Hitting a sweet spot somewhere between Bollywood and earnest independent fare, South Indian writer-helmer Priyadarshan's poignant historical drama "Kanchivaram" offers the universal resonance of a tragic fairy tale. Mostly set in the two decades prior to Indian independence, plus a powerful 1948 coda, this compelling Tamil-language yarn about exploited silk weavers also provides a primer on the rigid social structures and traditions of the times and a fascinating analysis of the failure of communist ideology.

Hitting a sweet spot somewhere between Bollywood and earnest independent fare, South Indian writer-helmer Priyadarshan’s poignant historical drama “Kanchivaram” offers the universal resonance of a tragic fairy tale. Mostly set in the two decades prior to Indian independence, plus a powerful 1948 coda, this compelling Tamil-language yarn about exploited silk weavers also provides a primer on the rigid social structures and traditions of the times and a fascinating analysis of the failure of communist ideology. With production values as gorgeous as the cloth the main characters create, this multilayered pic deserves some kind of international exposure beyond the fest circuit.

The seeds of tragedy are planted during a traditional “first feeding” ceremony when ambitious weaver Vengadam (Prakash Raj) makes a public promise that his infant daughter will be married in a silk sari. Neighbors are aghast at his hubris: Craftsmen of his caste could never afford such a luxury, and feudal overlords harshly control the means and materials of production.

Determined to keep his pledge as a matter of pride, Vengadam starts stealing a silken thread each day so he might weave in secret. Over the years, he becomes a spokesman for his fellow craftsmen, leading them in collective action to obtain better wages and working conditions. When a prolonged strike coincides with preparations for his daughter’s wedding, Vengadam is torn between his communist ideology and his desire to keep his oath.

Better known as a prolific director of blockbusters shot in Hindi and Malayam, monomonikered director Priyadarshan (“Virasat,” “Thenmavin Kombath,” “Kalpani”) brings a smooth, superbly calibrated tone to this more personal project, never letting the politics dominate the family drama or allowing symbolism to impede the narrative flow.

A popular Tollywood villain cast against type, Raj excels as the tragic hero, giving Vengadam depth and dignity.

Using different color palettes to keep the time periods distinct, Thiru’s outstanding deep-focus cinematography is both intimate and epic. Production design is equally striking, with the bright-color threads of the silk shimmering against the white costumes of the workmen and white stone of their temple workplace.

A traditional instrumental score lightly punctuates the action and smooths transitions between time periods. The closest thing to a production number happens during festivities for Vengadam’s daughter’s birth, and is reprised to melancholy effect during the tragic finale.

The title comes from the ancient name for the Tamil Nadu city of Kanchi, where the action takes place.

Kanchivaram

India

Production

A Percept Picture Co., T-Series production, in association with Four Frames. (International sales: Spier Films, London.) Produced by Shailendra Singh. Directed, written by Priyadarshan.

Crew

Camera (color), Thiru; editor, Arun Kumar; music, M.G. Sreekumar; production designer, Sabu Cyril, sound (Dolby Digital), Deepan Chatterjee. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 5, 2008. Running time: 117 MIN.

With

Prakash Raj, Shreya Reddy, Shammu, Jayakumar. (Tamil, English dialogue)

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