Perfect weave

Print edition : October 09, 2009

Prakash Raj as the protagonist, Vengadam, in the film.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

WHAT could not be achieved for Tamil cinema by big-budget movies starring mega actors all these years has been accomplished by a film made on a shoestring budget. At the 55th National Film Awards for 2007, Kanchivaram, directed by Priyadarshan, was chosen the Best Feature Film for presenting a rare portrayal of Kanchis silk weaver community and the internal struggle of a weaver caught between his ideals and personal dreams. Prakash Raj, who plays the lead role, won the Award for Best Actor.

The film, produced by Percept Picture Company and Four Frames, has already been screened at various international festivals, such as Palm Springs, Dubai, Pusan and Toronto.

One has to acknowledge the painstaking efforts made to ensure the authenticity of the period film. The difficulties faced in producing the movie can only be imagined, since it covers the period from 1920 to 1948. At no point does the neatly woven story, set in the 1940s, go astray though several flashbacks take the viewer to the 1920s and 1930s. The flashbacks highlight the plight of the weavers, who had to depend on their masters, who, in turn, controlled the handloom industry. The travails, emotions and excitement of the weavers are interlaced perfectly as the story shuttles between the past and the present.

The faithful portrayal of life grips the viewers right from the first frame, where Vengadam (Prakash Raj), the weaver, comes on parole to see his daughter Thamarai (Shammu), and the last one, where he makes a vain bid to cover her body with a silk sari clandestinely woven by him.

During the tedious journey from the prison to the town in a rickety bus, Vengadam looks, through his broken glasses, at his shattered past and clueless future, with incessant rain aggravating the pathos. His poetic expressions shine on the screen.

The silk weaver can only weave silk, but he or his family members cannot wear it is the message of Kanchivaram, named after Kancheepuram, the silk capital of India. Vengadam is a shining example of the sorry state of affairs in the silk-weaving sector.

The first of Vengadams series of failures comes when he, as a young man, claims that his bride will be in a silk sari. He fails to achieve it. Even though he is teased for this failure, he is not offended. The second occasion is when the last rites are performed for his father, a recipient of many awards for his mastery in weaving. When the priest asks Vengadam where the silk for the body is, all he can do is hand over a silk thread to tie the toes together. A bystander comments: All through his life, he has woven yards of silk. Yet today, upon his death, there is not even a piece of cloth to cover his body. That is the fate of the weaver.

Vengadam weaves a unique bridal sari for his masters daughter, which bears designs and motifs such as the waves of the sea and a forest in all its richness. But to enable his wife, Annam (Shreya Reddy), to catch a glimpse of it, he has to carry her on his shoulders to reach the venue of the wedding just before the bride enters the horse carriage.

But he would not compromise on his pledge to his baby daughter that he would adorn her in a silk sari at her wedding. He makes this promise against the advice and criticism of his friends and others. He installs a loom in his cattleshed clandestinely and starts weaving the sari using yarn stolen from the masters loom yard.

Viewers are moved beyond words when an emotional Vengadam, after losing everything in life his wife, his friends, his relatives, his commitment to the ideology, and finally the smile on his daughters face tells Thamarai, immobilised by a paralytic attack: See the silk sari that I have been weaving for you for the past 16 years I have been dreaming every day how you would look in it. I became a thief, a traitor everything for this; only for this!

Director Priradarshan with actors Prakash Raj and Shreya Reddy during the shooting of the film.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Earlier, the arrival of a communist leader to the town heralds a new awareness in the weaver community. He teaches them through skits and stories the importance of fighting against the crass exploitation by the masters who did not hesitate to award corporal punishment to the weavers on flimsy grounds. He inculcated revolutionary ideas in them by talking to them about the Russian Revolution and other great world events.

Just when the leader realises that his mission to the silk town is over, he is caught and shot dead by the police. Vengadam and his comrades manage to escape. The responsibility of leading the weavers in their struggle to achieve their demands falls on the shoulders of Vengadam, whose commitment to communist ideals and class struggle are reinforced by his arrest by the British police.

The lifting of the ban on the Communist Party, close on the heels of the turn of events in the Second World War, provides the much-needed fillip to the agitation. Denial of the charter of demands advanced by the weavers forces Vengadam to intensify the struggle. He asks his comrades to continue with the struggle for better treatment and a pay increase and tells them not to mind if the protest takes a militant form in a bid to thwart the masters move to bring weavers from elsewhere.

But all his commitment to the ideology and the welfare of the weavers wilt and collapse when Vengadam realises that he cannot fulfil his promise to his daughter if the three-month-old struggle goes on. He has to race against time and complete the sari that he is weaving for his daughter, whose marriage has to take place before her soldier bridegroom returns to the battlefield after vacation.

He cannot escape the danger of being dubbed a traitor if he calls off the strike. At the same time, for him, the work has to resume so that he will be able to smuggle the silk yarn necessary to complete the bridal sari. Pushed into a Catch-22 situation, Vengadam waxes eloquent on whether to carry the strike forward or to end it abruptly. Finally, he decides to ditch his comrades and resume work along with a section of the weavers.

Just as he continues to steal silk yarn and weave the sari in his cattleshed with single-minded devotion, ignoring the plight of his fellow weavers, his militant comrades refuse to bow to the masters pressure tactics and persist with the struggle. Annoyed at Vengadams preparations for his daughters wedding, they demand an explanation from him. The erstwhile leader, who has concealed the stolen yarn in his mouth, spills the beans, much to their shock and dismay.

None of the weavers comes to his rescue when Vengadam is thrashed by the masters henchmen for the crime. In fact, some of the weavers join them in the attack. A helpless Thamarai pleads with her fathers former associate to rescue him from his assailants.

A handcuffed Vengadam is then taken to prison. The marriage is called off. Shortly afterwards, his daughter jumps into a well and becomes paralysed. Coming on a two-day special parole to his town to see her, on February 1, 1948, he pleads with his sister and brother-in-law, who owe him a lot, to take care of the girl until his release but to no avail. The heartbroken weaver, who had always warned his daughter against entering the cattleshed, carries her there to show her the bridal sari.

Vengadam ends the life of his beloved daughter by feeding her poisoned food. In the climax, he makes a desperate effort to cover Thamarais body with the incomplete sari. He smiles philosophically at the police escort who tells him that his parole time is over.

The film is not totally free from criticism. Critics, more particularly those from the trade unions, flay the way the protagonist, a trade union activist, is portrayed.

K.S. Parthasarathy, the doyen of the cooperative movement and trade unionism in Kancheepuram.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The pre-Independence era has produced outstanding leaders and activists of the trade union movement in Kancheepuram, recalls E. Muthukumar, general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers Federation. One such leader was K.S. Parthasarathy (1910-1990), KSP to his comrades and weavers. His role in rallying the silk weavers under the cooperative movement has been acknowledged in the epilogue of the film. Referring to the contrast between the reel-life hero and the real leader, Muthukumar said KSP spearheaded the struggles of the weavers right from 1936 when he was only 26. KSP firmly believed that the freedom movement could not be separated from the efforts to protect the class interest of the working people.

When Krishnasamy Sharma, a freedom fighter belonging to the radical wing of the Congress, died, no one was prepared to take the body to the cremation ground in the face of the repression let loose by the colonial rulers. But the fearless KSP, along with his wife, took the body away in a cart and performed the last rites, he pointed out.

Incidentally, KSP was the first to be arrested in the composite Chengalpattu district for staging an individual satyagraha. He became a communist when he was in the Vellore prison in 1945.

The doyen of the cooperative movement in Kancheepuram, KSP took the initiative to form the first cooperative society for silk weavers, the Kancheepuram Kamatchi Amman Pattu Kaithari Nesavalar Kootturavu Sangam, in 1955, enrolling 110 members. He also played a pivotal role in spreading the cooperative movement of silk weavers in other parts of Tamil Nadu. After the 1960s, as a top leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), he continued his tireless work for weavers. In Kancheepuram alone there are 24 such cooperative societies, Muthukumar added.

Though some sections try to project a rosy picture, the life of the majority of the 50,000 silk weavers, spread over 20 panchayats in Kancheepuram district, continues to be terrible, with the economic slowdown adding to their woes. Many weavers working under private managements are bonded labourers. They beat the warp rhythmically for hours together in dingy rooms, hoping against hope to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Some other critics point out that though the hero of Kanchivaram compromises on the weavers struggle, his close associate (Jayakumar) refuses to budge and carries on with the protest. It may not be accidental that this character has been named Sarathy, they say. The highest national film awards for the movie and its lead actor during the birth centenary celebrations of KSP is a fitting tribute to the outstanding trade unionist and freedom fighter.

This achievement for Tamil cinema has come after a gap of 17 years. No doubt, the stellar performance of the actors Prakash Raj, Shreya Reddy, Jayakumar and Shammu and the brilliant work in other departments editing by Arunkumar, cinematography by Thiru, artwork by Sabu Cyril, as well as direction by Priyadarshan enabled Kanchivaram win the ultimate accolade in the Indian film world.

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