Director: Venkatesh Maha
Cast: Subba Rao, Radha Bessey, Praveena Paruchuri
Erich Segal's Love Story probably defined for all eternity that love means… never having to say you're sorry. It sounds pretty, and it looks great on a greeting card — but does it really capture the depths of this emotion? I'd rather buy the definitions in C/o Kancharapalem, the marvellous romantic drama from first-time filmmaker Venkatesh Maha. Love means… buying a lyric book for the girl you like in class, because she wants to sing a film song and doesn't know the words. (Why would a little girl want to sing Bhale bhale mogaadivoy from a decades-old movie like Maro Charithra? That's part of this film's sly design about the timelessness of emotion.) Love means… remembering that your co-worker said she was diabetic, and therefore taking along a bottle of sugar water during the tough climb to a temple. Love means… thrusting a bunch of condoms into your sex-worker girlfriend's hand when she reveals her mother died of AIDS, so that at least she remains safe.
These lovestruck people, teens to forty-somethings, are part of the four love stories that form this film, which is set in Kancharapalem, a locality in the city of Visakhapatnam. Raju (Subba Rao) is an attender in a government office. He's 49 and single. Radha (Radha Bessey), from Odisha, is the new officer. She's appalled by the "caste system" at work, where officers don't ask Raju to join them during lunch. She does. He responds to her fair-mindedness. This is a profoundly moving relationship, where we see a bond forming almost invisibly, without huge causal events. There is no single moment where Radha falls for Raju. It's a gradual accrual of kindnesses. The older we get, "nice" becomes more important than "hot." There are no hotties in this movie — just everyday people (mostly locals) with no makeup, no artifice. The lack of acting experience shows at times, especially with Radha. But the gawkiness is oddly endearing — I don't know how else to explain it. You don't seem to be witnessing a "performance." It's like their lives were captured on the fly.
The film keeps cutting between the various love stories, so the format is a quick sketch with one couple, and then a quick sketch with the next — and yet, we become invested in these people
At the other end of the age spectrum, we get classmates Sundaram (Kesava K) and Sunitha (Nithya Sree). She likes pink. He insists that his father buy him a pink shirt, even though it's a "girl colour." Bhargavi (Praneetha Patnaik) is a Brahmin in love with the scruffy-haired Joseph (Karthik Rathnam). She follows him to a sermon, and this superbly staged sequence — that doesn't look "staged" at all — is proof that a micro-budget is no hurdle when the imagination is rich. (The cinematography is by Aditya Javvadi and Varun Chafekar, who keep finding new ways to stretch the boundaries of "digital.") The film keeps cutting between the various love stories, so the format is a quick sketch with one couple, and then a quick sketch with the next — and yet, we become invested in these people, we care for them (some admittedly more than others). Is it the non-professional actors? The unemphatic writing? The low-key nature of the events? I think it's all of the above.
Then, there's Gaddam (Mohan Bhagat) and Saleema (Praveena Paruchuri). He works at a liquor store. She visits every evening, to pick up a quart of Mansion House. This is a great track (and skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers). Gaddam says it doesn't bother him that she's a sex worker — but she knows better. She asks him to introduce her to his friends, even the ones who have slept with her. Otherwise, how will she know he won't bring up her past once he's had his fill of her? This is quietly revolutionary. She's not falling at his feet for "saving" her, or proposing to her (in a lovely, laugh-out-loud scene). She's not ashamed of who she is. She just wants him to know what he's in for, especially given that he wouldn't sleep with her earlier (when he didn't know she was the Mansion House girl) because that would amount to betraying the girl he loved. And when he finds out she's the one, he flinches — but only a bit. What she does won't change the way he feels about her. This feels quietly revolutionary, too.
Yes, it's cute and charming and very funny. But it's also… real
The format may suggest we are watching Love, Actually set in a village, in the midst of "what will people say?" considerations and drunks singing a Telugu song to the tune of Gori tera gaon bada pyara. But C/o Kancharapalem is a slow burn that builds and builds, and it goes far beyond the Love, Actually template. Yes, it's cute and charming and very funny. But it's also… real. Raju owns a mobile phone. Radha has a smartphone. We see the difference. They don't. (Raju is possibly the least self-conscious screen character ever.) The supporting characters are equally memorable, like the sculptor who gets a big break, or the new teacher who encourages Sunitha to sing a song that's clearly inappropriate. There's something in this bit about cinema and society, but it's not a message — just a bit of mindfulness.
There's a lot of mindfulness in the writing. Sundaram's habit of talking to gods culminates in a massive scene. The railway crossing that becomes such a big part of Raju's story is introduced earlier, casually. I can't wait to watch this a second time, with the closing twist in mind. Yes, C/o Kancharapalem is one of those OMG! movies — but the writing is so organic that the big reveal feels like an inevitability. It's not just gimmicky and clever. It's moving. It says something profound about love, its many faces and facets. It says we were wrong to roll our eyes at the series of too-convenient tragedies (composer Sweekar Agasthi's Aasa paasam is heart-rending) towards the end. You won't understand until you watch the movie — but it's not so much life as the screenplay. Suddenly, everything clicks. It's been a while since a film showed us a side of love that's so expansive, so generous, so attuned to the fact that love means… not just romantic love. A character declares he doesn't believe in God. He says he doesn't have to, because his landlord lets him stay even if he pays his rent a few days late. Love means… just being human.