Director: Ashwin Gangaraju
Cast: Samuthirakani, Vinay Varma, Teja Kakumanu, Prashant, Shaking Seshu
Aakashavaani is about the conflict between science and faith. This premise is set up through a story, happening sometime in the 1970s, of a small isolated tribe in the hills that’s exploited through fear and force by a landlord, Dora (Vinay Varma). The tribe even believes that Dora is an incarnation of God. And when, by chance, a radio replaces a stone that the tribals have been worshipping, they celebrate it as a new avatar of their old God, and it threatens Dora’s control over them. But after this superb set up in the first half, the film becomes a cliched melodrama about how an enlightened outsider, Chandram (Samuthirakani), ‘saves’ the superstitious tribals from Dora.
That’s because the film doesn’t stick to its faith vs. science argument. We expect that after the radio enters their community, the tribe would realize the world has moved forward. This might help them rebel against Dora or at least call for outside help. But the way the radio is used to move the plot forward is rife with convenient writing. Given that it’s in a remote hill, it only sputters out a few words occasionally, dispensing static at other times. And yet, every time someone prays to the radio for a solution, the brief and entirely random words that they hear back turn out to be the exact solution they needed.
For instance, a boy is on his deathbed and the radio suddenly crackles the names of a few herbs which magically save the boy. The film didn’t really need a cutting-edge scientific invention like the radio (for the 1970s) to make its point. It’s more anxious to justify the ways of faith than it is to embrace reason. A talking cat would have gotten the job done too, and been as believable.
Such use of a scientific device in a religious way is justified through dialogues that talk about how idols of Gods in temples are man-made too — just like a radio — and yet, anything that solves man’s problems is God. With this kind of a blanket definition for God, the film degenerates into platitudes at the end. Chandram waxes eloquently about how people who can believe in anything are the real Gods. So, every member of the oppressed tribe is already a God according to him, as if merely thinking of themselves as Gods would materially change their situation. Similarly, a person from the tribe equates Chandram to God because he helped them rebel against Dora. But, that’s exactly how they got enslaved by Dora’s ancestors who ‘protected’ them against British forces before independence. The tribe was so grateful to their protectors who were elevated to God-status, just like they’re doing with Chandram now. So, Aakashavaani’s empathy towards the tribe begins to feel more patronizing, rather than appreciative of their innate simplicity. It exoticises their superstitious tendencies. Instead of using the radio as a way to get the tribe thinking for themselves, the writing makes it a mere talisman.
In fact, Chandram makes them hear the story of Prahalada on the radio. When they hear that Prahalada rebelled against his own father to conform to Vishnu’s wishes, they realize that it’s okay to rebel against a human authority like Dora. The radio doesn’t teach them anything about their rights as people of the land; it continues to keep them trapped in their myths.
To an extent, Aakashavaani works as a soft defence of faith, but only because the visuals by Suresh Raghutu and background score by Kaala Bhairava viscerally get us to identify with the tribe. We see that these people of simple faith, their lives synchronized with the natural rhythms of the hill, do have something to teach us about getting out of our own noisy heads. But it’s also their faith that’s keeping them enslaved. This fact prevents us from entirely buying into the film’s ideal of faith as practiced by the tribe.
The film begins with a disclaimer that it does not support superstition, followed by a quote by the director about how science represents answers we’ve already discovered while God represents those that we haven’t yet. But in its zeal to chart into the unknown, Aakashavaani unwittingly argues that ignorance about science is equal to knowledge of God.