Director: Karuna Kumar
Cast: Rakshith, Nakshatra, Raghu Kunche
You know how the Malayalam new wave cinema does this thing where the film starts with a song about the place it is set in? — Angamaly Diaries and Maheshinte Prathikaram come to mind. Besides the fact that they are charming and immersive, they also help us understand the characters better. Palasa 1978 does something similar as well. The opening song talks about Palasa, not just as a place but as a person, with its own quirks and personality. For people who don't know much about Srikakulam — Telugu cinema has always been too busy making fun of its dialect to see its vibrant culture — the song acts as an initiation, while also setting the tone for the film. A rather effective device, and I am very happy to see Telugu directors learning from the best.
Palasa 1978 is a story of two brothers — Mohan Rao (Rakshith) and Ranga Rao (Thiruveer). They both belong to a family that makes its living by singing and dancing to folk songs native to Srikakulam. As it happens often, they are inevitably pulled towards a life of violence, when what starts as a small scuffle escalates. The rest of the film is about Mohan Rao and his struggles — with the outside world that demands submissiveness, and with his conscience that probes him to look at the blood on his hands and find a better way.
Karuna Kumar, the film's writer-director, understands that the story he wants to tell should go beyond the surface. He wants his film to be more than a mere presentation on caste-based oppression. This is admirable because it is easier to make a film that suggests that one set of people is all good and the other, bad. But reality isn't that simple. He brings in characters such as Bhairagi (a goon who belongs to Mohan Rao's caste, but works for the Shavukaru) and Sebastian — a Dalit police office played by the rather effective Vijay Ram — to show that all people aren't the same. Some choose personal gains over their community, while some decidedly stay away from violence to seek a better society. In trying to give Mohan Rao, and the viewer, the many ways in which people choose to deal with oppression, the film becomes slower and lengthier than it has to.
To the filmmaker's credit, nowhere do we feel emotionally manipulated. We aren't forced to take a side, even if it's apparent that one side is at fault. Even the music and BGM — Raghu Kunche does a great job evoking the folksiness of the place the film is set in — aren't pushy or melodramatic. The film does take its time to get to the crux of the conflict, but the screenplay never takes more than a minute to get its rhythm back. Interestingly, it imbues itself with insights about society at large and how everyone plays a role in keeping this archaic system alive. The transitions too — there are two timelines and Venkateswara Rao's editing ensures smooth sailing — have a natural rhythm and pattern to them. For a first time director, Kumar's skill is apparent.
When the film begins, a note from Tammareddy Bharadwaja requests the audience to not take offence with the way the people speak in the film. As I said before, Telugu cinema has abused the Srikakulam dialect so much that people felt it necessary to send out disclaimers asking them to take it seriously this time. Speaking of which, the dialogues in the film were honey to my ears. Even though some actors didn't seem to dub for themselves — Thanmai Bolt didn't, I think. Some found it hard to enunciate the words well, and the leads seemed to struggle with it too, when compared to Laxman. At times, it became distractingly apparent in a few scenes — I was just happy to hear a variation of the idiom 'Sui ante nako attu'.
The actors, every single one of them, deserve notice and praise. Rakshith, who plays the protagonist, shoulders the film like a veteran actor. He handles closeups in emotional scenes like a veteran. So does Thiruveer who plays the brother. It helps that they both look similar as well. The women in the film are given equally important and evolving character arcs and the actors who played them — Nakshatra, Madhavi, and Thanmai — do great justice as well. Even the supporting roles are well-cast, and, as a result, the film is virtually free of false notes. Arul Vincent's cinematography needs special mention and so does the production team that succeeds in recreating the 70s.
At a crucial and effecting moment in the film, Sebastian invokes Ambedkar as an example to suggest that violence isn't the only way to deal with an unfair society. Elsewhere, we see Mohan Rao reading Kalyan's Rao's Antarani Vasantamwhile trying to understand his life and its purpose. This is a film that isn't interested in being anything but informed and responsible. Telugu cinema, even it has been talking about caste oppression in the recent past, has largely been averse to stories that are explicitly political. So, to see a film that talks about caste-based oppression and its many complexities organically, without hiding behind happy endings and generic philosophies is refreshing to watch, warts and all.