Review: Kanchivaram

Posted on March 13, 2009


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Priyadarshan makes the most surprising film of his career. More surprisingly, it’s the film of his career.

NOV 30, 2008 – PRIYADARSHAN HAS BEEN WHISPERING, into the ears of whoever cares to listen, that Kanchivaram (A Communist Confession) is his best work ever, and I think I can be forgiven for reacting to this admission with a sackful of scepticism. With his unending assembly line of mind-numbing comedies, many of which barely manage to induce a smile let alone full-throated laughter, the director has squandered away all his credibility, and perhaps the only people who take him seriously anymore are those interested in matters of the box-office. (Of course, you could argue that those are only people who matter, and you’d be right in a sense.) So when he boasts that Kanchivaram – which is among the films competing for the Golden Peacock at the IFFI – is so bloody good, we’re tempted to ask, “Well, compared to what? Mere Baap Pehle Aap?”

But watching this unexpectedly beautiful (and quite moving) drama, you think there’s perhaps a reason Priyadarshan sold his soul and lost his way. This is a film of such accumulated detail in its vignettes that he possibly needed to conserve all his resources to see it through in the form that it deserved, which meant that, short of replicating himself, the only way he could have gotten through those other projects was by humming along on autopilot. Among the many surprises in Kanchivaram is that Priyadarshan could have so easily pumped up the volume and attempted an all-out epic, as he did with the misconceived Kalapani. (The background score, however, does compensate with swells of symphonic music interlaced with snappy phrases from Carnatic ragas.)

Considering that its story is set amidst heavily exploited silk weavers, and considering that its protagonist attempts to unionise his fellow labourers, Kanchivaram could have easily become the rousing, all-male version of Norma Rae, set in the pre-Independence era. But Priyadarshan is after something else, something far more interesting. He sets up the barebones of his story, and then sets us free. Once he sinks his hooks into us with the little plot detail that the impoverished weaver Vengadam (an effectively restrained Prakash Raj) wants to marry off his daughter in a grand style (namely, in a silk sari), the director sits back and lingers on the larger social picture – looking at how sisters sometimes selfishly prey on brothers, or how a detached pendant on a policeman’s cap could cost him his job, or how daughters inherit the duties of caring for fathers after the mother passes on.

It’s fascinating, really, how this most commercial of film directors, here, treats melodrama like minefields to be carefully skirted. When Vengadam, influenced by the rabble-rousing of a communist, prepares a list of demands and hands it over to his employer, and when the latter crumples up the piece of paper and tosses it on Vengadam’s face, you’d expect at least a moment of simmering resentment. Instead, we cut away to a gentle family gathering where Vengadam discusses his daughter’s marriage. In stretches like these, Kanchivaram finds a lovely balance between art cinema and commercial cinema, respectful enough of our emotions by not making blatant attempts at manipulation, yet aware that it isn’t entirely a bad thing when a film affects you emotionally, and that delicacy doesn’t necessarily mean distance.

Kanchivaram begins at the Central Prison, Madras Province, in 1948, when the radio stations are still playing mournful music to soothe a nation yet to recover from Gandhi’s assassination. Priyadarshan subsequently employs a back-and-forth structure that would seem superfluous if it weren’t so seamless, so integrative of past and present that even the detail of Vengadam’s daughter (charmingly played by Shammu) enrolling in a tailoring class, during the flashback, finds a mirror event in the present, in that policemen stopping at a tailor’s shop to sew the offending pendant back into his cap. A death that occurs in the past is similarly complemented by a funeral procession we see almost immediately after, in the present. If this is a familiar trick, it still works well enough to appear fresh again.

The staging is so understated, at times, that I found myself cottoning on to a few scenes a few seconds after they faded from sight. We’re shown Vengadam’s wife, Annam (Shriya Reddy), buttoning up her blouse after a night of lovemaking with her husband – and later, it appears that there could be more to the moment than just sensual afterglow. As she speaks to him about wanting to see the grand silk sari he’s woven for his master’s daughter, you remember the coarse cotton of her blouse. Thiru, with his truly magnificent cinematography, further emphasises this contrast, defining the weavers and their surroundings with such desaturated earth tones that the colours of the silks and the colour of communism (even the sari Vengadam weaves for his daughter is a bright red) burst forth with stunning ripeness.

It’s only in the sections that deal with the influence of communism on this little community of weavers that Kanchivaram turns wobbly. You see the seeds being sown when a weaver is beaten up for delivering only two saris when he apparently took enough yarn for three, and the point is driven home further when the sari that Vengadam weaves is priced at eight hundred rupees, while his wages are a hundredth of that amount. But when Priyadarshan stages a street play, as in Anbe Sivam, where Vengadam imparts his manifesto to the masses, it’s an unsettlingly showy touch in a film where less is oftentimes more. But let’s attribute these rare missteps to a few old habits dying hard. Perhaps Priyadarshan does overreach, at times, in his attempt to grab at the things that possibly drew him to cinema in the first place, but considering his overall achievement, he completely earns our indulgence.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil