“Sundattam / Vathikuchi”… Blue-collar blues

For the longest time in Tamil cinema, there were those from the villages and those from the city – it was either MGR as Mattukaara Velan or MGR in Anbe Vaa. (Movies like Naadodi and Rickshawkaaran don’t really count because they essentially replanted the good-hearted villager in the city.) This schism was so pronounced that “urban” automatically came to denote (at least in the mind’s eye) the hep-cats. That there was another kind of “urban” – the not-so-educated, more prone to rage and impulsiveness and violence – was not something we got from the movies, except on the fringes of the screen, where we’d find the odd housemaid or chauffeur or else the rowdy with his striped T-shirt and big-belted lungi and the mole on the cheek. They would speak some kind of “Madras Thamizh” and that would tell us that they were neither fully urban nor entirely rural, but a mix of both, living in one space and possessed with the spirit of another. It was perhaps in the mid-1970s, with films like Thappu Thaalangal, that these people began to be seen on screen for what they were: subjects of a not-so-rosy picture of urban life.

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I asked a friend, a veteran business journalist, about why this class of people had to wait so long to find proper representation on the Tamil screen (as opposed to the token maidservant and the rowdy with the mole), and she said that it was mainly the post-liberalisation boom that brought in droves of migrants from other parts of Tamil Nadu to Madras. And with them, they brought along their unique codes and cultures – hence the “North Madras” movie, which one might christen CineMaduravoyal. I’m not sure I buy this entirely: for what, then, explains Thappu Thaalangal or Pasi? The characters in these films, those people, clearly existed even back then. We knew them too, for we saw them around us. It’s just that no one thought fit to put them on screen in a significant way, the way they really were. Because these were raw characters, they had to wait till Tamil cinema grew up, became mature enough to handle them – and that happened in the 1970s.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying why films like Sundattam and Vathikuchi matter. Neither one is especially good, but they contain scenes and developments and characters and even locations (Tambaram, Avadi, Ambattur, Samathuvapuram) that keep adding to the library of an urban Tamil cinema that’s overtaken another kind of urban cinema, populated with hep-cats who will not tear off, with their teeth, the meat from a leg of chicken. (This occurs in Vathikuchi, and a while ago, this sort of behaviour would be used to mark a true-blue rustic, like Rajkiran in En Raasavin Manasile.). Of course, by now, this genre has developed its own clichés. The universe is one whose airwaves are an endless Ilayaraja-hits station. And there is the indulgent mother (in both Vathikuchi and Sundattam) who coddles the hero. But there’s something tough-minded about these films. The rawness of the making is one with the rawness in these lives.

Vathikuchi, directed by Kinslin, centres on a share-auto driver Shakti (Dhileban) who becomes a reluctant hero due to the inadequacy of the system. If the cops won’t uphold the law, someone has to. This isn’t the most novel of plots, but the narration has its novelties. Instead of shaping this reluctant hero and then letting loose villains on him, Kinslin gives us the information that Shakti is a wanted man, and, through flashbacks, we get to know why. This is interesting for a while – until the necessities of Tamil-film heroism result in slo-mo wire-fu stunts, where a Premium Rush-like minimalism in the action department would have been more appropriate. We’re also asked to endure a few too many lines that paint Shakti as a do-gooder, and the film begins to drag its feet towards the finish. But even that’s not as problematic as the romantic portions, with Shakti and his neighbour Leena (Anjali).

Dhileban is such a hulking mass of muscle (he wolfs down idlis whole) and he’s so awkward an actor that his attempts at romance feel like outtakes from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s audition for Sleepless in Seattle. And at least till the film begins to devote itself entirely to the hero’s exploits, Leena is the more interesting character. By Shakti’s standards, she’s educated, but she still needs to go to a coaching class to learn to speak English. (The pidgin attempts at the language constitute this film’s comedy.) At one point, Leena even tells Shakti that someone as pretty as she is can never end up with someone who looks like him. And yet she does. Yes, this is yet another variation on every ordinary-looking guy’s dream, that he’ll one day land someone fair and lovely – but the way Vathikuchi handles this cliché is fun for a while, especially when aided by Ghibran’s fantastic songs. It’s too soon to say this, but if this composer keeps this up, he may end up a fixture on those airwaves.

Brahma G Dev’s Sundattam, set in 1990 (hence the Velai Kedaichidichu screening at a local theatre), is the story of a PT instructor’s son (Prabhakaran, played by Irfan) who’s a whiz at the carom board. His father wants to send him to Dubai, so he’ll earn some kind of living, but riches come his way when he becomes the protégé of Bhagya (Naren), a North Madras dada who runs a high-stakes carom club – soon, he’s buying his (indulgent) mother a gold chain. He falls for Kalai (Arundhati) — the weighing machine at the theatre spits out this fortune card before he sees her: “You will meet your angel” – and the culmination of this track has become yet another cliché of this genre. And he falls afoul of Kasi (Madhu), a thickly bearded druggie who looks like an emaciated version of T Rajendar. (Kasi was the reigning carom champ until Prabhakaran came on the scene; he’s been nursing a grudge ever since.)

Ignore some very ugly lensing and the film isn’t half bad. And again, it’s the heroine who’s more interesting than the hero. She is shown to be obedient to a stern older brother – a suspended cop, who seems unfamiliar with the mechanics of cracking a smile – and we are primed for an elopement or a hero’s ruse that will bring about the couple’s union. But Prabhakaran barely lifts a finger. It’s Kalai who turns sullen and silent and forces her brother to admit defeat. It’s not heroic (it’s heroinic?), but there’s something to be said for a girl who won’t take things lying down, content with the men around her making decisions about her life. The rest of Sundattam revolves around a plot to kill Bhagya, which the director keeps fairly unpredictable by showing things to us after they happen in the timeline of the story. Both Vathikuchi and Sundattam leave you with visions of what they could have been with more craft and control, but for all their flaws, they seethe with life.

Copyright ©2013 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

9 thoughts on ““Sundattam / Vathikuchi”… Blue-collar blues

  1. Rather than just brush it away as a cliche, I think it merits some analysis as to why that period, that milieu is always shown with Raja’s hits, at least as far these cine Madurai directors are concerned. To me, it goes beyond just hit songs…

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  2. Shankar: I don’t deny the point behind it — but the cliche, IMO, is in how it’s just Raja songs. No radio those days played just Raja songs. There would always be a Shankar-Ganesh number, or T Rajendar or Chandrabose stuck in the middle of the Raja hit parade. No one’s denying that Raja was the biggest name of the 80s, but there were other hit makers too, and we don’t hear them in these film as backdrop. So just wondering about that…

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  3. Baddy, There were a number of hit songs from other composers in that period and you are right, the radio in those days played many of them quite often. But there are a few factors as to why that era has come to be represented by Raja’s music. It’s no doubt tough on the other composers but it is understandable. It’s similar to how many promising batsmen waited in vain hoping for a shot in the Indian middle order that was dominated by the Fab 4. It’s just tough luck! Also, the sheer output of the man as well as the relative quantity (and staying power) of hit songs from him in that period just put others in shade at that time. So, for the 80s to be represented through Raja’s music just from a musical output perspective is understandable.

    But I suspect that it goes beyond that as far as these directors are concerned. I know they want to evoke a certain nostalgia by playing his music, but it’s also undeniable that those songs seemed to have a certain honesty and somehow apt for the situations that these directors are depicting in todays cinema. The music is not current but the emotion in them still seems to fit. I was reminded of that sometime ago while watching Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Eppidi, especially the BGM for the senior romantic track. Again, it’s just a theory…

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  4. My theory “re Illaiyaraja hit stations” is simple – its what today’s generation recognises, folks who lived through the 80s might know other composers but the newer generation doesn’t for them 80′s is Illaiyaraja just like 90′s in another decade will be “only” A.R Rehman.

    Nothing more to read into it.

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  5. I have wondered about this pattern of suburban protagonists. At the end of the day, it’s about audience representation I guess.

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  6. “who becomes a reluctant hero due to the inadequacy of the system”
    i sense some kind of punning in this line.

    Agree that the IR recall is becoming too much of a cliche these days. I am wondering when this seemingly recent phenomenon in tamil cinema started. Was it Chennai-28 with “pothi vecha”? I don’t seem to recall anything before that.

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  7. The only 80s song reference in Mani Ratnam’s Kadal was SAR’s ‘Ey Pulla Karuppaayi’. How about that?

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  8. venkatesh: You’d be right if these were only the big hit songs. But how would someone from today’s generation know, say, “Thottam konda raasave”? I think it also has to do with the directors’ own nostalgia of the period.

    @sagittarian82: LOL!

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  9. BR : I was basing my theory on Subramaniapuram – which of course had one of the biggest song of that decade.

    “Thottam konda raasave” ? – that mean someone who actually knows the period – directoral nostalgia might be it. then

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