Ms. Representation: Of purity and potency
The writer talks about the recently released Telugu film C/o Kancharapalem, and its central conceit of how women need to be 'pure' irrespective of age, and men have to be 'men'
C/o Kancherapalem is a small film set in a small place. But it has a large heart and is, at its core, simply a love story. However, it is not just the core, the reveal or its a-ha moment that makes this film. It is how it draws the audience in, slowly, patiently, one laugh at a time, one tug of the heart at a time, one aww-inducing smile and look at a time. It is deceptively charming and there are sudden curveballs. Life does not give us two weeks’ notice before throwing us in the deep end either.
CoK has a string of love stories that are all seemingly only tied together by the place it is set in. It is the story of young boy Sundaram’s (Kesava K) first love, Sunitha (Nithya Sree); of late teens Joseph (Karthik Ratnam) with a wild mop of adorable hair and fiery Bhargavi’s (Praneetha Patnaik) encounters; of thirty-something Gaddam (Mohan Bhagath) and Saleema’s (Praveena Paruchuri) untainted, beautiful romance; and 49-year-old Raju’s (Subba Rao) mature, sweet as honey, relationship with his colleague and superior 42-year-old Radha (Radha Bessy) with diabetes.
It has all the cutesy elements to make you fall with a thud – Sundaram is charmed by Sunitha and so are we, her little smile and the knowing look, uff my heart… And Sundaram is so lost in this first love, waiting for her with makeshift palm leaf umbrellas even as it rains, buying lyric books, wearing a ‘jatang’ Rani pink shirt because she likes it even if others think it’s a ‘girl’ colour. Joseph goes from thug to heartthrob in no time, as Bhargavi makes the moves on him, takes the bold lead, and there is no way to escape the charms of Saleema, neither for Gaddam nor us, and finally, the long-widowed Radha shows us at 42, with a 20-year-old daughter, the importance of companionship.
In its treatment, visually, the film reminded me of the Kannada film Thithi, though in terms of content, particularly as the national anthem played out at a rather inconvenient time, it reminded me of Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry. When little Sundaram’s prayers to a 30-foot Ganesha goes unheard, when Joseph looks up to Jesus on a cross with disappointment, high up in the altar at the church, when Raju climbs up a hill, literally, before saying he does not believe in God, it is also the film’s rejection of religion.
At its core, however, the film is a meditation on caste and masculinities, the pressures on women to stay pure and showcase their purity at all ages, and that on men to be ‘men’ – to showcase their potency. Without saying as much in as many terms, we are made to understand caste and religious dynamics in this area in Vizag, and how they invisibilise people.
Even at that tiny primary school level, Sunitha cannot sing film songs because her father thinks it will pollute her. When she’s taken away from the school as she finishes singing, Sundaram watches unable to do anything even as his friend berates him for not doing something. He cannot, he is a little boy up against a man and she is his little daughter.
Bhargavi is very aware of caste and its implications, and refers to herself as a ‘white belt’ while tugging at an imaginary janeu; it’s funny because women aren’t made to wear them, even if they are Brahmin, because of notions of purity and pollution that so concerns caste and brahminism. Bhargavi rejects the differences of caste and religion and takes that leap like women tend to, fearless as they are in love. Joseph is far away, nowhere near the scene when it is revealed that Bhargavi has submitted herself to the will of her father, who threatens to kill himself were she to go with Joseph.
Saleema drinks Mansion House Brandy. That’s a weird introduction, but that’s all Gaddam knows of her. That and her eyes as she covers her face while buying alcohol. The covering of her face is a wily trick, because of Saleema’s profession, that which they refer to as the oldest in the world for a woman. The men from her neighbourhood wear the garb of religion to question her purity, even as Gaddam who wants to marry her rejects the society’s idea of the same. Gaddam too is incapable of stopping harm coming her way, because he too is not around. He is again invisible.
Finally, Radha rejects the caste system at work — both in the real as well as workplace sense — and wants Raju to sit next to her and the other officers and not across the table in the wall to eat lunch. Radha is widowed and has a daughter ‘up for marriage’ according to her brother and must not harbour dreams of another man. Even widows have codes for purity. And the entire town, even as Raju rejects their taunts, has concerned itself with his potency. When the film ends, one realises that it is a small step for Raju, and a giant leap for Telugu cinema.