Taming the Third Taboo (pic: Photobucket)
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