Kollywood


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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[Spoilers ahead, but I’d rather that the reader didn’t see this film]

Appearing nine years after his first film, Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe is made of four parallel stories. In the first, a married couple (Fahadh Faasil and Samantha Akkineni) must dispose of the dead body of the woman’s illicit lover. The second story revolves around a group of adolescents who, owing to events triggered by the acquisition of a pornographic CD, find themselves in a deeper and deeper hole. In the third story, a transgender woman (Vijay Sethupathi) returns home from Bombay to connect with her estranged family. The fourth is centred on a fanatic (Mysskin) who starts a cult of his own, distancing himself from his wife (Ramya Krishnan) and son. Written by four people, all directors themselves, the film begins and ends with references to the sexual act and has vague ideas about masculinity and honour running through its episodes. But don’t let that distract you. Super Deluxe is an abject mess that can’t bother to reflect for a moment on why it’s doing what it’s doing; an object of collective cultural shame, one that we will look back at in ten years with great embarrassment and guilt.

The film’s first episode involving the couple begins with a ham-handed set piece: The man and the woman are trying to get rid of the body in the fridge while they have guests in the living room. There’s a passing remark about an alibi, but there is no reason for either the guests to be there in the scene or for the pair to carry out their activity in the presence of the guests. No reason, that is, except the filmmaker wanting to generate some frisson. There’s no emotional profile to the scene; the temperature starts at boiling point: the couple start arguing, of all things, about the shame of infidelity right away. It’s embarrassingly contrived and reeks of a screenwriting student convincing himself that what he has learnt in his workshops has validity. And you know right away that there were no women involved in the writing of this film, when you hear a leading lady using the words “matter” and “item” when talking about herself. The couple hits the road with the dead body and continue their bickering along the way. The man holds forth about social issues, uses his acting lessons as therapy and keeps slamming the woman using the term “uttami”. She acts guilty. They come out with the problems they have with each other, becoming closer in the process. At one point, the woman asks the man ruefully why can’t things work out between them if the man could get used to the dead body. Despite such monstrosities, the film wants us to care about this rapprochement. Fahadh Faasil and Samantha slip in and out of sincerity on cue, and the viewer is expected to follow suit.

Rife with shots of boys going about the town, the second episode presents itself as a comedy. Three horny teenagers need money to replace a broken television and do what middle-class teenagers typically do to get money: get involved in a murder plan with a local don. There’s a shred of tragicomedy in a story of young boys driven to hell in search of a porn movie, but that needs a distance so lacking in this film. Without any justification, it assumes that the audience shares its juvenile perspective; we are supposed to be tickled every time the boys talk about “matter”. And yet, this callowness is what we are expected to rise above at the end of the episode, where one of the boys gets a lecture about the morality of porn actors. The film’s tin ear for dialogue is most apparent in this segment; its idea of a joke is a boy riling up his friend by telling him he loves his sister. This sub-Chinni Jayant level of humour aside, this segment lacks a sense of situational comedy (the don decides to punish the boys by whacking them with a slipper) and seems to be making itself up as it goes along. The screenwriters know the end point they have to get to and mangle the plot to somehow get to the punchline. This episode merges with the fourth segment of the film about a middle-aged zealot convinced that he alone was saved by God from the tsunami. Along with a sidekick, he prays for the well-being of others who come to him in times of distress, but constantly wrestles with doubt. An interminable melodrama full of voice-overs, flashbacks and stroboscopic light, this episode asks us to consider the man’s trysts with doubt seriously, even when his awakening moment comes when his wife asks what if it were a teddy bear that he’d held on to in place of a Christ statue during the tsunami.

The third segment of the film, and its worst by far, follows a transgender woman named Shilpa who returns home to her son and extended family. Let’s charitably pass over the fact that the filmmakers felt necessary to use a cisgender actor to portray a transgender woman. Referencing transgender characters is a fixation for several modern Tamil filmmakers including the ones involved here. Noble their intentions maybe, these filmmakers have proven themselves again and again to be incapable of acknowledging the basic humanity of these transgender women without debasing them first. In Super Deluxe, Shilpa is subjected to a series of verbal and physical abuses from her relatives, from passers-by on the street, from the children and the staff at her son’s school and from an abominable cop – all presented to the audience with an elaborately cruel sound mix. In an unfathomably vile scene that counts among the worst in Tamil film history, the cop harasses Shilpa and forces her into oral sex. The entire sordid passage is presented in wide shots in excruciating detail, the camera not even possessing the shame to hide behind foreground objects as it does in the second episode. (The camera similarly gawks squarely at a hapless Samantha in a pre-rape scene in the first episode, just as it lingers long on her face when her husband hurls curses at her. Over and over, the filmmaker forces us to share the point of view of the aggressor.)

Nothing in the film until this scene at the police station has allowed the viewer to identify with Shilpa’s point of view. She is a cipher, a canvas on which to deposit all abuse. The only thing we get to know about her personal life is that she begs for money and smuggles children – popular opinions the film needn’t have bothered reiterating. There are more shots dedicated to the point of view of the dead body in the first episode than for Shilpa. So, in the scene at the police station, the only point of view the audience is allowed to recognize is the sleazy cop’s. The cop, of course, is a caricature and the audience is made to feel morally superior to him, while not having to anything to do with Shilpa beyond dispensing sympathy for her subhuman status. By making Shilpa the passive object of contempt, the film forestalls even the possibility of the audience’s identification with Shilpa that the casting of Vijay Sethupathi might have offered. There’s a special violence in the fact that the transference of identity that the film demands from its trans viewers for its other characters is not matched with a demand from its cis viewers towards Shilpa.

More evidence that the film takes the side of the cop and actively participates in Shilpa’s debasement: all through the film, Shilpa is presented to the audience in a form she doesn’t choose to be presented in. Except for the first shot of her getting out of the car, she is always showcased as someone incomplete and fake. In an award-baiting scene that follows, we see her patiently wearing her saree and putting on a wig to cover her baldness. Cut to a hideously-worded film song, this private moment that the film unwarrantedly seeks to show her as what she is and not what she chooses to be. At the police station, when asked for her name, she gives her old name. The moment is intended to show her fear of mentioning her assumed name, but it’s also one more of the film’s many moves to strip her of any dignity or agency. Shilpa’s undiscriminating son is offered as the moral centre of the episode, and it’s a shame that the film won’t extend the possibility of an empathetic viewpoint to its adult viewers.

All four episodes are periodically intercut and it’s evident very early on that they will all come together at the end. (That the film connects them with an old children’s joke is an embarrassment among countless others). The choice of when to shuttle between the episodes seems quite arbitrary. The editing deflates the tension so far setup in an episode and, since the viewer is never really invested in the characters, it matters little as to when the film comes back to that particular episode. Compare this with the intensified editing of Managaram, where the cutaways are thrilling because there’s so much at stake left unresolved. Many scenes in Super Deluxe are constructed with a handful of camera setups and the long-shot filmmaking and composition in deep space shows off the (literal) blocking of actors. Several shots frame the actors through doorways and windows, a capricious distance the film doesn’t employ for its voyeuristic scenes. Likewise, in the first episode, the woman asks her husband how many girlfriends he’s had. He says three and returns the question. In a long shot, she whispers the number into his ear. The number is withheld from the audience not for any concerns of privacy, but for the joke (a man having many girlfriends – drama, a woman having many boyfriends – comedy). The reserve that it shows in this shot and the lack of reserve in the shots of the same woman wailing are two emanations of the same attitude.

The film’s mannered, gonzo production design, consisting of exaggerated primary colours, and expressionistically-painted walls, is conceived to drown out the lack of a sense of place or time that marks the film. We are never sure where or which year we are in, or what the social situation of the characters is. The edgy aesthetic of backlit silhouettes and pop-music-suffused soundscape conceals a commitment-phobia, a fear of looking earnest and uncool. Shots are filled out with old film music lest some emotion creep in. The search for money in the second episode ends with an alien intervention. The film uses this deus ex machina because it thinks of itself as transgressive and too cool for realism. But it will allow itself the spectacle of women being degraded because, you know, that’s what the world is like, Realism. There are several points, especially in episodes three and four, where we are asked to invest in the characters emotionally – false emotional beats out of rhythm with the film’s ironic posturing. In the final scene, a doctor in a porn film goes on about the connectedness of all things and the historical nature of morality. This misplaced pomposity, preciously edited and scored and obviously intended to be taken at face value, is designed to spell out the film’s ideas and conceptually tie the episodes together, but afraid of sounding pretentious (which it nevertheless is), the film undercuts the message by making it a part of an on-screen porn movie. Super Deluxe appeals to the viewer’s benevolence, but is unwilling to return that faith. Why should it be taken seriously?

Kuttrame Thandanai

Kuttrame Thandanai (“crime is punishment”), Manikandan’s explosive follow-up to Kaaka Muttai (2015), is a quasi-Hitchcockian thriller that takes a unique medical condition and draws out its narrative, cinematic, metaphorical and philosophical possibilities. Ravi (Vidharth) suffers from tunnel vision: his visual field is restricted to a small iris. He lives in a sparsely-furnished studio opening to the courtyard of his run-down apartment complex. He spends his mornings on the balcony observing his neighbours, especially a young girl downstairs. He learns that he is losing vision fast and needs to be operated – a fact that he can reveal to few people without fallout. After a day of disappointments, Ravi returns home to witness unusual happenings at the complex. He decides to get directly involved.

Ravi’s character is fleshed out with a compassion free of sympathy or pathos and neither is the world around him populated with disagreeable specimen. Vidharth portrays the character without any distinguishing tic or voice modulation. His Ravi is a man without a history, completely in the present, seeking to find his ethical code through the events that present themselves to him. There’s an inner life to him that is fittingly not offered to the audience. (For better or worse, the film leaves a whole range of situations unexploited. Mysskin, for instance, would’ve had an entire action set-piece revolving around the protagonist’s limitation. Or a tense cat-and-mouse game between Ravi and the lawyers he’s bargaining with.) There’s an endearing character, played by Nasser, who sees a son figure in Ravi but interacts with him with a calculated caution so as to not have another heartbreak. In a lesser film, this moral centre of the film would double as commentary and judgment. Here he simply is another cog in the alienation-inducing machine that is the city.

The initial portion of Kuttrame Thandanai is constructed around Ravi’s everyday routine – his difficult commute on bike to work, his time at the office where a co-worker has a crush on him, his client visits and his sessions at the hospital – and emphasizes the fundamental inhumanity of our urban spaces without putting too fine a point on it. The residents at the complex keep to themselves, not wanting to get mixed up in events outside home, even if at the cost of someone’s life. Manikandan finds an apt visual rhyme between Ravi’s vision and the peephole of apartment doors, the partial knowledge that results paralleling the film’s development. Ravi’s medical condition – of being able to see only what he wants – therefore becomes a particular manifestation of a general social and epistemological condition.

Manikandan builds the film with direct sounds and a plethora of over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups, creating an intimate portrait. At times, the film’s austere images cannot support Ilayaraja’s lush score, which announces itself every time it appears. Scenes at the apartment and Ravi’s office have a tangible presence that’s absent from most Tamil movies. And, yet, the script gives in to the temptation of a coup de theatre with a gratuitous and pat-sounding ending. It’s a decision that turns the film’s greatest strength to its shortcoming. Throughout the film, the audience is made to identify with Ravi’s perspective. At dozens of points in the film we have the shot combination “Ravi looking at things + reverse shot of what he sees through an iris + shot of Ravi looking again”. This couples the viewer tightly to Ravi’s experience of events, and there are very few scenes where Ravi is not a participant. Given this exclusivity the viewer enjoys, the film’s eliding of a crucial bit of information only to use it for a grand revelation is maddening. The ending catapults the film to a moral plane higher than Ravi’s, falsifying its own approach so far.

Aandavan Kattalai

When, in Aandavan Kattalai (“god’s decree”), the usual set of disclaimers and warnings are followed a message about avoiding middlemen, one expects a film that’s too clever by half. But no, Manikandan’s third feature actually takes that message seriously and gives form to it in various social-minded scenarios that are strung together to form the film’s plot. Hassled by debtors in their village, Gandhi (Vijay Sethupathi) and Pandi (Yogi Babu) decide to go to England with fake documents, masquerade as refugees from Sri Lanka and benefit from government welfare. Gandhi gets his visa application rejected and finds work with a theatre group in the city to avoid going back to his village. Thriving under the mentorship of the theatre director (Nasser), he decides to sort out his papers and get back to straight ways. There’s one problem: his fudged passport mentions a one-in-a-million name as his wife.

What strikes right away is how light-footed the writing is. Right after a set of idyllic establishment shots (the paradise lost to the rest of the film), Gandhi gets the directive from a friend to go west. No voice-overs, no songs, no setting up of the protagonist as the village hero; just an opportunity to kick off the picaresque adventure. The screenplay proceeds linearly – no flashbacks or parallel threads – and rarely where one expects it to go. There are no villains, no scores settled, even though there are insults and betrayals. The tone is consistently comical, but it doesn’t collapse into farce and caricature as much as Kaaka Muttai did. The characters are written around actor’s limitations – Vijay Sethupathi, Yogi Babu essentially reprise their stock roles – and even the secondary characters are given idiosyncrasies that smoothen the scenes they are in.

The film is structured as a romantic comedy couched within a comedy of migration and held together a series of satirical takes on what the writers perceive to be social ills of our time:  discrimination in housing, illegal emigration, increasing divorce rates, lack of security for women, the plague of middlemen in bureaucratic processes. The spirit of the opening warning against middlemen pervades the entire film: wherever Gandhi seeks out go-betweens to sort things out – the fake emigration agent, the passport office broker, the real estate agent, the marriage counsellors, even his friend who mediates between him and the heroine – things take a turn for the worse. Far from the tight drama and carefully-delineated world of Kuttrame Thandanai, Aandavan Kattalai is visually flat and full of contrivances, as isn’t unusual for a comedy. But the contrivances are so intricately mounted, full of symmetries and rhymes that it’s hard to imagine the film otherwise: the ingenious rom-com idea of divorce as the beginning of a romance, the dual figures of Pandi and Nesan, the apartment search that bookends the film in different ways, the opposed moral orientations of the protagonist in the two sections of the film with a heart-warming, theme-encapsulating inflection point where the theatre director hires Gandhi on faith at a single glance.

Papanasam (2015)
Jeethu Joseph
Tamil

 

PapanasamPaapanasam’s director Jeethu Joseph likes a few things. He likes the fade. He likes the Jimmy Jib. He likes filming his female actors in decreasing order of height. He likes the chimerical simple life. He likes the family. And boy, does he like the family? His film leisurely introduces us to the life of Suyambulingam (Kamal Haasan), a fifty-ish cable TV operator who spends nights at his office watching movies, away from his wife and two daughters – an effective enough shorthand for a middle-aged everyman whose love life is as unyielding as his wallet and who channels his libido onto cinema in ways more than one. So that’s what Paapanasam is – an elaborate odyssey for Suyambu to reassert masculinity, exacerbated it is as much by his perceived lack of education as by his age, and take the reins of his family. (It is one of those therapeutic films which entertain the trivial possibility that the whole narrative takes place inside the protagonist’s head to serve as an antidote to a fear or a lack – a direct parallel to the filmmaking endeavour itself.) And there lies the biggest strength of this rare thriller that is unapologetic and conscious of which value system is at the wheel. The family is paramount in Paapanasam, the engine that runs the world, the institute meriting the highest priority, more than friendship, religion, law and even the individual itself. Sure, it’s a reactionary text, asserting patriarchy’s enterprise, rigour and sense of order prevailing over matriarchy’s apparent laxity, but there’s a sense of something well thought through unfolding before us instead of the unintentionally muddled politics of many a modern movie. It is a film that at least knows which god it is prostrating itself before – the phallus in this case – and I think this clarity deserves something other than outright condemnation.

 

Uttama Villain

“People tell me I’m narcissistic but I disagree; if I were to identify with a figure from Greek mythology it wouldn’t be Narcissus, it would be Zeus.”

-Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories)

“If it’s a wedding, I must be the groom. If it’s a mourning, I must be the corpse.”

-Vallavarayan (Ejamaan)

Prometheus, punished for his transgression of the divine laws of Creation, must be one of the most crucial symbols of modernity and is certainly something of a patron saint for modernist art. In this proto-democrat is incarnated the secular myth of the artist as creator, as opposed to the artist as messenger. The legend that looms over Uttama Villain is that of Hiranyakashipu, the illicit child of Prometheus and Narcissus, in whom the actor-writer of the film, Kamal Haasan, sees an alter ego. Now Hiranya was – or rather is – a special one. He is not only in love with himself, but wants the entire world to worship him. But then, in Kamal’s inverted version of the myth, Hinranya is a hero, the artist figure who cheats death and achieves immortality, the implication being that a profound narcissism must lie at the heart of all artistic enterprise. This is as close to a self-defense from Kamal Haasan as we are going to get.

The film opens with a mirrored image – a reverse shot of a projector in a movie hall – signaling its strictly behind-the-scenes ambition. Kamal plays Manoranjan, a popular star churning out vacuous movies who is jolted out of his passivity by the news of imminent death. He wants to make one last film with his estranged mentor Margadarsi (K Balachander) – the one he wants to be remembered by. There is hardly anything that needs unveiling here. Here’s the sixty-year old actor, contemplating aging, death, fame, relevance and legacy, placing his self squarely in the foreground, without really sliding it behind a curtain of impersonal entertainment like he usually does. This is part of the reason why Uttama Villain falls more in line with European auteur cinema than with the multi-authorial, generic cinema of movie industries.

The other, more surprising trait that situates the film in the arthouse tradition is its narrative construction. Unlike any of Kamal’s recent pictures, the three-hour long Uttama Villain takes its own time to unfold – ironic enough for a film about the lack of time. Scenes breathe easy. Transitions between public and private spaces take place like clockwork. There are no twists, no revelations, no withheld pleasures. In other words: no poisonous vials, no ticking bombs, no safely-guarded secrets. Throughout the film, there is no additional information that the characters know which the audience doesn’t. This atypical lack of any narrative legerdemain is amazing, for it means that there are no big emotional payoffs that await the audience. This is probably Kamal’s riskiest script to date. On the other hand, there are redundant scenes, those whose objectives have been already either established or well understood. For instance, the earliest bits with Jacob Zachariah (Jayaram) or those featuring Manoranjan’s manager (M S Bhaskar).

At a late point in the film, Manoranjan points at a tree of life chart hanging on the wall in his cabin containing the photographs of those close to him. He says it would help him not forget these people. This, of course, appears to be the very intention behind Uttama Villain: a tree of life project of its own that brings together important individuals close to Kamal personally and professionally (barely an actor here who hasn’t worked with Kamal before). More importantly, this is an attempt by the actor to narrativize his own life and to place himself in a personal and professional continuum. When his daughter (Parvathy Menon) hints that he is the villain in her life, Manoranjan quips that he is trying to be a hero in his own. This film is a veritable response to the question “Who is Kamal Haasan?” posed by those around him, sure, but also himself.

There are numerous precedents to this type of confessional cinema – Wild Strawberries (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), 8 ½ (1963), Startdust Memories (1980), Deconstructing Harry (1997), and more pertinently here, All That Jazz (1979), of which a great writer once wrote: “There is something convenient and self-pitying about artists using their works as confessionals, where a modicum of inbuilt repentance tries to fish for unwarranted redemption, but there’s also something irresistibly human and disarming about it.” And there lies the rub. For a work that seeks to bare it all, Uttama Villain is astonishingly anodyne and unblemished. There is nothing about it that portrays Manoranjan/Kamal (there is little reason to doubt the congruity between these two personalities) as anything other than a nice bloke caught in wrong circumstances, none of the honesty and messiness that comes with this type of personal cinema. This is not as much Kamal Haasan opening himself up to us as it is him telling himself the story of his own life. There is certainly a lot of intimately personal material in here, whose truth can only be judged by those very close to the actor, but, for the outsider, the overwhelming impression is that of a martyred saint. One always senses a remove, a separating wall between his true self and the sort of self-portrait he paints here. It is as though Kamal can’t stop acting even in his real life, as though he can’t step out of the character of Kamal Haasan that he is playing every day and kill it, at least a bit. Immortality is indeed tragic.

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PS: I realize that I have not even mentioned the elephant in the room: the film within the film. I liked this segment, with its pleasant use of traditional forms and their innate expositional superfluity, and wondered what a full-length children’s movie from Kamal would look like today. The segues into and out of this track, in particular, are fantastic in the way they bridge narratives of vastly varied visual and emotional textures. More interestingly, it presents us a Kamal Haasan we rarely see these days: vulnerable, self-deprecating, less than perfect, pawn of nature and fate. I take it that the story of this section forms a counterpoint to that of Manoranjan in oblique ways and helps posit the various dualities that underpin this project, specifically, and Kamal’s filmography, in general. I find it unrewarding, not to mention to be complicit in stoking the Kamal Haasan cult, to go into the specifics, but let me just say this: The final, downbeat shot of the film – a zoom into the actor’s grainy face on screen strongly echoing for me the last shot of Altman’s Buffalo Bill (1976) – is something I never expected from Kamal Haasan at this point in his career. It is a moment that throws into question both my view of the man and all the sureties that the film has been hitherto standing on. It is the only truly equivocal image of in film in which everything else is set on a platter for academic interpretation. Has Manoranjan indeed conquered death through his art? Is immortality a product of individual enterprise? Is having your image projected on a screen for eternity immortality at all? What does it mean to live on as a shadow without body? Hell if I know.

OK Kanmani
 
Mani Ratnam’s new film, OK Kanmani, opens rather atypically, with a bloody in-game sequence cut to the track Kaara Attakaara (“player”): a strange mix of irony and foreboding that contrasts the unheroic nature of the romance in the film while announcing the fantastical quality of the narrative that we are about to find ourselves in. To be sure, there are no villains here to be vanquished, no great external hurdles for the lead couple to surmount. Unlike in the metaphysically structured Kadal (2013), there is no place for abstract Good and Evil in this universe of nuanced morals. At the same time, this world is not entirely congruent with our own, as is evident from its barely suppressed romantic idealism composed of separate but complementing male and female fantasies. We, the audience, want to love like they love; we want to suffer, if at all, like they suffer.

OK Kanmani finds Mani Ratnam returning to his beloved city of Bombay. Mumbai, this time around, actually. The summer showers are around the corner when Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) arrives in town from Chennai by train. Right away, he sees Tara (Nithya Menen), through a series of speeding trains, attempting to jump off from the platform across his. This emblematic coupling of arrival and departure would become a defining element in the six months that the couple would live together for. One of purposes for making this film seems to me to be to give a sort of cultural sanction to live-in relationships, which have of late come under attack by nationalist outfits, by bringing them into the mainstream in however comprised a form. This is Mani Ratnam being topical without puffing his chest and critical without throwing leftist journalism at us.

It is also from this point of view that the countless echoes of Alaipayuthey (2000) in this film become productive. While the earlier film centered on youngsters marrying without parents’ consent, OK Kanmani is about them living-in without the idea of marriage or long-term commitment. In the new film, caste and class differences are not even important, as long as the institution of marriage is respected. This shift between what is socially acceptable and what is not within a span of 15 years demonstrates in its own way how Mani Ratnam’s cinema has been both a response to cultural changes as well as a symptom of it.

OK Kanmani’s problems are predominantly formal. As much as the director-screenwriter avoids flab by cutting down the number of principal characters, the material here is too scanty to justify its feature length. Given that it’s only the two leads that have any other dimension than the archetype assigned to them, we have a challenging situation where most part of the film needs to be written around these two. The result is, at times, monotonous and structurally unsound. Consider the scene in which Tara leaves for Jaipur for two days. We see Tara packing her bags and leaving. The film cuts to the number Sinamika, at the end of which Tara returns home. Where a better script would have cut to an outdoor scene with secondary characters, OK Kanmani finds itself compelled to insert a song to avoid the disorientation and airlessness caused by Tara’s otherwise immediate return. What’s more, it uses this unjustified outing to initiate a subplot whose purpose is inexplicably elided for a while.

The film’s entire drama is predicated on the dynamic between the couple wherein one of them starts emotionally investing too much in the relationship just when the other is moving away; that is, on the fuzzy line around which one is either too far or too close. This tension between the need for commitment and recognition and the fear of responsibility, between individual liberty and the search for meaning, between career and relationship, between arrival and departure is what gives the film its thrust. As in many Mani Ratnam films, OK Kanmani is suffuse with shots of the hero following the heroine – through shopping malls, roads, markets, hospitals – like some twisted Orpheus myth. (This seems to be a cherished image in Mani Ratnam’s romantic imagination: men following women out of frustration, attraction, guilt but never domination – always as a powerless agent.) The dynamic is also reflected in the relationship between the couple’s elderly hosts (Prakash Raj and Leela Samson), one of whom has Alzheimer’s which takes her slowly away from her loving husband. (The two actors interpret their roles with a quiet dignity that prevents them from becoming frigid symbols). Lest this rather palpable tension elude us, the script verbalizes it for us regularly. “Don’t shout at him as if you were his wife”, reminds a friend of Tara’s. “How must Tara feel about your departure?” asks Adi’s colleague. The verbosity is startling for a director notorious for his brevity.

The individual scenes, in themselves, are a mixed bag. At its best, OK Kanmani finds Mani Ratnam doing a Mani Ratnam. Scenes like the one at the church wedding and those set in public transport are clear examples of the director flexing old muscles. On the other hand, those that treat the two leads separately in their workplaces raise eyebrow. The segment where Adi pitches his video game idea derives from a movie maker’s idea of video game development. Same is to be said of the long montages of Adi and Tara having fun in the city. It is a bit disappointing that one of our most creative directors’ idea of fun is limited to shopping, partying and wandering on vehicles. There is no indication, aesthetic or otherwise, that this image of romantic fun is being held at a distance by the director. This is not the evidence of a director abstaining moral judgment, but one who seems to be working on the ‘ídea’ of fun than fun itself. While there is much to be enjoyed from seeing a veteran filmmaker – and one fully capable of exercising mastery over his material, as this film exemplifies in parts – responding to changing times, there is also that residual feeling that the times may have left him behind in some respects.

Paradesi

Paradesi (“foreigner”, “nomad”), the latest by noted Tamil filmmaker Bala, is a film that’s not going to win any new converts for the director. Those who find his work to be representative of the best of Tamil cinema are going to come out nodding while those who question its merit, among whom I’m moved to classify myself, will find themselves shrugging. It’s either the next logical step in the evolution of a personal vision or the result of a filmmaker becoming prisoner of his own image. Perhaps it’s both. The title “Bala’s Paradesi”, two words that feed into each other, kicks off the opening credits, which consists of a series of monochrome sketches depicting a community of natives forced to pose for the artist. Locating Bala’s film in the representative, visual tradition, the sequence also unwittingly bestows upon its author the role of a chronicler, a mute observer and of a person in and colluding with power. In the first shot, the camera cranes down quickly from a bird’s eye view of a village down onto the ground, as though indicative of a world where God has fallen, before nimbly snaking in and out of the muddy alleys to give us a sense of life in this village. This is India a few years before independence, we are told, but the seemingly anachronistic village seems to be completely isolated from the happenings elsewhere in the country. We are introduced to the local announcer and workhorse Rasa (Atharva Murali), a quasi-outcast who falls in love with an upper caste girl – a union that gets rejected by the local council thanks to his profession, which primarily involves trumpeting news of death. To marry the girl, he tries to rise above his position and find a more honorable job outside the village. By turn of events, he, along with hundreds of others from the village, ends up as a bond labourer at a tea plantation estate owed by an undesignated Briton. Doomed fatalism and an affable mythic simplicity characterize this first half, which functions as a portrait of Man’s dignity and the transformative power of love. More importantly, this section of the movie is studded with images of silhouetted bodies and huddled masses endlessly traversing through barren landscape. Human body and land – the two chief material elements of Paradesi, as much as DI-inflected brown and green are its two major chromatic elements – are in perpetual conversation in Bala’s movie. The Marxist transformation of nature through physical labour and decimation of bodies by and for the sake of land are two actions that recur throughout. The second half of the film, which bears an aesthetic and thematic symmetry to the first, comes across as something of a heightened, contorted version of the former. At the tea estate, the classified community of the village is flattened, with slavery of one person, Rasa, transmogrifying into the slavery of an entire populace. This juxtaposition is becoming of Bala’s film, which comprehends slavery less as a political phenomenon and more as a human condition. This stance enables Bala to wallow in his signature brand of miserablism, with its characteristically condescending camerawork and wailing soundtrack. For his film, slavery is a universal condition enforced upon one people by another with no room for resistance. It elides, on a conceptual level, the question that the plantation owner in Quentin Tarantino’s new film asks: Why don’t the slaves all rise up and kill the masters? (For a Hegelian examination of slavery, see Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Vidheyan (1993).) There’s an unknowing yet eerie parallel between the idea of a group of lumpen workers surrendering their bodies to an all-powerful plantation owner on the promise of remuneration and the way Bala uses non-professionals and their bodies in his film. If Tarantino the filmmaker, like his bounty hunters and plantation owners, deals in corpses, Bala, like his many mythical villains, deals with human bodies, exotic and imperfect. (One shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Bala, like Tarantino, is incriminating himself here. The film itself is oblivious to the similarity and the parallel is curious, at best.) Of course, I could list all my fascinations and problems  with the film, but I would only be repeating myself. Bala’s method here, despite the film’s CGI-finish and surface gloss, is at times reminiscent of Third Cinema films, both in its cut-and-dried ideology and roughhewn dramatic values – broad acting, blunt satire, authorial omniscience and a superficial mythic allegory that reveals its social criticism as much as it conceals it.

Kadal (2013) (The Sea)
Mani Ratnam
Tamil

 

KadalThe title of Mani Ratnam’s latest feature, Kadal (“The Sea”, 2013), conjures images of vastness, infinity and extremity. Like the sea monsters of many a folklore, it has a mythic ring to it, which is very apt considering the last half hour of the film takes place entirely in the realm of the abstract, the mythical and the elemental. There is a leap of faith that is to be made on the part of the viewer if one is to take Ratnam’s film for what it is – a leap that corresponds to a risky gambit that the film makes towards its third act. It is a manoeuvre that catapults the film from a temperamentally placid, naturalistic portrait of stunted childhood and sea-side romance to a melodrama of heightened emotions and larger-than-life stakes. The jump is grating, sure, but those willing to hold on would see that Ratnam manages to find a more cogent articulation of the misplaced metaphysical arguments of Raavan (2010), especially because he thankfully divorces his tale from political topicality. At heart, Kadal works upon the classic temptation parable, wherein Thomas (Gautham Karthik) must choose between the ways of the Devil and God, which is tweaked here to posit the tainted nature of an Absolute Good or an Absolute Evil, the impossibility of a foundational morality. When, in the end, Bergmans (Arjun Sarja) laughs at Father Sam (Aravind Swamy) hanging upside down like Nolan’s Joker – a universe cut from the same moral fabric as Ratnam’s – we discover a deconstruction of the Good/Evil binary that is more thorough, pointed and pulsating than anything in Ratnam’s previous film.

— Mysskin’s cinema is physical. The fight scenes in his films occupy the extreme ends of a spectrum. They are either divided into the simplest of images – where the cause and effect of an action occupy different shots and we rarely see two bodies in interaction – or are presented in their entirely, prioritizing spatial continuity over fragmentation and highlighting corporeality of an action over its meaning. The frames are chopped; characters’ heads cut off. In his world of action, hands and feet are all that matter. (Severing body parts is not an unusual act in this universe). People don’t have time for patient phone calls. They keep running, falling and scuffling. So does the camera, which crouches when they crouch, which lurches when they lurch, which sits back when they sit and which trembles from afar when they do. Mysskin is impatient with two shots and his restless, gently swaying camera converts these expository moments into a survey of the set, a documentation of an ensemble performance.

— These films are tightly plotted, very convoluted affairs; their solution always at an arm’s length. Instead of the clutter clearing up, it keeps growing knottier and knottier until cutting through is the only way out. These resolutions, themselves, come across as cathartic experiences. Characters barely know the trajectories of others and how they interfere with their own. Like mice in a maze, they keep holding on to their version of truth until they get the view from above. It is this partial concealment/ignorance of information through which the movies attain tragic proportions. Mysskin’s men make grave choices and often the wrong one. They try to vindicate themselves, only to hurt themselves over and over and descend deeper into guilt that is predicated on an equivalence that recognizes one’s own condition in another. They suffer, and come out as better men. Their redemption is possible because they suffer. Mysskin’s pictures, likewise, are at their best when under generic constraints. Mysskin is at his most liberated when tethered.

— The men and women in these films find themselves in similar situations time and time again.  Despite all their actions and choices, they seem to come back to where they started from. It is of little surprise that much of the acting in these movies consists of repeated gestures and words. Be it pacing up and down a hall, where we see them oscillating about like a human pendulum, or fighting a gang of armed men, each of whom comes forward individually – like ascending notes in a motif – for a showdown, invoking comparison to both the martial arts and dance choreography. Likewise, we see them getting stuck in language loops – repeated words and phrases – until they attain a rhythm that reveals more than the words themselves do. This inclination for repetition informs Mysskin’s aesthetic as well, with some loopy, shrill, Bernard Herrmann-esque score (at least one of his lead men recalls Scottie Ferguson) and a number of repeating compositions.

— Mysskin is one of the few filmmakers in the country who can take melodrama head on without falling back. He is not a minimalist trying to sap out the excess from it, but a director working on a grand canvas, blowing up the form. Much like John Ford, with whom he shares an affinity for the sky and the heroes who adorn it, Mysskin uses music to enrich the gravity of a situation than substituting for it, to multiply emotions rather than adding them; instinctive rather than instructive, expressionistic rather than expressive. Mysskin earns his violins. At times, the deployment is incongruous (and prescient) with what we are seeing, but, in retrospect, is overwhelming. Like Ford, he has this uncanny ability to elevate commonplace gestures and glances to mythical levels. A Western by Mysskin wouldn’t really be a surprise, given how his own filmmaking instincts and themes derive from Westerns, by way of Samurai movies: codes of honor, responsibility towards one’s men.

— Although God is never quite absent from the films’ worlds, His silence becomes too threatening. There is a myriad of God’s eye compositions that seem to witness all sorts of activities with equanimity, without judgment. It is perhaps the worlds themselves that have fallen and it is probably up to the people who live in it to sort it all out. Mysskin’s camera that keeps descending from the sky onto the ground, then, signals a universe where man has to take up the responsibility of God, in His silence. This goes well along with Mysskin’s deep-rooted distrust of institutionalized justice and his muddled yet ultimately silly plea for vigilantism. (He is much more comfortable and intriguing when dealing with metaphysical ideas than sociopolitical particulars). The men in his films never seem to be able to fit into rigid establishments and find law and justice to be concepts often diverging from each other.

 

(Filmography: Chithiram Pesuthadi (2006), Anjathey (2008), Nandhalala (2010), Yuddham Sei (2011))

Nadunisi Naaygal (2011)
Gowtham Vasudev Menon
Tamil

 

Nadunisi NaaygalPart rip-off, part tribute to Psycho (1960) – right from the plot to the up-down movements of objects and the camera – Gowtham Vasudev Menon’s Nadunisi Naaygal (“Midnight Dogs”) charts the activities of a soft-speaking serial killer, Veera, who lives with his (surrogate) surrogate mother in a mansion consisting of, well, three floors. Menon’s film is nearly as much about transgression – of mores, of geographical boundaries, of industry idioms – as Hitchcock’s picture was about deviation – of the narrative, of normalcy, of sexuality. Menon has said elsewhere that this is a film based on a true story, while it’s actually a pseudo-horror based on the superficies of a pseudo-science (spare me the Oedipii and the Electras), where, unlike the finale of Psycho, it is the director who plays the shrink all along, deeming deviance as just a product of other deviant practices. (Naaygal has one of the ugliest directorial schemes of recent times, with subjective and objective reality clearly delineated by awkward POV patterns). Menon has also proclaimed that Nadunisi Naaygal is his middle-finger-to-all film. True. It is, in fact, the film in which he actually wants his audience to hate him, to consider him as an outlaw. (He succeeds by leaps and bounds: He’s written a character that invites unanimous derision). Evidently, the director recognizes himself in the central character – a psychotic woman-slayer – which is only partly acknowledged by the employment of POV shots for both the filmmaker-killer and the audience-victims. (Tarantino nods abound, starting with the title). This is a refreshingly skewed perspective from and of a director who has been routinely killing off his lead women in his films. With Naaygal, like Veera, he almost denies that he had anything to do with his previous blockbusters at all. May be he’ll deny later that he had nothing to do with Naaygal as well. May be this is a turning point in his career. May be it’s the end of it. May be he hears those dogs howl at midnight.

 

(Image Courtesy: Chennai 365)

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