Whenever a new film addressing issues of the underprivileged or oppressed communities comes out, the comparisons to earlier films of similar ilk are inevitable. Manoj Kana’s Kenjira traverses the milieu of formidable works such as Pather Panchali or Karnan but what it lacks is the sophistication and dramatic depth of those films. I watched Kenjira expecting to see something new, but the film hit me with a constant sense of deja vu in multiple places. It seems to be a film built around a compilation of the various ills that ail the oppressed.
Kenjira trains its lens on a colony inhabited by members of the Paniya tribal community. Before we get to the portrait of the central family, we get the image of a young girl holding a child, presumably her son. It’s an image that immediately suggests a grim event from the past. The eponymous character, Kenjira (Vinusha Ravi), goes to the same school attended by the daughter of a contractor (Joy Mathew). Being the ever-reliable actor he is, the latter is quite effective as an exploiter who takes advantage of the workers from the community employed at a ginger farm. The farm is the only means of income for Kenjira’s mother, when she learns that her husband can’t find work anywhere. When desperation forces the latter to join a hooch smuggling enterprise, he gets caught by the authorities. Much later in the film, we see a repeat version of this incident happening with another loved one.
Though the film’s early portions depicting the family’s struggles—depending on a particular day’s wage to survive that day and repeating the process the next day—moved me, the latter portions didn’t create the same impact. My main issue with the film is that it looks more like a play than a film. Both require different degrees of patience and taste.
Kenjira is staged and lit in a way that recalls vintage films. That said, cinematographer Pratap P Nair and the film’s sound department manage to add atmosphere in a few places, especially in the dusk and night portions. My favourite moment is when a group of tribals aboard a truck heading for work notices another truck loaded with cattle. It’s a beautifully impactful scene that doesn’t need any words. In other places, the background sounds tell implicit stories while sparing us the gory details.
The actors, who I believe come from a theatre background, are sincere, delivering their dialogues in the Paniya dialect. They enact their parts with much conviction, but they deserved a better film, not one that feels like it belonged to a much older era. Kenjira seems to be backed by genuine intentions, but what good are they if the film becomes quite a chore to sit through?
Director: Manoj Kana
Cast: Vinusha Ravi, Joy Mathew
Streaming on: Neestream