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.
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.
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