Kanchivaram is a 2009 Tamil period-piece drama film written and directed by Priyadarshan. The film stars Prakash Raj, Shriya Reddy, and Shammu along with a host of other character actors. The film follows the life of a silk weaver in, pre-independence India, whose singular goal in life is to be able to drape his daughter in a silk saree for her wedding.
Aaron Sorkin once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, “To have a compelling story, you need to have a character, show what the character has, show what the character wants and show the obstacle that’s keeping the character from getting what he wants. The tougher the obstacle, the better the payoff”. This simplistic analysis to good storytelling rings true throughout one of the better character dramas one could watch. Being part of an Indian household, I know how important silk sarees becomes when certain occasions arise. The value those pieces of clothing hold are measured by the meticulous craftsmanship put into them. Those sarees look so fantastic because of the hard working men and women who weave them with painstaking accuracy.
This film explores the life of one such weaver. The film has masterful visual storytelling combined with exceptionally nuanced performances. The characterizations are rich and the conflict our main character finds himself in, seems easy to get away from for a modern audience but those conflicts are insurmountable for a man coming from his time in history. The film makes up for its lack of oomph in the dialogue department with a kinetic story. That’s not to say that film glosses over important aspects of the narrative, far from it. It knows how long scenes need to be and sticks to that principle time and time again. Lingering is not the preferred form of narration here. It is an applause-worthy feat when such quick leaps in story progression still leave the audience with an emotional center to hold on to.
The film has a nearly claustrophobic setting of a small town in the Madras province where everyone knows everyone else and this, amazingly, just adds to the intrigue. There is no action that goes under the radar and there is no word said that goes unheard. The film, while a story of a man’s quest to give his daughter the best wedding ceremony possible is also the story of how the association of silk weavers came to India. There is a lot of talk of communism, the second world war and so many events which are prescient at the time that ground the film in reality. One can always make an argument that this was a real-life folktale that was brought to life by plays put up by the revolting weavers. I truly appreciate such attention to detail put into a film where selling its authenticity is as important as selling its story. The lighting, production design and score play huge roles here as well.
The film’s central character played by the always amazing Prakash Raj is one of the best depictions of a man punching above his weight class I’ve ever seen. His face is a canvas for emotions and the pain behind those world-weary eyes is there for all to see. His actions are perfectly motivated and even though some things he does may look stupid, we have to stop and realize that this is a pretty “average joe” of a man. He has his bounds and boundaries even though he wants those shackles broken. His thoughts are always influenced by the world around him and he is always learning and growing. There is a part of me that thinks he might have been a greater man than he eventually ends up being if he had not made promises that were too big for his britches. The supporting cast around him are just perfect and one can hardly find any fault there.
My only gripe about the film is with two specific subplots. I know why they’re there but something about how it’s narrated just leaves me wanting a bit more.
That being said, this film might leave a few of you in tears but it will most definitely leave most of you moved. This film is not about how many twists and turns it can throw at you. But it is about how well a fairly predictable story is told.
It’s not what it’s about but how it’s about it. (quoting Roger Ebert)
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