Stories that focus on deep-seated issues that have far-reaching consequences are rare enough here, and when you come across one that has decent performances as well, you can't help but appreciate it. One such work is Percept Picture Company's Kanjivaram, a Priyadarshan Tamil movie that documents with loving care the lives and times of weavers in Kanchipuram, in the pre-independence era.
Weavers dream of draping themselves in silk twice in their lifetimes -- once during their marriage and the other in death. Even this is done in a nominal fashion. Often there's only a cursory silk thread to signify the commitment. And that forms a rather sorrowful thread that underlies the whole movie.
The story cuts across two time-lines: on a rain-dripping day, Vengadam (Prakashraj) gets into a bus accompanied by two police officers. As the scruffy ex-weaver stares across the desolate landscape in company of villagers, his mind flits across the past.
Newly married to Annapurna aka Annam (Shreya Reddy), he's cherished dreams of marrying her in silk, only to see it dwindle into nothing. Working under the stingy Adhikari, who's set stringent rules for weaving, weavers can no longer weave in their homes, but have to report to the temple where threads will be measured out. Theft is seriously dealt with.
Vengadam finds solace in his close friend, Parthasarathy (Jayakumar), and the birth of his daughter. If he can't marry a silk-draped wife, then he would fulfill a vow he made at his daughter's birth; he would drape her in silk at her marriage. Finally, he resorts to the one thing that makes him despise himself, for the love of his daughter; he begins to steal silk threads, one at a time.
With a writer who has communist leanings entering the town and the effects of the second world war being keenly felt, matters begin to steadily deteriorate for the weavers who eke out a miserable living in return for magnificent silk saris that are the epitome of creativity and perseverance. And once Annam dies of a sudden illness, Vengadam is left to fulfill a dream that seems almost impossible, even as his daughter Thamarai (Shammu) grows up to womanhood.
Prakashraj as Vengadam is cocky and confident, safe in the cocoon of youth, but grows quickly disillusioned as age and the responsibility of fulfilling the vow given to Thamarai catches up with him. He's especially brilliant when he's caught between upholding communist ideals and the temptation of his personal life.
Shreya with her dusky good looks is perfect -- she's charming, quirky and you feel a weight of sadness when her character comes to an end.
Shammu, the lively young Thamarai is a vivacious youngster whom you grow to respect. Jayakumar and the rest of the cast fit the bill, providing a good backdrop.
M G Sreekumar's music reminds you of the art films of yore, interspersing veena strains at the sorrowful bits.
Surely we've outgrown those obviously docu-drama effects? In fact, this is a drawback that dogs the whole movie. Despite a strong ensemble cast, the long-drawn out pauses, stilted dialogues and unnecessary silences make you impatient, reminding you of art house productions from the 70s.
There are sudden commercial intrusions like a weaver's family strumming the veena at a function that's just plain wrong. It's obviously been designed for the film-festival circuit, and you're left in no doubt about that.
Sabu Cyril brings the weaver's hut to life, while Thiru's photography is excellent, capturing rain-filled days and the beautiful twilight.
While the last half hour is truly moving, Kanjivaram would have been an instant classic if Priyadarshan had given as much attention to the first half as he's done to the second.