Tuesday 12 May 2020

On demand: "C/o Kancharapalem"

Believe it or not, there are places in this world where a version of trickledown economics still applies. We apparently have the vast global success of the Telugu blockbuster Baahubali to thank for the existence and prominence of the charming relationship drama C/o Kancharapalem, written and directed by the emergent Maha Venkatesh, with creative and promotional assistance from the earlier behemoth's visionary director SS Rajamouli and his villain-in-chief Rana Daggubati. In form, it'll initially present to Western eyes as something like a South Indian Short Cuts, fashioning varied yet interconnected stories out of modest slices of life that illustrate what the residents of the titular town talk about when they talk about love. We're introduced to a schoolkid with a crush on a classmate, a tough gal who finds a potential match among a pack of goons, and a liquor store clerk who tumbles hard for a masked sex worker; best of all - because it showcases two terrific performances, and a sure feel for the practicalities of love in later life - is a strand involving irascible middle-aged bachelor Raju (Subba Rao) and Radha (Radha Bessy), a widowed new colleague who arrives in his office speaking not a word of Telugu. Despite the considerable obstacles standing between them, it's this pair who appear likeliest to stay the course and provide both town and film with the desired happy ending, though there will be surprises - both nice and nasty - as we head in that direction.

Unlike the Altman movie, beset as it was with all manner of post-Rodney King, pre-millennial jitters, Venkatesh's film proves a relaxed and relaxing experience for the most part: it draws us slowly into this place through long afternoon walks and late-night drinking sessions on unswept front stoops. (Once again, I was struck by a key difference between Hindi and regional Indian cinema: unlike the flighty, globetrotting former, the latter is unabashed about putting down roots.) It maybe needs us to be relaxed about its early tonal shifts. I'm not quite sure what the strand involving the goons has to say about violence, or how seriously it's saying it, though several of the most vicious slaps seen, heard and felt this side of a Jimmy Cagney movie would suggest that this aggression is very much part and parcel of this culture, a counterpoint to any tenderness, and the risk you take for putting yourself out there. Credit Venkatesh with a willingness to add grit to his sugar, at any rate: darker material includes the streetwalker's admission that she watched her mother succumb to AIDS, and that isn't even the half of the hardships this lowly figure undergoes here. It requires some adjustment - not least as, as revealed on screen, it feels like a confounding, Shyamalan-like gotcha - but what we're watching is one big love story that contains a multitude of others, some happy, some undeniably sad.

What keeps us watching is that no matter which backroad the film finds itself on - and C/o Kancharapalem keeps opening up these new horizons - Venkatesh absolutely aces those moments of connection that get the characters (and get us) through life, and the elation that follows from those connections: you're buoyed by the lyrical sequence in which the junior schooler finally engages the object of his affection in conversation, and you take home the smile on the ever-radiant Bessy's face as an astrologer informs Radha this one looks to be a good match. What was great about the Baahubali movies, one remembers, was their total absence and rejection of cynicism - rare enough nowadays in most commercial filmmaking, all but unheard of within the carefully calculated domain of the multiplex-bound, effects-heavy blockbuster. A good deal of that open-mindedness and open-heartedness does look to have trickled down to this more humble and grounded endeavour. Venkatesh is acutely alert to the pain and hurt that can follow from falling hard for a fellow human, but he also takes - yes - a care to see the promise and the possibility, the prospect of happiness, within the everyday. The film he's fashioned on this theme proves a little rough around the edges here and there, but worth embracing all the same: the cinema surely needs directors who approach the world this way just as much as it does its visionaries and sceptics.

C/o Kancharapalem is now streaming on Netflix.

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