Review: ‘Gulabi Talkies’

Celebrated helmer Girish Kasaravalli brings author Vaidehi's exploration of ostracism to the bigscreen in "Gulabi Talkies."

Furthering his rep for sensitive, femme-centric explorations of village life, celebrated helmer Girish Kasaravalli brings author Vaidehi’s exploration of ostracism to the bigscreen in “Gulabi Talkies.” Weaving together issues of religious conflict, marital status and the struggle between independent businesses and conglomerates, Karasavalli’s deceptively simple take on an uneducated Muslim woman getting a television set offers a multistrand analysis that may not seem incisive enough to auds unfamiliar with regional Indian fare, though local reviews have been exceptionally strong despite pic’s limited opening. Winner of several awards at Cinefan, “Talkies” could find intrigued listeners at sympathetic fests.

Set in the late 1990s among the fishing communities around Kundapura, in the southwestern state of Karnataka, pic introduces pushy, impulsive midwife Gulabi (the excellent Umashree), whose one passion is the cinema. A family even has to bodily remove her from the theater to ensure the stubborn woman attends a difficult delivery; in thanks, they give her a large TV with satellite dish, the first color boob-tube in her small island village.

Locals are excited, but Gulabi is the lone Muslim on the island, making her practically an untouchable. She’s also been abandoned by husband Musa (K.G. Krishna Murthy), now living with another wife (Poornima Mohan). Still, the attractions of the latest serials prove too strong, and several women become regulars, though others watch from a more socially acceptable distance outside her shack.

Among those drawn in is Netru (singer-actress M.D. Pallavi), a beauty with an absentee husband and a tyrannical mother-in-law. Fellow outsider Gulabi offers friendship and support, but when Netru disappears, Gulabi is blamed, leading to a spiral of accusations.

Adding to the Muslim-Hindu tensions is pic’s timeframe, at the start of the 1999 Kargil War between Pakistan and India. Karasavalli (“The Island”) furthers the conflict by introducing simmering resentments between independent local fishermen struggling to earn a living and an unseen Muslim businessman taking over coastal waters with his growing fleet.

Like his main character, Karasavilli’s style tends toward a wide-eyed innocence that some Westerners may find too soft, but it’s a deliberate disguise, mixing subtlety with more two-dimensional elements. Running time could be tightened, though this would lessen the sense of place and the carefully delineated contrasts between Gulabi’s tiny island village and the slightly larger world outside. Ending especially builds to an unexpected punch.

Known for his ability to coax exceptional perfs, Karasavilli gives Umashree (who won thesping prizes at both Cinefan and Abu Dhabi) room to forge a full-bodied character out of the impetuous, gentle-hearted woman. Pallavi is also notable as the graceful, sad-eyed Netru.

Vet d.p. Ramachandra Aithal lenses the watery domains with the eye of a sympathetic observer, making the most of the evocative production design. Color processing, at least on the DVD viewed, is on the cheaper side.

Gulabi Talkies

India

Production

A Jyoti Basant Kumar presentation of a Basant Prods. production. Produced by Amrita Patil, Basant Kumar Patil. Directed, written by Girish Kasaravalli, based on the short story by Vaidehi. Dialogue by Kasaravalli, Vaidehi.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), S. Ramachandra Aithal; editors, Manohar, M.N. Swamy; music, Isaac Thomas Kottukapally; production designer, K.S. Prasannakumar; art director, Ba.Su.Ma Kodagu; costume designer, Subhashini; sound, Mahendran. Reviewed on DVD at Middle East Film Festival (competing), Abu Dhabi, Oct. 19, 2008. (Also in Cinefan Film Festival, New Delhi -- Indian competition.) Running time: 124 MIN.

With

Umashree, K.G. Krishna Murthy, M.D. Pallavi, Ashok Sandeep, Poornima Mohan, Master Praveera. (Kannada dialogue)
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