Directed by: Anish Kuruvilla
Cast: Raj Deepak Shetty, Sruthi Jayan, Satyadev Kancharla, Karthik Ratnam, Bala Aditya, L.B Sriram, Thotapalli Madhu, Chandini Chowdary.
Streaming on: Zee5
When the two children arrive at Dharmapuri, with their father and mother, the first question the younger child asks is if there will be a cinema theatre where they are going to live? Cinema is important here, and not just because the film is set in Andhra Pradesh where the histrionic heroism of movie stars spilled onto the political arena, actors becoming politicians and even chief ministers, capturing both the imagination and desperation of the masses.
Cinema is also a way for us, the audience, to know which year we are in. When Amar Akbar Anthony posters are put up near the talkies, we know we are somewhere in the late 70s. It's ingenious and well within the universe of these characters who seek both solace and redemption as spectators. The younger one, Ravi, who sneaks in to catch movies, grows up to not only own the theater, but also use it as his harem, sleeping with willing 'whores' while the reels are running. The theater also becomes a space for holding political rivals hostage in violent circumstances; a nod to similar stories coming out of Kashmir, perhaps.
This web show, spanning 10 episodes, and 2 generations, is the familiar study of greed and power. There aren't more layers here, but the show isn't pretending to hold any either. You could say it is an attempt to stylize Gangs of Wasseypur with a heavy filter of KGF sepia heroism. Pratap Reddy, a volatile hothead has emancipated the coal workers in the mine by replacing the earlier hierarchy with collective ownership. This sparks political ambitions in him as he is pitted against the local goon and head DN Reddy.
From here a sprawling narrative involving communist opportunism, academic impotence, land rights, tabloid wars, brotherhood, family rivalry, and ultimately love emerges. Love for one's people, for one's family, for one's land.
But what is more problematic is the narrative willingness to exploit the social issues of land rights and labour laws to set up characters, and then completely dismiss the issue itself.
When Pratap Reddy first dips his toes in the political pond, you wonder if he does so because of his desire to be cult worshipped, or if he truly wants to work for the betterment of the people. But then when you see him years later having become what he once fought against, you wonder two things. Was he, at the end of the day, an opportunist who craved power? Or, did the murky waters of politics make him like this- lethargic and violent?
We learn that politics is as much about serving people, as it is about inflicting violence on them. It's a grim moral to take away but you take it as it is compellingly enacted. But soon, a fatigue sets in; the kind that comes after repeated exposure to simplistic storytelling. You cannot expect a story to hold the attention of a viewer over the course of 10 episodes, with an average length of 40 mins, if the only thing you can offer is a linear narrative that wobbles precariously on the drama of the supporting stories; the alcoholic and nympho-maniacal younger brother, the dutiful, caring, but shrewd and willfully cunning elder brother, the father who is perpetually angry, the mother who is perpetually weeping and feeding… it all tires. Partially because the characters are unable to evolve beyond their tagline description. But also because the synthetic nature of the circumstances begins to show as the cracks emerge.
But what is more problematic is the narrative willingness to exploit the social issues of land rights and labour laws to set up characters, and then completely dismiss the issue itself. The coal mine that becomes the property of the masses- what happens to that? What happens to the labour laws promised by Pratap in his speeches? What do the communist leaders do when they are not plotting and prodding? Where is caste in all of this, something so enmeshed with class, that there must have been a conscious attempt to remove any trace of it from the narrative?
But of course, my qualms are more philosophical than visceral.
As a story it is largely engaging, and rarely frustrating (the subtitles, in places, are quite bad). What begins as a story of the mining mafia becomes a saga of fraying political dynasty-hood. The beats of the story are inherently dramatic, but in the hands of Anish Kuruvilla, it also becomes incredibly stylish, with vignette frames, yellow flares, and a rousing score. But is that it? We must hold products of our culture to a higher standing. My heart aches at the thought of what it could have become, but is content with what it is. I am hoping this becomes a template, not to copy, but to springboard from, onto better, more engaging, more layered, more entertaining stories.