Between Reviews: That Touch… That Director’s Touch

Posted on March 15, 2008


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MAR 16, 2008 – JUST A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, IN THIS COLUMN, I’d gone on about how we – the film audiences in the country – do not have the stomach for self-indulgence, and now here’s Anjaathey, which appears to be some sort of hit across Tamil Nadu despite the extreme indulgences of its director Mysskin (and despite the antagonist sporting the most terrifying instance of on-screen hair since the heydays of Sudhakar). And I couldn’t be more thrilled. Mysskin stacks his film with so many “director’s touches,” he practically pulls you out of the narrative at times – but then, that’s what these “director’s touches” do. They’re these little self-indulgent flourishes that exclaim to us, “Boss, this is a very fertile imagination at work.” K Balachander built an entire career on these touches, and the one that comes to mind now is from Sindhu Bhairavi, where the passage of time in Suhasini’s life is depicted through the weekly periodicals being slipped under her door. You’re missing the point if you drew back and wondered: “But why on God’s good earth does she need to buy Kumudham and Kungumam and Anandha Vikatan? Couldn’t she subscribe to just one of these magazines and get the rest from a circulating library?” What’s important is that the director has worked out an interesting way to say what he wants to say. (Imagine how much more boring the same scene would have been had we seen a tired old cardboard calendar, its distended belly of date sheets being ripped off one by one.)

In Anjaathey, Mysskin opens an action sequence – something that could have been just another set piece with fist-pounding fight choreography – with nothing but stillness and an expanse of sky; the frame is held as people enter and exit, which is to say that instead of the usual practice of the restless camera following the characters, the characters show themselves only when they wander into the gaze of a fixed camera. Much later, the director shows a bad guy being shot to death, and then complicates our emotions by having this villain’s young son struggle to reach his father through the obstacle course of a couple of policemen, whose swaying efforts to block the child assume the proportions of some sort of surreal, macabre dance. And in what is possibly the showiest – and therefore, most self-indulgent – piece of filmmaking I’ve seen in years, Mysskin shoots an entire sequence with the camera just a little above floor-level. We see feet scurrying about, we see objects – a bag, a door, a chair, a mirror – and we see the payoff to the shot when the villain does something unspeakably vile while on all fours. With all this, did I tell you there’s a character whose face is never seen, who’s always shot from behind his bald head? Or that, in another scene where the protagonist is simply seen walking, his impending journey from badness to goodness, from darkness to light, is prefigured by the illumination on the roads – the path he’s ambling along is lit by the forbidding blue of the moon, and his destination is bathed by the warm yellow of streetlights.

As filmmaking choices, each of these is intended to remind you of a trip to the doctor’s office: you’re meant to open your mouth and say, “Ah!” Anjaathey is a director’s movie in the truest sense of the word (a rare species not just in mainstream Tamil cinema but in mainstream Indian cinema), and that’s why I was willing to overlook quite a bit – the fact, for instance, that this director does not know when to quit (rather, to quit gracefully while he’s ahead). He whips up a tremendous sequence where the protagonist – now a policeman – stumbles upon a man on the street who’s drawing his last breaths. An auto-rickshaw passes by, and another – and these won’t stop to help. Just as you’re expecting a third auto to snake into the scenario, so that our hero can haul its driver up by the collar and deliver an or-else ultimatum, an old lady – a seller of flowers – walks in and offers her support. She sits behind the hero on his motorcycle, the two of them making a bloody sandwich of the wounded man in between, but before they can reach anywhere, the victim dies. You think the point has been made – about the arbitrariness of life, which doesn’t always translate good intentions into good endings, or the hero’s realisation that he cannot save everyone (one of the film’s biggest achievements is that so much of it is so starkly open-ended, the director resolutely refusing to fill in the blanks) – but Mysskin brings things to a dreadfully sentimental close by having the old lady sprinkle flowers at the spot the victim had lain but a few minutes ago.

Another miscalculation of a death scene involves a bullet through the heart of a man wearing a T-shirt with the picture of a dove. And elsewhere, in a standout instance of a bad masala-movie gimmick, a villain is introduced by performing a handshake on himself (because the man he extends a hand to won’t respond in kind). And there’s a terrible bit of business about the depth of friendship being demonstrated through the gift of a ring. And yet, and yet – when you note that the hero is almost incidental to the proceedings, that he’s simply a part of the larger scheme of things (in not just the screenplay, but as if in life), or when you see that there’s no love angle to speak of, and that the director’s eccentricity assumes amusing proportions in the placement of the love duet (it’s as if he said, “You heathens want a duet? Here’s one, popping out of nowhere. Now don’t you dare complain that it’s not been worked into the screenplay.”), it’s hard not to come away impressed by the overall achievement. Mysskin’s self-indulgence extends even to the length of individual sequences – and, in turn, to the length of his film. It goes on and on – and yet, you’re rivetted with what could have been just another saga of friendship, just another thriller about cops-versus-kidnappers, just another tale of a son redeeming himself in his father’s eyes. Anjaathey is all of the above and yet none of the above. It’s hard to pin down whether this is great filmmaking or not, but it’s certainly interesting filmmaking, and if box-office reports are to be believed, Mysskin has ended up with the Holy Grail of moviemakers: he’s made something that he wants to make, and that’s turned out to be something that we want to see.

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