Gantumoote (“Baggage”, 2019, Roopa Rao)

That a coming-of-age tale told from a girl’s point of view seems exceedingly fresh partly points to cinema’s conditioning of the audience to the primacy of the male gaze. Rao’s film is the hidden half of a story we are intimately familiar with: a lively, popular boy loses his way in life because of his romance. Rao filters the story entirely through the perspective of her protagonist Meera (Teju Belawadi, daughter of filmmaker Prakash Belawadi), in whose voiceover the film unfolds. At times superfluous and overpowering, the anachronistic voiceover oscillates between the adult Meera, trying to make rational sense of her experience, and her teen self, living life as it presents itself, and nevertheless provides fruitful tensions with the image. From the outset, Rao portrays the movie buff Meera as someone who likes to see (the interaction of screen and spectator has generally been the prerogative of male cinephiles). Through countless shot-reverse shot constructions, she makes the viewer share Meera’s awakening of desire. All through, the emphasis is on Meera’s autonomy, her right to be alone, to want alone, to suffer alone. Rao plays off specific gestures (Meera pulling her boyfriend by his shirt sleeves, his preventing her from biting her nails) against a series of moods (the anxious wait for first kiss in monsoon, the languid summer vacation), specific memories of Meera’s against her lack of knowledge of events beyond her purview. Even when it goes in and out of student film territory, Gantumoote is carried forth by Belawadi’s incredible turn. Her frame drooping in harmony with her eyebrows, she looks over the shoulders, hers or her beloved’s, her eyes conveying her inner life with the directness of subtitles. She is an instant star.

 

Ee.Ma.Yau (“R.I.P”, 2018, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Ee.Ma.Yau deepens the suspicion I had watching Jallikattu: that Pellissery works like a painter. First comes the underlying structure; in this case, the social machinery of a small-town Christian community that springs into action following the death of a member. Overseen by a trusted friend of the deceased’s son, a doctor, a priest, a policeman, an undertaker, a printer, a coffin maker, a gravedigger and a music band galvanize around the dead alcoholic. Overlaid on this impersonal societal analysis, like colours on a drawing, are human emotions and characteristics: desire (of an man wishing a grand farewell to his dead father), malice (of a man who is bent on arousing suspicion around death), self-righteousness (of a priest who makes it his mission to complicate things), greed (of a coffin maker trying to sell an expensive unit), generosity (of a friend willing to abase himself to alleviate his friend’s suffering) and compassion (of a rival battered by the dead man). Like Jallikattu, this is a film about how these individual qualities overwhelm and destroy the community from within, turning a complex collective calculus to see off a man with civility into a spectacle of uncivility. Despite the (sometimes unwatchable) sordidness of the happenings, the stress is on the basic dignity of individuals. Pellissery’s characteristic, long Steadicam shots bridge indoors and outdoors, connecting the perspectives of characters that were only pieces in a communal mosaic before the death. The uniformly caffeinated performances are pitched above everyday realism, but below cartoonishness. While his work on the image is still strong—the floodlight-bathed coastal town has a distinct character—Pellissery has no qualms dealing in the abstract or being literal-minded: a blunt coda resumes the film’s philosophical motivations. A potent shot of cheap liquor you don’t want to try again.

 

Suttu Pidikka Utharavu (“Shoot at Sight”, 2019, Ramprakash Rayappa)

An unmitigated disaster. All it takes is five minutes to figure that this is the work of a bona fide hack. It’s the director’s third film and he’s apparently never heard of a tripod. One could say that Rayappa really puts the motion in motion picture. Three men (or four, who cares, certainly not the filmmaker) rob a bank and hole up in a cramped residential colony of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. A hot-headed officer (Mysskin, paying his bills) is on their heels. It so happens that a group of terrorists are hatching a bombing plot in an apartment in the same colony. The specificity of location suggests that the writer-director has a personal connection to it. But all we learn about the area is that it’s overridden by ostentatious and treacherous North Indians, and so the good policemen of Tamil Nadu are obliged to carry out a clean-up job. A big twist at the end is intended to overhaul our understanding of the events. The director is clearly aware that he’s been cheating his audience so far, and tries to cover his tracks with no avail. The result is a cheap prank in the vein of The Usual Suspects. There’s a monumentally irritating constable character whose stupidity is amped up solely for the big twist to work. The sole point of interest is the final reveal montage: in maybe fifty shots in three or so minutes, we get to hear the whole backstory—an indication of Tamil film audience’s increasing capacity to absorb a great volume of sudden information, a capacity thoroughly abused here.

 

Kavaludaari (“Crossroads”, 2019, Hemanth M Rao)

A valuable archaeological find was robbed and the family of the archaeologist murdered in 1977 at the peak of emergency—the original moment of the Indian public’s disenchantment with politics and its practitioners. The case, thought to be a stub, is pursued by a traffic policeman (Rishi) after 40 years when unidentified bones of three individuals are found during a road-widening project. The cop collaborates with the original officer who investigated the case (Anant Nag) to complete the puzzle. Co-writer of Andhadhun, Rao renders the idea of the police officer living with his case literally, as the people involved in the murder materialize in his apartment with post-production effects. The film starts out as a more ambitious portrait of men and their obsessions, problematizing the investigators themselves, but eventually settles on a traditional whodunit arc. Rao loads the narrative with information after information, plot thread after plot thread, whether they serve to enrich it or not, whether they are indispensable or not. The surfeit of information in itself—mimicking the cognitive experience of navigating today’s mass and social media—sustains a feeling of mystery and importance. The film is generally a couple of steps ahead of the audience, but imagines it is taking them along. In a crucial montage, the suspense is taken to an artificial crescendo through an intercutting between three different spaces. It’s supposed to create an anticipation about the identity of the killer, but what it does instead is produce an anxiety that something grave is underfoot. This mechanistic approach to thrill aside, Rao exhibits an admirable economy of exposition. Several sequences are constructed out of the fewest possible shots, the camera craning across space to furnish additional details. There’s a charming shot of the two investigators waiting in a car in which Anant Nag tries to trap a CGI fly as Rishi observes with amusement from the back seat.

 

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (“Evidence and Eyewitness”, 2017, Dileesh Pothan)

Having eloped, Prasad and Sreeja (Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan) are on their way to the north of Kerala when Sreeja’s matrimonial gold chain is stolen by a criminal (an ostentatiously self-effacing Fahadh Faasil) who swallows it when caught red-handed. The trio ends up at the police station of a tiny town to sort out the issue. It’s an open-and-shut case with no information withheld from the audience, and the film rejects novelistic suspense and epistemological mysteries. The director keeps riffing in scenes set in the police station by weaving in peripheral incidents of petty crime, which increases tension by delaying plot progression. This allows him to mix contrasting tones to great effect, visually (as in the shot of the devastated wife sitting next to colourful balloons), narratively (the triviality of the crime set against the seriousness of consequences) and conceptually (the sanctity of a marriage having to pass through a thief’s rectum). In an unusual characterization, he describes the police force as a rather transparent establishment where information trickles up and down with ease. The cops get comfortable with the plaintiffs on a first name basis, while the latter grow familiar with all the policemen. More sharply, the film spirals out of the story of small-time felony to weave a quasi-philosophical picture of individuals caught up in the whirlpool of impersonal institutional imperatives. The film’s Rashomon-like network of perspectives are centripetally held by the act of stealing a gold chain. The husband (seeking the stolen valuable), the wife (seeking honour and justice), the criminal (seeking liberty), the constable who lets him escape (seeking a closure to the case) are acting on a constant drive for self-preservation, but they are also capable of tremendous, sporadic grace. The equivalence between Prasad and the criminal—echo of another Kurosawa, Stray Dog—is perhaps overly stressed, but it doesn’t take away from the considerable accomplishment of this film.

 

Kirumi (“Germ”, 2015, Anucharan)

Anucharan wrote, edited and directed this debut feature. Kathir (Kathir) is an unemployed young man, offended by the disdain of his friends and family for his predicament. When he gets an opportunity to work for the police as one of their black-market mercenaries—employed to gather information, collect bribes and rough up suspects—he sees a way out of his impasse. He makes quick progress, soaring up the preferential ladder until he becomes too big for his shoes. There’s very little feeling for milieu here. We don’t get a sense of Kathir’s social situation. He seems to glide in and out of lower-middle class domesticity, rubbing shoulders with an unmarked pair of financially struggling friends, an underground police informer (Charlie, playing the kind of decent everyman that so well suits him), politically-enabled gambling lynchpins and, later, higher-up police officers. What it lacks in nuance and local colour, Kirumi makes up for with a smart structure. Taking the titular microbe as analogy, it sketches the tragedy of a disruptive agent that infects the corrupt body of the police institution—kept from total collapse by internal rivalries and mutual suspicions—only to end up strengthening its immunity and be rejected. Kathir is presented as someone resenting his lack of power and esteem, and his short-lived ambitiousness a product of his power trip. His horniness is regularly invoked, I suppose, as a reference to his compensatory, self-destructive masculinity. The filmmaking is cranked up for effect and the emotional peaks are somewhat misplaced. But the ending, with its perversely welcome cynicism in the mould of Chinatown, is refreshingly anti-climactic, understated and conceptually at home.

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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?