The Ideas of Panchathantram Make More Sense Than its Execution

Panchathanthram, like its anthology predecessors, struggles to unify all the stories and make it more than the sum of its parts.
The Ideas of Panchathantram Make More Sense Than its Execution

Director: Harsha Pulipaka

Writers: Harsha Pulipaka (story) Sandeep Raj (dialogue)

Cast: Samuthirakani, Brahmanandam, Divya Sripada, Shivathmika Rajashekar, Swathi Reddy

It is to the credit of c/o Kancharapalem’s (Care of Kancharapalem, 2018) genius twist and the difficulty of the short film anthology format that even after four years no film since has managed to replicate its impact. Tying together stories that are seemingly different but are united through a theme/character/incident has been a beast that only a few films have managed to tame. One weak story or a badly written character can tilt the balance away. And it breaks away the illusion that this is still one cohesive unit meant to function as a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Films like Babel (2006) and I’m Not There (2007), found clever inversions to the format like c/o Kancharapalem

Netflix’s Pitta Kathalu (2021), Mani Rathnam’s Navarasa (2021) and even Meet Cute (2022) struggled to give a sense of wholeness or completeness. It forced us to separate the wheat from the stone chaff. Harsha Pulipaka’s Panchathantram falls somewhere in this spectrum where it feels like it’s a braver attempt than most of its predecessors but never completely mesmerises with excellence. 

Panchathantram actually begins with a clever inversion. A retired radio host Ved Vyas (Brahmanandam) is arguing with his daughter, Roshini (Swathi Reddy) and demanding that she give permission to follow his passion. He wants to enter a story-telling competition meant for ‘young’ writers where the winner gets the chance to publish a book. Roshini, on the other hand, wants her father to ‘enjoy’ a retired life of stillness while he wants the discomfort and the restlessness of being an author. For a brief moment, you wonder whether life should actually make more sense this way – the young should crave order and clarity owing to the seemingly endless life they lead while the old should live life with abandon and pursue their dreams, whims and fantasy. 

But this conversation is only a loosely tied wrapper to random short films laced together through the theme of the five senses. While Ved Vyas’ namesake told the most complex and layered epic, here he tells far more literal stories. 


Harsh Pulipaka explores the sense of sight through the story of Vihari (Naresh Agastya) – a frustrated IT employee who spends countless hours staring at a screen. The opening image shows his eyes under severe strain from being overworked by processing artificial light. His IT employee life may seem like the idealised version of a life dreamt by those chasing software pastures but a quiet rage simmer under Vihari and he never seems to enjoy calmness. He picks easy fights while playing cricket with friends, he picks fights with waiters who ask silly questions, he hates courtesy questions and is never able to fully feel in control of his life. 

But coincidence makes him realise that he’s never seen a beach in his life. Maybe the endlessness of the sea might instill a belief in him that there is still time to get over the drollness of his life. But here is where director Pulipaka decides to end the story with an insipid ending that makes you gasp as if that’s all he had to say. I was wondering if some footage was missing but really the ending is just that plain and sudden. Naresh Agastya brings a certain angry and realistic tiredness to the character never fully able to realise anger but the story is so weak that even his cathartic moment at the end doesn’t feel cathartic enough. Scratch that, it didn’t feel like anything other than a bland and abrupt ending and an exercise in how to tell the least cinematic story. 


Speaking of bland, the second short story follows Subhash who is desperately seeking a bride through the arranged marriage network and his problem seems to be that the women he meets are ‘girls’ and he is interested in a ‘woman’. Eventually, he does meet Lekha (Shivathmika Rajashekhar) who seems to be that woman. There are shades of Tharun Bhascker’s Pelli Choopulu in the way the families interact and the protagonists meet. Subhash even wears a white shirt but the short never aspires for the chaos of the former. It rather wants to have the neat finish of a Gautam Vasudev Menon’s idea of romance but barely any conflict. 

The film draws inspiration from Lunchbox that food can be allegorical for a couple to be made for each other. The medium of batter, spices, milk, and bread is the message of love the film argues. I laughed at the idea that Subhash’s favourite food relates to his childhood and the girl he loved then – maybe the filmmaker wants to tell us that he is just a boy, standing in front of a woman asking her to love him. 

But combined with the weak performances of leads and the lack of real meat in the drama, the film is reduced to an agony aunt advice column rather than a short film being told by the great Ved Vyas. 


While I didn’t have a taste for the second story it is in the third short story that the talent and intent of Harsh Pulipaka begin to emerge. The film uses smell to tell the story of a Ramanatham (Samudirakhani), a retired bank employee, who just cannot help but smell that something is fishy. Literally. He smells something terrible that he quite can’t figure out what it is or where it’s going to happen. Worse yet, nobody else can smell it. 

He goes on a cleaning binge and yet all the perfumes of Arabia and all the cleaning fluids in the isle of a supermarket can’t wash away the foul smell that seems to be attacking Ramanatham’s nose. The camera too lingers like a rodent almost invisible to the naked eye of the protagonists. It’s at the level of their feet, it’s in cramped spaces, and sometimes far enough as if scheming for its next attack. The treatment is like a horror film except the horror can never be ‘seen’ only smelt. And it is here that Samuthirkhani’s performance sends a nervous tingle down our spine letting us be thankful that we are only witnesses to the universe rather than participants. 

The film’s reveal of Ramanathan’s condition becomes predictable but just the sheer weirdness of the film and its fervent commitment to being creepy makes you wonder why the previous short films were so flavourless while this one leaves you wanting more. 


The freshness of touch lies not in the raw material of the story – a man finds out his pregnant wife has a life-threatening condition. The families try to tear them apart but the couple must learn to live and love no matter what happens. Set as a rural drama, the components of the story are familiar. But it’s the protagonists Shekar (Vikas) and Devi (Divya Sripada) who bring delight to the film. Even the dialogues and the performances of the secondary characters such as Shekar’s father feel straight out of a daily soap. But Vikas and Divya Sripada manage to keep it within the realm of realism while never compromising on freshness. In their first photo as a couple, they are both in love and yet shy as if the mildest public display of affection makes them blush. Even in the melodramatic moments where Devi is on the verge of death and some difficult conversations have to be had, both Vikas and Divya Sripada mellow it down showing that the epicness of their romance is not in the hysteria of family drama surrounding them but rather in the ability to hold each other’s hand through joy and turbulence alike. You also walk out of the film feeling that a landmark Divya Sripada performance is around the corner. It’s almost like you can touch it. 


Sound reminded me of Anurag Kashyap’s Murabba segment in Bombay Talkies. There a son tries to fulfil a father’s wish involving murabba (fruit preserve) and Amitabh Bacchan and here a father (Uttej) tries to connect his daughter with her idol. 

Except the real twist is that while Amitabh Bacchan the star was instrumental in playing on the lines of masculinity and the patriarchal setting, the idol here, Chitra aka Leah (Swati Reddy), is in a wheelchair. She’s everything a traditional hero isn’t.

Woman. Short. Meek. Disabled. And yet she’s an idol for someone. The film has a twist that’s full of melodrama and heart. Part of the reason this twist works superbly is because of the performances of Uttej and Swati Reddy. Uttej as the earnest father trying to make his daughter’s birthday the best day of her life is full of warmth and desperation. Swati Reddy is terrific as an artist struggling to juggle the roles of a creator and an entrepreneur. She doesn’t want to be taken lightly because of her disability and she goes almost to the point of being ashamed of it. The film too hides her ‘disability’ behind medium-close-up shots and behind desks. It’s not a coincidence. It’s all deliberate. Therefore, when the final reveal and twist occur, the melodrama feels earned. It works. It’s a superb inversion of the idol and the fan until the roles are completely reversed. 

Panchathanthram, like its anthology predecessors, struggles to unify all the stories and make it more than the sum of its parts. Those that weigh it down weigh it heavily but those that don’t make it a sight to behold. 

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