Paradesi (“foreigner”, “nomad”), the latest by noted Tamil filmmaker Bala, is a film that’s not going to win any new converts for the director. Those who find his work to be representative of the best of Tamil cinema are going to come out nodding while those who question its merit, among whom I’m moved to classify myself, will find themselves shrugging. It’s either the next logical step in the evolution of a personal vision or the result of a filmmaker becoming prisoner of his own image. Perhaps it’s both. The title “Bala’s Paradesi”, two words that feed into each other, kicks off the opening credits, which consists of a series of monochrome sketches depicting a community of natives forced to pose for the artist. Locating Bala’s film in the representative, visual tradition, the sequence also unwittingly bestows upon its author the role of a chronicler, a mute observer and of a person in and colluding with power. In the first shot, the camera cranes down quickly from a bird’s eye view of a village down onto the ground, as though indicative of a world where God has fallen, before nimbly snaking in and out of the muddy alleys to give us a sense of life in this village. This is India a few years before independence, we are told, but the seemingly anachronistic village seems to be completely isolated from the happenings elsewhere in the country. We are introduced to the local announcer and workhorse Rasa (Atharva Murali), a quasi-outcast who falls in love with an upper caste girl – a union that gets rejected by the local council thanks to his profession, which primarily involves trumpeting news of death. To marry the girl, he tries to rise above his position and find a more honorable job outside the village. By turn of events, he, along with hundreds of others from the village, ends up as a bond labourer at a tea plantation estate owed by an undesignated Briton. Doomed fatalism and an affable mythic simplicity characterize this first half, which functions as a portrait of Man’s dignity and the transformative power of love. More importantly, this section of the movie is studded with images of silhouetted bodies and huddled masses endlessly traversing through barren landscape. Human body and land – the two chief material elements of Paradesi, as much as DI-inflected brown and green are its two major chromatic elements – are in perpetual conversation in Bala’s movie. The Marxist transformation of nature through physical labour and decimation of bodies by and for the sake of land are two actions that recur throughout. The second half of the film, which bears an aesthetic and thematic symmetry to the first, comes across as something of a heightened, contorted version of the former. At the tea estate, the classified community of the village is flattened, with slavery of one person, Rasa, transmogrifying into the slavery of an entire populace. This juxtaposition is becoming of Bala’s film, which comprehends slavery less as a political phenomenon and more as a human condition. This stance enables Bala to wallow in his signature brand of miserablism, with its characteristically condescending camerawork and wailing soundtrack. For his film, slavery is a universal condition enforced upon one people by another with no room for resistance. It elides, on a conceptual level, the question that the plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s new film asks: Why don’t the slaves all rise up and kill the masters? (For a Hegelian examination of slavery, see Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1993).) There’s an unknowing yet eerie parallel between the idea of a group of lumpen workers surrendering their bodies to an all-powerful plantation owner on the promise of remuneration and the way Bala uses non-professionals and their bodies in his film. If Tarantino the filmmaker, like his bounty hunters and plantation owners, deals in corpses, Bala, like his many mythical villains, deals with human bodies, exotic and imperfect. (One shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Bala, like Tarantino, is incriminating himself here. The film itself is oblivious to the similarity and the parallel is curious, at best.) Of course, I could list all my fascinations and problems with the film, but I would only be repeating myself. Bala’s method here, despite the film’s CGI-finish and surface gloss, is at times reminiscent of Third Cinema films, both in its cut-and-dried ideology and roughhewn dramatic values – broad acting, blunt satire, authorial omniscience and a superficial mythic allegory that reveals its social criticism as much as it conceals it.
March 16, 2013
February 3, 2013
Kadal (2013) (The Sea)
The title of Mani Ratnam’s latest feature, Kadal (“The Sea”, 2013), conjures images of vastness, infinity and extremity. Like the sea monsters of many a folklore, it has a mythic ring to it, which is very apt considering the last half hour of the film takes place entirely in the realm of the abstract, the mythical and the elemental. There is a leap of faith that is to be made on the part of the viewer if one is to take Ratnam’s film for what it is – a leap that corresponds to a risky gambit that the film makes towards its third act. It is a manoeuvre that catapults the film from a temperamentally placid, naturalistic portrait of stunted childhood and sea-side romance to a melodrama of heightened emotions and larger-than-life stakes. The jump is grating, sure, but those willing to hold on would see that Ratnam manages to find a more cogent articulation of the misplaced metaphysical arguments of Raavan (2010), especially because he thankfully divorces his tale from political topicality. At heart, Kadal works upon the classic temptation parable, wherein Thomas (Gautham Karthik) must choose between the ways of the Devil and God, which is tweaked here to posit the tainted nature of an Absolute Good or an Absolute Evil, the impossibility of a foundational morality. When, in the end, Bergmans (Arjun Sarja) laughs at Father Sam (Aravind Swamy) hanging upside down like Nolan’s Joker – a universe cut from the same moral fabric as Ratnam’s – we discover a deconstruction of the Good/Evil binary that is more thorough, pointed and pulsating than anything in Ratnam’s previous film.
June 25, 2011
— Mysskin’s cinema is physical. The fight scenes in his films occupy the extreme ends of a spectrum. They are either divided into the simplest of images – where the cause and effect of an action occupy different shots and we rarely see two bodies in interaction – or are presented in their entirely, prioritizing spatial continuity over fragmentation and highlighting corporeality of an action over its meaning. The frames are chopped; characters’ heads cut off. In his world of action, hands and feet are all that matter. (Severing body parts is not an unusual act in this universe). People don’t have time for patient phone calls. They keep running, falling and scuffling. So does the camera, which crouches when they crouch, which lurches when they lurch, which sits back when they sit and which trembles from afar when they do. Mysskin is impatient with two shots and his restless, gently swaying camera converts these expository moments into a survey of the set, a documentation of an ensemble performance.
— These films are tightly plotted, very convoluted affairs; their solution always at an arm’s length. Instead of the clutter clearing up, it keeps growing knottier and knottier until cutting through is the only way out. These resolutions, themselves, come across as cathartic experiences. Characters barely know the trajectories of others and how they interfere with their own. Like mice in a maze, they keep holding on to their version of truth until they get the view from above. It is this partial concealment/ignorance of information through which the movies attain tragic proportions. Mysskin’s men make grave choices and often the wrong one. They try to vindicate themselves, only to hurt themselves over and over and descend deeper into guilt that is predicated on an equivalence that recognizes one’s own condition in another. They suffer, and come out as better men. Their redemption is possible because they suffer. Mysskin’s pictures, likewise, are at their best when under generic constraints. Mysskin is at his most liberated when tethered.
— The men and women in these films find themselves in similar situations time and time again. Despite all their actions and choices, they seem to come back to where they started from. It is of little surprise that much of the acting in these movies consists of repeated gestures and words. Be it pacing up and down a hall, where we see them oscillating about like a human pendulum, or fighting a gang of armed men, each of whom comes forward individually – like ascending notes in a motif – for a showdown, invoking comparison to both the martial arts and dance choreography. Likewise, we see them getting stuck in language loops – repeated words and phrases – until they attain a rhythm that reveals more than the words themselves do. This inclination for repetition informs Mysskin’s aesthetic as well, with some loopy, shrill, Bernard Herrmann-esque score (at least one of his lead men recalls Scottie Ferguson) and a number of repeating compositions.
— Mysskin is one of the few filmmakers in the country who can take melodrama head on without falling back. He is not a minimalist trying to sap out the excess from it, but a director working on a grand canvas, blowing up the form. Much like John Ford, with whom he shares an affinity for the sky and the heroes who adorn it, Mysskin uses music to enrich the gravity of a situation than substituting for it, to multiply emotions rather than adding them; instinctive rather than instructive, expressionistic rather than expressive. Mysskin earns his violins. At times, the deployment is incongruous (and prescient) with what we are seeing, but, in retrospect, is overwhelming. Like Ford, he has this uncanny ability to elevate commonplace gestures and glances to mythical levels. A Western by Mysskin wouldn’t really be a surprise, given how his own filmmaking instincts and themes derive from Westerns, by way of Samurai movies: codes of honor, responsibility towards one’s men.
— Although God is never quite absent from the films’ worlds, His silence becomes too threatening. There is a myriad of God’s eye compositions that seem to witness all sorts of activities with equanimity, without judgment. It is perhaps the worlds themselves that have fallen and it is probably up to the people who live in it to sort it all out. Mysskin’s camera that keeps descending from the sky onto the ground, then, signals a universe where man has to take up the responsibility of God, in His silence. This goes well along with Mysskin’s deep-rooted distrust of institutionalized justice and his muddled yet ultimately silly plea for vigilantism. (He is much more comfortable and intriguing when dealing with metaphysical ideas than sociopolitical particulars). The men in his films never seem to be able to fit into rigid establishments and find law and justice to be concepts often diverging from each other.
(Filmography: Chithiram Pesuthadi (2006), Anjathey (2008), Nandhalala (2010), Yuddham Sei (2011))
February 19, 2011
Nadunisi Naaygal (2011)
Gowtham Vasudev Menon
Part rip-off, part tribute to Psycho (1960) – right from the plot to the up-down movements of objects and the camera – Gowtham Vasudev Menon’s Nadunisi Naaygal (“Midnight Dogs”) charts the activities of a soft-speaking serial killer, Veera, who lives with his (surrogate) surrogate mother in a mansion consisting of, well, three floors. Menon’s film is nearly as much about transgression – of mores, of geographical boundaries, of industry idioms – as Hitchcock’s picture was about deviation – of the narrative, of normalcy, of sexuality. Menon has said elsewhere that this is a film based on a true story, while it’s actually a pseudo-horror based on the superficies of a pseudo-science (spare me the Oedipii and the Electras), where, unlike the finale of Psycho, it is the director who plays the shrink all along, deeming deviance as just a product of other deviant practices. (Naaygal has one of the ugliest directorial schemes of recent times, with subjective and objective reality clearly delineated by awkward POV patterns). Menon has also proclaimed that Nadunisi Naaygal is his middle-finger-to-all film. True. It is, in fact, the film in which he actually wants his audience to hate him, to consider him as an outlaw. (He succeeds by leaps and bounds: He’s written a character that invites unanimous derision). Evidently, the director recognizes himself in the central character – a psychotic woman-slayer – which is only partly acknowledged by the employment of POV shots for both the filmmaker-killer and the audience-victims. (Tarantino nods abound, starting with the title). This is a refreshingly skewed perspective from and of a director who has been routinely killing off his lead women in his films. With Naaygal, like Veera, he almost denies that he had anything to do with his previous blockbusters at all. May be he’ll deny later that he had nothing to do with Naaygal as well. May be this is a turning point in his career. May be it’s the end of it. May be he hears those dogs howl at midnight.
(Image Courtesy: Chennai 365)
February 5, 2011
Yuddham Sei (2011)
Myshkin’s fourth feature, Yuddham Sei (“Make War”), is a film in reverse. The Jake Gittes-like protagonist of the film JK (a tribute to philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthy, from whose idea of the individual as the means of social change the film seems to take off from) maneuvers through an inverted world, as is literalized in the numerous garish-yet-impressive upside-down compositions. This is a place where everything revolves around missing persons (rather, missing parts of body), where deaths are the most commonplace of events and where people are more living than dead. JK is played by director Cheran – a casting choice that might be the wisest by Myshkin so far – whose very countenance points to a man whose eyes have been plucked out and soul sucked off through the sockets. An undead hero – not a cold professional as other movies of the genre might indicate – like Melville’s last lead character, he sleepwalks through the narrative space, witnessing physical fragility with utmost equanimity, until his lost past resurrects him back to life, with all its emotional vulnerability and subjectivity. By presenting grotesque instances of violence before revealing them to be calculated acts of revenge against a much more diabolical scheme of things (the sort of emotional swing that Mani Ratnam’s latest failed to achieve), Myshkin indulges in much what-is-justice kind of philosophizing – a la Irreversible (2002) without the flashy puckishness – calling into question the ways of the law (although he cops out by revealing the unjust elements to be merely aberrations in an otherwise healthy establishment). As if providing a corrective note to Anjathey (2008), which might have seemed like valorizing the police force – Myshkin keeps alienating his lead man from institutional justice, seemingly arguing for some abstract notion of individualized justice, even at the risk of glorifying violence. And yes, the legs are all there.
(Image Courtesy: The Cinema News)
December 4, 2010
Tamil auteur Myshkin’s third venture Nandalala (2010) has its opening credits rolling over an image that seems straight out of Solaris (1972): two weeds gently swayed by the water flowing over them. Likewise, in the film, Bhaskar (Myshkin) and Agilesh (Ashwath Ram) are two kindred fishes flowing upstream, possibly trying to undo their births into this brutal world, in search of their origin: their respective mothers. As is made explicit in a near-surreal night scene at the beginning, the fear of being abandoned – by mother, by the state and by God – forms the backbone of Myshkin’s film. Walking along the margin of the highway like those reptilian critters we see, the duo comes across and strikes a rapport with a number of people almost all of whom live on the fringes of society. Bhaskar and Agilesh, themselves, are misfits who’ve broken away from the establishment – the asylum and the school. Those in the mainstream, on the other hand, are seen in the safety of their houses and cars. Paranoid, hateful, hypocritical and downright barbaric, they seem distrustful of everything that might distract them from their well laid plans. (That Myshkin casts himself in a starless film that he had to struggle to get funds for makes this a story of a marginalized filmmaker struggling with the industry as well). Social integration, however, is not what Nandalala aims for. For Myshkin, as is represented in the opening shot, it is the society that is constant flux around these central characters who find meaning in their relationship with each other rather than their position in the society. (The last scene is probably a little more cynical than it appears to be). Punctuated by Fordian skylines and generally jarring bird’s eye view shots that desert the characters, Nandalala, over-scored, overacted, imprudently written and characteristically over-directed at times, nevertheless continues to refine and fortify Myshkin’s cinema of physicality with its long shot filmmaking, chopped framing, brittle cutting and Mifune-esque performances.
(Image Courtesy: Tamil Torrents)
October 25, 2010
Endhiran (2010) (Robot)
Shankar’s Endhiran (2010) is the sort of material that would have proven gold in the hands of a director like Bertolucci or Hitchcock. It has been over a decade and a half since ‘Superstar’ Rajinikanth started playing himself in his movies, maintaining a Brechtian relationship with his audience wherein the actor would slip in and out of the context of the films on whim. And Endhiran only seems like a logical consequence of that choice. Watching the film, it would be useful to remember that the Tamil film and television industry fetishizes the Rajini image to such an extent that all spin-offs from it – spoofs, impersonations, derivatives and pastiches – are celebrated endlessly. New age actors imitate and try to emulate him all the time, with some of them even proclaiming that they’re the next ‘Superstar’. It has, more or less, come to a point where the Rajini image has assumed an immortal life of its own while the man responsible for it has been deemed a faint echo. Given this postmodern, post-Rajinikanth situation the industry is in, much of the premise of Endhiran – a grouchy, ageing, eventually-envious scientist builds a nearly-invulnerable android modeled on his younger self, which goes berserk and multiplies itself to the point where the original (copy) loses its value – feels faintly autobiographical. An affront in every which way to the generally revered tenets of Hollywood storytelling (and science) predicated on plausibility, causality and relevance – as if the writer-director has taken all those Chuck Norris-based Rajinikanth jokes to heart – Endhiran might just be the harbinger of something that was always within the reach of this industry: Tamil camp!
(Image Courtesy: SouthDreamz)
February 14, 2009
Bala’s Naan Kadavul is a stupendous failure. Its script is darn predictable. It is nothing more than a reworking of the damsel in distress template. Most of its characters are caricatures and exaggerated for dramatic effect. The final monologue is way over the top. Its shot compositions are weak and inconsistent. It glorifies violence. Its way too melodramatic for its own good. Rudran’s mother is a cardboard and her character, overdone. And so is the character of Thandavan. It uses music way too generously to corrupt its atmosphere. Its editing is way too jagged and at times too liberal. Don’t even get me started on the logical flaws.
Phew! Now that all that’s off my chest, let’s talk about the film.
Bala’s films have become like the Cricket World cup. They come out with much hype and after years of wait. What we have here is a director who has “grown out” of the industry. Rather than going with the flow of things, we have a director here who seems to pave his own way. Very few directors have managed to become independent of the market demand in Tamil film industry, leave alone with such a minuscule filmography. This is one of the very few directors who get a louder cheer than the lead actor of the film during the title credits. Let’s face it, which director, even with the remotest idea of what sells and what doesn’t, would have the guts to open a film in an alien land, with a Hindi title song? Or to follow it up with an extended Sanskrit track? Or to use considerable amounts of lines in Hindi and Sanskrit? Heck, who else would have a lead character who roams around in his loincloth and speaks sparing and barely legible lines? Welcome to Bala’s world.
Naan Kadavul is pretty much faulty with its techniques. Arthur Wilson’s cinematography is weak and shows glaringly in the indoor scenes. His two-shots betray the scene and show complacency. See, you build up tension with the scripted scene and why do you want to drive home the content by losing the atmosphere? Not to mention the scenes in the beggar lair. The whole camerawork is politically incorrect, as in Sethu (1999) too. You never look at the characters like that. Wilson’s camera is always curious. It tilts, it pans and it tracks. There’s no problem with that at all, but the grammar it uses isn’t right. It keeps looking down upon its characters. And also hurting the film is the slew of reaction shots that Bala uses. This technique, fortunately for Bala, proves itself to be a double edged sword in the film. You see, a reaction shot in a scene of drama is a sign of weakness. It is as if the director is showing us the gravity of the situation without letting the audience comprehend it. And Naan Kadavul is filled up with many of these. Interestingly, it is the reaction shot that makes a comedy scene work. More than the comic line or gesture, the reaction from “the victim” is what highlights it. Naan Kadavul is filled with those too. Take the scene where Hamsavali advices Rudran to go back to his family. This could have been one sick lecture, but see how Bala’s reaction shots distort the tone of the scene from melodrama to comedy. Sadly, the former type stands out too. However, the handhelds work well outdoors and, I feel, could have been used throughout the film. And so are the close-ups. It’s been a long time since we saw a director confident enough to use the close-ups. Bala closes in and his actors deliver.
Take the editing of the film too. Bala either cuts way too early for comfort or way too late for continuity. There are some absurd filler shots that are a sore. And some shots that should have been given a second or two more. Consider the scene where Rudran is on the terrace waking up the whole neighbourhood. We are shown a shot of the members of the family sitting together downstairs. They are shattered and helpless. There is a perfect distance achieved by the camera. And what happens? Bala cuts away. This shot could have made much more impact than the buckets of tears. Again, take the scene where the second beggar group is performing at the police station. We see a constable stationed outside, timidly trying to take a look at what is happening. This is great satire. But how many of us noticed it. This is not our problem as Bala refuses to show that for more than half a second. What happens essentially is that the cutting betrays good cinematography and vice versa.
Thirdly and most importantly, the use of background score undermines the quality of the film big time. With all due respects to Ilayaraja (whose score would shine as a standalone piece), I would say that the excessive use of emotional cues is a shot in the arm for Naan Kadavul. You see, the moment you have a violin in your film, you throw it away to the dogs. That is because, by the property of their sounds, violins are very evocative instruments. Bala’s scenes have enough raw power by themselves to convey the depth of the situation. He uses excessive amounts of highlighting score that tries to tell you what to feel eventually making the scenes mediocre. Consider the scenes of Rudran’s return home or the separation of the beggar kids by the thugs. There is already much happening and pop comes the background score to distract us. There is enough drama in all his scenes, aided by good performances. Why over-determine what you want to say? Bala is a director who has as much confidence as does the title of the film, but not (yet) on his audience. He should have believed that his audience would understand the emotional gravity that he felt, without resorting to such poor tricks. Bala is a director who has never shirked from showing raw emotions. So why shirk from hiding it when necessary? Luckily, Bala’s films so far have compensated for the form with their content, more or less. So I’ll just stop there with a hope that all this will be completely corrected in his forthcoming films.
There have always been two facets, taboos rather, that have plagued cinema world over – sex and violence. Their depiction on screen has been much debated over and their use much researched and their responsibilities, studied. The world is slowly opening up to the former, but the latter still remains a hot issue. Popular cinema, however, still treats them as it did decades ago. The use and the meaning it conveys have never been questioned by pop filmmakers of the world, leave alone the Indian ones. Indian cinema has always shown gratuitous amounts of violence on screen and seemed to have no problems with that. But ALL the violence it shows is based on a single moral premise – good over evil – that we all have been hypnotized with. I don’t mean the idea of good winning over its rival but the definition of good and bad itself. Films as graphic as Thevar Magan (1992) to ones as mellow as Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008) have firmly set their foot on this premise as far as their use of graphic violence is considered. And Bala’s film here, is no different. See how he creates the platform for violence by making his villain despicable. He imparts alarming one-dimensionality to Thandavan and resorts to shocking the audience with graphic torture. In essence, like the very many Indian films, he the sets audience’s mentality to consider violence as a optimum solution to the problem. And the ensuing violence arrives readily justified and as a consolation to the restless audience.
The term “glorifying violence” has been used by reviewers very loosely. They seem to consider any film that shows considerable amounts of it as glorifying violence. If that is so, all the popular films from the country would be glorifying violence. Does Naan Kadavul glorify violence? Of course, it does. But not in a very different way from the other films of today. But does it have an impact? Bala sets up the situation for accepting violence, but would one actually go on to be influenced? No. You see, by the virtue of the character that the script provides, the film provides us an instant alienation from Rudran. Though it makes the audience support his actions, it never would instigate them to follow suit. Naan Kadavul, like almost all pop films, presents itself in a whole new world and consequently cuts off any of its justification of its actions in the real one. And the audience never carries on its support out of the theatre (as much as it does for its morals). So even though the film (and all films that have a stunt sequence) glorifies violence, it never can offer this as a solution to social problems. As a result, the film isn’t a glorification of violence as much as it is of our strong morals.
To get a measure, consider Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na. This is a film that is much closer to our world. All the violence shown in the film is a single punch. Now, the film presents Jai as a character who is brought up against violence. He sticks to it for a large part of the film even though Aditi’s one-dimensional boyfriend provokes. And finally when the film reaches its match point – Wham! Jai punches him to prove his manhood and his love. The audience applauds. And since the film mirrors, to an extent, our world and behaviour, the audience reassures itself that violence is a good solution. It would very well take with itself subconsciously the idea that violence is a token of manhood and a good way of dealing with one’s insecurities. Now, compare this with Bala’s film. It oozes with gore and the gore is washed away from our minds once the end credits roll. This is what the world the director builds can do to the film and its responsibilities. This is Bala’s world. He is not interested in normal people. He is interested in the outcast and the outlawed. All the people he deals with are “strange ones”. Look how the “normal” people are indifferent in the temple scenes as they go on with their routine lives. There is much drama happening in the beggar crowd which they seem indifferent to. There is a Jai and an Aditi walking somewhere in that world surrounding the one that Bala’s interested in. And his success is his conviction that what interests him will interest us too.
[Video: Trailer of Naan Kadavul]
In Indian cinema, there is interestingly an addition to the two member “taboo” set above – that dreaded thing called religion. Our films have always alluded to it, touched it, gone around but have never once confronted it. The films that did deal with it extensively turned out to be one-sided duds like Velu Prabhakar’s films or Ramanarayanan’s. No film has explored how deep religion is linked to each one of our words and gestures. Hell, no film has even examined what religion means to the common man. Dasavatharam (2008) teased us with the possibilities, but stopped there. This is the biggest taboo of them all. Our Gods are a part of or daily talk. We make fun of them and we enjoy humourous anecdotes framed around them. We even spoof our gods never once hurting anyone’s feelings. But when it comes to serious discussion, on film or otherwise, we have never strayed away from our comfort levels. Our ideas about God are so complex that we never want to understand them. Instead, we stay in a safe zone but raise our voices when someone doesn’t. In our cinema, no director has ever approached the subject with honesty and without self-consciousness. That brings us to the strongest point and the raison d’etre of Naan Kadavul.
Naan Kadavul is essentially a mystic rehash of Bala’s own Nandha (2001), but one done with more maturity and confidence. Look how Bala directly “confronts” the issue. This “confrontation” can be very tricky. One has to both make ideas clear and direct and at the same time never stuff them down your throat or be dreadfully didactic. Case in point, Chimbudevan’s Arai En 305-il Kadavul (2008) – an honest but one-sided film that could pass off as a “Sunday school lesson”. Though similar in its ideas about God to Naan Kadavul, it spoon feeds its ideas never knowing when it crossed its boundaries. Take Naan Kadavul. Look at its characters. All of them are like us. They talk about Gods, they make fun of them. For them Gods are no greater than film stars and vice versa. Hell, they are even dressed as Gods but never once take that seriously. For these people, Gods are just another way of livelihood. They beg at places of worship and consider those their “markets”. Oh, but they do believe in Him. Only that they don’t know why. One of the “saints” at the temple quips when another rebukes Murugan for praying regularly “Let him, Why spoil the belief he has?” This is the kind of instinct that these guys have. Not very different from ours, I should say. These are the people who could very well represent a large part our society.
And then there is the contradicting arm of the movie – the character of Rudran. Bala could have easily redone the rational-man-delivering-the-radical-ideologies act, but that would have been one fatal blow to the film. Instead, he chooses a strange man who claims he is God. This instantly makes us repudiate his statements and even ridicule it. As a result, the didactic monologues are avoided and even turned into subtle expressions of Bala’s ideas (The film is called Naan Kadavul and not Naam Kadavul!). Bala is perhaps suggesting this is how every man should be. Every man for himself. Possible, but he never thrusts that idea on us like Arai En 305-il Kadavul.
The beggar people very well know that they need to make their own lives. Yet, they resort to God as a means of reassurance and security. Sort of Plan-B. What makes Rudran different from the beggar crowd is that he knows that weakness and acknowledges it too, but never calling himself an atheist or a revolutionary. In essence, the film does not make the audience hostile using a “normal” man questioning them, but one that makes it think. “Think” because Bala tantalizes us by not giving but by taking the ideas away from us. And this is how he confronts the delicate theme – through his audience.
One thing that was running throughout my mind when watching Naan Kadavul was the Slumdog Millionaire debate. No other film recently has generated so much conversations and arguments as Slumdog Millionaire. It has been accused of “pandering to the western fantasies” and “exposing the underbelly of the nation”. Looks at what Bala’s done here. Not better for sure. Even the cheerfulness, hope and escapist mood of Slumdog Millionaire is lost. Naan Kadavul wallows in misery. But it is hilarious and we laugh at all the jokes it makes. Let’s take a look at what evolves.
Naan Kadavul presents three worlds. The first one is the isolated world of its protagonists – one each for Rudran and the beggar team. The second is the world that surrounds them – the “society” in the film. And finally and most importantly, the audience that is on the other side of the screen. See how the behaviour of the three worlds is. Rudran is self-contained. The second world, the one that is around him, is scared of him. There is great satire here too. The police chase away the “saints” that they know are phony. But when a new one comes in, they are scared. They are unable to come to terms that this one is fake too even if their brain says so. He isn’t, but what if he is? They interrogate him with reverence. We know this is us – throwing in the towel when something seems to transcend reason and more importantly, succumbing to mass hysteria. On the other hand, the audience laughs at these two worlds. Only because it is where it is – the other side of the camera.
Again, the beggar-inhabitants of the first one are self-sufficient. They are occupied with their own work. They cook up their own jokes and celebrate them among themselves. It is a completely different world with its inhabitants challenged in one way or the other. Werner Herzog’s absurdist classic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) comes to mind. Bala presents these inhabitants as norms and not anomalies. The difference is brought in only due to the audience’s perception. We see them as a different group. We indulge them knowing that we are “here” and not “there”. The second world is totally oblivious to the first one. They completely ignore the first one and carry on with their lives. They seldom hold a relationship to the first world and when they do, it is only exploitative in nature. And finally, the alienated audience that observes (not without the subjectivity imposed by the cinematic elements) these worlds from a distance. We laugh at the not-so-funny-otherwise jokes made in the first world. We condescend on these characters. We patronize them. We feel good about it. But once we are out of the cinema halls, we step into the shoes of the second world. We have our own hectic lives to worry about. So does that mean Naan Kadavul panders to the needs of the upper and middle class for those three hours?
Yes, Naan Kadavul is exploitative, but not unlike every other film. Why! Pop cinema by itself is exploitative, for that matter. Happiness, for it, comes only at the expense of misery looming in it somewhere and from the reassurance and distance the film offers the audience. I don’t mean that we should exonerate such films. What I am saying is that one should not zero in on a single film just because it is being celebrated. What we have to go against is the culture that has been aiding to the rise of such cinema. But hey, those are complex functions of everything that has ever been related to a culture and are a part of a larger debate. And for our part, we need to be less sensitive about these issues I guess (I don’t mean irreverence). These things happen. So what? How long do we want to see perfect creatures leading perfect lives that we can only dream of? Not anymore, says Bala.
P.S: If a film can generate elaborate discussion, why not talk about it? I strongly recommend this movie.
[Edit]: I’ll be posting worthy articles on the film whenever I come across. Here is one from The Hindu today. Interesting, though I disagree at places. Mr. Srivathsan doesn’t find the film to be exploitative or manipulative. Here, I must clarify why I feel the film is exploitative. It doesn’t exploit its characters as much as it does the audience. It offers us distance and hence elicits from us a patronizing look on its characters. Ald this is the same way most exploitative films work. If Slumdog Millionaire was exploitative, it is in the same way. But that doesn’t mean the problem is with us. Essentially what is happening is that the filmmaker exploits both the characters and our gaze of them. And the artifice lies in showing them to be happy and self-sufficient. The exploitation would be seen through if the characters were portrayed to be regretting their situation
September 28, 2008
Riding on the huge success of Chennai 600028 and on huge expectations from the young crowd, Venkat Prabhu has set out on his new flick Saroja. Much has been spoken about the closely knit team and the boundless enthusiasm that they share. That is a good thing for with a good team comes a great working atmosphere. Unfortunately, Saroja seems to be caught between the choices of being so fascinatingly funny as in Chennai 600028 and the “need” to be different from its predecessor.
The plot spans one day in the lives of four laymen visibly heading towards their thirties, Ajay (Shiva), Ganesh (Premji) and the Babu Brothers (Charan and Vaibhav), who have planned to see a cricket match in Hyderabad. They set out on their bizarre vehicle on to the Hyderabad highway carrying along with them booze in hand and songs on lips. All is fresh and fun at this point and one can be hasty to label it the Indian reply to Easy Rider (1969) or more recently Little Miss Sunshine (2006). The group comes to a scene of accident and is forced to go through a different route. Thanks to the chutzpah of the lead, they take a wrong turn and so does the story.
There is also a parallel thread involving troubled businessman Viswanathan (Prakashraj) whose daughter, the nocturnal titular character, gets kidnapped and solicits the help of police officer Ravichandran (Jayaram) to save her. As events go from bad to worse, the four try to save their skin and return home, in the process meeting the hostage Saroja (Vega), at a pirate factory run by the hoodlum Sampath (Sampath). Additionally, there is a sub-plot involving Sampath and his lover Kalyani (Nikita) using which the filmmakers perhaps intended to portray the character’s depth. And that don’t work man! He is nothing but a textbook stereotype and a photocopy of himself from Polladhavan (2008) and Velli Thirai (2008).
After this point the film goes on. And goes on. And goes on. And goes on…And by the time the supposed-to-be all important scene nears, nobody cares. If you repeat a bad joke over and over, it eventually becomes hilarious. And if you repeat a good one over and over, it becomes sickening. Premji’s typically Kodambakkam attitude and surreal visions are amusing to begin with but as the film meanders, his lines are totally out of place and one feels that he should have had a “I’m just the token jackass required for comic relief” T-shirt on. The Dil Chahta Hai-esque magic that the friends shared in the first half hour is completely lost and one craves for those moments again.
I get the idea that a hand held camera enhances the restlessness and the thrill of a scene, but come on. Almost whole of the hour long showdown is presented in the headache inducing format and the clichéd rapid cuts are nothing but nauseating. And the editor’s scissors seem to be jammed at the most important places. On the positives, everything that takes place in daylight seems so close to heart and has the power to charm any audience. Only the end credits offer any consolation for the unwarranted kidnapping of those moments.
It is saddening to see a film that sets out as a fresh concept and ends up in the gutter of the bandwagon. In some ways, I am reminded of Chimbudevan’s decline after his charming debut in Pulikesi (2007). Venkat Prabhu looked consistent with his couple of films before this one and has ended up, fortunately, marginally better than the former. Let’s hope his penchant for depicting effortless ease among friends remains unmitigated and we get to see a real stunner next time around.
June 13, 2008
(Warning: No spoilers in the review. However, storyline and characters are revealed. Proceed at your own risk)
Finally here. Passing through its quota of controversies, production delay and legal attacks, Aascar Films’ Dasavatharam has finally made it to its destination. Dubbed as the most expensive movie made in India, the film has been in the making for over two years. If it was Sivaji – The Boss for 2007, it is very much Dasavatharam for this year. Apparently, the time between consecutive movies of Kamal Haasan has been larger than that of Superstar Rajnikanth‘s. The promos have been, surprisingly (for a Kamal movie), extremely low key. So, have the team’s efforts paid off? Let’s see.
The movie opens in a non-traditional fashion (for Indian cinema) with a preface that recounts the spat between the Shivites and the Vaishnavites of the south during the 12th century. Rangarajan Nambi (Kamal Haasan) is a staunch Vaishnavite who does not wish to relinquish his ideology even at the cost of his life. Rangarajan is portrayed as a very strong person, physically and mentally. As a result, he is dumped into the sea along with the prime Vishnu idol. Cut to the 21st century, where the remainder of the story is to take place. It is December 2004. Govind Ramasamy (Kamal) is a biological scientist in the US and is involved in developing a powerful biological weapon for the military of the country. Govind decides to hand over the formula to the FBI when he senses that the weapon sample is all set to reach unsafe hands. Things take a difficult turn when the package is couriered to India by mistake. Govind manages to track down the package in the intention of returning it to the officials. He is closely tailed by Chris Fletcher (Kamal), an ex-CIA and a mean trigger-happy machine and Jasmine (Mallika Sherawat). This character, with his near-invulnerability and I-don’t-stop-at-nothin’ attitude , is reminiscent of T-1000 of Terminator 2: The Judgement Day (1991).
The rest of the film follows Govind’s attempts to retrieve the weapon and escape the gunpoint of Chris. He is assisted by Andal (Asin), the grand daughter of Krishnaveni Srinivasan (Kamal) who does no help by dropping the package into a Vishnu idol. Andal is not only a love interest for Govind but also his antithesis. The atheistic, borderline-scientologist Govind is balanced by the whole-hearted theist Andal. She completes him, romantically and ideologically. Chris and Govind are also being followed by the local police led by Balram Naidu (Kamal), a true-blue “Andhrite”, who provides a rip-roaring comedy both with his accent and his lines. And there are Shinghen Narahasi, a Fujitsu master and the brother of Govind’s dead friend Yuki, Kalifullah, an overgrown yet innocent Pathan, Avatar Singh, a Punjabi pop star with a Tamil Nadu connection, Vincent Poovaragan, a Nagercoil-based activist and environmentalist and George Bush, the president of America (played by Kamal, Kamal, Kamal, Kamal and Kamal respectively!) whom Govind meets on his pursuit. The most appealing character is definitely of Vincent Poovaragan, the most humanitarian of all the characters in the film. He stands against the unquestioned plaguing of the nature by humans for monetary benefits and faces trouble for the same. The script draws a parallel between Rangarajan Nambi and Vincent Poovaragan (apart from the more obvious adversarial relation between Govind and Rangarajan), both of whom go down fighting for their principles and what they think is the meaning of their existence.
The film’s narration is fraught with twists and suspense but can be boiled down to a large treasure hunt. As a consequence, it is action right from the word “go” with no questions asked. Hand-to-hand combat, gunfight, car chases, daredevil stunts – you have them all. With the characters consisting of a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh, a Buddhist and even an atheist, it is but inevitable that the story has slight religious overtones. The film, however, does not hurt the sentiments of anyone and even silently calls out for religious tolerance in the society. Believers and non-believers would just have reinforced their respective faiths at the end of the film without contradicting each other, which itself is a success for the movie.
Though all the ten characters are given considerable screen time to make it seem like they all have equal weights, only a few of them actually contribute to the plot and take the story forward. In fact, one feels that a couple of characters could have been entirely done without. As a result, many scenes involving the non-pivotal characters become fillers for the shallow central motive. But one does not complain because something new (a new character for most of the time) pops up regularly to keep you engaged. Only after the ten characters are familiarized that you realize that the film has been extended needlessly. After this point, the film is nothing but overlong is spite of the adrenaline that’s oozing out of the screen. It is now a unanimous feeling that the climax could have been trimmed down.
It is just a formality to speak about Kamal Haasan’s performance. Right from the impeccable accents (especially the Nagercoil accent) to the don’t-tell-me-he-is-acting body-language (George Bush and Krishnaveni noteworthy), Kamal has put in more than everything to realize the film. It is not that his performance is worthy of such a grand movie, but it is his performance that has made Dasavatharam a grand movie. I, however, would personally like to see him in roles such as Shaktivel (Devar Magan), Balu (Sagara Sangamam) and those of Erland Josephson and Philippe Noiret, without much concentration on make-up. But nobody nowadays has the guts to produce such films. Asin‘s performance, which is like a torchlight amidst a Supernova, is going to go unspoken. She has done justice to the charater(s), to say the least. The (remaining!) minor characters are done satisfactorily by Kamal regulars Nagesh, Santhanabharathi, Ramesh Kanna and Vaiyapuri to name some.
K. S. Ravikumar‘s midas touch is alone what Kamal needed for this otherwise one man show and he has got that. With long pseudo-takes used at proper places, the movie “appears” to have larger than life cinematography. Himesh Reshamiyya‘s music is at times melodic, at times bubbly and at times jarring. Devi Shree Prasad‘s inspired but spirited background score has nothing to complain about. It is a known fact Kamal gets carried away with prolonged stunt sequences and Dasavatharam is no exception to that. Some illogical scenes corrupt the otherwise decent stunt sequences that are saved by the CG most of the time. A special mention for the CG that is seamless in scenes where multiple characters appear and also in many shots in the initial and final part of the film. Much is talked about the make up which is really fantastic agreed, but the harsh lighting exposes the prosthetics’ and makes one a bit alienated from the character. The editing is so prudent about the run-time that one can feel how large the original footage was. Huge production values in the preface speak for themselves.
There are two things Indian cinema has always been haunted by – Religion and Science. No one (fabulous exceptions always there) has dared to pass a judgement or even to make a documentation of these two issues. Dasavatharam, though superficial, tries to blend these two concepts into the simple narrative and that too, in such a risky venture. For this reason alone, one can argue for the movie. It is not something new to the medium altogether, but is definitely like nothing that Tamil cinema has never tasted before. Dasavatharam may not be what Kamal wants, but is very much what his fans want.
P. S.: Be alert to spot the brief homage to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) in the film!