Although I bill myself as something of a film buff, there are certainly some great gaps in my cinema knowledge...like Indian movies for starters. Yes, I have seen many of the 'classic' films like "Mahal" (1949) and "Mother India" (1957) and I probably know all of Satyajit Ray's output. In addition I have viewed a number of the 'breakout' sagas of recent years that have received widespread distribution outside their own niche market, but I couldn't begin to discuss competently modern Indian cinema, its stars, and directors, and I have quite probably never seen a 'Bollywood' film on the big screen. Therefore when Channel Four does one of its occasional Indian film seasons (normally in the wee small hours to schedule the usually lengthy flicks), I try to watch a selection of these -- to watch them all might be more than even I can manage.
In the past few weeks I have notched up three of their offerings. The first was "3 Idiots" (2009), a rather jolly 'where are they now?' comedy of prankish school chums meeting after some years (and apparently one of the highest-grossing Indian films.) The second was the lushly lensed "Raavanan" starring ex-Miss World beauty Aishwarya Rai as the wife of a ruthless police detective kidnapped by the roguish bandit that he has been pursuing. However it was the above film, quite unlike many that I have seen, which left the most lingering impression.
For a start, unlike most Indian movies made in one of the major languages of the country (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali -- don't expect me to me any more knowledgeable) this one was scripted in Tamil, one of 22 recognized languages in the country and the first to be declared a classical language. Since it is spoken in a relatively small area of the subcontinent, the film received only a limited release. However, after it won the national awards for best film and best actor, Prakash Raj, it was finally scheduled for country-wide release. The title refers to a local city, formerly the center of the silk-weaving trade, where Raj's character Venkadam is one of the best artisans for the local bigwig. He and his colleagues normally receive only seven rupees for one of their intricately patterned saris which might in turn be sold for a thousand times that price.
Set in the period from the late 20s to the end of World War II, the film focuses on the statement that most Indians of the period coveted silk vestments twice in their lives -- for the bride when they marry and for the shroud when they die. However their labour was so exploited that they could never save sufficient to fulfill these dreams. Even Venkadam's father who was so masterful that he received commissions from a local king, was buried with only a small strand of silk connecting his big toes to ease his journey to the next world. When our hero brings home his bride, the villagers gossip that she wears only a cotton sari. Then when a daughter is born to them, he pledges (to his wife's dismay) that he will ensure that she is clad in silk on her wedding day. He explains to her that he has been scrimping and saving small coins all his life to prepare for the next wedding, but this is soon lost when his feckless brother-in-law implores a loan with the threat that he might otherwide need to return his wife to the family. So Venkadam begins stealing small skiens of silk (concealed in his mouth through the daily body searches) and spends his evenings in his barn -- off-limits to wife and daughter because of mythical snakes -- weaving the bridal sari to be.
All of this is told in flashbacks during the endless journey on a rickety bus from the prison where he has now been consigned. He has been granted compassionate leave for a few days to deal with a family tragedy -- what this is we only learn later and it provides the incredibly sad and tearful twist to the tale. However the film is first and foremost the history of the weavers' collectives that were formed in India from the late 40s onwards and which still exist today. The movie is not exactly an apologia for communism -- Venkadam and his co-workers are influenced by a visiting communist scholar who has taken refuge in their community during the period when communism was outlawed in India; our protagonist presents their demands to the intransigent 'master' and leads them into devestating strike action. Only his daughter's impending wedding forces him back to work-- and back to stealing -- since the promised sari is not yet finished. The movie is not a whitewashing of the growth of communism amongst these poor villagers, but it makes a strong case for the economic roots that ensured the ideology's appeal.
As I'm sure you know, nearly all Indian films are punctuated with extravagant song and dance numbers (which accounts for the length of these movies). If I am honest I will admit to you that I occasionally fast-forward through many of these, since my ear is not attuned to the sound. The refreshing thing about this particular film is that there are no such intervals relocating the action into colourful fantasy. The only song used is a traditional-sounding lullaby sung by a group of local women at the ceremony marking his beloved daughter's birth and reprised at the film's tragic end. The movie's director and writer, Priyadarshan, was previously best-known for broad Malayam comedies, ripped off from overseas movies. This film, whose subtitle is "The Tyranny of Silk", represents a significant change of pace into moving, intelligent drama.