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Some Ramblings - Prasthanam
By Srinivas Kanchibhotla

The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children, goes a quote from the Book of Exodus, Old Testament; and that probably is the harshest punishment of all, for a father to see his son bear the cross of his crimes. This theme has been mined for great dividends from Greek tragedies to Shakespearean dramas, from contemporary literature to Hollywood adaptations, and even in the yester-years' Indian classics ( Raj Kapoor's Awara, Madhusudhan Rao 'anthasthulu' et al). With sin and redemption/comeuppance forming the backbone, the theme serves a great morality tale that can be applied to any sphere (financial, corporate, political, criminal) that has a father rise through the ranks through immoral means, only to see his son fritter away the fruits, and lay waste in licentious behavior. But rare is to see a morality play in recent cinema, that is hopelessly devoted to mindless entertainment, and even more suprising to find it in telugu movies, which arguably is worst offender of all.

Leave everything - story-telling, technique, performances - about 'Prasthaanam' for a second here. The makers of the movie (producers, more than the director) need to be commended for coming forward in the creation of something that most certainly would not guarantee any monetary rewards in the current climate. However much an investor might want to recoup his investment, if not wish for a little something on top of it, it takes commitment and passion to produce a movie that steadfastly refuses to be branded as 'entertainment', by any stretch of the meaning, and even goes forward and wilfully embraces the label of 'intelligent cinema' - a tag that rivals bubonic plague in cinematic terms. As they say, they are no small parts, only small actors, likewise, there are no silly movies, only stupid producers. Like 'Gamyam' from a few years ago, here is another venture 'Prasthaanam' that had brave producers refusing to tread the path of safe and ordinary, and instead broke a new ground that hopefully would pave the path for future generations of sensible film makers. And to top it, 'Prasthaanam', after a very long time, is one of the truly original works of art that owes its influences to ideas, than to other movies.

What a fertile ground is the contemporary political arena to site a morality theme in - rich in power, greed, betrayal and guilt to supply to necessary conflict for the story idea. And to weave such a scenario, that can serve both as an allegory and a reflection of present political structures, deeply seated in inheritance claims and legacy rights, is quite a feat on the part of the writer. Political movies, as the telugu film scene goes, are entirely monochromatic, dealing either in idealistic leaders on one side, or disdainful demagogues on the other, and therefore are either entirely simplistic (idyllic) or grossly sarcastic, with nothing in between. That also serves well for the stories, as there are clear cut heroes fighting institutional villains. And the brilliance of 'Prasthaanam' is its nonjudgmental view of its characters, in it, there is opportunism, there is benevolence, there is compassion, there is cold-heartedness, in short, the characters are human, not the usual caricatures (the corrupt minister, the ideal revolutionary, the sacrificing whistle-blower etc) that occupy the political arena. The script says it right that there are no heroes or villains in this story, only people who lose everything in the end. And the ending delivers the poetic justice, beautifully and brutally, leaving all the players physically intact but mentally wasted. After all, what better punishment for a cold-hearted crime than leave the criminal, alive, with his thoughts, alone, for the rest of his life to rue in regret. It can categorically be said that there has been no such movie, even going back a few decades, that had such a powerful denouement that is very organic and quite fitting. Save a few transgressions here and there, the writing of 'Prasthaanam' stands head over shoulders above any serious cinema in the Indian scene (not just telugu) in the recent past. And that's quite an achievement to a telugu writer!

The execution of such a good script is not without faults though. The direction appeared raw and amateurish at times, struggling to find the right tone for the scene, sometimes, playing too within itself, and sometimes, playing it way over the top (all the scenes involving the spoiled brat) all right next to each other. Scripts, as precious and powerful as these, need to be bottled up to let the tension build right until the last moment for the effect (be it the dialogue, or a piece of action) to have a lasting impact. And letting out the tension with unnecessary scenes and over action, would not only lessen the impact but also dilute all that has been carefully built till that point. And the partner in crime in weak execution is the background score, which clearly emphasizes the deep difference between 'what is' and 'what could have been'. It appears as though the music director has been contracted on a 'per note' basis, going by the way he tried to underline EACH AND EVERY scene with thunderous music. The responsibility to rein it it again falls on the director, as he alone knows how the scene has to be played out and what is the kind/level impact he is going for. Instead what he got was a 'one size fits all' thumping score, where every scene was scored as though it was climactic one and therefore deserved a rousing farewell. Observe how veteran directors and music directors (Illayaraja, in particular) chose to let the gripping scenes play out in absolute silence and used background score only to enhance the mood, not underline and comment on it. Jarring notes in a pedestrian production go usually unnoticed, but even a single sour note in an otherwise worthy production sticks out like the sore thumb. One golden rule that applies to background scores - when in doubt, err on the side of silence.

A yardstick for how good a movie is, would be to ask oneself (the maker and the viewer) if it would even matter, had the movie not been made at all. And only when the both of them (the maker and the viewer) vote in favor of its making, does the status of it gets upgraded from a 'good' to 'important'. Yes, it would matter if the movie had not been made, or not been seen, and that is the highest accolade that the movie can receive - a rightful place in the contemporary culture. With audacious producing, and the strength of its writing, 'Prasthaanam' joins the pantheon on 'important' cinema, a place reserved to only a chosen few.

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This article is written by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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