Care of Kancharapalem (C/o Kancharapalem), directed by Maha Venkatesh, is a recent Telugu film that is set in Kancharapalem, an old settlement in Visakhapatnam, which is segregated along inescapable caste lines. Kancharapalem symbolises this ghettoisation.
The film captures the contemporary shift from overt caste discrimination to its subtle forms. It rebuffs the politics of invisibility of caste, by portraying implicit ways in which caste operates at various levels. On the one hand, caste is selectively asserted in the context of conjugality and the so-called private sphere, but on the other hand, speechifying caste is considered “uncivilised” behaviour in some aspects of public life. The film attacks this very “unspeakability” of caste despite its endemic presence.
Politics of unspeakability and the question of merit
C/o Kancharapalem comprises four stories and in each one, the ‘lower class status’ of the male protagonists is perceivable.
One story is about a primary school boy, Sundaram, who has warm feelings for one of his classmates, Suneeta. Sundaram’s story begins with his desperate attempts to befriend her. One day, while on their way to school, his friend tells him, “Girls only connect to bright boys, we are ‘dull’ students. Girls don’t talk to us!” In this story, the phrase “dull students” could very well signify the ‘lack of merit’ of Dalits while ‘girls’ broadly refers to the middle class girls.
In the second story, Joseph falls in love with Bhargavi, a young educated headstrong middle class girl. An indication of her caste is brought about in the film when her father chastises her for having an affair with Joseph. In this particular story, another euphemism used for caste is the religious identity of Joseph.
Joseph works in a gym whose proprietor happens to be acquainted with Bhargavi. When she is engaged to another man from her caste (against her will), the proprietor asks her on what grounds her father had refused Joseph. To this, she replies with a simple, “Matam (religion)”. Matam signifies the religious identity of Joseph, who is a Christian.
In the context of coastal Andhra, Christianity is somewhat synonymous with Dalits since a majority of Christians in Andhra Pradesh are Dalits. Therefore, many upper caste converts add suffixes of their caste names even after conversion. The upper caste Christian names such as Jacob Shashtry or David Chaudhary help the upper caste members to distinguish themselves from Dalit Christians. In the case of Joseph, caste is obscured by his identity of being a Christian. Therefore, in the film, Bhargavi’s father could avoid the unpleasantness of mentioning the caste name of Joseph. Mass conversion of Dalits into Christianity was an expression of collective aspiration to escape caste oppression. The disappointment of Dalits with Christianity (which reinforces caste) seems to have been symbolically portrayed with Joseph’s rejection of Christianity after his separation from Bhargavi. Joseph’s Christian identity could not transcend his caste.
The third story deals with Gaddam, a young man who works in a wine shop. He is in love with a mysterious woman who comes to buy wine every night, her face always covered with a scarf. One day when he musters up enough courage to profess his love to her, she reveals that her name is Saleema. He is pleasantly surprised to know that she is a Muslim because his lower caste status may not be problematic to Muslims, but it proves not to be so. In this context, his lower-caste identity is subsumed under the larger Hindu identity in relation to Muslims.
The last story is about a 49-year-old single man, Raju, who works as a Grade IV government employee. His status of being single is a matter of deep preoccupation for his entire neighbourhood, with some even going to the extent of questioning his sexuality and virility. He also faces discrimination at his work place; for instance, he is not allowed to have lunch at the same table as the other employees. However, this changes when a new officer, a 42-year-old widow, Radha, insists that he sit at the same table as her. Raju’s caste is not mentioned anywhere in this story. Again, the grounds for discrimination appear to be his lower class position which obscures his caste. Class is a signifier of caste in this story.
There are various other signifiers of caste in the film. For instance, one of Joseph’s friends says that he expects to be a barber, like his father, while another friend Pantulu says he intends to take up his family profession of being a temple priest. Caste-based division of labour is the central tenet of Indian society. Even today, professions like priesthood in temples, manual scavenging or being a cobbler or a barber, are based on the caste location of the individuals. In this context, the caste based occupations indicate the caste location of the characters.
In another scene in the film, Radha mentions that she lives in ‘Gavara Kancharapalem’, the part of the village inhabited by those from the Gavara caste. Indian villages, towns and even cities to some extent are segregated on the lines of caste, with Dalits mostly being relegated to ghettos located on the outskirts.
The unspeakability of caste in the so-called liberal spaces is symbolically portrayed through the character of Sundaram’s father who suffers from a speech disability. He is an artisan who makes Ganesh idols and is employed by a feudal-minded upper caste business man. When he asks for a raise in wages, he is manhandled by the employer. Unable to express himself verbally, he responds by writing on pieces of paper, which proves he is literate. On the other hand, his employer is an illiterate man who needs help from another man to read it out for him. The film presents a fascinating critique on the upper caste notions of ‘merit’ which are repeatedly used against Dalits.
While the upper-caste man who can neither read, nor has the skill to make the idols is able to succeed in business purely due to his privilege and the’position’ of his caste, the skilled and educated man with a speech disability gets no chance to make a living. Even though he aspires to start his own business of making Ganesh idols, he is unable to do so in spite of possessing all necessary skills. His speech disability can be symbolic of Dalits’s inability to speechify caste oppression. The business of making and selling idols of God also evokes strong signifiers of religion which benefit a few privileged castes groups.
Portrayal of women and sexuality
C/o Kancharapalem is distinct from the usual films on inter-caste love and honour killings which project fair-skinned conventionally beautiful upper-caste women as the objects of desire for lower caste men. The film is not simply a bunch of stories on lower caste masculinities, but the stories of women are also extremely fascinating and subversive. The story of Suneeta discusses the stringent control over upper-caste girls right from childhood. The film makes a bold attempt to discuss child sexuality in a healthy way. Bhargavi, a Brahmin girl, is an independent, strong and bold woman. However, she is not a conventionally beautiful or fair-skinned woman to appeal to the male gaze.
Saleema is a Muslim sex worker who is independent, fearless and strong. The film makes a conscious effort to avoid the concept of unravelling sex workers’s pasts in a poignant way in order to evoke sympathy from the audience. When Gaddam professes his love and his determination to marry her, she takes her time to accept the proposal. She also lays down a condition that he should drop her to her workplace every day and to introduce her to his friends who incidentally had once been her clients. Saleema doesn’t want to reinforce the perception of marriage as an act of emancipation for women from sex work and therefore continues with her profession during the courtship period. When Gaddam realises that he cannot stop her from doing sex work, he gives her a pack of condoms for her protection.
Then there’s Radha, who, when she decides to marry Raju, discusses it with her teenage daughter. When she doesn’t approve of it, Radha questions her daughter’s feminist ideology and her inability to engage with the idea of sexual choice of middle-aged widows like her. Later, Radha’s daughter comes around and supports her mother’s decision. She even fights her oppressive uncle who is against the idea of her mother’s remarriage.
Subversion of male gaze
None of the women characters in the film are presented as objects of the male gaze. Neither are they conventionally beautiful, slim or fair skinned.
The film also does not present an “item number” to compensate for the lack of glamour in the film which is almost a convention in formulaic films. It strongly upholds the values of gender justice. It negates sexism and avoids value judgments about sexuality of children, middle-aged widows and sex workers. The film is not simply a bunch of stories of romantic love but one that explores various socio-political aspects of caste, conversion, Dalit-Muslim equation and atheism.
Sowjanya Tamalapakula is an assistant professor at school of gender studies, TISS, Hyderabad.