All these years, apparently, I’ve been living in a city that’s not the sweetly traditional home of filter coffee and mallipoo idli and the Music Season, but really Sodom and Gomorrah combined and quadrupled and relocated to the Ninth circle of Hell. At least, that’s what a certain stripe of directors in Tamil cinema, every single one a tiresome scold, appears to be telling me with nauseating earnestness. There is something repugnant about the way films like Angadi Theru (see here), Kattradhu Thamizh (see here), Easan (see here) and, now, Vazhakku Enn 18/9 seek to – in their respective ways – denigrate Chennai as a sewer and its denizens as rats, dirty and diseased in mind and spirit, especially in those darned coffee shops, where random Caucasian types lock lips in (you’d better be sitting down for this!) full public view. If I weren’t so outraged, I’d be clutching my sides and laughing till I ran out of breath – because it’s all so simpleminded and ridiculous, like a child pretending there’s no sun by holding up a thumb against the sky. How can supposedly major filmmakers be so myopic in their vision, so bereft of nuance, so black-and-white in their worldview?
But that’s a different topic for a different kind of rant. For now, though, let’s just thumb through our catalogue of sins, shall we? Better yet, taking a leaf from the writing in Vazhakku Enn 18/9, let’s not bother shaping any kind of coherent argument. Let’s just dump all the “issues” in the most rabble-rousing format. All you need to know is that US refers to Evil Chennai Residents (ECR, naturally; also that highway to hell), callused by city living, while THEM refers to those dreamy, doe-eyed folks from faraway hamlets like Eechambalam, near Dharmapuri.
THEM: What do they do upon witnessing the plight of a prostitute? They take all the money they have, the pitifully tiny amount that it is, and thrust it into her hands and seek to rehabilitate her.
US: But what do we do? When we see that this rehabilitated prostitute has turned flower-seller, we refuse to believe her and harass her sexually and drive her out of this city of ours. (Maybe we laugh evilly afterwards, but that detail remains unseen.)
THEM: What do their boys do with the girl to whom they profess affections? They sacrifice their lives and lock themselves up in jail.
US: And what do we do? We mow these girls down with the big, flashy cars we’re driving.
THEM: They give money to blind beggars. They help handicapped children.
US: We don’t even open our insulated tiffin boxes when called upon to feed someone on the road who’s fainted from hunger. (And of course the camera will capture our callousness with a low-angle shot that frames the scene with these very insulated tiffin boxes.)
THEM: They eat idlis.
US: We scarf down sandwiches. In these films, for some reason, the ECR love their carbs. We are always loading up on burgers or pizzas or sandwiches. (The latter is an especial favourite of Balaji Sakthivel, this film’s director, as Tamanna in Kalloori too was an inveterate sandwich-muncher.)
THEM: They take care of their parents, even setting off to unknown (and unnamed) cities in North India to make money through menial labour. (Those evil North Indians, by the way, are just like ECR. An employer remains silent about a worker’s tragedy that he learns about through a phone call, so that the man will not leave him.)
US: We extort money from our mothers, issuing threats and throwing tantrums.
Wait, you say – that girl Aarti from the Chennai high rise, doesn’t she volunteer information at the police station to save that dreamy, doe-eyed boy from Eechambalam? And doesn’t her mother, in her happiness of a promotion, extend her dabba of sweets to the servant maid as well? Aren’t these nice things that they do?
Well, of course, these are nice things, because they are nice people – from Trichy. Had they been from Chennai, the promotion-awarded mother might have expressed her happiness by tipping the maid over from the terrace of their high rise.
US: Our mothers cover up for wayward sons. Our cops are all corrupt. Our education has become a business.
THEM: When they stumble upon a gold ring while scrubbing a toilet, they return it to their employers, not tempted even for an instant to slip it on a finger and bask in the moment.
But what really got my goat was this us-versus-them epiphany, that with THEM, when they set eyes upon women, it’s always the nice thing, the noble thing, the gallant thing that’s done. They only dream of marriage and family and happily-ever-after – everything, in short, is strictly above the waist, with not a hint of carnal mischief. But US, oh, everything is below the waist. All we want to do is peek underneath skirts and make mobile-phone videos and circulate them amongst fellow-students, those other ECR. The point isn’t to defend what the male student does here, which is doubtless reprehensible. But he’s a kid, an adolescent, and whose adolescence isn’t preoccupied with sexual thoughts? Why not give us one redeeming scene where this is the case with THEM too, that they too have itches that make their hands drift southwards? It’s as if they’ve never seen Sakalakalavallavan and films of that ilk, where people like THEM were healthy repositories of lust.
When such a thick line of chalk separates the two teams, it’s hard to take anything seriously, and that’s this film’s major tragedy. Sakthivel has zoomed in on a superb subject, about the have-nots from elsewhere who are forced to seek livelihoods in big, churning cities that grind them into anonymity (the film zooms in on a single have-not and investigates his possible involvement in a criminal case), but these stories, unlike our masala movies where we demand no engagement with reality or plausibility, come with the responsibility that – like the court case of the title suggests – both sides are represented with equal sincerity. And when that doesn’t happen, there’s nothing to do but laugh it all off. How else can you treat a film where a leading man, in a public shooting spot, is revealed not only to be hairless but also equipped with effeminate vocal chords? Had this been a first-timer’s effort, we might have expressed sympathy about good intentions not always resulting in a good film, and patted the director on the back for at least attempting something different – but this is from the man who gave us Kaadhal.
Sakthivel does at least some things right. He opts for a roundabout narrative style, where things are revealed only gradually, and he adopts a Neorealist approach, staunchly refusing to prettify his film, and using real locations, real people. (Even the sole song in the film is a real song, with dialogues in place of interludes.) But there’s a difference between picking non-professional actors and non-actors in a film that often requires melodramatic performing styles. There are many scenes that wilt away because of the incompetence of the people in them, like the one where the protagonist’s parents are beaten up in their village by moneylenders – the staging is nonexistent. For a brief while in second half, the sheer dramatic power of the contrivances grabs us by the collar and makes us watch – there’s a lurid what-next tension in these portions – but the conclusion is ridiculous and seems to happen, like a lot of things in this movie, to shock us into submission. I really wish this had been a worthy movie, but it’s just severely frustrating and I’d talk some more about this aspect, but you’ll have to excuse me now. I have to retreat to my shack by Marina beach and carve up some kittens.
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