In Balagam, debut director Venu Yeldandi’s Telugu movie set in rural Telangana, a lady wails while recalling how the elderly man who has breathed his last had always relished the tea she served and asked for two more spoons of sugar and had also enquired if she is making fish pulusu. It is tough to not crack up as she says this because of what has transpired earlier. An elderly man’s passing and a motley group of villagers paying their obeisance with high drama open the stage for roaring laughter. In the next two hours, the narrative lays bare human behaviour, complete with bloated egos that can fracture familial ties over simple issues.
Komarayya (Sudhakar Reddy) is not the likeable grandfather in the village. He is gregarious but also oblivious to the effect of his sharp statements and actions on those around him. Acharya Venu’s camera leads us into rural Telangana with its hills, fields and houses as the catchy ‘Maa ooru pallettooru’ composed by Bheems Ceciroleo plays on, unfolding a day in the life of Komarayya. Sudhakar Reddy plays Komarayya with an easy demeanour, convincing in his character’s exuberance and melancholy. Soon, we are curious about what is in his bag that he holds dear to him.
Cast: Priyadarshi, Kavya Kalyanram, Muralidhar Goud
Direction: Venu Yeldandi
Music: Bheems Cecerolio
Komarayya’s sudden demise brings together his sons, daughter, their children, extended relatives and the villagers. The grandson Sailu (Priyadarshi) who has been hoping to get engaged, get a fat dowry and repay his debts, is shattered. Elsewhere, a tailor (the director doing the honours for a brief, interesting part) goes into utter shock and keeps reiterating a couple of lines that turn out to be both funny and poignant.
Venu Yeldandi uses the patriarch’s death, the funeral and the rituals thereafter to depict family politics. Death becomes an excuse for several feasts accompanied by alcohol; a half-baked romance collapses only to open the stage for a new one, and someone squabbles over land. In short, life takes a 360-degree turn when the force that binds a family is gone.
Hindi films such as Ramprasad ki Tehrvi and Pagglait, and the Kannada film Thithi come to mind for their exploration of death and family politics, but it is a new territory in Telugu.
Balagam also turns its lens on how women bear the brunt of men dictating the rules of engagement in a family. When the humour wears off after a point, the drama around the rituals feels stretched. Nevertheless, these portions serve the purpose of making the villagers and family members look inwards and seek answers to whether they are truly grieving for a departed soul.
Priyadarshi is not new to playing an underdog, everyday man. The fact that he can do it believably, without any artifice, after several years in his career, is praiseworthy. The early romance scenes and his predicament at how the village folks treat his snooker table are hilarious; when he does some soul-searching towards the end, he prompts others to follow suit. Kavya Kalyanram, Muralidhar Goud (the father in DJ Tillu), Sudhakar Reddy, Racha Ravi, Roopa and Jayaram are good fits for their parts. The several supporting actors who enact the parts of people in the village lend authenticity to the film.
It’s been long since we have seen a rooted, indie-style Telugu film that explores subcultures of the Telugu states the way a Care of Kancharapalem or a Mallesham did. Balagam is a welcome addition to that list.