In the first period of life set in the '80s, we are introduced to Sundaram, a young boy belonging to a financially underprivileged family in rural Andhra Pradesh. His father Ram Murty is a gifted sculptor with a speech disability — to others, his stammering reduces him to a joke. Had he had access to speech therapy, life might have been different, but his financial status prevents that. Any form of inequality when added to the burden of class inequality becomes impossible to cope with. The person Ram Murty works for capitalises on the latter's sculpting skill, and offers him a minuscule proportion of the profit he makes.
Karl Marx argued that capital produces nothing to the labour on the ground level while capitalists make surplus at the expense of those working for them. This reflects in the life of Ram Murty, as he is insulted and assaulted when asked to be given his due.
Ram Murty, unlike men in most patrilineal families, respects his wife's suggestion to request a small contract and invest in it. (Kancha Ilaiah in his book Why I Am Not A Hindu, argues that women are less subordinated in Dalit and Bahujan families and are not only seen as sites of reproduction, as they work and contribute to the livelihood of the family too.)
Though supportive, even Ram Murty's wife resists social mobility, questioning if someone from a backward class could do it — this shows internalisation of poverty. Sundaram, the school-going kid, uses tree leaves as an umbrella while he walks behind Sunitha, his crush, who holds an actual umbrella. The class difference in the love story is clearly depicted in this scene.
Upon learning that Sunitha likes the colour pink, Sundaram asks his hesitant father to buy him a pink shirt. When he wears it to school, his classmates poke fun at him, calling him a girl.
Likewise, Sunitha wishes to sing a song for a cultural event at school but is doubtful whether she'll be permitted to do so by her father, who restricts listening to a certain kind of music at home. Sundaram helps her with the lyrics of the song and they develop a friendly relationship. When she finally sings at the event, her father hauls her away from the stage while hitting her and blames the teacher for letting her sing what he considers an "inappropriate" song.
The teacher did not find the song objectionable, but the father finds it sexual. He does not want his daughter to know the meaning and do anything on the line of the lyrics of the romantic song. The misogyny and lack of freedom to seek romantic and sexual pleasure by restricting women's actions — also forced upon from a very young age — is an honest representation of the society we live in today. Also notice how different her punishment is from Sundaram's — his stops with getting bullied.
In the second story, we follow Joseph (Raju in his late teens, now converted to Christianity) who works for a politician named Ammoru as a petty thug who thrashes the people his mentor orders him to. Once, when Joseph is following orders, Bhargavi, who is passing by, scolds him. While Joseph wanders around her house to confront her, Bhargavi informs her brothers about Joseph and they, in turn, thrash him black and blue.
Later when Bhargavi's friend is being harassed by the principal's son and she realises that they cannot complain about it, she is forced to seek Ammoru's help. The job is assigned to Joseph. Here, observe the difference in class, status and power, as described by Max Weber. In the case of her friend and the principal's son, there is a social order of dominance that seems impossible to surge past or go against in spite of the evident harassment.
In the process, Bhargavi and Joseph fall in love. Bhargavi's father — a symbol of toxic household dominance — visits a client's house and casually throws dismissive and derogatory comments regarding how ridiculous Christian gatherings are, not realising he is talking to one. As fate would have it, he finds his daughter Bhargavi with Joseph in the same gathering.
Hell breaks loose when she returns home, as the father spews venom, yelling at her for choosing someone outside their "purest caste and religion". When she sticks to her stand, he threatens her with suicide and forces her into a same-caste marriage. Brahmin supremacy and the purity/pollution principle forcing endogamy are evident. Dr BR Ambedkar firmly believed the way for feminism to thrive is through exogamy and interreligious marriage.
It should also be noted that the brothers who thrashed Joseph earlier when he followed Bhargavi home didn't stand up for her when she was unwillingly forced into a marriage — Brahmanical patriarchy protects but doesn't respect women's choice and freedom.
When Joseph returns from his work in Araku — a job that he accepted to level the gap between his and Bhargavi's social standpoint — and learns about her marriage, he loses faith in Christianity too. For decades in India, forcible conversion to Christianity has remained a subject of debate. However, many sociologists have pointed out that in reality, the oppressive hierarchies and bigotry pushes the oppressed to find solace in other religions. C/o Kancharapalem checks off this box too.
In the third story, we witness Gaddam ( Raju in his 30s, after Joseph leaves Christianity) working at a liquor shop where he starts seeing a lady, perpetually covered in a dupatta, who buys liquor and he falls in love solely looking with her eyes. Gaddam neither criticises nor demeans her for consuming alcohol, unlike men with conservative beliefs. One fine night, his friends call a sex worker to his place and they take turns to have sex with her. Although Gaddam doesn't want to have sex, he is shoved into the room with his friend saying that the money would be wasted otherwise. When Gaddam tells her that he does not want to have sex, she helpfully offers medicine in case he has sexual dysfunction. Although sex workers are placed at the bottom of the social order, this scene shows they have higher awareness and more acceptance of sexual incongruence and dysfunction than those considered elite.
After being advised by his friend, Gaddam begins to follow the girl who buys liquor. She confronts him and opens her scarf — she is Saleema, the sex-worker. A shell-shocked Gaddam takes a step back and runs away, but after a few days he follows her again and tells her, "I do not mind your line of work and I am still in love with you and would want you to marry me." Saleema replies that she'd like them to spend some time together before making a decision. When he asks her to quit doing what she's doing, she refuses. However, Gaddam respects her choice and doesn't look down upon her.
This freedom of choice is the right of every woman, and this is something that Bhargavi and Suneetha did not get, as they were restricted by men who were driven by misogyny and patriarchy. At a point Saleema tells Gaddam about how her mother, also a sex-worker, died of AIDS. Gaddam responds by giving her a condom to be safe. The laws in India are unclear, and do not provide any affirmative measures to help sex workers find agency or get healthcare when assaulted or infected at work. Earlier, those with AIDS were shamed and ostracised and were, therefore, hesitant to seek help.
When they finally decide to getting married, Saleema is confronted by men of her religion, who warn her to not do such work as she is born in the "purest religion". Being the progressive woman she is, she refuses to bend to the extremist nature of the men, and they kill her. This is no different from honour killing. Saleema is oppressively killed because of moral policing through religion and misogynistic patriarchy at multiple levels.
The fourth and final character Raju (now living as his own self) is a 50-year-old attender in an office. Radha, an officer and widow, is transferred to their office. Consequently, the men of the office dress up and start flirting with her though they are in a work setting, not respecting professional boundaries, because she is a woman. Raju, while talking to Radha tells her that he knows Hindi and has learnt from his Muslim friends — an example of solidarity and secularism, and of choice to learn, not imposition.
While having lunch, all the officers sit at a table and Raju sits farther, near a wall. When asked by Radha to join them at the table, the men oppose her saying he is just an attender, and does not have the right to sit alongside them. Radha counters this argument, saying they are colleagues and he has every right to — class and status differences are showcased, but smashed.
While having lunch, the topic of marriage and kids comes up, and the officers laugh at Raju for not being married, which shows the amount of hostility towards those who do not abide by heteronormative norms, also hinting at how difficult it must be for the people of the LGBTQ+ community.
The panchayat of the village calls Raju and his friends, expressing doubt about Raju's sexual orientation, backed by the fact that he is not married. People from his neighborhood also believe he is gay and say that his presence is sinful for the locality. They threaten to banish him from the village if he does not get married to a person of the opposite sex.
The subtleties of homophobia from both ends are not surprising given the year the story is set in. Though there is a significant improvement in the recent past, we still have a long way to go to give agency to members of the LGBTQ+ community, which was criminalised through Section 377, till it was struck down.
When Radha proposes him for marriage, a perplexed Raju runs away from her, afraid of the reactions of the people from his neighborhood. The irony, though, is that a while ago, he suggested that it doesn't matter what people around think if two people are happy together. This is proof of how internalised moral policing, patriarchy and ageism are.
Radha's daughter, too, initially opposes her mother being married, citing the same million-dollar-question, 'What will people say?'. The mother calls her out for her double standards of feminism — patriarchy is internalised even in educated young women like Radha's daughter.
In a scene, Radha is shown touching the feet of a priest, attributing to the ideas of Brahmin supremacy. Although Radha is a high-level officer, she has no freedom of choice in her life when it comes to marriage. Does she want to get married or not? If she does, to whom? Her brother dominates, abuses and shames her for it, despite her professional achievements.
All four characters — at different stages of Raju's life — are progressive and this gives you hope in a not-so-fair society. In mainstream movies, we often get to hear dialogues about feminism mansplained by heroes, but C/o Kancharapalem builds its feminism through its intrinsic female characters.
The film tells that homogenisation and censorship are a threat to our diverse society. Although that is what the deeply-rooted bigotry in society counter-argues, films such as C/o Kancharapalem are humble reminders that we should be conscious about protecting our diversity.