There are two major problems one can see in the contemporary Telugu cinema. One, the spatiality of our movies are either city-centric or rural or a mix of both. Second, notwithstanding the spatiality, the stories, that are narrated, are majorly elitist which invokes false aspirations or sense of escapism with regard to audience. In other words, our Telugu cinema tends to over-represent certain spaces, slangs, professions, and certain section of people while under-representing the other. This discrimination has marginalized certain stories to make it to the cinematic spaces. The point is that though certain section of people’s stories richly deserved to be narrated on celluloid, they don’t seem to come under the cinematic imagination of most of the writers and directors. Because we not only privilege certain stories over the other but also we can’t see other possible stories.
It is in this context, C/o Kancharapalem is celebratory moment in Telugu cinema. It, at the representation level, transcends most of the boundaries that are regularly seen in Telugu movies-Spatial, linguistic, the depiction of characters, etc.: Setting the childhood love story in Government school; Speaking of Uttarandhra slang in the movie; Telling the stories of an attender, a sex worker, and a widow (without being titillated or ridiculed); making an old settlement and town look like Kancharapalem as its background; and, roping-in all the new actors to essay these characters. This movie sets to bring, hitherto less narrated stories, to the mainstream Telugu cinema. It is one thing to mainstream the subaltern voices and quite another to narrate it from their perspective itself. This movie does both. If we see, this film touched upon a range of issues such as religious rigidities, the dignity of labor, power inequalities, poverty, underpayment for overwork, hypocrisy, and gender. Yet, they don’t seem to be forceful or out of place. The reason being, the marginal voices generally hold the truer account of the social world. If cinema can capture it properly, it cannot get a saner voice than this.
Much has already been spoken and written about this movie. But, the critical question is this: Why does the director want us to feel empathetic with male characters (Sundaram, Joseph, Gaddam, and Raju) by putting female characters (Sunitha, Bhargavi, Saleema, and Radha) as the victims of one or other social vulnerabilities? [Narrow-minded and insecure father in case of Sunitha; Brahminical father in case of Bhargavi; the Protectors of religion in case of Saleema; and, the problems of a widow wanting to remarry]. At the time of every heartbreak, male characters’ suffering is represented. For instance, at every heartbreak, the female character not just ends but also made us feel empathetic with the male character. How does one have to look this simultaneity? Does the filmmaker want to represent this as ‘just part of life’ or does he want the audience to feel empathetic with all the male characters so that one would rejoice in cinematic high during the climax when Raju narrates to Radha his past love stories? The answer certainly lies in the second. Constructing the empathy this way- making us feel empathetic with the male character through female characters- is quite complicated though there is certain social reality to this construction.
To elaborate this further, despite the female characters are well written, the film is still in the mainstream dominant mode of narration: narrating the story of the male protagonist from the male perspective and all the female characters are just incidental. The counter-question would be this: Do we accept this film the same way had it narrated the story of, say, some female character having different love stories at different stages of her life? One needs to engage with this question while also celebrating the cinematic grounds it has broken.
Nonetheless, by positing the love stories within the social vulnerabilities that the female characters undergo, the film, perhaps, is trying to flag off three things. One, that the religion is ‘false consciousness’ (means, Religion is an ideological discourse that promotes false hope) and the true essence lies in believing fellow human beings (Raju actually explains this philosophy when he is asked by Radha as to why he didn’t come into the temple and this is also why Raju’s faith in religion seems to be waning but not in the people and love). Second, though the actual victims of the socio-religious rigidities are women, men are also sufferers of the same. Three, every heartbreak, quite interestingly, deals with the religion and critiquing it. [Be it Sundaram’s hurling of stones at Ganesh statue after Sunitha is forcefully shifted to another school in Delhi or Joseph’s leaving rosary in anger in the church after Bhargavi is forcefully married to another person. And, with Saleema’s death, Gaddam seems to have lost faith in Islam as well]. This critique is mature and subtle as against being loud and populist. The filmmaker taking empathy as a tool to both make the audience feel for the characters and to deconstruct/critique the religion is quite liberating in Telugu cinema. And the filmmaker, trying to address the questions of religion and gender, while also conveying universal philosophy of humanism along through its beautiful love stories, is one of the biggest contributions among many of this movie.
A movie gets a social value when it goes beyond the cinematic expression, lives beyond the period in which it is made and be a part of social histories. This movie, C/o Kancharapalem, certainly deserves that position. And this movie is truly one of the few renaissance moments as it gives not only the guts but also the brains to the already changing trends in Telugu cinema. But the question still remains: When do we get to see female love stories, Dalit stories, transgender stories, migrant workers stories and many more? One would hope the success of this movie really does open avenues for such stories.
(Raviteja Rambarki is pursuing his Ph.D. Sociology at the University of Hyderabad and his interest is to write on the interface between cinema and society)