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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.