Lights, Camera, Conversation… “An unseeing hero, an unimpressed audience…”

Is it possible to make a sophisticated entertainment for a regional audience? Sure. But sophistication should not be confused with the superficial.

Filmmakers had it easy in the decades before the 1990s. There wasn’t much TV to speak of. If you owned a VCR, you still couldn’t see the really new movies. The cheapest mode of entertainment was to slip into a nearby theatre, where the quality of the film mattered less than the fact that something was playing, something to keep us occupied for three hours. We were the very definition of a captive audience, as we couldn’t even check messages on our mobile phones during the movie. We didn’t mind it if filmmakers kept making the same movie over and over, and we didn’t mind that the films ran so long – there wasn’t much else to do anyway. It wasn’t that hectic a life. But today, when the censor certificate for the Tamil film Thaandavam announces the running time as 167 minutes – the running time is no longer stated in terms of the number of reels – it’s hard not to groan. It’s harder, still, to go on to watch a needless heroine-introduction song (for a heroine who doesn’t matter to the movie in the least; that’s five precious Facebooking/Twittering/Chatting/YouTubing minutes down the drain).

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I am sometimes asked to compare Hindi and Tamil cinema – these being the two Indian languages I cover – and this, I say, is the difference. Not the heroine-introduction song, for the Lord knows (and, I assume, applauds) the presence of one such number in Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, as Anushka Sharma made herself known. But that film was only 140 minutes long – and even that seemed something of an eternity. Along with the needless heroine-introduction song in Thaandavam, we have needless comedy (by a painfully unfunny Santhanam), needless action (with not a single move that’s imaginatively choreographed), and a needlessly protracted romance segment that softens the hero and introduces the film’s real heroine. (Now you see why I called that earlier heroine-introduction number needless?) And, much as I hate to generalise one badly made movie to represent all the movies made in a language, this is the problem with a lot of Tamil cinema: the naked yearning to be everything to everyone.

The logic isn’t difficult to understand. Unlike Hindi films, which have ridden the multiplex wave across the nation to the extent that a young actor like Ranbir Kapoor can be rightfully called a superstar despite making mainly city-centric movies, regional-language cinemas depend on audiences from the A centres, the B centres, and the C centres. It’s simply not possible to make a Rockstar or a Barfi! without diluting these stories with more traditional elements that make these films appealing to those in the hinterlands. That’s why the best of Tamil cinema is usually found in the stories picked up from those hinterlands. Even the recent Sundarapandiyan, with the director Sasikumar as the hero, had its moments. The elements that diluted this story for the sake of entertainment value were elements that looked like they belonged organically in this milieu. The film looked one of a piece, and even if you had issues with its content or style, you couldn’t fault the film for its vibe, which was maintained throughout.

Where we run into a problem is with these meant-to-be-sophisticated entertainers like Thaandavam, with its central gimmick of a blind hero who uses echolocation to find his way around. The question, now, is whether you make this premise palatable to an audience that just wants to sit back and enjoy something like Sundarapandiyan (which means the addition of all those “needless” elements), or refrain from touching this subject in the first place – and as a viewer, I would vote for the latter option. Why take up a subject and make a movie so far-removed from its promise that what remains is an ugly, unrecognisable amalgam of everything and the kitchen sink? By the time the songs play out, by the time the comedy runs its course, by the time the romance (in a long flashback) comes to a close, there’s hardly any time (despite the 167 minutes) to meaningfully explore the aspect that drew many of us to the movie in the first place: the hero who uses echolocation. Remove that angle, and the film wouldn’t have suffered one bit. (In other words, it would still have been as generic a big-hero project.)

Sundarapandiyan is a crudely made melodrama, but I’d watch that any day to the supposedly sophisticated Thaandavam. Because that film is what it says it is – this one isn’t. One of the most important things for the viewer is that he’s allowed to settle into the film’s defining vibe (even if that vibe is crude melodrama), and if the vibe calls for sophistication and you’re scared of it, then you shouldn’t be making that movie. You could be sophisticated and still make a movie that might appeal to the B and C centres, as was the case with the recent Attakathi. The vibe that that film started out with was the vibe with which it ended. Whatever your problems with the film (mine was that it settled, after a while, into a gentle monotony), it wasn’t parceling out bits of itself saying “this is for action lovers” and “this is for those who want comedy.” Everything came together organically. You don’t need echolocation to make a unique Tamil film. You just need a good script.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

15 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “An unseeing hero, an unimpressed audience…”

  1. Between these two ‘woods that park themselves (and can exchange places) on a slightly wobbly ‘sophistication’ spectrum, there lies my Gulti land. I am glad you don’t have to cover that.

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  2. BR – I can see why you feel the movie compromised a lot, but aren’t you ascribing intentions where none exists? The movie doesn’t proclaim itself to be a sophisticated or a thoughtful movie? I see the movie as wanting to `steal’ audience from hollywood action extravaganzas – plain & simple, at the same time adding various compromises so that the existing audience (not to mention chiyan fan club) doesn’t feel alienated.

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  3. “Why take up a subject and make a movie so far-removed from its promise that what remains is an ugly, unrecognisable amalgam of everything and the kitchen sink?”

    – I had the same feeling with 7am arivu last year. The premise there was genetic engineering but you hardly got to see the makers using it in any intelligent form in the movie.
    If all that Bodhidharman’s genes could instill in the hero was the ability to beat the crap out of the villain, excuse me, haven’t we already seen this in all our movies so far sans any requirement for genetics? Genetics+bodhidharman was just a pre-movie gimmick to lure in the so called A-center audience and making tall claims of handling a sophisticated subject.

    Rangan, you must check out “Looper”. Would like to hear your thoughts on that one.

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  4. Baddy, Vikram is a guy who confounds me. I admire him for the perseverance he showed in hanging on till he could make it in tinseltown and am happy for all his success. Not many would have survived the struggles he went through. And he has shown that he can straddle the so called mass movies and the thoughtful, artful ones with applomb. And Vikram certainly is not market driven ala Vijay for instance. But of late, I have been disappointed with his choices…Kandhasamy, Rajapattai…even DT. Without even seeing Thandavam, I knew it was going to be a disaster (perhaps not commercially, but you know what I mean). Thandavam is no Rajaparvai, that’s for sure!!

    On one hand, as you point out…the lack of the multiplex wave and the need for the formula script makes tamil cinema resort to these masalas. But, it doesn’t always have to be from the hinterlands, though a lot of good ones are. It’s not like it can’t be done. For instance, Rajaparvai was an urban story that was probably a commercial failure, but appreciated critically. I’m sure there are other examples as well.

    For quite some time in the 80s in hindi cinema, you couldn’t make a “small” movie with a big star like Amitabh. Everything was a multi-starrer with huge (in many cases, frivilous) concepts. but then Amitabh got an escape when his second innings coincided with the changing trend of multiplexes and urban centric films. The stars of tamil cinema are heading down that perilious 80s path, even if they are not technically multi-starrers…I feel even Surya is succumbing to that as well. Hopefully these guys climb out of that…

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  5. sara: I didn’t mean “thoughtful.” But it definitely wants to be some kind of classy, sophisticated film.

    aneek: Exactly. Had I written this essay about Hindi cinema, “Vivah” would be the equivalent of “Sundarapandiyan” and “Thaandavam” would be the equivalent of — say — “Blue.” (Or as Akshay Kumar pronounces it, Blyoo :-) )

    oneWithTheH: Yes, in that case “genetic engineering” was the gimmick, like “echolocation” here. Though I must admit that film did a far better job of at least trying to honour its gimmick than this one. “Looper” is out next week in these parts, I think.

    Shankar: I’d actually prefer a well-made nonsense-movie by Vijay to something like “Thaandavam.” Formula, I can take. This kind of fakery is harder to digest.

    I asked someone why the heroes here couldn’t take a hefty pay cut and make small films for urban audiences. (After all, they can make their multi-crores from the next big project.) I said, “Wouldn’t you recoup the money from just Chennai, Coimbatore, etc? The A centres?” But he said that it’s not “economically viable” and that if you’re a big hero, then fans expect certain things from your films. I’m not sure. I mean, if Kamal made a “Rajaparvai” today, a middle-aged version, and kept his budget really low and shot the film really fast, I’m sure that the city audiences that lap up “Barfi” and “Paa” so on in Chennai will see this too. Am I missing something here? :-)

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  6. Just came back from Looper. It was entertaining for most parts, but for some reason, and I can’t put my finger on which ones, it reminded me of many other films. It seemed like one big kalandha kalavai….. The latter part of the film could have done with some better pacing, though it was a contrast to the frenetic start. Also, towards the latter part, I felt some things felt forced…

    It was okay, I’d watch it once for sure.

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  7. I liked ‘Thandavam’. It was far better than ‘Rajapattai’ and ‘Kandaamy’. I saw Thandavam in Maharani, north chennai, where there was full of laughs for Santhanam’s comedy; good timing, adapted his role best.
    The flashback romance was the best part of the film. The love seeking, trying to win wife’s love-husband and a busy doc wife, was well narrated and nicely shot.
    For a film of this huge budget, a big star, I agree, that the story should have been more taut and sleek.
    As you said a few weeks back, when the production house spends so much on budget, why damn should they not spend money on story discussing. Director Vijay should change his story discussion team the next time.
    Ya, I could, for that matter, anyone seeing Tamil films, could suspect who s the black sheep in Shiva(vikram)’s gang. And as u said, the sequence following the long flashback(I did not find the flashback long), was, in plain Tamil, ‘chappai’, where LaxmiRai explains things.

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  8. “I asked someone why the heroes here couldn’t take a hefty pay cut and make small films for urban audiences” – Thanks for asking the all important question . I agree with you on this – a middle-aged small budgeted Rajaparvai would do very well. Also, don’t forget Kamal has a pan-South Indian audience , so its not just Chennai but parts of Andhra, Kerala and Bangalore too.

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  9. Vikram has pissed all over his career these past few years. Much like Surya who has just signed for Singam-2. The thought of Singam needing a sequel itself is funny. As if they couldnt make a similar larger-than-life cop masala and call it puli or something else. The more you watch these guys the more you feel fortunate for having had a Kamal and what he accomplished in the late 80s/early 90s. None in the current bunch can hold a candle to that.
    Maatran could very well be an example of another ‘hi-concept in the service of a bad masala film’ much like Ghajini, 7am arivu, thaandavam etc.

    Forget all this. How can a guy like Vikram, who is in this business for 20+ years even choose something as crappy as Rajapaattai? Did he even read the script? You must ask your industry insider about this business of stars listening to a “one-liner” about the movie from the director and signing on the dotted line. Sometimes I feel It is these guys, the Vikrams and the Suryas who should be sent to Kamal’s screenwriting workshops, and not the AL Vijays and Murugadosses.

    “But he said that it’s not “economically viable” and that if you’re a big hero, then fans expect certain things from your films.”

    BR, my contention is that they need not even do a totally different Rajapaarvai-kind of film. Avanga pandra masala padathaye ozhunga panna porum. You can make a “commercial” film with most elements intact that doesnt completely bore you to death or insult your intelligence.

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  10. Baradwaj,

    It’s time for another “groan” as Maattrraan too is around 170 minutes I hear. Btw, the one movie where I groaned when I saw the running time but really enjoyed it was Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom. Found it quite hilarious and it is already getting a cult status among those who have seen it. And, now, it seems the makers are trimming it down by 40 mins. Do check it out when it releases.

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  11. Suganth: Oh man! I’ve been asked to review it for the paper this week as the regular Tamil critic is out of town :-)

    Heard good things about “Naduvula…” Where did you see it?

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  12. vijay: For some reason i have been on a Kamal 80’s binge for the last few days – his filmography from Nayakan to about Magalir Mattum is astonishing.

    One other “star” from the current crop who now i find interesting is Dhanush. His choices of late have been interesting.

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  13. Just saw Thandavam…man, that movie has so many loopholes that one could drive a bus through it!! Terrible film…Vikram looked thoroughly disinterested as well. I’m sure the audience felt the same! :-)

    On another note, have you watched Bosskey’s reviews of tamil films? Here is his take on Panithuli, it will have you in splits! :-)

    His Billa 2 review was also hilarious. Of course, I mainly watch it for just his delivery, not the review itself. These webisodes are called Kashayam by Bosskey.

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