[From Luc Moullet’s book with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni, Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Brigitte and Brigitte (1966)

There are no hard-and-fast rules, only useful guidelines. Every law must be bent, that’s the only obligation—and that’s precisely what can be great in cinema. Nine times out of ten, what is taught in film schools today is in fact the opposite of what was taught sixty years ago.

Two illustrations as a preamble and a warning:

  • It was once forbidden to move directly from a wide shot to a close-up. This rule is palpable in a film I like very much, Children of Paradise: it systematically uses an annoying—and seemingly forced—gradation between the shot sizes. Today, however, the transition from the wide shot to the close-up works magnificently, provided it is well managed, even if some filmmakers abuse it, starting with Sergio Leone.
  • The 180-degree rule prohibits crossing the shot-reverse shot line so that the viewer isn’t disoriented. But the truth is that it all depends on the actor. With Jeanne Moreau, Brigitte Bardot or John Wayne, you can blithely cross the 180-degree line, because the actor is known and well placed, like a pillar: he or she serves as a visual reference. It is much more difficult with beginners whom no one knows, lack as they do a stable facial reference in the frame.

Like a majority of the technical rules in use, this is also a strictly western law. The Japanese constantly break the shot-reverse shot line; for them the problem does not arise. Imagine: had Japan won the war, that would have been the end of 180 degrees!

This is true of almost all laws: they are dependent on history or geography. None of them is indisputable or eternal. You just have to be aware of the risk you are taking when you decide to apply them. Or not apply them! Conscious of this risk, I have chosen to include in the vade mecum that follows the objections that have been made or that could be made to me. Also those that will be made, no doubt.

 

Production, Generalities

The plumber principle (choose a title starting with A or B)

Open the phone book, all plumbers have a shop name that starts with A. They all sit at the top of the directory. Being at the top of catalogues is important, because festival catalogues play a big role. All catalogues for that matter. You can’t always do it, but it is recommended, especially for short films. Maybe there will soon be a rush of short films starting with AAA, as with plumbers.

I can already hear the first objection. My first short, Un steack trop cuit (1960), is not exactly at the top of the alphabet: an error of youth, sorry. As for the following ones, Ma première brasse (1981), Essai d’ouverture (1988), Le Ventre de l’Amérique, Le Système Zsygmondy (2000) etc., they are a bit all over; that’s because, with time, I’ve become surer of myself.

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[Possible spoilers ahead; but I hear movies are all connected now, so consider this a warning for every movie ever made.]

Making shit up as you go along (the current term for it, I believe, is ‘multiverse’) is in vogue. So fourth-time helmer Lokesh Kanagaraj has made a new film titled Vikram, which draws story elements from his second feature Kaithi (2019) and carefully prepares the place for a fatter cash cow. Shot by Girish Gangadharan (Angamaly Diaries (2017), Jallikattu (2019)) in a dark but warm palette of yellows, reds and blacks, the film expands director Lokesh’s literal if not artistic arsenal to a considerable degree. Guns have gotten a bad rap in the past couple of weeks, but Vikram assures us that, sometimes, there is nothing quite like a cannon to clear some landscape.

The spirit of Christopher Nolan hangs heavily (how else would it hang?) over the film right from its cold open: masked men storm a high-rise, kill a middle-aged man tied to a chair, and record the event on video with the message “This is not a murder; it’s a statement. We are at war against your system.” The killings repeat every week under the same signature, prompting the police to hire a sleeper unit headed by Amar (Fahadh Fasil) to investigate the matter. In the sophisticated narrative setup, Amar discovers that the middle-aged man was Karnan (Kamal Haasan), who is somewhat of a jerk but one with a streak of kindly righteousness. He also learns that Karnan, and the other murdered cops, are involved in the capture of a large consignment of drugs belonging to Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi), who thus has an incentive to trace the masked marauders as well.

The trailer for Vikram enticed viewers with the prospect of seeing three major stars of South Indian cinema come together for the first time (along with a distended cameo by Suriya). Indeed, each pair of the film’s three heroes gets a scene together, and they all meet in the climactic sequence. They are all introduced within the first thirty minutes of the film (cf. Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), where all three stars appear in the first minute), Fahadh following Kamal’s relatively low-key (and ill-advised) entry in the first few minutes. However, we hear Kamal properly only after ninety minutes into the film, his silence helping to sustaining an enigmatic if uncompromised aura around him, and this resurgence, built on a bit of audience-cheating, helps the film shift gears and transition from a mystery to a thriller.

Most visibly, Vikram is a love story between Fahadh’s Amar and Kamal’s Karnan-turned-Vikram, and I wish the film had run with this through line. Amar spends the first hour courting the older man — literally following his footsteps — as a phantom pursuing another; only the masked can unmask the masked, remarks his superior. His Citizen Kane-like investigation builds up the mystique around Karnan/Vikram, whom he imagines inhabiting in the same space as him, a daydreaming paramour. In the end, he even plays midwife to the baby his senior has been nursing. Climbing up and down walls and breaking into houses, Amar is the true heir to the original spy of Vikram (1986). He is veritably Karnan/Vikram’s body double and the film seals this substitution with explicit linkages in costume, makeup and editing.

So far so good. But Vikram’s most flagrant shortcoming is that, unlike Lokesh’s previous feature Master, it does not give the devil its due. The devil here goes by the name of Sandhanam and it has the likeness of Vijay Sethupathi, whose entry is one of the film’s visual highs: emerging like a newborn from an upturned autorickshaw, this bloody, bulky baby executes a neat flip and lands on its feet. Casting off its shirt, it puts on a pair of shades and wraps its hands behind, close to the body. While everyone else in the film is rough and tough, Sandhanam’s brand is soft and pudgy; and Vijay Sethupathi’s dad bod, already on exhibition in Master, speaks harsh truth to the power of his colleagues’ chiselled abdomens. This faux-modest entry perfectly encapsulates the double-coded style of this actor who excels at projecting aggression when he is insecure and vulnerability when in control.

The character, alas, goes unwaveringly downhill from here. Over a debriefing, we learn that the trigamist Sandhanam lives with his extended family of 67 in a Chettinad-style old-world mansion in whose ample basement he runs his drug racket while fronting as a medico. It’s an emphatic parody of The Godfather, with women and kids with broken legs flitting about the house in an orchestrated frenzy rivalling that of the cocaine cooks downstairs. Organized crime? Try organizing a family. But the whirlwind montage insistently glides over this giddy microcosm, just as the film swaps character detail for tics and trappings. Decked up in flamboyant stripes, Vijay Sethupathi is given two golden incisors to broadcast his voice through, which makes him sound like Simbu imitating MGR.

Kamal, Fahadh and Sethupathi are all excellent comic performers, and it must have taken some perversity in imagining them in a largely grim crime saga. The cult of personality that Master gave in to came with the silver lining of offering two actors the space and scope to register as real individuals. Vijay had a great deal of latitude to perfect his poker-faced humour while Sethupathi came out as a champion of the anti-climactic line reading. There’s very little life at the cold core of Vikram, where, in the vein of Nolan, actors are turned into pawns on a chessboard. Whatever warmth exists is to be found at the narrative periphery: at a cut-rate wedding with cheap booze and ordered-in food, presided by a computer network, or in the beatific voice of a female doctor straight out of a Mani Ratnam movie. Save for a handful of tiring references to Kamal’s older films and his political career, the stars don’t stick out the way Vijay did in Master.

The most significant loss in this ironing down is Kamal the person, who is barely to be found in the film. Echoing like a ghost in a shell, his gravel voice possesses a materiality that the body lacks. He is chewing on some item for half-a-shot and one time he drags a line of coke across his teeth, but there is very little of the actorly business with which he generally holds the frame, none of the vocal nimbleness of Uttama Villain (2015). He gets maybe 40 minutes of screen time in all, most of it in the second half. A brief moment finds him in an endearing dialogue with an infant, in an affected slang that he slips in and out of, but the film is more interested in showcasing the 67-year-old operating an assortment of phallic firearms. One shot has Kamal play golf with his left hand, whose meaning, I’m sure, will be explained in Lokesh’s seventeenth film.

The action sequences are illustrative in that sense. Chopped up into too many shots, these passages of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay are vehement in their refusal to show actors in continuous action; there is not much to differentiate the stars from each other in terms of their combat style. In my memory, the only graceful skirmish in the film has longer shots and features none of the three heroes. There is enough here for connoisseurs of kink — chains, leather gloves, masks, handcuffs and bikes — but little of the eroticism associated with athletic bodies performing real stunts. The fight between Vikram and Sandhanam is a wonky green-screen monster, while another involves the camera zooming in and out to general embarrassment. The cleverest clash features Vikram shooting his way to a milk bottle inside his home — a marriage of the hard and the soft that the film needed more of — but it comes on the heels of two other fisticuffs, rendering it a somewhat tedious addendum.

Part of the problem appears to be that Vikram, already 173 minutes long, works with too much material. Scattered across half a dozen prominent locations, the film is forced to proceed in leaps and bounds, with characters appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Director Lokesh’s predilection for cross-cutting is now well-known, but it becomes the primary figure of style here. In contrast to Master, there are few fleshed-out scenes, the accelerated editing pattern washing along otherwise incompatible dramatic incidents scattered across time and space. The resultant soup is powered by Anirudh’s thundering mock-Hans Zimmer score that does most of the heavy lifting, at times substituting for the work of the director.

As an artist, Lokesh Kanagaraj is unassuming and he doesn’t share his peers’ taste for activism through cinema. Despite the sociological interest of the crimes his films deal with — drug trade, juvenile delinquency, police corruption — his thinking is not systemic and these issues remain dramaturgical abstractions. If there is a philosophy to be gleaned from his films, it’s that guns rock, and bigger guns rock more. That may a defensible outlook for a director, but the creeping impression of cynicism about filmmaking that I had with Kaithi — that he is increasingly invested in pushing our pleasure buttons than his own — has just gotten more ammo with Vikram.

Photo courtesy NL Balakrishnan Archive/Film Heritage Foundation

The month of May has brought not one, but two notable developments in the field of film restoration in India. On the 5th of this month, the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting (MIB) announced that it will grant the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) Rs. 363 Crores to restore about 2200 films over an unspecified time period. On a more human scale, the 75th Cannes Film Festival revealed that it will show two restored Indian films in its Classics section: Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), restored by the NFAI, and Aravindan’s Thamp̄ (1978), restored by the Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) under the direction of founder-filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, in collaboration with the Prasad Corporation (India), The Film Foundation (USA) and Cineteca di Bologna (Italy).

Born in Kottayam, Kerala, in 1935, Aravindan is often classified under the loosely defined, pan-Indian Parallel Cinema movement. But he was a poet in that assembly of prose stylists, a genius primitivist in a world of professionals. Aravindan’s third feature, Thampu rechristened Thamp̄, is an observational portrait of a traveling circus setting up shop at a riverside hamlet in Kerala. The filmmaker initially planned Thamp̄ as a documentary around the circus troupe, and large sections of the final film attest to this original intention. The story is skeletal, there is no plot and very little dialogue or musical score. Aravindan instead devotes the better part of the film to capturing the quotidian rhythm of the village, its landscape and buildings, its people and places, as well as the troupe’s performances.

These improvised vignettes are organized into a symmetric, cyclical day-night structure anchored by recurring figures: a bourgeois repatriate, his rebellious son, the manager of the circus, its muscleman and clown, two young lovers, a prostitute, a truck driver. Discursive elements surface late in the film in the form of sabotage, worker unrest and familial discord, but these sparse incidents are only hinted at, relegated to the margins of the whatever narrative there is.

Thamp̄ is a circus movie and Aravindan’s view of the troupe is coloured not by nostalgia or lament for the circus, but by a bitter fatalism. The performers are a hopeless lot, trapped in the circus since childhood and subject to its waning fortunes, who are likened to their animal colleagues. Their promotional parade through the village is accompanied by upbeat music, but their solemn, downcast attitude turns the procession funereal. A birthday party for a troupe member looks like a wake, until someone is instructed to sing. Resigned to abuse and abjection, the artistes form a lumpen mass whose rootless existence outside the class system is contrasted with the politicized factory workers that constitute their audience.

The performance of the troupe, though accomplished, is marked by a certain weariness that the 43-year-old Aravindan seems to share. The filmmaker appears to be more interested in life at the periphery of the circus, in the fleeting connections that its members forge outside the tent and in the village. This disenchantment with spectacle results in the most extraordinary passages of the film in which Aravindan cuts between the audience and the performers.

While the circus routines are perfunctorily photographed, these candid reaction shots — the first that Aravindan filmed for the project — register a gamut of primal emotions: men and women, babies and toddlers, all staring agape in fear and wonderment at the dangerous, graceful stunts unfolding before them. The performance becomes little more than an occasion to film the villagers, whose virginal reaction contrasts with the camera-aware presence of the handful of professional actors. Like Herz Frank’s Ten Minutes Older, made the same year, Thamp̄ is fascinated by the possibility of innocence, of belief in the spectacle.

The film’s restoration journey began in early 2020, when Dungarpur travelled to Kollam, Kerala, to meet the film’s producer K. Ravindranathan Nair. A cashew baron, Nair had artistic aspirations and financed several canonical works of Malayalam ‘New Wave’ cinema, including films by Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Dungarpur notes that the producer was forthcoming in giving his approval for the restoration. The real hurdle, though, lay ahead.

Since the master negatives of Aravindan’s films had all decomposed, the FHF had to work from a surviving print of the film that it obtained from the NFAI. This posed a triple challenge. “Prints don’t have a great degree of latitude,” says Dungarpur, describing how positives can inherit only a part of the tonal range of the original negative. To begin the restoration process from a duplicate negative generated from the NFAI print, then, already entailed a loss.

Moreover, budget demanding, Thamp̄ was shot on the locally manufactured Indu film stock, which wasn’t as sensitive or fast as the better monochrome stocks of the time. Shot by regular cinematographer Shaji N. Karun, it was Aravindan’s second work in black-and-white (and bookended by two films in colour, Kanchana Sita (1977) and Kummatty (1979, restored by the same team in 2021). Shaji worked mostly with available light, which produces images of harsh contrast and imposes visible limitations in the outdoor scenes, where figures tend to meld into the background.

The NFAI print, finally, had already been projected a number of times, accumulating significant amount of wear and tear in the process. This copy had to be first physically repaired at the FHF facility in Mumbai before being sent to co-sponsor Prasad Corporation in Chennai for 4K scanning and digital clean-up. The restoration laboratory L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, which oversaw the high-resolution transfer, also did the sound restoration and colour grading.

“When it comes to challenges in film restoration,” declares Dungarpur, “you have to be a purist.” Fundamental to FHF’s work is the conviction that the intent of the original creator and the artistic integrity of the film must be the guiding factors in a restoration project. To this end, Dungarpur collaborated with Shaji and Ramu Aravindan, the filmmaker’s son and photographer, on getting the grading and the sound right. This painstaking process of shepherding a single film over many months seems to run counter to the MIB’s monumental ambitions, but the conscientiousness stems from an attitude of respect towards the work under consideration.

Would the FHF’s restoration bring back Thamp̄ in the form Aravindan conceived it? Best intentions notwithstanding, perhaps not. “A film and its restoration are ultimately different works,” says Dungarpur. One would hope, even so, that the restored version comes as close as possible to the vision of the singular cine-poet that was Aravindan.

 

[Originally published in Mint Lounge]

[From Luc Moullet’s book with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni, Notre Alpin Quotidien (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Just as tales—which we’ll come back to later, since the genre isn’t foreign to your cinema—begin in French with “Il était une fois…” (once upon a time…), we’d like to begin with “Il était un Foix…,” In 1994, you made a short film that bears this name, a small town in the Pyrenees. Foix is a film representative of your work; it is built on a geographical principle that you are fond of: to sketch a nearly exhaustive portrait of a place, to wander across it and survey it in all directions until its spatial, comic, dramatic and aesthetic possibilities are exhausted. But in general, you film familiar places, places that you have known and loved for a long time. In Foix, it is the opposite, and that is also why we wanted to start there: you present a completely ugly city, its ugliness accentuated by the laconic irony of a tourist-style voice-over. Foix is therefore a film against something, a negative portrait. It is the exception to one of the rules of your work, a contradiction within a work that has no shortage of them. How did the film come to be?

It must have been 17 September 1973, shortly after Allende’s fall. I was walking in the Pyrenees with my wife. When we stayed the night in Foix, we both had the feeling that we had discovered the most backward town in France. For the next twenty years, I travelled around the country to gather several proofs of this stellar backwardness. I didn’t do just that for twenty years, but I did that. I could see that, yes, this town was the champion in this regard. The script had time to mature: more than twenty years of work for a thirteen-minute short film.

Invited by Toulouse for a conference, I made a detour to see Foix again. It was a painful experience. From Toulouse, I wanted to go up to the Montagne Noire, where I hadn’t been before. I had to leave early, at seven o’clock. At the station, I stumbled on the new pavements, which are a bit slanted. I hurt my foot very badly. I travelled for 30 kilometres with a huge abscess on my toe. The right, I think. I delivered my lecture and then I went to the hospital the next morning to have the abscess removed. In the afternoon, I went to Foix. Because of my foot, I could scout it only slowly. The town was almost in the same state that I had left it twenty years earlier. It was really typical, very impressive. I don’t think it’s possible to go this far into degeneration. It’s quite a nice town in itself: there’s a chateau, it’s well situated. But you can sense that there has been no real town planning. It’s a complete mess.

Based on the photos that I had taken, I submitted a project to the CNC [National Centre for Cinema] for support with the short film. In photos with cars, I scratched out the two digits pertaining to Ariège region. Worried about a leak, I rechristened the project Vesoul. I added that the film would not be shot there, without specifying where. I thought that the people at the CNC would be keen to know where I would shoot, and that they would give me the money to find out. That’s what happened. We got the grant. We did a combined shoot, which is very cost-effective: I shot Toujours plus, which ended in Toulouse, and in the evening, we went to Foix to shoot Foix. The shoot went on for about three days. There was only one minor problem: Toujours plus being a TV film, we shot at twenty-five frames; but my sound engineer continued to record at twenty-five frames for Foix, instead of twenty-four, the normal frame rate for a cinema film.

Many people and institutions are thanked in the credits. Did the production actually involve them, or was it out of caution?

Not out of caution. It was to make the viewer laugh. I asked the town hall and the police for some little things so that I could put them in the credits. “I thank the town of Foix very much…” That’s funny.

Did the city respond?

Not directly, except on the day the film was shown on TV. The town hall phoned the production manager, who acted as a buffer. They couldn’t say anything, I hadn’t asked them for money. The town hall had done only one thing: turn on the little geysers on the ground—these “watering limbs” that make the water come out thirty centimetres from the ground—which only work in summer, whereas the shooting took place in winter.

Was the idea of the fake tourist documentary there from the outset?

The idea was inspired by Georges Franju’s Hôtel des Invalides, a film commissioned by the army that made everyone laugh. Well, almost everyone… As it was a short film, Foix was practically written down to the last detail. It’s tiring to draw up a complete découpage for a feature film. On the contrary, for a short documentary, it’s fun to do it, and it pleases the producer, who incidentally hadn’t invested a lot of money, since there was money from the Centre for Cinema. In these towns, everyone is happy when you come to shoot. No one comes to shoot in Foix. One day, I filmed in Toulouse, in the largest supermarket in the world. There were ninety-four counters. I was warmly received; at the end, we were even offered champagne. It’s rather in Paris that one can feel unwelcome. Everybody comes to shoot there; people are suspicious, they have had it up to here.

Did you go back to Foix?

I saw the city from the train. I’ve bought a Ray-Ban since then, so I might try to go back there. My face has changed a bit, I’ve lost hair. I should stop by the town someday.

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[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s book with Emmanuel Burdeau and Jean Narboni, Notre Alpin Quotidien (“Our Daily Alpinist”, 2009, Capricci). The images are my addition; the original volume contains none.]

Maps and Habitats

Every Law Must Be Bent (Vade Mecum)

Heights and Chances

[spoiler & trigger warning]

Whatever one thinks of Arun Matheswaran’s sophomore feature Saani Kaayidham (“Pulp paper”), it is hard to deny that it is cut from the same cloth as the director’s debut, Rocky (2021). Both works pivot on wronged, broken characters drifting through spare, sometimes desolate and often gorgeous landscapes, seeking bloody retribution, grasping at the remnants of a shattered family. Road movies, in some ways. They are united in tone and structure, their thematic undercurrents, their exceptional attention to plastic composition, their approach to actors and, most of all, their ambivalent attitude to violence.

Saani Kaayidham unfolds in the year 1989, but it is a gratuitous detail for a film neither bound to a specific time nor very interested in period particulars. It is wholly possible that somewhere in the same world where Rocky is slicing his way out of a cycle of vengeance lives Ponni (Keerthy Suresh), a police constable raped by a band of landowners for having been slighted by her mill-worker husband. When her daughter and husband are burned to death by the same men, Ponni pursues legal justice (a flab absent in Rocky), in vain, before resolving to avenge her family herself. In this, she is helped by Sangayya (director Selvaraghavan), a figure from her past.

Unlike a number of his peers in Tamil cinema, Arun Matheswaran is not all that concerned with questions of social justice, and if caste oppression (or the Eelam crisis in Rocky) is invoked in the film, it is solely to serve as a credible source of personal injustice. Nor is Saani Kaayidham invested in the feminism of its rape-revenge tale. When she approaches the law, Ponni doesn’t in fact press rape charges, seeking prosecution only for her family’s murder. This refusal to see herself as a victim is a way for her to pull herself together, to keep the rage burning; her simmering stare down at the court with one of the perpetrators is relieved by a cathartic sigh.

Notwithstanding the elaborate rape scene, the director does not emphasize its impact on Ponni. He abstains from inserting rapid flashbacks to telegraph her trauma. Instead, in crisp, daylight visions that also figure in Rocky, Ponni watches her husband and daughter walking past and away from her. In a long-take close-up that is the centrepiece of the film, she monologues about vengeance, expressing a desire for the landlords to burn the same way her family did. So as Ponni sees it, her mission is to avenge her child and husband, which means that the rape exists rather to keep the viewers motivated. The only times this perspective scrambles into a male fantasy of rape-revenge are when Ponni uses acid to burn the private parts of two of the rapists (whereas she sets the only woman she kills on fire).

The filmmaker dwells instead on what he takes to be a more primal trauma. Recurring through the film is a single monochrome sequence from Ponni’s childhood: a woman curses Ponni’s mother in the young girl’s presence for seducing her husband away from her. The woman happens to be Sangayya’s mother, and her condemnation that Ponni’s family won’t flourish seems to hang heavily over Ponni like a malediction come true. In a strange way, Ponni’s brutalization becomes an affair actuated by women and executed by men, rendering Ponni’s repeated use of the expletive “thevidiya paiya” (son of a bitch) somewhat curious.

This original trauma is also the point of connection between Sangayya, who sympathizes with Ponni despite his mother’s admonitions, and Ponni, who begrudges her half-brother for his mother’s hostility. As an adult, Ponni takes Sangayya’s help in tracking down and killing the landlords, but till the end, she refuses to lower her guard or even call him by his name. Until we learn about Sangayya, which is a good while into the film, he is presented as a somewhat dubious character hanging around Ponni’s young daughter. This red herring doesn’t entirely work because of Selvaraghavan’s casting and because he has already been introduced in the opening scene as Ponni’s ally. Sangayya is Ponni’s guardian angel, watching over her as a child and as a grown man. But something about the character doesn’t compute.

In the opening scene of the film, where they set a woman on fire in an abandoned building, Ponni and Sangayya are presented as slightly opposed characters. She is agitated about the execution, rushing across the frame, exhorting Sangayya to make things quick. He is more relaxed, smoking peacefully and walking leisurely, as though killing were routine for him. Half way into the film, though, he narrates a backstory that is as tragic as Ponni’s: not only was he unable to avenge his family’s murder, he was even blamed for it. He tells Ponni that he gave up thoughts of revenge once he found her and her family. The account is intended to soften him, but the impression of psychopathy remains. If the story were true (and even Ponni seems to entertain the possibility that it may not be), it is hard to believe that he wouldn’t pacify and dissuade Ponni after her fiery monologue. Instead, he encourages her to get started with the bloodshed with the enthusiasm of someone inviting you to Pothys for festival shopping.

It is impressive that Arun’s visual sense can already be described as unmistakable, and its singularity owes to the fact that it is the product of a photographer’s (as opposed to a cinematographer’s) eye; his markedly static compositions deal in rectilinearity, harsh contrasts and earthy tints, peg the horizon below the mean of the frame, decentre subjects, double frame them, carve out deep space between picture planes and exhibit the kind of tasteful prettiness native to PC wallpapers and photo manuals. If this post-humanist style, predicated on subjugating actors to composition, sometimes recalls international art films, it is perhaps unique when seen against the overwhelming anthropocentrism of Indian cinema.

This minimization of the human element may also help explain the film’s lack of emotional affect. There is a push-and-pull in both of Arun’s features between the viewer’s narrative-enabled identification with the protagonist and the distance that the style installs between them. How can you get busy raging against the world when you are invited periodically to reflect on how lovely it is? But it seems to me that this tension is the product not so much of a deliberate aesthetic design (vide Michael Haneke) as of a lack of clarity as to what to do with the characters and the viewers.

Some of the confusion is technical, involving disorienting edits and sound cues. At one point in the pre-rape scene, Ponni proceeds towards the house where her aggressors are, the camera moving back with her, hears something and turns quickly. What follows is a wide shot of a figure knocking another with a spade. Where 99 out of 100 films would have had the second shot from Ponni’s point of view, here we see the blow from inside the house. This wrong match-on-action, which filmmakers instinctively avoid, severs our perspective from Ponni’s, as it does in many other occasions through the film.

Some of it is the writing. If Sangayya’s character is undersketched, Ponni’s remains overdetermined. Keerthy Suresh plays her as a level-headed personality at the beginning, in a measured, bass voice, and increases her intensity once on the mission. But she reaches a crescendo too soon, around the second murder, and with nowhere else to go (except perhaps into hardened impassivity), she remains there for the rest of the film. She also lacks a dialectical streak that could have deepened the character. Delicious exception is the scene where she tortures a lawyer to get details about her targets’ whereabouts. Ponni stands behind the seated victim, facing away, noting down names and places with a pen on paper. When information isn’t forthcoming, she gently manipulates, with her left hand, the knife she has planted on the woman’s nape with the casualness of a seasoned researcher working on a lab instrument.

The villains are all men with extraordinary coiffure and facial hair (there are no bald men in Arun’s films); one of them does a bit with his thumbs that seems borrowed from Bharathiraja in Rocky. But they aren’t clearly differentiated, and the decision to split them up into separate hideouts for the sake of narrative proves to be laborious. The most despicable of the lot is dispatched first, dooming the boss fight (set in an implausible movie theatre playing MGR’s sci-fi curiosity Kalai Arasi (1963)) to an anti-climax. The villains in this film are proof that Arun is a terrible writer of dialogue, and that if he keeps at it, it could become poetry.

Saani Kaayidham contains even less humour than did Rocky. As it is, humour in Arun’s films arrives like a 50-rupee note on the street — incidentally and with marginal pleasures — and here the nervous laughter that you see in his interviews is scarcely to be found. It is perhaps understandable. Humour often comes with maturity, and for filmmakers like Arun who are obsessive about strict control of tone and texture, it may sometimes register as loss of control. So it is allowed to show up only behind the protection of cinephilia (the chapter title “naadum, nattu makkalum” cut to Sangayya’s mother cursing) or post-Kumararaja cinematic coolth (a torture sequence cut to a Mahabharata exegesis).

Which brings us to the violence of the film. Saani Kaayidham, like its predecessor, is suffused with scenes of torture and execution. The violence itself isn’t shown, with the camera largely fixated on the killer’s face, while the (rather unimaginative) sound design does the heavy lifting. As an extension, Ponni’s rape is photographed from her (and the audience’s) point of view, with occasional reverse shots of her bruised eyes. The director relieves the sordid cynicism of this long sequence by intercutting it with scenes of Sangayya accompanying Ponni’s daughter home, which is shot through with its own kind of dread.

Like Balaji Tharaneetharan’s comedy, Arun Matheswaran’s violence is expressed in ritual repetitions — repeated stabs, repeated kicks, repeated taunts, repeated closing doors — that can numb. As with the overall style, however, there doesn’t appear to be a principle guiding the representation of violence. Arun can’t seem to decide if he wants to commit himself to the fantasy (Ponni mowing down a platoon of henchmen), regard it from an amoral distance (the focus on Ponni’s rage over the victim’s suffering) or judge its futility (a villain who laments about the plight of his blind boy as he is being hacked). Ponni’s trajectory, from her violation to her final Pyrrhic victory, has the inexorability of a mathematical formula, but it is also crippled by an indecisiveness, as though the film were too reflexive to fulfil the wishes it engenders, too devoted to subvert them.

A German Party, Simon Brückner’s magnificent political documentary about the workings of the far-right outfit Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), begins with a declaration of its own uselessness. Allaying the worry of party members that a camera in the room might make their financial discussions public, senior leader Frank-Christian Hansel informs them that the film will not release until 2022, that is after the 2021 parliamentary elections, and by then it won’t be of much value. A German Party has nothing to be embarrassed about the comment, for its goal is not to persuade voters or influence elections.

Founded in 2013, the AfD experienced a meteoric rise in its first years, winning 12.6% of the votes in the 2017 federal elections to become the first far-right party since the Second World War to enter the Bundestag. Feeding off anxieties triggered by the migrant crisis, the AfD gained as much as every third vote in certain regions of erstwhile East Germany, but has since experienced a backlash for its shift further to the right of the political spectrum. In 2020, the domestic intelligence service placed large sections of the AfD under surveillance, classifying them as a threat to the constitution.

Outside of opening and closing title cards, however, the film gives very little contextualizing information. There are few markers of time and place, no direct interviews or archival clips to aid the viewer. The film follows a handful of party members, but we learn their names only incidentally, if at all. Divided into six chapters and spanning three years, Brückner’s fly-on-the-wall documentary instead drops us into the middle of the operations, alternatingly walking us through cool deliberations of top-level meetings and high-temperature confrontations of grassroots activism. The result is a markedly composite picture that offers a sense of the heterogeneity of an organization popularly considered an ideological monolith.

The very first scene, where party workers discuss slogans coined for the upcoming campaign, lays down the orientations and beliefs of the AfD: distrust of the establishment (“Courage for Truth” goes the main catchphrase), the European Union (“More Europe, Less EU”), immigration (“Integration Needs a Dominant Culture”), eco-socialism (“Stop with the Windmills”) and a support for the army (“Modernize the Army”), heterosexuality (“Only Mom and Dad Make the Future”) and the family (“Grandkids Safeguard Grandma’s Pension”). “Screwing for pensions,” jokes one skeptical member, prompting another to point out that the slogans are there to galvanize the voter, not the partymen: the bait is for the fish, not the fisherman.

These hot-button topics recur throughout A German Party, but the film avoids sensationalism and instead emphasizes the ordinariness of the AfD’s day-to-day negotiations — a risky move that could invite charges of mainstreaming the group. The film was made with the consent and cooperation of its participants, who perhaps saw in it an opportunity to polish their public image. The individuals we see here aren’t the tattooed, tonsured skinheads of Vice documentaries, but ordinary citizens and politicians formulating responses to specific issues, solving logistical problems or involved in public outreach.

Yet, what we get is far from an attempt at white-washing, and the film sheds its mundane garb at regular intervals to reveal the pathologies of movement we are dealing with. “Those who don’t love Germany can leave,” states a speechmaker of the party’s youth faction. Another one talks about land-grabbing migrants from Africa taking up too much space in public transport. Supremacist jokes, anti-mask rhetoric, badmouthing of news media and references to Prussian valour should ring alarm bells even for the uninitiated viewer. In one sequence, party members dressed in suits drive to a refugee camp near the Bosnian border to make incendiary videos for their TikTok accounts. When they spot three figures in the far distance, they get into a mini panic and prepare to leave.

These incriminating evidences aside, the film pronounces no further judgment. It is so focused on the mechanics of party operation that every viewer is likely to walk away with their own evaluation of the AfD. There are thematic connections between the chapters, but A German Party doesn’t aim for an exhaustive portrait. Condensing five hundred hours of footage into a commercially viable two-hour runtime, the film instead positions the AfD as an elephant that can only ever be partially apprehended.

Indeed, even the members of the party perceive it in highly divergent ways. Each one has a theory of what its identity, strengths and failings are, of why the party isn’t succeeding or how it should correct course, but these assessments are riddled with contradictions. Unity is important to some, getting rid of dissidents to others. The AfD is too niche and must reach out to a wider audience, believe a few. It is already spreading itself too thin in trying to appeal to the entire right half of the political radar, think others. The fact that many of AfD’s leaders are not seasoned politicians like those in other parties is seen as both an advantage and a shortcoming.

These contradictions have to do with the evolution of the AfD itself. What is so compelling about A German Party is that it presents a political outfit fully caught up in the dialectical process of self-definition, an organization trying to identify itself through differentiation — a body at its mirror stage, as it were. The need for the party to go mainstream, to form alliances and influence policy, runs up against the image that it has built for itself, namely that it represents a force outside the establishment. The most intriguing suggestion of Brückner’s film may be that rightward shift of the party, far from signalling the formation of a coherent ideology, may actually be the fruit of a lack of clear identity; the AfD is the AfD because it is not the CDU or the NPD.

A German Party shows the degree to which AfD is caught up in an internal war between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘extremists.’ Party chief Jörg Meuthen calls the provocateurs of the party’s extreme-right factions “pubescent schoolboys,” which convinces some that Meuthen must go. (He did, in January 2022.) In convention after convention, we witness radicals elbowing out their rivals for candidacy and party positions. The fight is not just at the level of leadership; at a tiny borough meeting of three people, an elderly member bats for the deportation of Muslim families, a proposal that doesn’t go well with the meeting host.

There are other internal incompatibilities too. We see politicians promising higher financial security, better welfare, more protection from international competition to impoverished towns of the east. But a significant cross-section of the party, including its aggressive economic wing, appears to be of a libertarian tendency. The tug-of-war is most apparent on the issue of Covid-19 measures. We discover that as much as 70% of the party membership doesn’t believe that the restrictions are excessive. Yet we get the impression that the AfD condones, or has no control over, its extremist wings, Flügel and Junge Alternative, who conduct strident anti-vaccination, anti-masking rallies.

Whether this lack of consensus points to a healthy culture of debate and democracy within the party, or a kind of doublespeak that appeals to two different voter bases or simply ideological inconsistency is left to the viewer to decipher. Towards the end of the film, the residents of a flood-ravaged town refuse to take the relief money offered by the AfD, reportedly out of concern about associating with the party. Is the refusal a reflection of Germany’s robust democracy and its people’s moral courage, or is it a sign of their cowardice and self-destructive political correctness? For you to judge.

 

[First published in News9]

Crisis unites homes. If the pandemic has forced us to reassess the terms of our relationships, it has also perhaps sharpened our sensibility to the frailties of the body and the mind. That is, at least, the impression one gets from the recently concluded Visions du Réel documentary festival in Nyons. Several works that premiered at the event find expatriate filmmakers returning home, often obliged by aging and ailing parents, to capture less-than-flattering aspects of family life, elevating them into subjects worthy of cinematic consideration.

To be sure, there is nothing sordid about My Old Man, in which director Stephen Vit accompanies his successful salesman dad, Rudi, on his last business trip to China. Rudi works at a large multinational firm and is about to retire after 43 years of service. A Canadian by birth, he lives with his wife in a lush corner of Switzerland that one of his clients calls “paradise.” As a young man, though, he was a perennial globetrotter who always came home “smelling of airplanes and hotel rooms.” His retirement thus offers Stephen a chance to understand the remote figure of his childhood.

Rudi’s retired life, which his son documents on his yearly trips home, is the stuff of middle-class dreams: health, affluence, real estate, recreation. There is obviously some restlessness and boredom stemming from Rudi’s sudden loss of purpose and some discord with his wife born of his mean streak. There is also a degree of malaise in the couple’s (re)adjustment to life under a single roof after decades of virtual singledom. But the existential crisis and marital breakdown that Stephen forebodes, almost hopes for, never materializes. Yet, as his father watches old home movies on VHS tapes, something like the regret of lost years traverses his teary face. Rudi has become old.

When Peter Entell began documenting his father Max in Getting Old Stinks, the latter was already over seventy-five. An American settled in Switzerland, Peter filmed his father on his annual stateside trips over fifteen years until the old man’s death in the early 2000s. But the filmmaker didn’t revisit the footage until 2021, when he was sixty-seven years old himself, the age that senior Entell had his first cardiac arrest. For Peter, then, the film is something of a meditation on his own aging, and its title appears to reflect his feeling about the process.

The filmmaker assembles his material chronologically in a repeating structure. In each variation, we see Peter and his three elder siblings travel from all over the world to visit their father at an assisted living facility in California. The occasion is Max’s birthday and the family goes to lunch at a Chinese restaurant, gathering at the same table and ordering with the same waiter. They all wish the old man, read fortune cookie predictions and make jokes about it. After a few cordial hours back at the old-age home, they bid farewell. These variations are bridged together by old family photographs, with voiceover by Peter addressing the film to their absent mother who never had the chance to grow old.

Over the course of fifteen years, we see Max deteriorate from a sharp super-senior who trots out songs from memory to a frail figure who is hard put to recall his wife’s name. A favourite poem that he recites turns from a token of his charm to a test of his memory. The children, too, grow old, yet the jokes on the lunch table remain the same, becoming quainter with each passing year. A longitudinal study of the Entell family’s annual ritual, Getting Old Stinks is a poignant document about the ravages of time on human bonds.

When Humaira Bilkis, the director of Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, returned home to Dhaka after her studies in India, she found her once-liberal mother Khaleda transformed into a devout woman after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Where young Khaleda wanted her daughter to grow up to be a painter, she now repudiates images. She laments the fact that her daughter makes films, collects old photographs, stays out late and, most importantly, refuses to get married. It is left to the viewer’s imagination how she would react if she learnt that Humaira has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta with whom she has trysts in a friend’s apartment.

Khaleda’s constant sense of disappointment and maternal failure weighs heavily on Humaira. When the pandemic hits, the filmmaker is obliged to take care of her ailing parents, forced to live with all this corrosive emotional furniture. Her response? To film her life, to turn the overly familiar into something akin to a “text” that could afford her the necessary distance. It is telling that the relationship between mother and daughter is at its most cordial when Humaira is away on work in Japan and makes video calls to Khaleda, telling her of the freedom women that enjoy there.

All through, Humaira imagines her romance in terms of the love poems her mother wrote as a young woman. In turn, she narrativizes her mother’s life through the images of her film. In Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, art becomes a mediator in family life, the crutch using which individuals tolerate one another.

Filmmaker Wenqian Zhang’s mother is worried about her daughter’s future too in A Long Journey Home. Like Humaira, Wenqian has completed her film studies abroad and has now returned home to mainland China. Her mother’s worries and appeals notwithstanding, she doesn’t yet want to get married to her boyfriend (and co-producer), Yue Huang. She says she doesn’t believe all that much in marriage.

For good reason, since her own parents are an irreparably damaged couple. After a series of failed business ventures across the country, Wenqian’s father Bo is now a stay-at-home husband mistreated by pretty much everyone around. His wife belittles him at every opportunity, even hitting him at one point. His brother-in-law insults him for owing money. Even his parents-in-law, who live in the same house, use him to run errands. A pitiful figure, Bo seems the quintessential product of patriarchal pressures on men. The most tender scenes of the film feature Wenqian lending a sympathetic ear to the broken man, who is in turn more understanding of her feelings and aspirations than her excessively pragmatic mother.

Wenqian composes the film as a series of static shots, all of which are interesting in their studied composition and some of which are downright dazzling in their use of off-screen space. This formalist reserve allows her to describe the domestic space with fluency and provide us a glimpse into the relative affluence of the Zhangs.

Located at the farther end of the class spectrum, the family of Elvis A-Liang Lu, director of A Holy Family, is something you might imagine having seen in a Tsai Ming-Liang film. Laconic to a fault, his father is an incurable gambler who cannot keep away from the numbers racket even when he is dying of cancer. His mother is a perpetual sufferer who walks up and down the stairs to maintain the home shrine. His brother fashions himself as a spiritual medium, relaying concerns of paying customers to a pantheon of gods. On the side, he grows cash crops on a small patch of land subject to the vagaries of weather. The whole family seems to have surrendered its future to faith and luck, which are at times indistinguishable.

It is perhaps not surprising then that A-Liang left for Taiwan as a young man to determine his own life. His mother calls him home at the beginning of the film, broaching the subject of her death, audibly making him uncomfortable. Over the course of A Holy Family, A-Liang changes from a seemingly indifferent son to someone with pangs of guilt over ‘abandoning’ his family. Like with Humaira Bilkis, filmmaking here serves as an instrument of reconciliation with the family. A-Liang’s lot is unhappy in its own way, but his film is bracing in the way it transforms this unhappiness into a graceful portrait of a modest family playing with the cards it has been dealt.

[First published in News9]

In the Romanian film Graduation (2016), a doctor helps a local politician jump the queue for a liver transplant in exchange for fixing his daughter’s test scores. The moral corruption of an entire society is refracted through cheating in exams also in Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor (2021), which screened in the New Directors/New Films programme at the Museum of Modern Art in April. Assistant professor Rehana (Azmeri Haque Badhon) is a medical professional too, but unlike the compromised physician of Graduation, she is an idealist acutely sensitive to wrongful conduct. Saad’s film describes the price that she has to pay for staying upright in a world that is forever willing to bend.

Shortly after she expels a student for cheating in an exam, Rehana becomes witness to what she perceives to be a sexual assault by Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan), one of her colleagues at the medical college. The victim is a student who had, just earlier, spoken out against Rehana’s expulsion of her friend at the exam hall. Rehana’s conviction that the injustice needs to be exposed is at loggerheads with the victim’s desire to stay low and let it pass. Worse, her simmering anger at her colleague’s action comes up against the fact that she hasn’t actually seen the incident and the creeping doubt that there may have been extenuating circumstances.

Saad’s film puts Rehana in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, letting her resentment come to a boiling point. Set entirely within the premises of a medical college — the architecture of which is never clear — Rehana refuses to go outdoors even when its protagonist is in perennial interaction with the world outside. Even at work, Rehana is constantly on the phone, now asking her ne’er-do-well brother to pick her daughter up from school, now talking with the school principal over a disciplinary action or admonishing her mother. A single mom supporting an extended family, she needs to keep her job, a dependency that Arefin and the college dean exploit to keep her silent.

Badhon, who carries the film from start to finish, plays Rehana not just as a morally sensitive person, but as a thorough sceptic with a chip on her shoulder. The zealousness with which she guilt-trips Arefin in passive-aggressive (and sometimes plain aggressive) encounters reflects a moralist who has personal stakes in the matter. At one point, she even assumes the role of the victim to lodge a false harassment complaint — a grey area that the film uses solely to take the plot forward. Moving briskly in and out of the frame, Badhon’s Rehana has little time for either rest or idle chatter — an attitude established by her contemptuous scowl after she receives an unwanted touch early in the film.

Rehana’s vehemence is, however, understandable. After all, she has a young daughter who has been asked to apologize at school for no mistake of hers. Moreover, the film is set in 2015, that is before the explosion of the #MeToo movement, and as such, it appears to articulate the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the subject in Bangladesh, a country that is believed to have been, by and large, indifferent or at least a latecomer to the movement.

Rehana is made in the intense, muscular style that is the malaise of so much of post-Dardennes art cinema: handheld cinematography, shallow focus, realist sound design and an absence of musical score. The camera never stops moving, oscillating to impart some tension even when it is supposed to be still. It follows the protagonist from up close, observing her from over the shoulder and making the viewer intimate with her experience of her surroundings. This results in a spate of profile shots, including a long passage where Rehana repeatedly splashes water on her face to telegraph her angst. In her confrontation with authorities, in contrast, she is filmed from behind, often decentred and made vulnerable.

The decision to never leave the hospital lends the film its claustrophobic keynote, just as the dull choice of soaking the film in shades of steely blues offers no visual relief. These pre-formed ideas produce the intended effect, but at the cost of sucking all air out of the project. Too tightly bound to its script for its own good, Rehana has no more space for its audience than its protagonist. The film directs our attention at every moment, cruising like a well-oiled vehicle on autopilot, with director Saad betraying very little by way of personality or character.

The filmmaker’s personality is right at the centre of Humaira Bilkis’ Things I Could Never Tell My Mother (2022), a poignant home movie from Bangladesh that premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyons. A portrait of familial reciprocity through art, the film inhabits the space between Humaira and her mother Khaleda. Once a liberal woman who gave her surname to her daughter and who wrote playful, longing love poems in the Hindu manner, Khaleda became a devout Muslim after a journey to Mecca, swapping her evocative Bengali verse for prayers in broken Arabic. Where she once wanted Humaira to become a painter, she now disapproves of her daughter’s vocation, declaring that, to Allah, “photos are worthless.”

Humaira’s faith, in contrast, resides in images. A collector and conserver of photographs, the filmmaker views them as ramparts against death. “You can’t see the soul,” she replies to her mother’s warning against images, “but you can see the body.” She is unmarried, a fact that gives her mother great grief. But Humaira can’t possibly tell her pious mother that she has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta. The filmmaker formalizes the opposition between her mother’s faith and her love affair by interweaving her interviews with mother with shots of her sneaking away to meet her boyfriend, the latter passages charmingly accompanied by Humaira reading her mother’s love poems.

Khaleda’s religiosity, it must be said, isn’t as intransigent for all that and her beliefs take a rest from time to time. She has no qualms watching cricket or television serials, and even the veil comes down when prayer is not on the mind. The filmmaker asks her mother what is it that troubles her about her daughter’s life. Khaleda thinks that her daughter is living in sin and sees it as a reflection of bad parentage; she hopes to help Humaira mend her ways by taking her on hajj. The daughter acquiesces, seeing in the pilgrimage a good opportunity to tell her mother about her romantic entanglement.

Alas, the pandemic strikes, ruling out the journey to Mecca, but also producing other kinds of stress. The filmmaker’s father is diagnosed with tumour and he loses his memory to the point of not recognizing his daughter. Mother slips into a depression and begins to lose weight rapidly. Humaira’s own relationship dissolves and she finds herself taking care of her ailing parents. The most touching passages of the film involve Humaira playing a caregiver to her father, a counsellor to her mother. She struggles to find a language to encourage her mother, drawing despite herself from the Prophet’s messages. Palliating her mother’s fear at outliving her husband, Humaira offers her own single life as a model, but it only accentuates her mother’s sense of failure.

Through all this, Humaira keeps filming, as though capturing these difficult episodes of family life were in some way a means to gain control over them. Like Chantal Akerman in No Home Movie (2015), the filmmaker holds on to images of her mother as a way of warding off her physical disappearance. In a process of filial reciprocation, she offers documentary images in return for her mother’s poems, which had so far provided commentary to her life. “May this film give a new dimension to our togetherness,” she muses, “the same way my mother’s poems give a new meaning to my life.”

 

[First published in News9]

[The following essay was published in Ultra Dogme’s dossier on Tamil Cinema.]

Nayagan (1987)

A man in a sleeveless vest is bleeding from his eyebrow,  arms raised. A hand from outside the frame grabs him by the hair and turns his face upward towards the light. A towering figure appears between the man’s face and his raised left arm, putting its arms around the man and pressing his chest with a baton. The camera pulls back to reveal the setting; the room is sparsely furnished. The hand belongs to a constable in uniform, the tall figure is a police officer (Pradeep Shakti) and the man receiving the blows is Velu (Kamal Haasan, an actor who loves to get hurt even when he is the aggressor). The inspector is wearing an undershirt too, one with sleeves, which serves a practical purpose (hitting someone is an arduous, sweat-inducing task) as well as a symbolic one (he is acting only partially in his official role). He has picked up Velu for defying him and, with the zooming camera now outside the room, he strikes his victim from behind with all his might.

A saga of Velu’s evolving relationship with law and its enforcers, Nayagan (1987) contains possibly the earliest representation of custodial torture in Tamil cinema. As such, it would set the standard mise en scène for similar scenes that were to follow: characters in partial undress, taunting dialogue, top lighting, the camera placed near the actor’s face as the hitting takes place in the background. The soundtrack is sparse, consisting only of the policeman’s exhortations, the clinking of the handcuffs, the quick claps of the baton striking Velu and the whistle of a passing train, a traumatic memory associated with a young Velu’s panic-stricken escape to Bombay following the murder of his father by the police. Velu can never go home again.

The subject of this essay is custodial violence in Tamil cinema, films produced in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where over a hundred custodial deaths were recorded in the past two decades without a single conviction. Custodial violence represented as custodial violence. In other words, the films mentioned here have the viewer ostensibly identify with the character undergoing the ordeal rather than the one causing it. This is to rule out an ocean of Dirty Harry-type “cop movies” where custodial aggression is framed as gestures of instant justice. And though there’s an interesting historical account to be written about the transition of policemen, once respectable if minor characters, into villains in Tamil cinema, this is not the place for it.

Nor is the aim to provide an exhaustive inventory of scenes of custodial violence in Tamil films. The essay only seeks to look at certain salient representations of the phenomenon, to discern certain recurring figures of style, to trace out an outline of its formal evolution. Legal particulars are obscured for the sake of simplicity: characters may be held without a chargesheet, be under interrogation, in remand or even in jail.

While operating within the loose bounds of realism, Tamil cinema has demonstrated a surprisingly fair variety in the depiction of custodial violence. Take the instruments of torture, for instance. Most films stick to the lathi, the long bamboo pole that police all across India carry. But detainees on screen have also been treated to a belt (Thalapathy), pliers (Narasimma, Nellai Santhippu), tongs, cigarette ash (Samurai), marbles, rubber tubes (Pithamagan), palm stems (Visaaranai), an awl, barbed mace, barbed whip, salt water (Anniyan), chilli powder (Jai Bhim), electric shock (Kandasamy, Narasimma), temperature chambers (Sathuranga Vettai, Anniyan), ice cubes (Kandasamy), ice slabs (Narasimma, Sathuranga Vettai), ice dildos, cockroach rice, ant pants (Kadhalan) and even a rat in a bag (Gentleman).

The rope, in particular, has proven a versatile tool in restraining suspects and contorting their bodies into positions favourable for a good beating. Captives have been hung from a pole like a hunted animal (Pithamagan) or suspended by the wrist (Thalapathy), the legs (Gentleman, Visaaranai, Thalapathy), the biceps (Visaaranai), the thumbs (Jai Bhim) or the neck (Nayagan); they’ve had their hands tied to their legs from the front (Vazhakku Enn 18/9), from the back (Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban), from the back and strung from the ceiling (Jai Bhim). Similar taxonomies can be made for the costumes, actor positions, set design, lighting techniques, use of lenses and, particularly, the sound mix (from the dull thuds of Thalapathy to the crunching bones of Papanasam).

All this bondage, of course, spills over into sexual perversion, and the viewer may not be wrong in seeing a sublimated masochism at work in these scenes. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan shoots the custodial torture in Thalapathy (1991) like an erotic massage, but it is Kadhalan (1994) that presents a Freudian minefield. Prabhu (king of camp Prabhu Deva) is held captive for loving the daughter of a minister. The cop responsible for making him recant is not a dude in underwear, but a short haired, gutka-chewing woman in boots (Kavita Sri). If the reversal of roles isn’t emasculating already, at their first encounter, she inserts a phallic ice dagger in Prabhu’s mouth and then has him sodomized with it.

Director Shankar, who has much in common with Cecil B. DeMille, intercuts these scenes of abuse with shots of Prabhu’s girlfriend Shruti (Nagma) protesting his detention. Shruti chisels her beau’s name with a crowbar on the walls of a decrepit outhouse that resembles the dungeon where Prabhu is held. Just as the howls and the anxiogenic music accompanying Prabhu’s torment segue into a romantic number, the power of love transforms every instrument of torture into a fetish object: Shruti eats a worm in response to Prabhu being fed cockroaches, the ice dagger penetrating Prabhu’s mouth finds an echo in his finger brushing Shruti’s teeth, the hair that Prabhu finds in his food reminds him of the strands of Shruti’s hair caught up in his shirt button. Lust becomes inextricable from pain and disgust. As Prabhu is beaten, he bites on a dislodged hook from Shruti’s blouse; gigantic replicas of this device feature in a preceding song whose lyrics sacralise the lover’s bodily emanations.

Kadhalan (1994)

Things are as bodily in Visaaranai (2015) too, but in a different sense. Vetrimaaran’s third film ushered in a sea change in the iconography of custodial violence on screen, as stylized conventions make way for greater realism. A bipartite work, Visaaranai derives its effect from the way it plays off its two halves against each other. In the first part, four immigrant labourers from Tamil Nadu are held in a police station in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh and coerced into admitting to a crime they never committed. It is a white-collar criminal, an extremely influential auditor, who is the object of police brutality in the second half. By wedging our perspective with the workers at the outset, Visaaranai leads us to want them to not get mixed up with the auditor, whom they helped arrest — this apathy being an important theme of the film.

The film’s principal torture sequence takes place in a portico outside the station. A bald officer—clad in a khaki shirt and a lungi, an inversion of the Nayagan dress code—instructs the labourers not to shout in pain, for there is a school next door. To break their solidarity, the cop (Ajay Ghosh) tells the ‘leader’ of the group (Attakathi Dinesh) that if he falls down when struck, the others will be beaten. Vetrimaaran films the sequence in a wide angle such that we see the aggressor, the weapon and the victim in the same shot; the blows really land on Dinesh’s bare upper body. This misplaced Bazinianism sets a frightening precedent for actors, but it is bracing in the way it made concrete, for the first time, a violence that was so far largely notional, like Bouguereau’s Flagellation of Christ set against Cimabue’s.

Visaaranai (2015)

On its appearance, Visaaranai felt new, its unremitting cruelty necessary. That the film has only a limited digression away from its main narrative and setting, that its first instance of police violence comes completely unexpected, draws us inexorably into a Kafkaesque world whose workings we can only grasp as it unfolds. Visaaranai is still a very effective, intelligent work, but also something of a victim of its own success. Many of its novelties have been imbibed and regurgitated by works that followed, its imagery of police brutality made a new gold standard, to a point that Vetrimaaran’s film feels tame and hollowed out in certain respects today.

Comparably disturbing images of police atrocity resurface in Karnan (2021). Cops run riot in a village late in the film, but a more crucial incident takes place at a police station a while earlier. Running close to two and a half minutes, the sequence is a synecdoche, a mini-movie reflective of the entire film. Rather than an individual, it is the whole community that is at the receiving end of a slighted inspector’s wrath. As the officer (Natty) rains blows on a group of elders from the village, who try in vain to take shelter under a table or the stairs, he taunts them over their lofty names, drags them by the neck and has them later thrown on the terrace as though they were bait for birds of prey. In the seventy-one shots that make up this dense and disorienting scene, sophomore helmer Mari Selvaraj manages to insert images of a constable breaking down in the adjacent toilet, a young boy watching the assault in shock, an active police siren and even a dying butterfly.

Karnan (2021)

Along with Vetrimaaran, Mari Selvaraj belongs to a generation of Tamil directors that is concerned with the politics of representation. Not only do these filmmakers recount stories of the oppressed, but in doing so, they are also mindful not to effect other forms of intersectional oppression. Yet their films frequently feel obliged to showcase elaborate humiliations of marginalized figures in order to make a case for their humanity. If they ensure that our sympathies align squarely with the persecuted, the graphic scenes of abuse in these works nevertheless offer the viewer a space to identify with the persecutor. Super Deluxe (2019) features an excruciatingly protracted passage of sexual violence in which a cop forces himself on a transgender woman — a scene whose sleaziness is safely amped up in the knowledge that the actor playing the trans-woman is only a cis-male (Vijay Sethupathi).

This tendency to put disenfranchised characters through trials by degradation reaches a crescendo in the much-discussed Jai Bhim (2021), a talismanic title that made the film unimpeachable in the eyes of its adherents before anyone knew what it was about. Jai Bhim is unusual in that it is not the star of the movie that is brutalized by the police, but a group of helpless Irulas (members of an indigenous ‘tribe’) framed for theft. This difference allows the film to crank up the violence on the suspects without any sort of gesture at resistance. The relentless abuse is intended to unsettle the viewers and precipitate the messianic intervention of lawyer Chandru (Surya), the vehicle of justice, but it also serves to excite the audience with the thrill of a forbidden spectacle: the accused are dragged by the hair, suspended by the thumbs, broken on a bench, covered in chilli paste…

There are, in fact, about ten episodes of police violence in Jai Bhim, unfolding alternatingly inside and outside the station, including raids into the Irula settlement. The most prominent of these involves a sub-inspector (Tamizh) charging at five inmates, one of them a woman, with a lathi. Set in a spare cell illuminated by a shaft of light from the window, the assault lasts all of 54 seconds, contains 41 shots and features 36 blows. (We are far from the 45-second, 4-shot, 6-blow sequence of Nayagan.) It is filmed in three kinds of camera setups: a wide angle from the top to capture the full scene, a low angle to film the blows and the cowering inmates and a reverse shot to show the grimacing policeman. But at the end of this rampage, it is the lawman who has to take a pill to check his blood pressure, a touch borrowed from a similar scene in Anniyan.

Jai Bhim (2021)

Like Karnan, this scene in Jai Bhim incorporates a large number of cuts to maintain a sense of constant unease and confusion, and like Visaaranai, the blows are actually shown landing on the bodies. But unlike these earlier films, many of the hits here are, in fact, presented in continuity in consecutive shots (shot 1: cop swings baton, shot 2: baton lands on body), which means that the number of hits visually perceived feels much higher than what is heard on the soundtrack. The canted camera, the swinging baton, the beams on the ceiling, the window bars, the slanted shaft of light, all produce dynamic diagonals that reinforce the impression of instability and chaos. The sequence is visceral, effective in the repulsiveness it evokes, but it pales in comparison to an antithetical scene later in the film, where other Irulas recount their experience of police harassment in words. These potent oral testimonies only demonstrate how impoverished graphic representations of custodial torture generally are.

When the bloody excesses of Jai Bhim were called out by reviewers, fans were quick to point out that the film is based on reality. That begs the question: whose reality? If modernist cinema has taught us anything, it is that the camera doesn’t just record facts, but transforms them into representation in a medium with its own history and tradition. Not only does the naive appeal to reality betray an ignorance of this alchemy, it also robs the audience of the important work of imagination and empathy.

The aforementioned sequence in Nayagan is not even the most memorable scene of custodial violence in the film. Shortly after Velu’s rude treatment, his foster father is killed in the police station. But this incident is not shown. Prevented from entering the station, Velu only sees the old man’s hanging legs through the cell gate. This disturbing elision is powerful and it is an object cinematic lesson when it comes to the depiction of trauma: tell, don’t show.

Filmography

Nayagan (“The Hero”, 1987, Mani Ratnam) — Thalapathy (“The Commander”, 1991, Mani Ratnam) — Gentleman (1993, Shankar) — Kadhalan (“The Paramour”, 1994, Shankar) — Narasimma (2001, Thirupathisamy) — Samurai (2002, Balaji Sakthivel) — Ramanaa (2002, A.R. Murugadoss) — Pithamagan (“The Grandsire”, 2003, Bala) — Anniyan (“The Outsider”, 2005, Shankar) — Kandasamy (2009, Susi Ganesan) — Naan Kadavul (“I Am God”, 2009, Bala) — Vazhakku Enn 18/9 (“Case No. 18/9”, 2012, Balaji Sakthivel) — Nellai Santhippu (“Tirunelveli Junction”, 2012, K.B.B. Naveen) — Sathuranga Vettai (“The Chess Hunt”, 2014, H. Vinoth) — Visaaranai (“The Interrogation”, 2015, Vetrimaaran) — Papanasam (2015, Jeethu Joseph) — Super Deluxe (2019, Thiagarajan Kumararaja) — Thadam (“The Trail”, 2019, Magizh Thirumeni) — Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban (“The Police Is Your Friend”, 2020, RDM) — Karnan (2021, Mari Selvaraj) — Jai Bhim (“Hail Bhim”, 2021, T.J. Gnanavel) — Writer (2021, Franklin Jacob)

 

[Originally published at Ultra Dogme]