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Film Review: Kanchivaram

Posted by anandrr on March 25, 2009

I first watched a Priyadarshan movie when I watched Kilukkam back when I was a young college-going lad. My room mate had convinced us Bangaloreans that this was an awesome movie and took us. Kilukkam was quite a revelation, it was funny, it was extremely well made, it had a good story and plot, and finally it looked different. Kilukkam looks most like a Mani Ratnam movie, but that is not giving Kilukkam enough credit. The Mani Ratnam look of course refers to the generally dark, back-lit/side-lit cinematography that lends the movie a sensual look. But the difference is that Kilukkam was shot in Ooty, and the director did use that to his advantage by framing the shots to include the green beauty of that fine hill-town. It also helped that Ooty is a generally foggy city, see earlier note about lowered lighting in the shots. Kilukkam was also that rarest of Indian movies: a comedy feast. Historically, Indian comedies may be classified into: i) Movies that are tight, intelligent comic movies, they start as comedies, stay that way, and end that way. These are rare. Hrishikesh Mukherjee used to pull it off quite consistently in the 70s. This has recently come into vogue again, now that movies are not afraid to last two hours or less. ii) Movies that start with a comic premise, but quickly morph into a drama/tragedy/something else equally abhorrent. These are sadly quite prevalent. A subset of this type of movie is of the Chandni Chowk to China variety. Movies that could be good comedies if only they had had the sense to hire an editor and snip out the middle 1.5 hours. iii) Movies that are indeed comedies through and through, or would be if they were actually funny. This includes movies that at first blush might appear to belong in the first category. Two Kamalhassan movies illustrate this dichotomy nicely. Pushpak, that landmark silent movie of the 1980s today appears to be a movie with an interesting gimmick but a very poor, cringe-inducing comic style, firmly in the third category. Michael Madana Kama Rajan, the quadruple-role Kamal feast, on the other hand seems to belong to the first variety. All in all, I had marked Priyadarshan as a director to watch. Soon after, I left India for foreign shores and didn’t really follow his work. I was therefore quite pleased when I saw that The Asian Film Festival in San Francisco last weekend screened Priyadarshan’s latest effort, Kanchivaram.

Kanchivaram is a set in the mid-late 1940s in the Tamilnadu town of Kanchivaram. The town is the origin of the famous Kanchivaram silk sarees, intricate hand woven sarees of such incredible beauty, woven by artisans who are so poor that they cannot afford their own creations, indeed have probably never seen their sarees worn by anyone. They work for the local landlord who owns the means of production, and naturally this sets the stage for a gradual awakening of Communist spirit among the weavers. The story deals specifically with one weaver who wishes that by the time his newborn daughter is of marriageable age, he will be able to marry her off in a silk saree. This is is an admirable pursuit in one so poor of course, but the futility of a poor person’s existence in India will grind him down, it is really only a matter of time. No Slumdog Millionaire this, there are no fairy tale endings to be had. The system is stacked against a simple poor weaver, and he has to fight it every step of the way. Communism makes its appearance via an idealistic writer, but pre-war Britain banned Communism, and eventually even Communism can’t help, it is but an ideology. Ideologies can’t put food on the table. Very quickly, idealistic communist protestors turn into run-of-the-mill politicians and yet another source of hope disappears. Hope keeps springing eternal, but reality catches up very quickly eventually leading to a heart-rending dénouement. As Slumdog would say, “It is written.”

Don’t let all of this get you down, the story is outstanding: it has all the right touches to make it incredibly real and it is very well edited to tell that story tightly. This is also the best looking movie I’ve seen in a long time. It isn’t just the back-lit/side-lit scenes that are enjoyable, there are many deep-focus shots of the kind I haven’t seen in a long time. When he turns these on, the scene just pops like on a digital hi-def screen, and the collective audience’s jaw drops. The Kanchivaram village doesn’t just look lovely, it looks like an Incredible India tourist brochure come alive.

A Western audience might find a couple quibbles with the movie. The lone “British” businessman speaks an English that is painfully un-British, indeed un-anything, but one imagines that if he spoke perfectly, it would make him very hard to follow for a Tamil audience. Also the San Francisco audience that I watched this with twittered quite audibly when the Communist sickle made its appearance, this might be camp for an American audience, but the rest of us know that it is indeed quite real.

As I left the movie theater (Castro theater, about which a word, I had no idea the ceiling had all these lovely Indian/Asian motif paintings), I felt like I’d seen the best movie I’ll see all year.

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One Response to “Film Review: Kanchivaram”

  1. […] Film Review: Kanchivaram […]

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