Review: Pudhupettai

Posted on May 30, 2006




Selvaraghavan and Dhanush reunite in a lowdown and dirty tale of a gangster from the slums.

MAY 30, 2006 – I KNOW A LOT OF PEOPLE who won’t watch Selvaraghavan movies. I’ll tell them he’s the most excitingly raw filmmaker in Tamil cinema today, that even if his films don’t hold up as a whole there are enough individual moments of brilliance — but they just won’t go to his cinema because of the kind of lowlives his protagonists are. I know I’m treading on thin ice here, but at the heart of this is the whole high-class versus low-class business. A lot of people mistake Selvaraghavan’s movies for low-class movies — that is, the movies created for the sweepers and the factory workers and the ayahs and the auto drivers. They’ll watch Mani Ratnam’s Aayitha Ezhuthu, where Madhavan’s lowlife is presented in impressively art-directed squalor, but they can’t bring themselves to watch 7G Rainbow Colony because the hero says the heroine regards him as “therula kadakkara saani.” In other words, crassness in a character is apparently okay, but crassness in the presentation isn’t.

But this crassness is the key to Selvaraghavan’s work; it’s why his films get under your skin like a nagging itch. Pudhupettai charts the rise-through-the-ranks of a hoodlum named “Kokki” Kumar (Dhanush), and the early parts of the film show Kumar as a schoolboy. (Yes, a crass schoolboy.) In one scene, he’s trying to outrun his mother who’s after him with a cane, and yet, when he passes a pubescent girl, he stops momentarily to leer, “Enna, vayasukku vandhuttiya?” You’ll never find this happening in a Mani Ratnam movie, because his instincts are resolutely middle-class; a respect for women is ingrained in him. Yet, you have to admit that this is what someone like “Kokki” Kumar, who grows up in the slums, is likely to do. As a member of the middle-class, as a member of the balcony audience, you cringe at this moment, but at the same time, you are grateful for the visceral reaction it produces — no, provokes — in you.

No wonder, then, that the first song in the movie goes Enga area ulla varaadhey! This could almost be a warning to a certain section of the audience, because Kumar and his cronies say that Pudhupettai, Vyasarpadi, Ennore and Kasimedu are their areas, while Anna Nagar, KK Nagar, T Nagar and Boat Club are ours. But the thing about this film — as with all of Selvaraghavan’s films — is that it may be about them, but it isn’t necessarily only for them. Anyone with an interest in cinema would be part of the audience for Pudhupettai, because it’s been made with brains and a vision. Right from the first scene in a jail cell, you can see Selvaraghavan knows exactly what he’s doing. The right half of the screen is lit in a lurid red, the left in an equally lurid, phosphorescent green. You think the frame, the image, perhaps indicates the split-personality of Kumar (who’s in the cell), but much, much later, when Kumar gets into politics, Selvaraghavan zooms in on a map of Chennai; the areas that belong to Kumar are in green, his rival’s are in red.

This is just a tiny visual payoff, but the major innovation of Pudhupettai — other than the fact that it asks us to invest in a protagonist who’s basically a sewer rat with no redeeming qualities — is in its telling. The heavily melodramatic story is narrated as a series of flashbacks, and Selvaraghavan doesn’t let his scenes play out so much as let them fade in and fade out, making them seem like random bursts of memory. (That’s why there’s no beginning-middle-end feel; the climax doesn’t wrap the movie up with a neat bow so much as set it adrift on a different course.) Early on, for instance, you see in the background Kumar’s mother being slapped by her husband; the screen turns black, then when she’s serving her son dinner, her cheek is swollen. End of moment. (Many of these sequences do not have a background score, though I couldn’t see why because there are other places where Yuvan Shankar Raja goes rather overboard with symphonic swells. Somehow, it doesn’t sound right when the lives of these people are underscored by horns and cellos.)

Selvaraghavan shows an impressive feel for his material, and there are as many scenes that exist at a level of poetry as there are that play rousingly to the gallery, especially the song sequences. Yuvan’s chartbusters are so smoothly blended in, I couldn’t pick out the point where, say, the dialogue ended and the Variya number began. The energy of the dancers seems to spill over to every nook and corner of the slum. And though this isn’t the kind of film that warrants a comedy track, there are surprising laughs throughout. The best segment in the movie shows Kumar being taught how to carry out a hit — he’s being trained by a senior hood, in a twisted variation of a senior police officer showing a rookie cop the ropes — and it’s funny and scary at once, just like the other bit that’s at once funny and horrifying. (A member of Kumar’s gang — one of a dazzling array of relatively unknown character actors — recalls asking his mother why she lay down beside the tailor whenever his father was out; he got a bucket of scalding water for an answer.) There’s a lighter side to these mean streets, all right; it’s just tinged with blood (or maybe hot water).

As is inevitable in movies dealing with gangsters — and this is merely a reflection of our society today — there’s a point after which politics slowly creeps in. Till then, we’ve seen Kumar’s life with his parents, his life with a local prostitute (played with enormous dignity by Sneha), but soon the story shifts from the personal to the political, and then back to the personal, and then again to the political… This may be one of the big miscalculations of Selvaraghavan, for however fresh and exciting the way he presents these events, the life and times of a party hoodlum aren’t exactly new to us. There’s little here we haven’t seen earlier, or cannot predict. The self-indulgently arty pacing in these scenes doesn’t help either. These are the times the film looks like it has nowhere to go, and is getting there extremely slowly.

The other problem is Dhanush. He certainly looks the part, because Kumar is described as “pencil-la kodu potta maadhiri,” but more than the physical appearance, Kumar needs to look like a kid who gets no respect from the grown-ups. He may lop off hands and chop off heads, but there are others around him who have done all this and more, and they can’t digest taking orders from this skinny newbie. And everywhere that Dhanush is required to be a still presence, he’s fine. He’s actually more than fine in his scenes with Sonia Agarwal, who’s presented — as she was in 7G Rainbow Colony — as this ideal object of desire, a contrast from Kumar in every imaginable way.

But Kumar is also made to do things like talk directly to the audience, and at places like this (and where he’s required to rave and rant), Dhanush is so self-consciously showy, it’s hard to take. But that’s also probably the character itself, for it isn’t everyday we get to watch a Tamil movie where the only instincts the protagonist possesses are those of an animal. Kumar needs food and sex, he knows fear, he can express rage, he’ll do anything to save his skin, and… that’s it. Even the emotions he displays towards the prostitute he’s with seem more territorial than anything else; I wasn’t sure that he ever loved her, just that he didn’t want to share her with anyone else. It’s only when he has a child that we see glimmers of selfless emotion for another person; after all, even animals have feelings for their young.

With a better lead, and with a little less self-indulgence, Pudhupettai could have been something of a mood masterpiece, but even as it is, it’s a fascinatingly idiosyncratic work. Selvaraghavan may have borrowed an image of a man being pushed into a freshly-dug grave from Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad, and there may be a nod to Coppola’s Godfather Part II in the courtroom sequence where Kumar intimidates a witness who’s turned approver by bringing the latter’s mother to the courtroom — if he squeals, she’ll die — but this is largely a very fresh, very original work. You can see it in the colours used; they’re loud, yes, not in a T Rajendar-art-direction way, but in a way that suggests that they’ve leapt out of your subconscious. A good portion of Pudhupettai works at that very primal level, the way folk art does. I know there’ll be lots of people who’ll turn up their noses and stay away, but that doesn’t change the fact that, for all its flaws, this is very high-class filmmaking.

Copyright © 2006


Posted in: Cinema: Tamil