“Am I playing that role or am I living that role? Or am I living through it by pretending?”
‘Rangamarthanda’ Raghava Rao
Opening with an antiquated monologue about the nature of acting, Ranga Marthanda is a Telugu drama that explores the relationships and tragic downfall of a venerated theatre actor following his retirement. It is a remake of Natsamrat, a Marathi film that started out as a stage play heavily influenced by King Lear — against his wife’s advice, Raghava Rao decides to grant his children their inheritance, certain that they will continue to support their parents, only to find himself rejected from each household. It is also reminiscent of Tokyo Story, not only in the inattentive children but the in-law who proves to be the most caring, with a surprising performance from musician Rahul Sipligunj (now best known for singing the Oscar-winning ‘Naatu Naatu’ from last year’s RRR). The film rests on Prakash Raj’s ability to embody both the towering performer and the much reduced retiree who adopts a joyful demeanour in the face of mistreatment (“Life is a sad play to be lived happily”), though it is Brahmanandam who perhaps delivers a more moving performance as his friend and collaborator, also in decline but contrasted by his lack of children. The familial drama is effective but largely predictable (given its well-known Shakespearean inspiration), and Ranga Marthanda is arguably stronger in its defence of culture and language — Rao deplores modern movie stars who scorn the stage and chastises his granddaughter’s international school which punishes the use of Telugu, explaining that “language preserves culture”. Yet this is not mere resistance to change as Rao fully embraces his daughter’s fusion music. Ranga Marthanda may not be charting new ground in its content or its direction, but it delivers several fine dramatic performances within its dated presentation.
“Beyond words of support to justice, the court’s silence towards injustice is more dangerous.”
A Tamil legal drama that doesn’t water down its politics, Jai Bhim is a blistering attack on India’s caste system and police mistreatment of tribal peoples who find themselves falsely imprisoned to improve crime statistics. Based on a real case from the early 1990s, the film explicitly names the Irular tribe, spending the opening half hour focused on these landless labourers before the legal case begins. The brutal police beatings are difficult to watch, Rajakannu refusing to give a false confession because of the stain it would leave on his family and the tribe who are dependent on work from the village. Star power can easily derail a film like this but Suriya (who also produced the film) does not treat it as a mere vehicle — his performance is for the most part understated and earnest, notwithstanding his introduction vaulting a protest barrier and marching into court to music befitting a superhero. Although the soundtrack includes a number of prominent songs, Jai Bhim wisely eschews dance numbers or artificial action, trusting that the tense courtroom scenes will hold audience attention, broken up by the wider investigation. Although Lijo Mol Jose is required to engage in a great deal of melodramatic wailing as Senggeni, desperately searching for her husband, she also presents the quiet determination that ultimately drives the character, including a particularly powerful scene in which she rejects an attempt by the State to buy her off — this swerves the trope of the lawyer as an external saviour. Jai Bhim succeeds then because it remains true to its story of overcoming indifference to obtain justice, whilst still catering to a wide audience — attentive viewers may be a step ahead, but explanatory dialogue from other lawyers in the courtroom ensures that no one is left behind.