Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Bergman who?”

Low budgets. Low costs. Low ambitions. High praise. Is Tamil cinema, thanks to digital-camera filmmaking, in the throes of a new movement?

If two films can define a movement, then we seem to be in the middle of something really interesting in Tamil cinema.  Note, first, the titles: Pizza and Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom. When was the last time you heard of a Tamil film named after food? As for Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom (NKPK), the literal translation is that pages are missing in the middle, and this refers to a character’s short-term memory loss. The title is a pointer to the irreverence on display. Both Pizza and NKPK are irreverent films. They rise from the boldness that digital technology brings with it. Filmmakers usually succumb to clichés, the tried and tested, with the excuse that filmmaking is so expensive and so they cannot be drastically different, but when the cost factor is nudged out, those fears are no longer there. There’s just the exhilaration that the only thing limiting you is your imagination.

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The other aspect that filmmakers base their calculations on is the audience, who, they assume, are not open to new things. But Pizza, a sort-of horror thriller that turns out to be a rug-pulling stunt, is a hit, and in the theatre I watched NKPK, which doesn’t even have a heroine and which is just about four young men, the people around me were enjoying the film even though it’s essentially a set of variations on a one-joke premise, that of memory loss. The sound of laughter was ringing off the walls. NKPK is too long, and it could have used better actors, especially given that half the screen time is devoted to close-ups of reaction shots. But I didn’t care. Watching NKPK is like watching a skit put on by close friends or family – you look past the self-indulgence and take home only the good memories. The scrappiness is part of the charm.

The most interesting feature of these two films is how young they are in mood and manner. Gautham Vasudev Menon and Selvaraghavan, for instance, draw to their films huge numbers of what the trade calls the “youth audience,” and their films are filled with young people – but there’s a grown-up formality to the filmmaking. Their films don’t feel like a lark, bound as they are by the compulsions of having a hit soundtrack or the reputations of the filmmakers themselves. They don’t exude that “let’s try this and see what happens” feeling, which is evident in Karthik Subbaraj, the director of Pizza. His film feels like a shaggy-dog story told around a campfire, and while this may not be new in Hollywood, we haven’t seen this in pre-digital-camera Tamil cinema. And it isn’t hard to imagine Balaji Tharaneetharan, the director of NKPK, as one of those wisecracking RJs on Chennai’s airwaves. His film may be based on a real-life incident, but it’s so spontaneous as to seem cooked up on the shooting spot.

We don’t sense in these filmmakers the ambitions of becoming the next [insert name of world-renowned art-house auteur], and we don’t see, either, the frustrations that result when they realise these ambitions need to be tempered with the realities of the Tamil cinema market. There’s no grand cinematographic design, no grand thematic resonance, no grand award-baiting vision, no histrionic fireworks – and that’s the most liberating part. These filmmakers – and I include Balaji Mohan, who made Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi, another young film with a delightfully irreverent title (though it was filmed with more popular stars and more formal rigour) – seem to want to do nothing more than entertain audiences (especially urban audiences) in a smart manner. Their films, therefore, are a necessary counterbalance to the films made with auteurist ambition, and these films also deliver us from depending on big-budget star vehicles for entertainment (simply because those are the only other kind of films being made).

I don’t know the business aspects of Pizza and NKPK – how much they cost to make; how much they earned through theatrical release; how much the satellite rights have gone for – but it isn’t difficult to imagine more such films being made on ridiculously low budgets by young-minded first-time filmmakers, which may all add up to a movement. (One can only hope.) At the vanguard of this movement, apparently, is the young actor Vijay Sethupathy, who’s in both Pizza and NKPK and has become sort of indie-film star, the first ever in Tamil cinema, the way Parker Posey became the it-girl for so many off-Hollywood movies made in the 1990s. (Though, to be fair, there hasn’t been, before this, a Tamil indie-film movement to speak of.) The names of his forthcoming films promise more irreverence: Rummy and Pannaiyarum Padminiyum. The latter is impossible to translate without sacrificing flavour, but Tamil audiences are already smiling.

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.

19 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Bergman who?”

  1. So glad you chose to re-visit Pizza! At least, I am assuming you did watch the movie again … without walking off mid-way. I keep recommending that movie to any person I meet!

    Hoping that NKPK releases here in Bangalore.

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  2. Its about time , Hindi cinema had “Hyderabad Blues” – the original indie , irreverent , really low budget film and when i first saw the film in the theatres , people were bouncing off the wall. “Dil pe math le yaar , hath mein le” became mantra. Its a pity Nagesh Kukunoor wanted to become a “formal” film maker. Bigger ambitions i presume.

    Interestingly telugu cinema has had some sort of indie scene for a while now – The Angrez, Berozgaar Hyderabadi, Hyderabad nawabs etc. all of varying qualities of course, but it is a trend.

    This is good , informal slapdash film making , lots of turkeys but some real good stuff

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  3. If you had not known, there is already a tamil short film of the name Pannaiyaarum Padhminiyum. You can see that at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CqGa1a_mVCQ. Maybe the feature film is an inspiration of the short film. Also, I see a trend where in the these kinds of movie makers usually graduate from short films to feature films. That I think is a healthy trend as long as the feature films don’t look like extended short films.

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  4. This isn’t exactly a new trend; we have had such films before (example: http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/fr/2002/08/09/stories/2002080901040200.htm)

    You’ve correctly observed that the youth audience for this is mostly urban. I think it’s social media + word of mouth turning this into a trend that previous films didn’t have the luxury of.

    Maybe all the recent marketing blitz of commercial films taking over mainstream media is leaving audience running for alternatives.

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  5. There were a series of short films made by Balaji Mohan that was so hilarious! Am glad he graduated to making full length feature films… Although I wish these people apprentice with seasoned directors to learn the craft and screenplay writing in a better way.

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  6. I am not sure I agree with you on these films being irreverent. If doing away with heroism and the 7song-3fight formula makes a movie irreverent, surely that’s a quite narrow definition of the word we are using. Yes, the characters and the way they speak are much reflective of the man in the street, but they still reek of our cinematic cliches no less. With digital technology and the possibilities for independent filmmaking richer than ever, this is about the highest degree of irreverence you could get out of a Tamil movie? Are we ever going to witness a cinematic infidel, if you will, with a desire to rebel against the constrictedness of the producers and audience alike and throw sand on all the proven methods? something like the nouvelle vague perhaps? But I know something like that happening here, in TN, is pure science fiction. Is it because of the directors or the audience(as opposed to the ever so perspective French audience), I wonder. On second thoughts, we don’t really need such visionary subversive directors so much as we have a hard time dealing with bad films made by mass audience pandering glory hounds

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  7. BR: I can’t think of any film that was more original or even anything remotely better than NKPK this year in Tamil, can you? ( And that reflects sadly on all those ‘auteurs’ whose drivel we were forced to digest.) It’s quite a feat that this team has pulled off , what with no songs/stunts, a TV serial ambience, a heroine who exists only as a name for the most part and a refrain that had all the potential to turn in to a serious irritant.

    And as far as this so called indie-film phenomenon is concerned, I agree with sara that it’s been scrounging around in Tamil atleast during the last 2 to 3 years (and most of these indie digital films were awful; even Ambuli that got a good press was intolerably bad), but it looks like it has finally managed to take off this year. Three films that were not only noticed and talked about, but also possibly managed to break even and generate profits Attakathi (why is this not in your list? was it in film?), Pizza(I didn’t know this was digital) and now NKPK. (Another film that got a wide release this year was Madhubanakkadai. Although it seemed to have lofty ambitions and failed to realise them, it was still sort of a noteworthy attempt, I guess.)I sincerely hope this so-called movement gathers momentum. Although how I wish our ‘first-time’ film-makers remained so through their successive films (even Kalavaani had all these traits, didn’t it? Irreverence, no ambitions/pretence etc)

    BTW, you watched Pizza again seriously? Have you listened to its OST that’s
    just been released? (Is this a first of sorts in Tamil? And here we are, terming
    this an indie film?!) Also, just read this in Wikipedia that Vijay Sethupathy been around since Pudupettai! What was he in that?

    And despite however much I hate myself to ask this, what did you think of Poda Podi?

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  8. sridhar270: No, I didn’t revisit it. Sorry :-) But I got a full narration, if that helps :-)

    Adarsh Radhakrishnan: Come on, man. That’s unfair. See, there are two ways to judge things. One is from an ideal perspective and one from a relative perspective. I’d rather have, faults and all, this level of irreverence that none at all. Sure, we should ask them to aim higher, but I wouldn’t go about expecting “a cinematic infidel” and evaluate films with that in mind.

    Is “Thupakki”, for instance, a great action movie, if measured against the classics of the genre? No. But given what we usually see, it’s certainly a few notches up — and I guess depending on where you come from, you can either say “not bad at all” or “hmmm… still a long way to go.” It’s the former for me.

    Kiruba: “Attakathi” (and “Kalavani”) was not on my list because it’s a very well realised and “formally made” film — far from the scrappy feel of “Pizza” and “NKPK.” I’m not just talking about irreverent low-budget features but films with this skit-level “let’s try anything” vibe. Like “Hyderabad Blues”, as venkatesh mentioned. Or Kevin Smith’s early films. It’s high time we had some of those.

    “Poda Podi” wasn’t as rank as I thought it would be, but the subject needed far better handling :-)

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  9. Talking about a movie which you have watched only the first half and listening to some one narrating the second movie helps you to form an opinion ? I haven’t heard this from any critic before :) Going with pre-conceived notions about a genre will help you enjoy any movie for that matter ?

    Btw Pizza made good money at box office.It’s dubbing rights is sold at more than the total budget of the movie. And in Hindi acclaimed director Bejouy Nambiar of ‘Shaitaan’ and upcoming ‘David’ fame has acquired remake rights for over a crore ! May get a hindi version soon :)

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  10. I thoroughly enjoyed Pizza. That rug pulling stunt and, though you call it skit level, there was a lot of formal techniques used quite well for the thriller aspects.

    NKPK didn’t work for me at all. It had a few laughs but, it had – to use a popular phrase – that feeling of the filmmakers and actors having more fun than what got translated on screen. Lot of repetition, mildly stupid conceits (yeah, I know it is a true story) and as you said, too long. The director was present during our show and we were wondering if we should go and ask – saar nejamave avanga family la ellarun makku ah?

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  11. dinakaranonline: I did see NKPK. Otherwise how would I be able to talk about the film being too long or the reaction shots and all? As for “Pizza,” it’s not as if I’m reviewing the film. I talking about a trend.

    Gradwolf: The only real problem with NKPK — IMO — was the length. There was no reason for this to go on for three hours, and a lot of what you mention is a result of the drawn-out nature of the film. We would have bought a lot of these “faults” more readily had the film not lingered so.

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  12. I was referring to Pizza actually that you walked out after first half :) Though you did not watch the film fully , you commented on many aspects of the movie which actually bothers me! Movie had everything that takes it to be a proper main stream commercial movie .May be if the same movie is directed by acclaimed director , you can consider it differently I suppose !

    But again , I agree to what you have written – yes , it is setting a new trend and movement to tamil cinema. Hoping it lasts !

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  13. BR : Glad that you brought up Kevin Smith’s earlier films , the B/W Clerks is a complete one-off and for someone who has spent time in NJ – it captures it beautifully.

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  14. It’s nice to talk about a movie which has been very off-beat, Pizza deserves a special mention for this aspect.I, like all the other cinema enthusiasts out there, would encourage such attempts in Tamil Cinema. What I really want to ask you is about the movie’s climax. Though i felt “Ah, This is also a nice way to end this movie, how come i never thought of it?” I also feel that this movie made a mockery of the audience’s thought process. While one can clearly think in a lines of a serious thriller in terms of a schizophrenic person/ Multiple personality disorder, this movie made a complete joke of the seriousness involved. What’s your take on this, Sir?

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  15. Rangan, I know it will be difficult to do music reviews with your busy schedule but waiting for your opinion on Kadal soundtrack … has been looping on my desktop all morning

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