’s a long read because I’m feeling ranty.

Sridevi gives an excellent performance and I really liked her character, the titular Rani Kasula Rangamma. Chiranjeevi excels in his negative role as he has the dramatic skill and isn’t reluctant to go there. Which brings me to my problem with the film.

What a horrible premise! The appropriate redress for rape is for the woman to marry her rapist. I know that the double standard of sexual propriety means that by surviving an assault she is ruined in the eyes of patriarchal society, and this was made in 1981. But it’s just revolting. And yet this is a really good film in so many ways, much more entertaining than it sounds when you know the plot, and with some decent surprises throughout. Director T.L.V Prasad keeps things moving along, with a tone midway between melodrama and thriller.

Rangamma (Sridevi) is a cheeky and quick witted village girl, confident she can look after herself, and well liked around the area. Seetanna (Nutan Prasad) has a crush on her and often daydreams about her reciprocating his feelings but that just leads to some terrible dancing.  Sukumar (Chiranjevi) and his camp friend, maybe meant to be a hijra, Kannayya (Rallapalli) turn up in the village. Kannayya goes and inspects farm workers and chooses a woman for Sukumar to rape. The deed is represented by a montage of a dove trying to escape from what looked like a stuffed hawk, but there is no ambiguity. He just goes home and has a conversation about marriage with his father (Kongara Jaggayya). Sukumar wants to enjoy life (and presumably, being a serial rapist) and says marriage has no meaning at all. His dad gives him A Look but says nothing.

Rangamma is frequently the object of unwanted male attention and has no qualms about fighting assailants and telling off a sleazy village elder (Allu Ramalingaiah) for planting wrong notions in Seetanna’s head. Sukumar and Kannayya spot her going to fetch water, and who wouldn’t find the sight of Sridevi frolicking in a river delightful. Sukumar makes numerous attempts to try and trap her. Eventually he takes a direct approach and corners her while she is alone in her own house. She puts up a hell of a fight but is bundled into the jeep and driven away, presumably so he could take his time. No hawk and dove montage here, the struggle looked far too real with both actors channelling strong emotions. Meanwhile Seetanna goes to her house to propose (I think) and sees the assault in progress. He catches up to the car but he gets knocked out, and Sukumar cheerfully gets on with his plan. Rangamma’s necklace seems to give her a sense of protection or a blessing, and she loses all fight when it is torn off. Afterwards Rangamma staggers out and picks up the thread Seetanna had brought for her. She demands Sukumar marry her now she has been ruined. He laughs at her naiveté, pushes her into a well, and leaves her for dead. Presumably he’ll be home in time for dinner with Daddy.

Sukumar’s dad hires a familiar looking young lady in a stylish western dress and hair do. When she takes a letter for Sukumar he freaks out at the sight of her but she calmly insists she is Roja, not this Rangamma person. He can’t leave her alone, and starts with his cat and mouse games trying to prove Roja is Rangamma. He’s not always on task though. He did sleaze on to Jayamalini x 2 after an item number. Eventually he takes a large sum of money to her apartment and seems to be either trying to buy her or make her leave. It doesn’t work as next thing you know, his dad is about to marry her.

Sukumar has a fit at the sight of her necklace and confronts her in front of everyone. Is she or is she not Rani Kasula Rangamma? Yes she bloody well is. He tries to tell his dad why she is unsuitable without incriminating himself but eventually he stumbles and she sees an opening. Rangamma tells him forcefully she will not let him weasel out of being responsible. And then his dad spills the beans – he knows all about what happened and has been plotting with Rangamma to reform Sukumar or at least make him marry her. And he does. Blergh! And she looks vaguely happy about it all. I get that she gains some social protection but…he’s an unrepentant serial rapist.

Sridevi is fantastic. She conveys a huge range of emotions from cheerful innocence through to vengeful anger and is always convincing and compelling. Rangamma is outspoken and articulate, never passive. Roja is a total contrast, her mild character and fashionable style designed to appeal to her rapist and throw him off guard. Their body language is usually very different but in scenes where Roja has had just about enough of all the useless men in the office cracking on to her, you suddenly see Rangamma in the set of her jaw or the way she positions her hands. I loved the casually wide eyed way she would play with Sukumar’s paranoia about her identity. There’s a scene where she gets to save Sukumar from a well, and her disdain and focus on the task plays beautifully off his panic and confused flailing.

Of course she gets to dance. I preferred the happy, carefree, folky numbers because the Indian clothing was much more flattering for her. But the 80s side by side prancing in a park was entertaining too, especially as you can see that back in those days Chiranjeevi had to work at keeping up with her.

Does that logo on his trackie jacket look a bit phallic? Life would be so much easier if all the potential rapists wore a badge. Chiranjeevi plays Sukumar as a devil in his own right but with a façade of filial respect when at home. He will still smoke and drink (and rape) but never in front of Daddy. It would have been very easy for this to be a caricature but Sukumar really starts to lose his marbles once he sees Roja. He doesn’t ever show any remorse for his crimes, but fear of being exposed drives him to try and prove Roja must be Rangamma. He doesn’t seem to have any friends but Kannayya, maybe because they are both outsiders in terms of what gets them off versus societal norms. He is vile but plausible and sometimes charming. And when he decides he might quite fancy Roja anyway, it is both understandable because she is lovely, and completely disgusting because has already raped and murdered her. Technically Chiru is in a supporting role but he dominates his scenes, unless Sridevi is there. Then it’s a nicely judged blend of dramatic tension and sheer charisma that also helped give these two characters depth.

This is probably a film for Sridevi or Chiranjeevi completists. I might have been slightly happier if the final shot was of him in jail, not getting married. The themes and some values are so very far from what I find acceptable, but it’s well made and well written and with great actors. 3 ½ stars!

Donga (1985)

It’s 1985, one of the better hairstyle eras for Chiranjeevi, and director A Kodandarami Reddy is at the wheel with Chakravarthy’s funky soundtrack blaring. Donga is energetic, pure mass, and spits on the grave of anyone who ever said “less is more”.

Phani (Chiranjeevi) is a Robin Hood kind of thief who steals from the rich and pays off the debts of the poor. Phani’s father Chandrasekhar died of a filmi heart attack as a result of Kodandaramayya’s (Rao Gopal Rao) chicanery. Kodandaramayya is still going strong with his thieving and extortion schemes and has a slimy sidekick in Anjaneyulu (Gollapudi Maruthi Rao) and a toadying servant Rama Subbaiah (Allu Ramalingaiah) plus a resident goon. As a good Telugu film hero, Phani is intent on avenging his family and getting his sister married well. He has a somewhat useful friend or sidekick in Ranga (Nutan Prasad) too. Phani falls for Kodandaramayya’s daughter Manjulatha (Radha) so you know the path to his revenge will be full of complications and spontaneous dance breaks. And that’s without the competition for apparently the only eligible man in town, Anjanayeulu’s son Rajesh (Raja).

Donga is full of action packed set pieces as Phani tricks and thieves his way across town. The fights are full of “Karate”, back flips, slo mo leaping, spin kicks and you name it. One of the things I love most about Chiru is that he just goes for it. It might be ridiculous, the outfits might be insane, but he does his best to stick that landing every time. Phani uses brains as well as brawn, phoning in a tip about undeclared cash to get an office raided by the tax department, and generally being smarter than the bad guys. I found this next bit a little confusing with no subtitles but I think Tax officer R Viswanath (Sridhar) wants to get his sister married well and needs money for her dowry. In the tangled finances in this small filmi world he ends up being cheated by Kodandaramayya who is robbed by Phani, compounding the problem of paying the debt. R Viswanath is found dead and once Phani realises what had happened with the money, that just adds to his drive for revenge.

Phani is of course irresistible to women. I don’t know anyone else who could rock the knitted singlet like he does, so he must have that je ne sais quoi. He steals Manjulatha’s little red car and then sets up a meeting to hand it back. For reasons that are not entirely clear but yet seem to make sense to Phani, he pranks her with this Thriller-iffic dance. Pump the volume up, warm up to avoid injury, move the furniture back a bit further than you think you need to (those lunge slides need some room) and have a go at this!

From the perspective of anywhere but 1985 Telugu film that is so bad it’s awesome. What were they thinking? “We’ve done a lot of Jackie Chan stuff so let’s mix it up a bit…Bond? No, done that to death. Death…Death. I know!” But it worked, she succumbed despite her father’s disapproval.

Radha and Chiru both look like they’re having fun with the daggy choreography. And Radha gets to do more than just sit and look pretty. The costume department really don’t do her many favours but she must have had a very high synthetic fabric tolerance. Manjulatha is often more articulate and decisive than I expected. She is harassed by a creep at the cinema so she belts him and tells him off. It was satisfying although clearly a punchline for a “women are bitches” joke. Despite the occasional toddler tantrum, she seems to make a lot of her own decisions and doesn’t seem to be a bad person despite her wealth and privilege.

Her dad spots her frolicking with Phani and maybe it is the enthusiastic prancing or that she starts wearing sarees, but he senses trouble and warns her off the mystery man. After the usual misunderstanding, tearful argument, unfortunate slapping incident, and some quality time with Phani’s mother, the deal is pretty well sealed. And Phani missed no opportunity to torment Kodandaramayya by showing off his relationship.

Phani goes to see Anajaneyulu but he has no luck in getting Viswanath’s debt reduced, so he says he will pay it all back himself. And goes to work in a quarry, maybe just because Chiru always wanted to try using a kanga. I would have thought stealing the money would be more practical given his skillset but whatever. Kodandaramayya sets up a cross country motorcycle race with significant prize money – and a great opportunity for his goons to erase Phani who is resplendent in canary yellow. Phani takes the dangerous job of laying explosives but the goon I call Coconut Machete tries to sabotage him. Somehow in all the biffo Phani realises that Kodandaramayya may have had more to do with Viswanath’s death than suspected. And in flashback Coconut Machete reveals it was not a suicide. BASTARDS! So of course Phani enters a dance competition and competes against Silk Smitha.

Look at him go! I love these bedazzled wrist guards and gaiters.

Phani is framed for murdering Silk, which is ridiculous. He’d already killed her on the dance floor. He goes on the run and it is on for young and old. I loved the car stunts and the fights, but right at the end the horse stunts, as usual, made me feel sick. What happens in the end? Does Phani triumph? You know the what, but the how is what matters!

Peak Chiru. Quality Radha.  Total mass. 4 stars!