Using a patriarch’s death as a takeoff point, comedian Venu Yeldandi’s debut directorial explores the good, bad and the ugly side of our existence
Last Updated: 09.48 PM, Mar 01, 2023
Komarayya is a happy-go-lucky rural patriarch, who, despite his age, has the verve of a teenager. Tensions within his family soar when he leaves for the heavens. While his grandson Sailu is worried about repaying his debt, his father and uncle get embroiled in an ego tussle to prove their supremacy. Meanwhile, Komarayya’s younger son sets his eyes on a piece of ancestral land. Amidst their selfish interests, will the family genuinely care for the departed soul?
Isn’t death the only truth of life? No wonder, there’s a lot of drama surrounding it. A few years ago, Irrfan Khan, in one of his conversations with a noted critic, while talking about death and legacy, remarked, “Everything you leave behind, humans will inevitably twist it and use it to their convenience.” In a nutshell, these words sum up the essence of Balagam.
Looking past its rural Telangana setting, Balagam spills out the ugly truth of how most joint families deal with the loss of a patriarch. Beyond the mourning, there’s a fight to hold onto one’s legacy, claim their share of the pie and feed their ego in the name of tradition. The true colours of a family come to the fore when the binding force is amiss.
Balagam, with a sensitive mishmash of self-deprecating humour, drama and love for the soil, is a call for a family to stand together as a ‘unit’ in the hour of need. It alternates from being a dark comedy to a drama and a tear-jerker while showcasing a family’s response to death. Comedian-turned-filmmaker Venu Yaldandi uses a good mix of popular faces and non-actors, witty one-liners laced with philosophy and a raw music score to drive his story forward.
The film is at its best when it doesn’t try to be overly sentimental about death. The dark humour, celebrating human eccentricities, is its strength. Amidst a funeral, a soon-to-be-married couple makes time for romance, an elderly woman craves a soft drink and another man desperately awaits his turn to sip a glass of beer. Venu doesn’t judge his characters for their greys; he just lets them be.
Beyond the story, what stays with you is the director’s genuine love for the soil and his cultural roots. He neither glorifies nor condemns superstitions. Through music and traditions, Venu reminds the need for a grand, warm sendoff that every departed soul deserves. The traditional belief of a crow serving as a link between the living and the dead is used as an effective tool to enhance the drama.
Balagam is also a rare rural drama that empowers its women and gives them a voice. While men are still the major decision-makers in this universe, the director tries to highlight how women often need to bear the brunt of the male ego without their fault. It offers an authentic portrait of interpersonal relationships, and gender equations in small towns without being preachy.
While it conveys its intent with focus and there’s good narrative control for a significant part, Balagam gradually misses the thin line between drama and melodrama in its climactic segments. This is a mistake one can’t avoid when a director is too attached to his subject. Barring this ‘brief’ sentimental manipulation and the middling post-intermission segments, Balagam rarely puts a foot wrong.
This is a sparkling directorial debut for Venu (Tillu a.k.a) Yaldandi. It’d be lovely to see him explore a full-fledged rural comedy or a romance (minus the drama) in the times to come - the flashes of brilliance in Balagam are too evident to be ignored. He exhibits a good taste for dialogue, music and gives meaty, flavourful characters to his cast, however big or small.
Priyadarshi hasn’t let fame cloud the charm and the innocence with which he plays underdog characters and that’s a reason why you root for Sailu despite his flaws. Kavya Kalyanram’s uncanny screen presence yet again helps her portrayal. Sudhakar Reddy is at home in a familiar-yet-likeable patriarch avatar. Muralidhar Goud’s solid performance proves DJ Tillu was no fluke and he’s here to stay for long.
Jayaram and Roopa are terrific as the contrasting siblings while theatre actor Vijayalakshmi, as the good-at-heart aunt with a caustic tongue, is a revelation. Rohini, Racha Ravi and other supporting actors play their roles with earnestness. Balagam is certainly Bheems Ceciroleo’s career best as a composer. He utilises the opportunity to drift away from his mainstream roots and use the rural soundscape to elevate the potent song situations using native instruments, ably complemented by lyricist Kasarla Shyam.
Acharya Venu’s cinematography, minus any indulgence, carries the soul of the story and makes you appreciate the ordinariness of rural life. It’s gratifying to see a mainstream producer like Dil Raju back an indie-styled attempt, letting the story be the star. While one had to look towards Tamil/Malayalam cinema to find films that celebrate their regional roots and ethos with conviction, it’s heartening to see a capable Telugu film make it to such a list.
Balagam is an affecting, poignant and largely funny funeral drama that points a finger at human opportunism through the lens of death. Venu Yeldandi makes an assured directorial debut in a film whose primary strength is its dark humour. Realistic performances, smart casting, flavourful dialogues and impressive music work in its favour as well.