By Geeta Charusivam
Kanchivaram is a Tamil language film that came a few years back. It has been dubbed in Hindi also and is available on YouTube.
It depicts the life of a silk weaver in Kancheepuram, a town in northern Tamil Nadu that is famous for its silk saris. It is a period film that has been written and directed by noted Malayalam director Priyadarshan, who has made many Hindi films also.
Prakash Raj, the famous actor, director and producer of films in several languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi plays the lead role of Vengadam. All the names of the characters have been changed in Hindi.
The flashback narrative begins as he comes out of jail on temporary parole in the year 1948 and is travelling to Kancheepuram by bus with his two police escorts.
As it is a flashback, we realize that everything that is shown is of the decades before this. The film depicts the lives of the weavers, their dreams and aspirations and the harsh realities of their everyday life in a dramatic story.
Silk saris weaver
The silk saris were hand woven by the weavers, who earned very little and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. But they worked with a material viz., silk that was rich in texture and appearance as well as highly priced.
The film captures the class struggle of the weavers well. They work hard for several days to weave one single sari and are paid a pittance by the feudal owner.
They face physical and emotional abuse too at the hands of the owners. Weavers were sometimes allowed to carry silk threads and weave the sari at home.
But the owner gets suspicious that the weavers are stealing silk threads and refuses to let this practice continue. Instead, the weavers are made to come to the temple and weave saris there in the presence of supervisors.
Their battles for a rise in wages and how silk societies were formed is shown well.
A master craftsman story
Vengadam is a master craftsman who know the art of weaving well. He manages to impress foreigners with his saris. He is also asked to weave the marriage sari of his owner’s daughter.
All through his life, Vengadam has one passionate but unattainable dream. In his youth, he dreams about bringing his bride home in a silk sari. But predictably, he is unable to fulfill this desire as it is beyond his means.
An old woman in the village taunts him as he walks in with in bride who is wearing a cotton sari, and philosophically laments that we poor people cannot even dream of silks.
Later on, after the birth of his daughter, he decides that he will weave a silk sari for his daughter to wear at her marriage. So he starts saving money and talks about it often.
Once his wife gets angry and tells him not to have such high hopes. So he shows her his piggy bank and how much he has saved.
A Silk Sari for daughter
Suddenly, he faces a dilemma in his life. His brother-in-law loses heavily in business. So Vengadam’s older sister is sent back home.
Her husband will take her back only if Vengadam supports him monetarily. So he has to give away all his savings to his brother-in-law.
But his passion of weaving a silk sari for his daughter does not subside. So he starts stealing a few strands of silk every day and weaves his sari in secret at night.
Life deals Vengadam another huge blow. A motor car is huge news for the villagers. They cannot imagine it as they have not seen one before. Hence all the villagers gather to watch the new car bought by their owner.
In the ensuing stampede, his wife gets trampled upon and later dies. He brings up his young daughter alone.
Crux of the storyline
Meanwhile, a writer comes to the village. Actually, he is a communist organizer who comes to organize the weavers. As the communist party is banned, he and his comrades are hunted by the police and arrested. The ban is lifted later, when Britain goes into the Second World War with Russia also entering the Allied side.
In the interim, Vengadam has learnt to read from this writer. And after the arrest of the writer, he becomes the leader of the weavers. The scene showing him giving a memorandum to the owner is a realistic one.
It shows how it is not easy for him to stand up to his owner as an equal while demanding their collective rights, as he has always been obsequious earlier. But slowly he learns the art of leadership and leads the weavers to a strike.
However, he has to face an inner struggle between achieving his personal goal and upholding the larger interests of the weavers. There is a conflict of interest between these two things.
Can he reconcile both these differing aspects? How does he deal with his conflict of interest? Does he betray the workers? Does he finish weaving his precious sari?
Why does he go to jail? What becomes of his daughter? All these form the crux of the storyline and are successively answered by the time we reach the climax scene.
Climax with despair
The lives of women in the weavers’ community are also tough and hard. They are shown to be typical dependent women who do the house-work and take care of the family.
Vengadam’s daughter, though young takes up her mother’s job of cooking, cleaning and looking after cows before and after school. His sister is a typical married woman who fears abandonment by her husband.
Both Vengadam and she feel that her dignity and honor depends on living with her husband, even though he is uncaring and cruel.
Again, in the end, the choice made by Vengadam with respect to his disabled daughter is a typically patriarchal response that fills us with despair.
It appears that the women were only accessories that were needed to hold up the story-line. As the period portrayed in the film is that of the freedom struggle, Indian women had been taking up public spaces and were part of many mass movements.
However, there is not even an echo of this in the film.
Cast issue unaddressed
Similarly, caste is not talked about overtly in the film. However, as we know that every profession is caste-based, we realize that these weavers belong to a certain caste-Hindu formation.
The temple plays a prominent role in their lives. At one point, the film mentions a particular cultural ritual of the weavers community that a piece of silk is required during both marriage and funeral.
However, apart from these miniscule references, caste is totally missing from it. If the film had addressed caste issues and their relationship to the owner, it would have made the film deeper and richer.
Still, it is an important film on a section of the working class viz., silk weavers and gives us a slice of life that informs their history and struggles.
It is both a personal story of one weaver and a political story of the weavers as a class. There are so few Indian films based on workers life or working class struggles that this one becomes an important one to watch.
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