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)