Kanchivaram by Priyadarshan.

The classic movie helmed by Priyadarshan and featuring Prakash Raj as its protagonist, a talented but poor weaver of Kanjeevaram silk sarees, won both the Best Feature Film and Best Actor National Awards for the year 2007.

We are used to seeing Prakash Raj play the bad guy in the potboiler hindi movies and Priyadarshan is well-known for his mindless comedies. It is a pity that this little gem is not heard of much and has been seen by a limited audience.

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Set in the dying days of the Raj, the movie depicts the pitiable state of the silk weavers in the town of Kanchipuram as they were unorganized and marginalized to live a perpetual ‘hand-to-mouth’ existence. The movie depicts their struggles and ends with a comment about the cooperative movement that emerged to take care of the interests of the workers.

But the movie is focussed on Prakash Raj and mostly narrated in flashback. Having shades of Balu Mahendra’s ‘Nireekshana’ narrative style, we meet Venkatam who has been released from the prison on a ‘2-day’ parole to attend to some emergency.

Herein lies the folly and hubris of a talented weaver who got branded as a traitor and a thief for a stupid vanity that everyone advised him to be a pipe-dream – he wanted to provide a ‘silk saree’ to his daughter for her wedding. If it was not so tragic for him and his family, one would wonder about his pent-up rage that started within days of birth of his daughter, Tamarai.

Venkatam who is otherwise so normal, skilled, intelligent and caring lost it all in his blind pursuit of the dream that was denied to him by his vocation. While no one argues that they lived a great life but all the same things would have been far better for him had he not become entire single-minded in pursuing the mirage of a ‘silk-saree’.

Over a period of years, he steals small amounts of silk to chase this crazy dream. He comes in contact with the communist ideology and even leads a campaign to improve their conditions. It is galling then when he cedes ground and abandons his credo as he is desperate to get hold of a final stock of the silk to complete the saree for the impending wedding.

The plot has some holes that we can choose to ignore surely – for example his daughter is set to marry Rangan, son of Sarathy who has been his life long associate. And yet when he abandons the strike, Sarathy calls in him a traitor. In face Sarathy becomes an instrument of justice when he confronts Venkatam and stolen wads of silk spill out of his mouth in a very naturalistic scene.

The narrative is taut and focussed on the unfolding drama so there are not many light moments. We have a comical narrative of the police constable,escorting Venkatam. His badge breaks off from his police cap and he goes through great pains to try to fix it. The episode seems to be drawn from an episode in ‘Malgudi Days’. In an earlier episode much excitement is caused because the Landlord has bought a motor-car in the days when people had only seen the Horse Carriage.

The scenes are well set in the Sepia toned images, radio of the bygone era and an ancient minibus with anglicized name ‘Conjeevaram’, an antique motor car that was a novelty in those days.

We have a lovely lullaby number that is unfortunately repeated when the purpose of Venkatam’s parole is revealed. He has come to make arrangements for his paralysed daughter and finds no support. Rather cruelly he decides to kill his daughter as she cannot fend for herself and the song plays in the background. It is gruesome and indeed the tragedy is mirrored in its enormity when Venkatam takes the incomplete silk sari and uses it as a shroud to cover his ill-fated daughter. The cloth is not good enough to cover her fully and we are confronted with a final montage of a crazed Venkatam who has lost his sanity.

Kanchivaram winning Best Feature Film and Best Actor National Award for 2007.
Kanchivaram winning Best Feature Film and Best Actor National Award for 2007.

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