Director Puja Kolluru’s Martin Luther King is a sharp social commentary with a good dose of drama and humour
Kasi Viswanatham is the village president of Padamarapadu, a sleepy village often tormented by the rivalries between his sons - Jagjivan Rao and Lokamanya Tilak. When the patriarch’s health takes a turn for the worse, his sons set their eyes on his post. When pre-polling stats suggest a tie between the two, they try hard to woo a cobbler Martin Luther King, a new addition to the voter list in the village.
If the phrase ‘sugar-coated pill’ needed an apt cinematic representation, debutant Puja Kolluru’s political satire Martin Luther King could fit the bill. With only a few months left for the crucial election season - locally and nationally - it’s an ideal time to discuss grassroots politics through cinema. As always, fiction offers the cushion of looking at pungent realities from a certain distance.
Martin Luther King unfolds in Padamarapadu, where two power-hungry step siblings dream of being the next village president. Their names (Jaggu, Loki) directly refer to the political leaders in Andhra Pradesh. The duo holds the control of the village, demarcated into North and South zones based on caste. The tale takes a dig at manipulative leaders and the equally corrupt voter.
The nameless protagonist is an orphaned cobbler - his shop, set below a tree, is named after Chiranjeevi’s Swayamkrushi. He begins his day by clearing the dust off a Gandhi statue. He values his siesta and radio-time as much as his job. The cobbler is christened Martin Luther King by a government official Vasantha, when he seeks to hold an account at the post office. His newfound identity eventually invites peril into his life ahead of the crucial village election.
The director tastefully introduces viewers to the village ambience, the burra kathas, the wit of the locals, their oddities, street smartness and the lengths to which two opposing local leaders go to attract voters before the election. The party symbols - a dappu (a small drum-shaped percussion instrument) and a loud speaker - aptly represent the pre-election fervour and chaos.
Even children are not spared, made to wear masks to spread the word about the candidates. The workers are also after an ailing woman, who, on her deathbed, is asked to vote. Natives staying abroad, in cities are forced to return to the village with false excuses. The women are lured with popular cultural sentiments. Staged like a comedy, the film holds a mirror to a tragedy that takes place in the garb of democracy every few years.
It also chronicles a cobbler’s quest for identity, addressing red tapism in government offices, realities of the underprivileged. The pre-intermission stretch fabulously uses Chiranjeevi’s Naa Pere Raju number to establish Martin Luther King’s significance in the village.
From the leader, the film’s focus shifts to the voter in the latter half. Vasantha’s one-liner - ‘you don’t know how to vote, but know how to benefit out of it’ - best-summarises its tone. The film feels like cacophony briefly, stating the obvious repeatedly, but recovers soon.
Martin Luther King’s transformation from an innocent villager to a manipulative voter, his loss of character and the greed, is exaggerated with enough quirks, paving the way for a tense, gripping finale. The emotional conflict within his character is strong enough to take stock of realities and start afresh again. He settles scores strategically and eventually comes of age.
Sri Sri’s Maha Prasthanam - Padandi Munduku, Padandi Thosuku - and Martin Luther King’s famous words enhance the appeal of the ending. While the film leaves you bitter initially, it provides a sense of hope as you leave the theatres. The narrative control displayed by a debutante is brilliant despite the film’s frequently changing tonalities.
There’s more to Martin Luther King beyond its characters; Puja Kolluru strives to tell the story of an entire village. The identities of Vasantha, Bata, Kasi Viswanadham, a tea seller and a car driver are firmly established and drive the story forward as much as King. Venkatesh Maha’s writing (adapted from Madonne Ashwin’s script) is sharp and precise. The film's treatment is realistic, but it also has juicy cinematic twists to grab your attention.
The casting is an asset to the film - Sampoornesh Babu, Naresh, Venkatesh Maha, Raghavan, Sharanya Pradeep strike a fine balance between staying true to the script and leaving a mark with their minute improvisations. It’s refreshing to see Sampoornesh go past his parody-comedy days and his underdog presence is utilised effectively to tell a meaningful story. Smaran Sai, after Matti Katha and Kotha Poradu, shows signs of a ‘rural drama’ specialist in the making.
Martin Luther King is adapted well from the Tamil hit Mandela to suit the milieu of a new target audience. The timing of the release is ideal, while the pitch-perfect casting, the controlled performances and the witty writing culminate in an entertaining, purposeful film.