Lessons In Equality From Venkatesh Maha’s C/O Kancharapalem: A Film That Smashes Patriarchy, Misogyny And Caste Supremacy
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1. Introduction

C/o Kancharapalem is a slice-of-life anthology film that features about eighty non-actors, most of them being from Kancharapalem (a locality in Vishakhapatnam). A bunch of talented people brimming with creativity came together and created magic with a budget estimated to be around 44 to 77 lakh. It’s hard to categorise this movie because of the powerful writing that walks you through different aspects of life and society, seamlessly.

It garnered positive reviews from the audience and critics alike, thanks to its innovative style of narration and refreshing content. It was screened at the New York Indian Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne. It stands as an inspiration to many, owing to that fact that sometimes, the smallest ideas might be the most important ones. The imagination is rich and unrestricted, unlike the budget!

Also read: Baradwaj Rangan reviews C/o Kancharapalem

2. Summary:

Spanning across different ages, cultures, religions, and social strata are four love stories in this anthology. Each has a thought provoking message and beauty of its own. Raju, a 49-year-old single assistant in the office is treated fairly and with kindness by the new officer, Radha, in contrast to the air of superiority the other officers held. A companionship grows as they spend time with each other, showing care and patience.

On the other end of the age spectrum, we have Sundaram and Sunitha, two classmates who bond over sweet gestures and demure glances. Filled with innocence and the charm that comes with it, it’s a story of two kids with a twinkle in their eyes.

Bhargavi, a college student, falls in love with Joseph, a scruffy-haired young rowdy. Leaving behind his current lifestyle, he decides to become more responsible and get a stable job to arrange for a secure future, while she is in a fix of her own.

The most revolutionary story among these is of Geddam and Saleema, a refreshingly odd pair of a liquor store worker and a sex worker, respectively. She visits the store regularly and he deeply admires her eyes but can’t bring himself to talk to her. When he does, and when he finds out about her occupation, the most heart-warming tale is brought to the screen. These stories progress from being happy and funny to tragic but inspiring, leading to a jaw-dropping twist.

Also read: 7 Times Telugu Cinema Surprised Us in 2018

3. Setting and structure:

The whole film was shot in two schedules, one in Kancharapalem and the other in the Bheemili district of Vishakhapatnam. The place itself feels like a character in the film, bustling with life. The daily lives of the ordinary folk going about their routines in a lovely small town is a treat to the eyes. The characters interact in shops, in an office, in places of religious worship, in a school, on the road, by a beach…most of the story happens out in the open – full of vulnerability and transparency.

The stories of Sundaram and Sunitha appear to be set in the 1970s, Bhargavi and Joseph’s in 1980s, Geddam and Saleema’s in 1990s, and Raju and Radha’s is in the present day.

The movie uses a non-linear narrative to highlight the situations and character nuances in a very organised manner. The foreshadowing is on point and the parallel plot lines make it an interesting watch. The past and the present are beautifully intertwined and the transition from one scene to the next is smooth. The movie feels like a flipbook full of significant details and ideas that create the final piece of art that the movie is.

4. Characters and characterisation:

Raju – He’s a very simple, down-to-earth, practical and sensible man. Self-assured and calm, he is a well-written character who believes in humanity. He’s grateful for everything he has and doesn’t let his past negatively influence his current behaviour. Paying little heed to people’s comments and mockery over him being single in his 40’s, he carries on with his day, showing strength and grace.

Radha – Full of warmth, she’s the new officer who keeps an open mind. She’s a single mother of a 20-year old and is diabetic. Despite knowing that her decision to marry Raju at her age would be frowned upon, she bravely confesses her love to her shy companion. She doesn’t give up on herself nor on her decision even though the odds are against her.

Sunitha – She’s a little girl bubbling with joy and radiating innocence. She enjoys singing and is praised for her voice. She has a spark in her eye that only shines more when she smiles. She welcomes her budding friendship with Sundaram without the idea of ‘low class’ coming in the way even for a moment.

Sundaram – He’s a kid with sweet dreams of talking to Sunitha and being with her. He wears a pink shirt to school, upon learning that it’s her favourite colour; he’s mocked by others in the class but she finds it sweet. He arranges for a lyrics book when he finds out that she wants to learn the lyrics to her favourite song but couldn’t. His conversations with God are endearing and remind us of our own requests to the higher power.

Saleema – She’s a strong and capable woman with great insight into how people think. She proves that her profession is just something she does to earn her livelihood, not a stereotype. She is confident and full of affection for Geddam, and encourages him to talk to the girl he likes after seeing the purity of his intentions. She’s very clear about her expectations and doesn’t jump at the first chance of being accepted by someone.

Geddam – He’s the most adorable character and there is so much to learn from the way he thinks and acts. He’s caring, affectionate, and mature. He’s in love with Saleema’s eyes and her brave nature. He approaches her only when a prostitute advises him to do so. When he realises that she’s the same girl he loves, the same girl some of his friends slept with, he flinches just a tad but then becomes even more endearing and supportive of her. When she states that she will not quit her profession until their marriage, his only reaction was to give her a bunch of condoms so that she would stay safe from AIDS and not face her mother’s fate.

Joseph – In his first scene, we see him praying at a church. We feel misled by that calm demeanour when we see him enthusiastically beat up someone in the very next scene. A scruffy, rowdy boy turns into a hopeful, responsible man as he falls in love with Bhargavi. He decides to turn his life around and actively takes charge of his life.

Bhargavi – She’s a bold girl who seems to be an obedient daughter as well. She attends classical dance classes and is from a middle-class Brahmin family. She slowly falls for Joseph and even attends a sermon with him, which brings her her father’s wrath. She fights with her father and lets him know that she’d marry only Joseph, but things don’t work out for her.

The main characters are a delight but the supporting characters enhance the movie in all the right places. Ammoru, the gym administrator supports Bhargavi and Joseph, and helps them in every way he can. Radha’s daughter decides that Raju is worthy of her mother just by seeing how mature he is and that his intentions are genuine. She shows maturity and doesn’t think that age should come in the way of her mother’s happiness. Sundaram’s friend brings comic relief and Raju’s friends comfort him when he’s in distress. Sundaram’s father, the mute sculptor speaks volumes through his underrated art. The connections and interactions between the characters is realistic and convincing.

Also read: Lessons in Equality from C/o Kancharapalem

5. The plot, the conflict, and the resolution:

The song ‘Asha Pasham’, composed by Sweekar Agasthi and sung by Anurag Kulkarni, is the soul of this movie. It presents the plot and acts as a prelude to the conflict in the story in beautiful verses. A rough translation of the song for better understanding can be found here.

In the course of this song, we have Joseph, who left Kancharapalem and went to Araku to work, earn money, and establish a livelihood so that he can take care of the family he plans to have in the future. He’s hopeful about his life and has big dreams with no knowledge that Bhargavi’s father has found a marriage alliance for her. She’s blackmailed into that marriage and has no idea that Joseph will be coming back for her with promises of a good life. Geddam and Saleema are busy shopping for their wedding and they face the harsh disapproval of the society head-on. They are finally together and have no clue about what’s going to happen in their life after this. Sundaram keeps waiting for Sunitha but to no avail. She’s nowhere to be seen, neither at school nor at her house. Radha’s daughter tries to mediate between her mother and her uncle. However, he aggressively opposes the idea of his widowed sister marrying Raju. We see that hope has imprisoned all these characters who believed that they had a chance of getting their simple wishes come true in life. The song highlights the uncertainty that life is filled with, and suggests that they’re all characters of a much bigger story and no one ever knows what will happen the next day, much less what could happen over a lifetime. Sticking around for the miracles and shocks is all one can do.

Conflict:

Following the song is the conflict in the four stories. Geddam is eagerly waiting for his bride-to-be, Saleema to come light up his life – only to find out that she mysteriously died in her house. Amidst this tragedy is another – even at her funeral, people just say that she’s a ‘whore’ and that there’s no need to investigate her death. Sundaram musters up courage and asks Sunitha’s father about her, and he learns that she’s been shifted to Delhi. Crestfallen, he goes back home, crying. His misplaced anger is directed at his father’s masterpiece – a sculpture of Lord Ganesha. He throws stones at it and gives up his faith in Hinduism. The damaged sculpture was supposed to be his father’s proof to the world that his work deserves more recognition and it was a matter of dignity. Looking at its condition, Sundaram’s father resorts to suicide. On the other hand, Joseph returns to find that Bhargavi got married and that all of their hope for a future together was reduced to a matter of opposition based on religion. He gives up his faith in Christianity, and in God. We have three ‘failed’ stories of love and are left with the story of Raju and Radha, which is paused because of the unresolved problems. It makes us root for them even more and, at the same time, we set our guard up higher so we aren’t let down by fate again.

Resolution:

Radha’s daughter encourages Raju and Radha to elope, seeing no other way for them to be together. Radha’s brother and his friends chase them and start beating up Raju. He stops and steps back when he sees the entire village of Kancharapalem sternly looking at them, suggesting that they have Raju’s back and are there to fight for him and his life. Yes, we get a happy ending for this story but the best is yet to come! When “Madam” Radha, his wife now, asks him about why he never got married until that point, he tells her that his first love, Sunitha was sent far away from him and he didn’t know what to do. His second love, Bhargavi, was married off to someone else. In his 30’s, Saleema who was the last woman he loved before meeting Radha (a decade later), died. He could never know or understand why that happened. It was only after spending time with Radha that he began to long for companionship again in life. The movie ends on the note, “Love at any age.”

6. Themes:

The film explores several themes with a quiet depth and the subtle details make all the difference. Some of the themes covered:

a) Love and friendship – Unconditional love is a concept often spoken about, but rarely seen and felt; we get to witness many scenes that silently show what it means to fall for someone, be in love with them, and care for them without being asked to. Raju is 49; Radha, a widowed mother, is 42. Theirs was not a dreamy love-at-first-sight story, but one of a calm companionship. Geddam loved Saleema because she lived on her terms and carried on with her life no matter who judged her negatively. They accepted each other for who they were and faced their problems together. What else is love about?

Sundaram, Raju, Joseph, and Geddam have at least one friend with them who helps them deal with difficult situations and stay supportive no matter what. They helped reinforce the idea that friends understand you without you having to say a thing, and that when it counts, they’re the ones you can count on.

b) Dreams versus Reality – Each of the characters has a dream; however big or small, but a beautiful one. And most of them don’t get to see those dreams come true regardless of all their efforts channelled to that end. Reality struck them hard, and shattered the foundations of their beliefs. Nothing would ever be the same again. Even when they put their painful past behind them and tried to move ahead, they were let down by fate and time. Life just didn’t seem to give a happy ending to the ones who deserved it.

c) Religion and Humanity – This plays a huge role in the stories. It was unfairly used to separate Bhargavi and Joseph, and Geddam and Saleema. Sundaram, Joseph, and Geddam lost the person they loved while they trusted in their idea of a God, and gave up their faith in a higher power. Meanwhile, Raju, who doesn’t believe in God, believes in the power of humanity. He credits his friends and fellow villagers for helping him in his life and not anyone else. He believes that there’s nothing greater than one human looking out for another and staying in harmony – which, ironically, is the point of religion too.

d) Gender and Patriarchy – The signs of patriarchy are rather subtly shown in the case of Bhargavi’s father vehemently rejecting Joseph for an invalid reason, blackmailing her into marrying a person of his choice, as well as in Radha’s case, where her brother gets to decide whether she has the right to marry a second time in her life. These men hold the conviction that they have a say in these matters and impose their ideas of control on the women in their lives. It doesn’t work in Radha’s situation, fortunately.

A bunch of villagers actually have a discussion on why Raju is single in his late 40s and they conclude that he might be homosexual. And somehow, they think that it could be a bad influence for others and blame his friends as well. They assume that they can discuss and decide what his sexual orientation is, and judge him poorly for it. He doesn’t insult any gender in any way and just declines their statements, already frustrated with how things weren’t working out for him.

e) Unity – No matter how judgemental and talkative people were throughout, it was their final decision to stand together and oppose what Manohar, Radha’s brother was doing, that made all the difference. Raju and Radha got their much-deserved life together because people overcame their differences and chose to unite.

7. Imagery and Camera work:

There were a few folk songs played in the scenes when the film-makers are getting us invested in the story and making us a part of the place (though we’re just watching it on a screen). This, along with the drum beats and violin bits, played an instrumental role in conveying the depth of a few moments. The auditory imagery was at no point overplayed, and the use of silence was very effective.

The visual imagery was stunningly real and nothing felt out of place. The village was shown as it was and the people were comfortable in their own skin.

Raju always wore clothes of a softer shades that reflected his soft nature. Saleema wore whatever she was comfortable in, a man’s shirt, a lungi, a saree: as she pleased – just the way she lived. Geddam, which actually isn’t his name but just an epithet people gave him because of his beard (which is called geddam in Telugu), didn’t shave until the day of his wedding. That was when he was ready to have a huge change in his life, though that was not the change he was hoping for.

When Saleema dies, we don’t see Geddam crying to an endless music bit, we just see a close-up shot of him quietly mourning, expressionless and speechless. He sinks in despair and we feel let down along with him as the world outside blurs out. When Radha proposes to Raju in the interval scene, we see that they’re sitting next to each other, neither one is standing up and forcing the other to react. This signifies that the decision to get married is one both partners take, and we get to lean back and reflect on what just happened as the camera takes a long shot of those two characters. When Sundaram is talking to the Ganesha portrait, there are alternating high- and low-angle shots, which make it look like a conversation between him and God. The use of the camera is brilliant and the editing is done in such a way that we’re left with few clues to put two and two together about the twist.

8. Symbolism, the insights, and the clues:

The opening scene introduces us to Raju, looking out of his four-paned window, on a lovely morning.
Meaning: He’s looking at the world outside with a renewed perspective on life, and is in the fourth phase of his life – in the same way that the four stories narrated are actually of the same person. First Sundaram, then Joseph, and finally Geddam, each of them give up their faith, one after the other. Only Raju remains, with his trust in humans and humanity radiating through him. The non-linear pattern of narration doesn’t let us see the scenes in that order and we don’t think that it could be the same person throughout.

Raju tells Radha in the beginning that he can speak a little Hindi because he learnt it from a Muslim he used to know. This was actually a reference to Saleema. We know that Sundaram’s father dies, but even Joseph and Geddam give hints that their father died a long time ago. There’s one common friend among three of the stories who lights up at the mention of food. Joseph’s friend mentions that his father is training him to be a priest and we do see a friend of Raju being a priest.
Meaning: The above points let us know that the story has always been the journey of one person.

Saleema’s death isn’t as mysterious as it was to Geddam. Moments before her death, we see the same people who stringently disapproved of her enquiring about where she stays.
Meaning: We see people of her community cornering her and this, in all likelihood, had something to do with her death.

The first time we see Sundaram’s father, we see him standing in mud that is valued, but we soon learn that his art, made out of the same mud, is not given due respect. When he decides commit suicide because of the humiliation and the pain, he eats and drinks heavily, though he never ate or drank much throughout the movie.
Meaning: He wanted to take only sadness with him when he died, not hunger or thirst.

There’s a recurring shot of the train passing by at the crossing, in all the four stories.
Meaning: The most important turn of events in his life happens in the same place. Raju didn’t have everyone’s support before but eventually, he does. The village folk stand by the railway crossing, showing their support for Raju and Radha.

Venkatesh Maha, the director and the writer of this film makes a cameo as the guy beaten up by Joseph and his friends when Bhargavi first sees them. He drove the plot ahead as well.

Also read: Interview with Venkatesh Maha

9. Conclusion:

This movie is not a sappy romantic book you read quickly, but a carefully crafted life you witness and learn from. It’s a very real piece of fiction that isn’t just a social message but a lesson in thoughtful living. The twist reminds me of what someone said: “Life has a cruel way of showing how beautiful it can be.” A simple summary of the storyline would suggest that this movie is just a collection of love stories, when really it’s a story about love and life. It’s an elegant contemplation on the human predicament, perseverance, shifting belief systems, and the purity of true love.

10. References:

https://www.filmcompanion.in/features/bollywood-features/50-films-i-love-venkatesh-mahas-care-of-kancharapalem/

https://www.filmcompanion.in/reviews/telugu-review/c-o-kancharapalem-movie-review/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5L_Li88SHZ0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owObUfiEoiQ

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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