December 1 Movie Review: Roti, Kapda aur Chief Minister

Roti, Kapda aur Chief Minister
Rating: 4 Stars

December 1 My salute to December 1, the Kannada film, would have been unreserved – if it weren’t for the controversy which followed the much-hankered-after honour it has received at the National Awards.

Rightaway, actor-director Omprakash Naik levelled charges against P. Sheshadri, the film’s writer-director, that the script was lifted. Both hosted press conferences, Sheshadri to deny the damaging accusation, and Omprakash to affirm that he’s been a victim of creative hijack. Incidentally, Sheshadri has won over half a dozen National Awards before. But still…
Indeed, I wish I hadn’t learnt about the Sheshadri-Omprakash face-off before expressing my admiration for December 1, which engrosses and edifies. Plus, it is remarkable for its pithy dialogue (well subtitled), costumes, cinematography and art décor. In the circumstances, all I can do is to erase the controversy from my mind for the sake of the film overall lacerating impact . A tough call that actually, since the staggering work  garlanded with the Best Kannada Film as well as the Best Screenplay, is remarkable above all, for its script. It tantalises with a spoiler alert title (which I will not elaborate upon), moves with grace of a python and stays with you, perhaps forever.

Visceral, effectively critical of the ongoing – and almost inevitable — exploitation of the underprivileged by the power-that-are, it serves the kind of twist in the plot, which you’d associate with suspense thrillers. Where is this saga of rural poverty and political chicanery going, I often asked myself in the the course of a brisk-paced 98 minutes. And then, WHAM, the plot delivered one helluva googly, utterly believable, utterly cinematic in terms of dramatic craftsmanship, and utterly humbling. Guys, welcome to the sadlands of India, where respect for humankind is confined to election sloganeering.

Framing the shots with masterly precision, Sheshadri opens with a  long-held look at Devakka (Nivedhita), a village woman who fends for her crippled husband, a son, infant daughter and a weary mother-in-law. This Devakka does by baking chapattis to sell to restaurants in a nearby township. Her husband (Santosh Uppina),  a former truck driver, strives to do his bit by working at a flour mill. Life’s a grind, deteriorating when the toiling woman and husband find themselves unemployed. A no-exit situation? Not quite. December 1 Kannada MovieDevakka and her husband are selected as the ‘model’ poverty-stricken couple whom the Chief Minister will stay with overnight, to emphasise his oneness with the have-nots. Their ramshackle hut is checked by a security phalanx, tidied up by officials and a sympathetic journalist goads them to request the CM for land where they can, ostensibly, live happily after.

The going’s good but baffling for the couple suddenly blessed with a near-miracle. To be sure, since a minister on the eve of  an election is involved, your worst fears come true. Predictably so perhaps, but the extent of  manipulation for politician gain is unbelievably shameful. You’ve seen and heard of lack of humaneness before, but in recent times, not as wallopingly. You’re jolted.

Suffice it to say, throughout the dramaturgy is credibly narrated. Indeed, at points you feel the couple, in their hope for a better life, have asked for the trouble. They’ve been hopelessly naive. Simultaneously, you’re pushed to a position where you’re with them completely: they had no choice. They would have been foolish to refuse the chance of a better tomorrow.

On the downside, the finale is somewhat hurried, inconclusive and to a degree, predictable. Penultimately Sheshadri repeats the darkness he had opened with. No issues with that. However, the  rather tacky end- scene could have been far more forcefully conceived, photographed and executed. Otherwise, technically accomplished, that’s one lapse in a work which you hope will get the nationwide viewership which it deserves.

Unarguably Niveditha as the upright but unsure Devakka, is outstanding. Her performance is searing, devoid of artifice and mannerisms. The camera’s gaze remains on her. And it’s to Sheshadri’s credit that he doesn’t reduce the supporting ensemble of characters into caricatures.

I’m surprised that Niveditha hasn’t been discovered by Mumbai cinema yet. She has the kind of screen presence and acting chops which are sorely needed in a business where actresses of substance are in short supply.

To repeat, my response to December 1 would have been whole-hearted if it weren’t for the whose-screenplay-is-it-anyway? controversy. As far as I can sense, no writer in his right mind, would claim a work to be his creation unless he felt subverted. That’s the rub. Forget that,  and December 1 is worth your consideration any day, week or month of the year.

-Khalid Mohamed

Note- The author of the post is a popular film critic, journalist, writer and filmmaker.

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