Kollywood


[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.

[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.

[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]

Director Karthik Subbaraj is movie crazy. Like many Tamil filmmakers, he is drawn to intertextuality, but has a temperament that doesn’t allow it to get out of hand in the way it might in a Venkat Prabhu film. It shouldn’t be surprising then that he has cast actor Vikram and his son Dhruv as father and son going at each other in his new work titled Mahaan. It’s an enticing setup: a sparkling Vikram creates a suitable springboard for Dhruv, whose first two ill-fated films came from the cottage industry of Arjun Reddy remakes; performing bits from his father’s classic films, Dhruv reminds us, even if negatively, that talent isn’t inherited.

Vikram plays Gandhi, a middle-aged professor suffocated by his name and the high-minded ideals of his freedom-fighter father. Following the advice of a Randian mendicant (Ramachandran Durairaj), he decides to live out his desires in the company of bar owner Satya (Bobby Simha) and seedy politician Gnanam (Vettai Muthukumar). This betrayal of Gandhian values outrages his wife Nachi (Simran, in a poorly written role), who walks off from his life with their son Dada (Akshath Das). Nursing resentment at this alcohol-driven dissolution of his family, an older Dada (Dhruv) becomes a teetotalling cop to wipe out his wasteful father’s liquor empire.

Like a number of other screenwriters, Karthik Subbaraj is attracted to character pairs, symmetry, mirroring, reversals of roles. This was already obvious in Jigarthanda (2014), whose clever underlying concept had a filmmaker and a gangster trade places. Mahaan abounds with these structural games, which is indeed what sustain the film. The screenplay is divided into clear halves, with Dhruv Vikram making an appearance at the midpoint — a smart ploy that allows his father to shield him for over an hour and lends the film a new lease of energy.

The first half unfolds like a game of rummy; that is to say, through a series of coincidences and lucky accidents. Having cut loose from his regimented life, Gandhi meets business partners Satya and Gnanam (there is some play around their names which respectively mean “truth” and “knowledge”), who, it turns out, are childhood acquaintances. It is hard to buy that this 40-year-old repressed man can so easily ease into one vice after another, but like a round of cards, that is exactly the hand we are dealt. Vikram is fantastic as Gandhi, and despite such radical distortions his character is subjected to, he gives a sense of a coherent person buried beneath all the gaudy shirts and ridiculous coiffure.

As Gandhi keeps leveling up (down) like a debauched game character, Satya has a religious epiphany that makes him gradually distance himself from Gandhi’s dreams of an empire (ba-dum-tsh). This double transition is conveyed through a montage in which images of Satya becoming a born-again Christian are intercut with Gandhi multiplying his murders: a reversal of the Godfather principle. By the end of the film, the two swap places, with Satya reaping the bitter rewards of Gandhi’s bad company.

The second half, in contrast, is a game of chess, where Gandhi’s perfect hand comes undone by his son’s meticulous scheming. If Gandhi’s journey was that of the id unleashed, Dada’s is the return of the superego. A mirror image of his idealistic grandfather, Dada watches over his father even as a child, ferreting out his petty secrets and telling on him. Gandhi and Dada take turns playing father and son, looking out for each other despite their best judgment. They are both introduced (and later developed) through sequences of stylized violence, Dada’s legal killings somewhat amped up to make us wince. Confusing determination with rigidity, though, Dhruv is less than fantastic; it is hard to make out if he is taking a phone call or getting ready to do crunches.

More pairings and reversals: there are two heroes, two friends, two sons, two wives, two weddings, two separations, two telescoped flashbacks to childhood, two scenes of violence in picturesque landscapes. We are in tic territory when even secondary characters seem to have secondary romances going on. Gandhi loses a son figure in the second half, recalling the way he saved one in the first. With age, he grows his hair long as his wife shortens hers. Dada’s revenge on his father is elaborated like a bloody closure to the traumatic scene of his childhood.

These patterns are alluring, and they give solid form to the film’s argument that people who kill for ideology are as vicious, if not more, as people who kill for money, limited as the latter are by their appetite or conscience. But Karthik Subbaraj contrives his screenplay further for these elements to fall in place. A major set-piece in the second half, set in a police bunker designed like an avant-garde theatre set, finds Gandhi and Dada pointing a gun at each other, a cunning image that the whole sequence (and film) seems to be imagined around. But everything in the set-piece before and after this shot shares none of its zing: Dada is elaborately re-established as a sociopath while Gandhi swings from self-effacing helplessness to super-heroic surety and back.

Mahaan is powered by its transitional bits rather than its big scenes, which invariably fall flat. There are three sequences featuring Gandhi and Satya at various stages of their friendship and life. The second of these is poignant, although perhaps redundant, but the other two are quite trying, especially the final one that is set up to resolve another symmetric dilemma: Dada lives if Satya dies and vice versa. An inexplicable scene between Gandhi and his wife Nachi is shoehorned late into the film in order to satisfy the logic of what is to follow.

On the other hand, Mahaan’s tedious passages are also frequently intertwined with its finer qualities. Gandhi’s first fight scene — and I suspect this is where many viewers will take leave of the film — is set in a scenic location surrounded by mountains. As a heavy tries to kill his son with a hammer, Satya cries out in prayer at a crucifix in the distance. Gandhi stops the hammer just as it is about to go down. It’s a rank Tamil movie cliché, but the way it is shot, with Gandhi’s arm jutting out of the sky as if it were the hand of God, shifts the scene’s focus to Satya’s revelation. Unbelievable though the ensuing fight is, there is something in the combination of the locale, Gandhi’s flashy clothes and the pseudo-single shot filmmaking that holds it all together.

As a director, Karthik Subbaraj can often be weird; not weird enough to be creative like Shankar, just weird enough to stick out. He loves his intercutting: the early scene of escalating hysteria where Nachi walks off on Gandhi is finely separated across two groups of actors. The gratuitous quarter hour at the end is split between three spaces and two timelines — a demanding device for the viewer to process. Another effect of modern Tamil films trying to pack 200-minutes worth of narrative into 150: action and dialogue overlapping; we would see items being exchanged across shots while or before we hear about them, as when Gandhi wears his new glasses before we learn that they’re a birthday gift.

Karthik Subbaraj can ask us to make impossible leaps of faith in following Gandhi’s descent into the dumps, but he can also be overly logical in covering his trail, with countless inserts and exchanges whose sole purpose is to cement story gaps. There are fetish images here, like Gandhi with a Tommy gun, but also purely odd ones like Gandhi discarding a movie ticket in the shower drain or a politician literally jumping in joy after having his visitors thrown out. Now that Jai Bhim (2021) has shown us that décor details could be adjusted weeks after a film’s release, Karthik Subbaraj may even consider adding a few more Gandhi photos or crosses in the background.

The Last Farmer, multi-hyphenate Manikandan’s fourth directorial venture, is nothing if not timely. To be sure, in a country where agrarian suicides are permanent fixtures in the annual news cycle, any work about farmers is timely. But the premiere of Manikandan’s film also coincides with the nationwide protests underway against newly enacted agricultural reforms. As a story about the only remaining farmer of a village, it is, at the very least, bound to benefit from and contribute to the discourse.

Any film by Manikandan is a closely-plotted affair, and The Last Farmer juggles no fewer than four narrative arcs. It is, firstly, the picture of a village that overcomes its internal divisions when faced with adversity. Old customs, beliefs and ways of life are revived as the crisis galvanizes the villagers around an expiatory feast. Thwarting its progression, a second storyline finds the titular last farmer, Mayandi (Nallandi), being harassed and ground down by the legal establishment for having buried dead peacocks found on his land.

Woven through this mesh are vignettes that dramatize items from the headlines: the persistence of drought, the introduction of GM crops, the financialization of agriculture and the corporate takeover of farm lands. There is even an extended star cameo by Vijay Sethupathi as a wandering holy fool who moves in and out of village life. The result of this narrative density and shifting focus is that the film is made less of fleshed-out scenes than of short, melodramatic incidents that move the plot forward.

The farmer is arguably the single most sacred figure in modern Tamil cinema, rivalled perhaps only by the Sri Lankan Tamil. And Manikandan’s film has no intention of impinging on this saintly aura. Its protagonist is the last fount of agricultural knowledge within a largely oral tradition. He leaves everyone who comes into his orbit in thrall, and the filmmaker treats him with comparable awe and piety, even at the risk of idealizing the character. This renders The Last Farmer a film primarily addressing an urban Tamil audience, one which longs for a lost unity back home.

With Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai and Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal (both 2018), it seemed as though the ideological and aesthetic stakes of village-based Tamil cinema could never be the same again. While it wishes away the deep, irreconcilable caste divides unveiled by the latter film, The Last Farmer owes a debt to the Vijay Sethupathi-produced Merku Thodarchi Malai, not just in its use of crane shots to chart mountainous landscape, but also in the way it adapts some part of its comprehensive political-critical outlook.

But Manikandan is no ideologue. His film is less the product of cohesive theoretical reflection than a personal tribute to his ancestors. (In the film’s opening credits, he mentions his lineage up to three generations—a first in cinema?) It is made with the filmmaker’s characteristic humour and attention to detail, nowhere more evident than in the authentic courtroom scenes, which were already a standout in his previous work, Aandavan Kattalai (2016). He depicts the village with a cinematographer’s eye, integrating its geography, people and nature into a whole ecosystem, which is one of the film’s main themes. The Last Farmer registers as a work Manikandan had to get out of his system, but the feeling remains that his sentimental attachment to a subject close to his heart may have come a little undone by his distance from it as an essentially urban filmmaker.

 

[Originally written for the International Film Festival Rotterdam]

Ottha Seruppu Size 7 (“Single Slipper Size 7”, 2019, R. Parthiban)

The claim that it’s a single-actor film is indeed a falsity, a gimmick. Sure, we see only one actor on screen (Parthiban himself), but we hear a dozen more on the soundtrack. Worse, it takes pains not to show any other actor even in scenes not featuring Parthiban. So the camera would look away from implied actors, whose exchanges we nevertheless hear. In its minimalist story that could’ve perhaps worked just as well without the conceit, a detained serial killer, interrogated by three or four high-level police officers, confesses liberally to his crimes, but walks out scot free. To avoid the monotony of looking at him speaking for a hundred minutes, actor-director-writer Parthiban cycles through a range of zany camera angles, playing with scales of objects at different distances from the camera. The framing is now partial, now distorted. Parthiban walks in and out of the view of the camera, both the film’s and of the one in the police station recording his testimony. For a major part of its runtime, we share the perspective of the police officers and never once that of Parthiban. This renders him less a character we identify with than a purely external being performing for the camera(s). On the other hand, in a theatrical gesture, we hear the voices that he hears in his head, which invites us to understand his psychology and also serves to insist that he’s not faking his way through the interrogation. I think the end result remains largely stage-bound, with concomitant light and sound effects. Be that as it may, there’s much pleasure to be had in watching the actor get so much manoeuvring space to showboat his unique personality. He forges a quintessential Parthiban character in his serial killer, a Socratic figure whose modesty, piety and powerlessness belie his wit, wisdom and wile. This fusing of Parthiban’s real life identity, his work as a writer and an actor turns him into an all-round film entertainer not unlike Jackie Chan or Takeshi Kitano.

 

Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (“Wheatish Complexion, Average Build”, 2016, Hemanth M Rao)

Rao’s debut effort wedges together two stories. In the first, a 66-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, Venkob (Anant Nag), strays away from the home he’s admitted in, prompting his caretaker (Sruthi Hariharan) and his estranged, corporate rat of a son (Rakshit Shetty) to go look for him. In the second, two henchmen trying to hide a dead body end up taking shelter with Venkob at the home of a middle-class family. The twinning of stories has two advantages. First, it doubles as a showreel for Rao, who could demonstrate to future producers that he can handle a romantic melodrama as well as a crime thriller. (It apparently worked; his next was a police procedural produced by Puneeth Rajkumar’s new house.) But it also helps balance the film, which is otherwise a bland family drama or a tepid thriller developed in the broadest strokes possible. The characters are all are well-worn types with little inflection. The callousness of Venkob’s son, especially, is drummed up to an unsustainable pitch. It predictably breaks down with Venkob’s disappearance, and the character mellows down. As he searches for his father, he also discovers through oral testimonies his private habits, his romantic past, and his community influence, and realizes that his father wasn’t as generic and boring as the titular missing-person description suggests. In the process, he owns up to his own past, finding his roots and narrativizing his own life. Most of the search takes place through montages and song sequences, and the film itself is overly chopped up, far from the appreciable economy of Kavaludaari. If it’s still moving, it’s largely thanks to Anant Nag, who plays it light, not invoking every characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients. His essential simplicity bestows his character a basic dignity despite the ill-treatment meted-out to it by the script.

 

Taramani (2017, Ram)

Pray you don’t meet director Ram at a dinner. He is the kind of character who can’t pass the salt without giving you a five-minute lecture on the politics behind it. He might not be one to step inside pubs or to work at a call centre, but that doesn’t prevent him from pontificating with great authority on their social dynamics. A gay man in a hetero marriage? Ram knows exactly how he feels. A cuckolded husband? You got it. An adulterous North Indian housewife? Ram’s got you covered. The word pedantic doesn’t begin to describe this type. In Taramani, possibly the most reprehensible Tamil film of the past few years, this personality is given free rein as the director plays the wise prophet in an obnoxious, smart-ass voiceover. As he holds forth about the evils of globalization, employing preciously symbolic CGI birds realistically brought to life by an offshore VFX company, the viewer pictures a smug individual who has figured it all. The film’s ostensible story centres on the relation between a liberal, westernized, conveniently Anglo-Indian single mother (Andrea Jeremiah) and a nondescript, upwardly-mobile, resentful man (Vasanth Ravi). If the film sets their perspectives in parallel early on, it soon tilts the balance to establish a grand theory about the inadequate Indian male grappling with the sexual revolution of the past twenty years. Ram’s hand of judgment falls heavily on (straight) men—fair enough—but he proves himself utterly incapable of acknowledging the basic dignity of women without making martyrs out of them, without surrounding them with countless failed models of masculinity. This strategy also serves to acquit the filmmaker, who incriminates these broken men to conceal his own misogyny. The pat conservatism of a film like Maalai Nerathu Mayakkam, which deals with the same subject, is more honest than the pretend progressiveness of this sham. Taramani is a shameless piece of intellectual fraud.

 

Angamaly Diaries (2017, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Angamaly Diaries is about gangs of young men from respectable social backgrounds flirting with lawlessness. The testosterone accumulates from frame one and, in an escalation of macho one-upmanship, blows up on their faces. There are shades of City of God here, but Pellissery doesn’t judge the community (on the contrary) and offers no higher moral ground. Instead, the filmmaker is paying tribute to the Christian-majority town of Angamaly in Kerala, whose meat trade and beef- and pork-dominated cuisine become primary motifs of the film. Diaries has formally very little to do with Pellissery’s next two films. While Ee.Ma.Yau and Jallikattu are explosives with a long fuse, building up to a crescendo through long, snake-like passages, Diaries is a serial firecracker proceeding at a breakneck pace from the get-go. Several episodes in the film have an average shot length of less than a second, the rapid edits and camera movements reflecting in their aggression the violence of the milieu portrayed. I was reminded on futurist-cubist superpositions in the way Pellissery chops up even brief actions into unrecognizable bits and stitches them back together to produce an impression rather than coherently describe events. So unlike in the later films, editing is the primary motive force and the creator of meaning here. Diaries is also decidedly a more commercial film, with its voiceover and music that reins in the otherwise chaotic proceedings, and without any of the philosophical pretensions of its successors. But if the film makes for such a crowd pleaser, it’s largely thanks to Pellissery’s work with his actors. His film is flooded with colourful characters, all of them played by debutant non-professionals. Even so, a majority of these actors leave a strong impression. The reason for this, I think, is that, in contrast to the use of non-professionals in other films in this roundup, the mostly male performances here are all set at a very high pitch, and they register with us principally through the actors’ physicality and bluster. To use the food metaphor so pervasive in the film, it’s like dousing all your dishes in the same spicy sauce. Leaves you excited one way or another.  

 

C/o Kancharapalem (2018, Venkatesh Maha)

The popular success of C/o Kancharapalem speaks to both the strengths and shortcomings of streaming giants like Netflix. On one hand, the fact that a modest, independent production such as this has found a sizeable audience speaks to the platform’s curatorial power and appetite for risk. But it also testifies to how easily public taste can be shaped. C/o Kancharapalem is practically a student film—a telefilm at best—whose natural home so far might have been Youtube or Sunday afternoon television. But it’s position on Netflix alongside super-productions, prestige pictures and auteur cinema does disservice to both the film and its more competent peers. The film interweaves four short stories, each involving a forbidden romance and all of them set in the titular neighbourhood of Vizag in India’s east coast. The female characters in all four stories hail from a conservative, caste-marked, patriarchal setup, which they are courageous enough to break out of through an affection for the other. This turns out to be an affront to family honour for the men gatekeeping their lives and leads to invariably sad consequences. Then there’s the question of religion, either as faith or practice, which modulates the four love stories. As can be guessed from that synopsis, the film pursues the parallels closely, even mechanically, resulting in an emphasis on the overarching concept (think Griffith’s Intolerance) at the expense of detail and texture. It cuts between the stories rather arbitrarily, sometimes forgetting an arc or two altogether for considerable stretches of time. This produces a curiously uneven emotional profile in which tensions in some sections are resolved while others remain. The film is, of course, not without endearing moments, especially in scenes involving the older pairs, but the actors are asked to do much more than they are capable of and the algorithmic quality of the scenario saps all surprise.

 

Merku Thodarchi Malai (“Western Ghats”, 2018, Lenin Bharathi)

Aka Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. For most of its runtime, Merku Thodarchi Malai is a low-key portrait of a specific-geographic location: the ghat section on the frontier between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Nature, of course, is indifferent to state boundaries, and most of the people we see co-habit within a continuum of languages, customs, beliefs and worldviews. We witness life and work in the mountainous region through the eyes of porter Rangasamy (Antony). We get a sense of the local economy, the trade routes, the inhabitants’ relaxed attitude to money, and the near-total lack of a desire for profit. Business is important only so far as it sustains life. There are accidents and there’s a bit of drama, but for most part, Lenin develops a static, existential picture of lives lived at the mercy of nature, which knows nothing of human needs and sorrows. And then comes the coup de grace: a series of events that wrecks the film down in order to build it anew. Troublesome emotions like greed and wrath take on monstrous proportions through politics and come down on the region like an avalanche. Lenin rapidly, but rigorously, sketches the consequences of the breakdown of an agrarian society tenuously held from collapse by labour unions. GMO firms, land mafia, modern machinery and development projects quickly follow, corrupting the ecosystem beyond recognition. The filmmaker lingers on a shot of a shopkeeper noting down what Rangasamy owes him in a ledger—the incipient notion of debt marking the arrival of new economic relations. Like in Happy as Lazzaro, the brute force of modernity brings in newer forms of bonded labour. The community dissolves, and with it its faith and solidarity, forcing even its non-contributing members to take up jobs in the new economy. The last half hour of the film turns our perspective inside out, forcing us to recognize the landscape now as a bearer of grief at the mercy of a human order. Merku Thodarchi Malai is that rare film which is political without being sentimental. There’s a murder that happens, but it’s presented purely as an existential reaction devoid of moral connotations. Lenin concludes with an absurdist wallop in which a uniformed Rangasamy is hired to guard his own unfenced land—now a private property housing a windmill—and protect the free winds from… what exactly? As Lenin’s drone camera flies farther and farther backwards, we see all the surrounding plots of land—each one bearing a tragedy perhaps—occupied by more windmills, those shiny white icons of clean, green progress now looking like gravestones. If you want to know what Marxist cinema looks like today, this is the preeminent film for your consideration.

[Possible spoilers ahead]

It’s of little doubt that there is a distinct personality behind Mysskin’s films. Thanks to his acting jobs and interviews, the director is such a familiar figure that it’s also hard to see his films without imagining him personally commenting on the proceedings. But watching his past couple of works, and hearing him speak, I’m beginning to wonder if this distinct personality is of any interest anymore at all. Whenever Mysskin’s body of work seems poised to deepen in a particular direction, he marshals some unrelated inspiration or childhood fascination into a project that takes him back to square one: Takeshi Kitano, Bruce Lee, Arthur Canon Doyle. His latest, titled Psycho, is a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. What remained intact throughout Mysskin’s meandering filmography was his capacity to tightly plot a story and hold the audience in a state of melodramatic high—an ability that collapses in this new film.  

            This is a movie about a serial killer, whose identity and MO we learn in the very first scene. Shortly after, a psychologist explains to us the motivation behind his particular brand of murders. Soon the structure for a thriller falls into place in the form of three intersecting tracks. In the first, we see the killer (Rajkumar Pitchumani) going about his job, picking up his victims and dispatching them. In the second, the police force is seen investigating into the kidnappings and murders. And in the central track, a blind music conductor (Udhayanidhi Stalin, conveniently bespectacled) is forced to carry out a parallel investigation because the killer’s latest victim is his romantic interest (Aditi Rao Hydari). In that, he is helped by a foul-mouthed, quadriplegic ex-officer (Nithya Menen) and her mother (Renuka).

            All these characters are archetypes carrying echoes of Mysskin’s earlier creations. They have no social background, except that they belong to the filmmaker’s floating universe, where characters don’t need any logical reason to have names like Angulimala, Kamala Das and Sylvia Plath. This literal-mindedness has hardly been a hindrance to enjoying Mysskin’s films because these types are generally swept into a closely-knit narrative of tremendous forward momentum. Some of that is still present in Psycho, but the overarching structure is so lazily conceived that they are here revealed for what they are: a grab bag of character tics and story elements characteristic of the filmmaker assembled into an unsightly, unwieldy whole.

            The most obvious failure is the second thread involving the police force. It’s a dead-end narrative that’s ostensibly borrowed from some other of Mysskin’s unfinished scripts. Familiar forward and backward camera movement follows the cops as they discuss the case walking towards scenes of crime. The investigative unit is led by a plainclothes officer (filmmaker Ram), who sings old Tamil film songs when under stress. This idiosyncrasy promises a hidden intelligence, but he ends up doing something so stupid that you realize his modesty was well justified.

As for the serial killer, Mysskin hangs so many references and backstories on him that it’s plain he hasn’t thought through the character enough. Clean-shaven and well-off, the man appreciates classical music. He’s given a history of Catholic school abuse. There’s then the Buddhist fable of Angulimala, like whose bandit our killer collects pinkies. We are also told that the victims are women who are at the top of their respective fields. His lair is a pig farm lit in incandescent hues and production-designed in familiar bloody, metallic palette. All of this is swept under a last-minute sympathy for the devil. As is customary with crime movies, Mysskin sketches a parallel between the killer and the protagonist, both affluent orphans, driving luxury cars with fancy numbers, listening to Beethoven, but the equivalence doesn’t hold, mostly because our protagonist is a cipher.

            Finally, there’s the main narrative track, which starts with an aggressive romantic pursuit. It never takes off because it leaps to its emotional peak too soon in a moody night-time party scene lit by row lights. The hero sings of his love for the heroine, who bewilderingly conveys her hesitation by getting off her chair and sitting down twice in succession. Romance isn’t Mysskin’s strong point (his one sustained attempt at it, in Mugamoodi, was an embarrassment), and he’s clearly trying to force the issue in order to get the investigation going. A curious little subversion is at work in having a ragtag bunch of invalids (a blind musician, a quadriplegic cop, an elderly woman and a pot-bellied man) get ahead of the police in tracking down the perpetrator. But it soon becomes apparent that they exist in order to satisfy a concept. A colossally pointless drive sequence prefaces the climax, an excuse for an emotional transition through song with little logical link to the narrative.

            At first glance, it appears that what pulls the viewer along, despite all these failings, is the way the team unravels the killer’s identity and location. But Mysskin, who made Psycho between two detective movies, is evidently deploying a fixed formula. Every revelation is preceded by a perplexing demand or action of the protagonist—he now needs two pigs, he now needs a measuring tape—which leaves the viewer guessing until the next scene, where the reason for his demand is revealed. This sensation of being left behind momentarily by the plot is indeed pleasurable, but the strategy becomes mechanical when you notice that the scriptwriter is withholding information that could well have been given without a scene’s detour. The inferences that the musician ends up making aren’t always novel or even pertinent to the case.

Psycho is Mysskin’s ninth directorial venture. There’s a perceptible change in his technique. While there’s no reserve to be sensed in aural assault of the sound design and the anxiety-inducing score he gets from Ilarayaraja, his sequencing is more restrained, the camera placement and movement less showy. Mysskin’s filmmaking is indeed an idiolect. That it sounds nice doesn’t necessarily mean it’s meaningful. After nine films, it’s still not clear to me where he’s headed. What moves him, disturbs him, excites him, outside of the countless movies and books that he namedrops? His apolitical aestheticism is a welcome difference from his more intellectual peers, but he seems incapable of following up on a line of thought. Wholly derivative (from himself and from others), Psycho jeopardizes his sole defence against that objection—that style is thought. Remains the feeling that this film could’ve been made by someone parodying Mysskin.

[Possible spoilers ahead]

With his debut film, Maanagaram, writer-director Lokesh Kanagaraj staked his claim as an adept craftsman, but also showed the promise of a vision at work. In the film’s complex narrative tapestry, several outsider characters influence each other’s lives in anonymity, collectively enacting the mechanisms of the metropolis, here a visually denuded Chennai. At work was the kind of untouched idealism typical of debut works. His sophomore film, Kaithi (“prisoner”), while not without echoes of the talent that made Maanagaram, inducts the filmmaker into the commercial cynicism of the industry and assures him the passage to bigger, dumber projects.

Bejoy (Naren) heads a special unit of the police that has just seized a massive consignment of heroin. He stocks the captured cargo in the secret basement of the police commissioner’s office. A corrupt cop in the forensic department passes this information to the drug lord, who not only wants the payload back, but also the heads of the five cops who seized it. Bejoy meanwhile is at the Inspector General’s office eighty kilometres away for the IG’s big retirement bash. The drug lord manages to spike the alcohol at the gathering, causing every officer except Bejoy to collapse into a fit. Bejoy, with his fractured right hand, finds himself with forty dying officers and no one to help him transport them to the hospital. No one except Dilli (Karthi), a just-released lifer who was picked up on a whim by an officer before the party. Bejoy threatens Dilli into driving the truckload of unconscious cops to a hospital and then to the commissioner’s office, which is deserted except for Napoleon (George Maryan), a low-level cop who just reported for duty, and a group of college students retained for a petty crime.

This premise soon resolves into two discrete narrative threads that Kangaraj shuttles between, much like in his first film. In the first, Dilli and Bejoy drive in a lorry to the commissioner’s office while the drug cartel attempts to intercept the vehicle and kill the unconscious cops on it. In the second, a horde of the cartel’s henchmen tries to break into the commissioner’s office, as Napoleon and the students seal the premises. And there are minor interludes weaving in and out of these two threads: Dilli’s estranged daughter who tries to call him from an orphanage, the drug lords tracking the lorry through a mole hiding in it and the corrupt cop seeking to sniff out a police mole in the drug cartel. These five threads are connected within the film through phone calls of nearly every possible permutation, with each party informing, instructing, encouraging, each other and influencing each other’s spaces via telephone.

Like Maanagaram, Kaithi unfolds over a single night; in the first shot, the camera glides down from a clockface showing 8pm. Kanagaraj is so committed to the concept, which for him is as much a visual device, that he advances an event that should logically take place the following morning: Dilli meets his daughter, rather implausibly, right after a climactic bloodbath, in the darkness amid flashing red-blue lights of the police sirens. The camera work is similarly muscular, following characters from up close; there’s a nice, long shot of Karthi walking in his typically relaxed fashion, with the camera accompanying him as he walks from the lorry, traverses the poolside and goes to the buffet table. The visual texture, dominated by the yellow of headlights and streetlamps, is rather familiar, the dialogue is downright poor, and it’s in the delirious crosscutting that the film generates its entire thrill. Kanagaraj obviously loves to cut between sequences, so much so that he nests one parallel editing scheme within another: Napoleon’s defence manoeuvres inside the building are spliced with the students’ measures to seal entry points and the frenetic attempts of the gang trying to break in—a pattern that is itself couched within the larger, five-thread cycle.

Gripping as it is by its sheer mechanical force, does the parallel editing really work as it did so well in Maanagaram? It doesn’t, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the major narrative thread is dramatically flat. Dilli’s road trip with Bejoy is thwarted thrice by gangs trying to kill them. The excitement of this conflict vanishes right in the first instance, where Dilli is revealed to be a superhero capable to bringing down scores of men without trouble. Given this aspect, it is evident that the lorry will reach its destination against all odds. The fight scenes are confusingly edited to the point that we are unclear about what’s happening: a CG-shot cutting through three vehicles one behind the other sets up the peak moment of a fight, but what exactly follows is confusing in its spatial relations. A while later, the lorry is trapped on the hilltop with the henchmen surrounding the hill at the bottom (intertwined with the gang at the commissioner’s premise trying to get to the jail on top of the building). Dilli works out an escape, but again, it’s not clear what exactly he accomplishes.

Secondly, because the timelines are incompatible. Dilli’s transit takes a much longer time, especially with all the battles on way, than what Napoleon and the students have to defend the commissioner’s office. This long transit, as a result, dilutes the tight action of the second thread, which comes across as improbably protracted. Finally, because Kanagaraj diffuses the tension just as it hits a crescendo with a quiet passage: as the commissioner’s office is on the verge of recapitulation, we cut to Dilli reminiscing in a long, close-up about his past. It’s an unconvincing back story shoehorned to provide a showcase to Karthi’s acting prowess and to soften the hero. To be sure, it could’ve had no place earlier in the film, dedicated as the narrative is to cultivating a mystique to Dilli, but at this late point in the film, it stops the action dead in its tracks.

When the threads actually merge, one wishes they hadn’t. For, after Dilli reaches the commissioner’s office to save Napoleon and the students, the film devolves fully into a fascist aesthetic. Dilli uses a machine gun to take down the invading horde of drug traders (shorthand, of course, for anyone who is anti-cop, anti-law and order), who now fall like flies just like the poisoned cops of the opening passage. Shot with a borrowed seductiveness of flashing barrels and bullets falling down in slow-motion, the sequence is narratively, visually and conceptually gratuitous. It’s also cynical, as is the film’s tacked-on coda making claims for a sequel, because it gives in to a crowd-pleasing formula, pandering to a desire for violence and reserving berth for Kanagaraj’s transition to high budget moviemaking (he’s already roped in for the next Vijay vehicle).

There are, on the other hand, remnants of the imagination that made Maanagaram a success: the fairly tight narration without songs or flashbacks, drone shots of the lorry cruising the highway, the idea of a convict driving a truckload of switched-off cops, shots of the gangsters with white flashlights in the dark, a fight sequence in the commissioner’s office with papers on the floor cut to an intoxicating Ilayaraja number. The ironic beats are also present in the story elements. The police have collectively failed, corrupt or knocked out as they are after a night of revelry, and the only active cop is manipulative and virtually castrated. The brunt of their negligence falls on the innocent. The day is saved by a convict on the first day of his release and a constable before his first duty day.

Karthi, an intelligent actor who usually manages to convey a rich inner life beyond the script, is costumed like a religious man: a beard, a talisman on his ankle, holy ash on his forehead, a plain brown shirt, a lungi in which he conceals a smartphone, but also an iconic handcuff hanging from his right ankle. He eats and fights like a man possessed. After he’s finished his bucket-load of rice, he looks up and taps his thigh a couple of times before washing his hand in a pool. Karthi’s lazy gait and drawl projects a man who’s in control of the situation, but except for his two sentimental closeups, the actor doesn’t really seem committed to the role. Just look at him pretending to pour alcohol on the stab would on his back. Unlike Maanagaram, Kaithi is a closed film, satisfied with the pleasures of the genre. The plot revolves around drugs, a purely cinematic social issue of no real bearing—a choice indicative not as much as of a lack of seriousness as of the filmmaker’s sights on the big time.

Asuran

After two modest, moderately successful projects in Polladhavan and Aadukalam, it seemed to me that Vetrimaran truly hit his stride with his third feature, Visaranai (“Interrogation”), an unflinching look at police brutality whose intelligent structure stoked and then implicated the viewer’s apathy towards the issue. But delusion of precocious grandeur caught up with the filmmaker sooner than I expected, his next film, Vada Chennai (“North Chennai”), a hollow, self-styled epic mistaking scale for vision, straining for import at every turn. Vetrimaran’s new film Asuran (“Demon”) assures us that Vada Chennai wasn’t a stray blip, but a sign of things to come. A mediocre work in terms of not just artistic merit, but even basic technical competence, it continues the rapid plunge of a director who was briefly the white hope of Tamil cinema.

Vetrimaran’s second literary adaptation after Visaranai, Asuran begins in medias res, with Sivasami (Dhanush, in his fourth collaboration with the filmmaker) and his son Chidambaram (Ken) making their way through a water body. They have murdered a VIP from the village and are being pursued by the dead man’s family. As they pause at a hilltop, a narrator (the director himself) takes us into the reasons for their flight. Sivasami’s three acres were being eyed by the upper-caste family owning most of the land in the area, and this led to a series of confrontations between Sivasami’s hot-blooded son Murugan (Teejay) and the landed family, resulting the murder that triggered Sivasami’s flight. A large part of the “present” traces Sivasami and his son walking day and night, traversing the lawless terrain of the countryside in the hope of getting to the nearest city, where they have a hope of surrendering themselves to the law.

Like Vada Chennai, the nested structure of Asuran seeks to dig beneath present-day conflicts to reveal the deep-rooted nature of oppression. In another flashback on their flight, Sivasami details his tragic past: his job as a toddy-maker with an upper-caste baron in another village, his romance with his sister’s daughter, the organized struggle of his brother towards getting back lands their community lost to the baron, Sivasami’s own political awakening following his boss’s betrayal, the escalation of violence succeeding a volley of public humiliations, ending in a bloodbath modelled on the Keezhvenmani massacre. In the present, Dhanush plays a character well above his age: a timid middle-aged drunk with a curved spine, a ridiculous patch of white hair, a loose shirt, a soiled veshti hovering above the ankle and a Palakkad towel on his shoulder. It’s a character that’s emasculated to prepare us for the Sivasami’s heroics in the past: the sight of Dhanush’s young, thin frame taking down scores of thugs, always punching above its weight.

These passages of poetic justice are also what vitiate the film. Every time the narrative pries open the question of structural violence, Vetrimaran sublimates it in the macho spectacle of Sivasami dishing it to his oppressors. In a film full of institutions failed and functional, it’s only the agency of brute person-on-person violence that’s given any real weight. And how? Vetrimaran depicts all acts of lynching, humiliation and aggression in full detail, allowing the audience to partake in it, while at the same time using these scenes to drum up sentiments in favour of Sivasami’s retribution. For a filmmaker who was so clear-eyed about audience participation in Visaranai, he treats the viewer like a Pavlovian dog, introducing an exhausting trumpet theme to whip up emotion every time Sivasami moves in shallow-focus, slow motion to take down a gang in a bloody skirmish.

The first part of the film (the “present”) contrasts Sivasami’s non-violence with his son Murugan’s machismo, a trait that the younger Chidambaram inherits a while later. Chidambaram (and his mother played by Manju Warrier) belittle Sivasami’s submissive impotence, permitting film to restore his masculinity through a triumphalist assertion of Sivasami’s bravery through his violence. This presentation of Sivasami as a supremely macho, courageous man also allows the film to seal his lineage, Murugan’s and Chidambaram’s sense of honour being only a bequest of the respectable patriarch. Following the bloodshed of Sivasami’s youth, the narrator notes in all sincerity that Chidambaram understands now that his father isn’t useless. This demagogical bent of the film isn’t part of some legend-building exercise, for Sivasami’s political consciousness vanishes as quickly as it came. At one point, the wise, old Sivasami tells his son that acting on impulse is what led to his family—a patently untrue claim that falsifies the bigger battle his brother was fighting. At the end, he gives a hollow-sounding sermon about education (!) as the sustainable solution to their oppression.

But Vetrimaran’s focus, justifiably, is not on the politics but the spectacle. The entire thrust of the story is not on whether Sivasami will get justice, but on whether he and his son will get caught in their flight. And the director uses several devices at his disposal to bludgeon us into revulsion: a lynching that’s staged the same way a boar hunt earlier was, a public humiliation around a pair of slippers (a symbol of self-respect of the oppressed akin to the towel around Sivasami’s forehead) photographed and edited sensationally, the extended, CGI-enabled sight of a rotting, decapitated corpse. The tactic was the same in Visaranai, but the sadism there was integral to what the film sought to do. Moreover, the dubbed sound of Asuran is significantly out of sync with the image, which lets us suppose that that major rewrites were involved post-shoot or that last-minute self-censorship was called for. In any case, it suggests that Vetrimaran’s daring stems wholly from the script and, when that’s compromised, the filmmaking is too.

Of course, Vetrimaran is not a hack, and there are aspects that come through. He composes almost the entire film in wide shots, sometimes extremely long shots à la Mysskin that turns characters into mice in a maze. His eye for landscape is still intact: Sivasami and Chidambaram sneaking through marshes, shrublands, rocky fields and plantations like in a studio Western gives an existential counterpoint to the father-son relationship, which is one of the film’s focal points. He also emphasizes the difference between the well-lit, geometric streets of the upper-caste main village and the irregular, moonlit pathways of the theru, the kutcha settlement of Sivasami’s community. And it’s commendable that he resists the temptation to DI-enhance the dull colours of the landscape, which here simply exists.

On the other hand, there’s a markedly rushed quality to the shot and sequence composition bordering on embarrassing (at least two shots with the .ari file name on them visible!). The edits are constantly confusing and one particularly egregious scene of a Panchayat meeting cycles through scores of shots of random perspectives just in order to dramatize the proceedings. Sivasami’s past proceeds at a breakneck speed to show betrayal and revenge even before the initial dynamics are settled—clearly an afterthought to reduce runtime. Vetrimaran arm-twists Sivasami’s relationship with his elder son into a sympathetic register through a set of rather outmoded choices. The distance offered by his wide-angle, long-shot composition—with actors moving about the space like on stage—collapses when he is dealing with scenes of violence, which simply advances on auto-pilot. The sound-mix, likewise, is overly detailed with redundant information even when the shots allow the actors to breathe. A dire undertaking that continuously short-changes both its viewers and subject matter.

Oru Kidaayin Karunai Manu

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Debutant writer-director Suresh Sangaiah’s Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu (“Mercy petition of a scapegoat”) follows a group of villagers setting out for their ancestral temple. One of them, Ramamurthy (Vidharth), has gotten married and it’s time his family sacrifices the goat they’ve been raising for years to carry out their vow. The extended family and other members of the community hire a lorry and start early. Following a mishap in the middle of nowhere, they find themselves with the dead body of a young man; they’re not sure whether they’ve killed him by accident or if he was dead already. After an entire day of confusion and half-measures, they call a lawyer they know (George Maryan), who comes to the spot to sort things out. Things, however, spiral out of control and the residents of the nearby village discover the truth behind the disappearance of one of their own. Shot with elements borrowed from the international arthouse style, Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu makes compelling interventions into the conventions of the “village film”.

The protagonist of Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu is not any particular character but the community – a great rarity in fiction in general. The first portion of the film describes this community as it gets ready for the road trip. We witness the preparation process in a mosaic-like fashion: the hiring of accompanying personnel, the renting of the lorry, the various jokes, arguments and suggestions circling within subgroups and the departure before daybreak,when the entire group assembles prim and proper. The thread that connects these different scenes is the notion of community itself. The individual characters have no significance in this scheme of things, each being a caricature with one or two very humorous tics. The result is a flat canvas full of innumerable, uniformly attention-catching incidents comparable to Bruegel’s peasant paintings.

The portrait, however, isn’t all fun and games. We see the internal dynamics of the community, the rules that emerge to regulate relations within the group and squash dissent. As crisis strikes, we see fault lines emerge, but they are quickly attended to by the expedient hierarchy of the collective (organized along several axes, men-women, elderly-young, family-outsiders). When the lorry driver, or anyone else, threatens to leave, he is intimidated into groupthink. The Vidharth character is collectively cockblocked by the community till the end, but nevertheless maintains his new-groom privilege even when he’s at fault. His happiness is shared by all, as is his guilt. Whatever happens within the community stays within. Perhaps for the first time in Tamil cinema, we are dropped into Dogville (not gonna make the obvious joke here).

The abrupt shift that occurs half-an-hour into the film reorients the converging point of the narrative from the goat’s sacrifice to the resolution of the dead man problem. The death that the community was preparing for is replaced by another one that’s directed inward. The sacrificial goat now has to be a person who takes the fall for the well-being of the community. As the men try to dig a hole for the corpse using cooking utensils, the rest of the group settles down at a deserted temple and sets up a stopgap kitchen in the dark, life and death feeding into each other. The shift is also reminiscent of Luis Buñuel in that it parachutes an old world steeped in its own conventions, prejudices and hypocrisies into a situation it’s fundamentally unprepared for. (Had Buñuel made this film, he would’ve had the group consume the dead body, but Sangaiah’s view of the community is too ambivalent for such radical gestures.)

Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu has for its central line the movement of the group from tradition to modernity. The group starts from the village and ends at the courthouse. Legends, myths and half-truths abound within the community. The film opens with photographs from village temples: idols of village gods who were perhaps once men, totems and talismans to be used in rituals, miniature cradles and ribbons tied to trees as vows. On the soundtrack is a folk ballad about an animal killing by the villagers – real or collectively-accepted like everything else here. As the preparations for the function are on, the goat gets its own apocryphal history by word of mouth. The characters are addressed by nicknames that have unsaid stories behind them. We can’t tell legend from fact because one constantly becomes the other. Though there are cell phones, the villagers’ contact with modernity as a knowledge system comes when they have to call the lawyer and the doctor to sort out their issue. When the truth is out, cohabitants of the dead man get into an armed skirmish with them, until the police intervenes in this medieval justice. The liberation of the sacrificial goat and the chicken, in this regard, coincides with the community’s final submission to modern law, which does not deal in half-truths. Though the group is acquitted, they never know the truth, for what they have seen is truth enough for them.

Remains the goat, the mute witness to the entire drama. It’s treated as property and objectified by the community, but the filmmaker endows it with sentience with several point-of-view shots. Its gaze, however, is neutral, incapable of ascribing moral value to the villagers’ actions. Like the donkey from Agraharathil Kazhuthai, it is located at the eye of the storm around which the human community polarizes and fights it out. Its own existential threat is ignored as the film shifts gears, making it somewhat of a superfluous appendage. The world remains a mystery to the goat, just like many things in the film are to the viewer. In this, the animal perhaps shares the filmmaker’s vision of the universe, a morally neutral space with an internal harmony, where one sacrifice is swapped for another, a lost son replaced by another. There’s no evidence that the filmmaker’s desire to keep the answers from us – the nature of the death, the lawyer’s intentions, the perception of the goat – stems from a coherent philosophical position, but it makes for a welcome ambiguity.

Kurangu Bommai

A nondescript don in inner Tamil Nadu has his hands on a precious idol and wants to smuggle it to Chennai. Acting as his courier is the naïve Sundaram (Bharathiraja), who is supposed to hand over the idol to the cricket-obsessed Sekar (Elango Kumaravel). Sekar decides to appropriate the idol and have Sundaram take the fall for it. Sundaram’s son Kathir (Vidharth), whom Sundaram believes to be employed as an engineer, makes his living in Chennai as a taxi driver. One day, Kathir finds a pickpocket making away with a man’s bag, apparently valuable, and retrieves it after a chase. But the man’s gone and Kathir decides to surrender the bag to the police. The bag, however, has a mind of its own and decides to go from one pair of hands to another. Writer-director Nithilan’s debut work, Kurangu Bommai (“Monkey picture”, referring to the image printed on the bag) crisscrosses the lives of its seven or eight central characters over the possession of the idol and, while always interesting, the result is less than illuminating.

A comparison of the film to Maanagaram is unavoidable, but also unflattering. Where Maanagaram (as do some other hyperlink films) embodies a specific conception of the metropolis and its residents, Kurangu Bommai can only imagine Chennai as a village where the characters bump into each other on cue. The film flattens its social landscape, its characters abstractions floating in an unmarked narrative space. The film’s story could take place anywhere or nowhere – with any group of characters – and it so happens that it’s in Chennai. The hero, a nonentity, posts a picture of the bag he has on Facebook, and the entire city seems to be on it. The issue here is not the implausibility, but the distorted idea of what connects the inhabitants of a city. The hero is supposed to be a driver, but outside of an opening montage, we never see him at work though he always appears in uniform. He’s given this profession as a screenwriting formality. He takes to extreme violence at the push of a button, people are killed and bodies disposed of without repercussions, because the director is thinking in terms of templates in order to arrive at the sucker punch he wants to deliver at the end.

If Kurangu Bommai manages to hold the attention despite its numerous contrivances, psychological inconsistency and lazy scene detailing, it’s thanks to its overall construction. The film shuttles between two timelines that unfold linearly and have a certain overlap. The first thread is piloted by Bharathiraja as he travels to Chennai to hand over the statue to contacts. The second one is led by Vidharth and his efforts to return the bag to its owner. The weaving of these two story-threads creates a series of changing questions in the viewer’s mind, first related to the destination of the bag with the statue, then to Bharathiraja’s fate, the discovery of his body and finally the form of revenge the hero will exact. The film shifts from one story to another at points calculated for effect. Some work, some don’t: the emotional climax the film’s been building towards, with Bharathiraja’s disappearance at the focus, occurs at a point earlier than its ideal location. Individual sequences, in turn, are over-edited, betraying an insecurity towards the script and the actors. Despite the softness he brings, Bharathiraja is too intelligent a public figure to pass as the slow-witted Sundaram. It’s Vidharth, doing less once again, who is more convincing.

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