A BLOODY GOOD SHOW
JULY 27, 2008 – IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THIS. The year has already seen the release of Mysskin’s Anjaathey, and going by the laws that govern Tamil cinema – commandments such as the one that says, Thou shalt not cast a heroine unless she knoweth not the language, or the other one that goes, Thou shalt fall on all fours before the hero and sacrifice every other consideration about the film at the altar of his magnificence – there weren’t supposed to be any more nasty surprises in the form of cinema as cinema (and not just cinema as a commodity hawked at the intersection of the A, B and C centres), at least till Bala came out with Naan Kadavul.
Doesn’t M Sasikumar know this? Doesn’t he know he can’t just spring out of nowhere and dazzle us with craft and control and give us one of the best first features ever made, so wonderfully written and so beautifully shot and put together? Doesn’t he know he’s got to make tinny excuses about not having the support system of a multiplex culture or not being able to rope in saleable stars, and therefore end up making a highly compromised work – with item songs like Kathaazha kannaala – that merely exhibited promising slivers of his talent, rather than one that showcased him as a fully-formed visionary who appears to have done for the bloody bylanes of Madurai what Scorsese did for Little Italy in Mean Streets?
I realise I just might have oversold Subramaniyapuram to a degree that the film cannot hope to live up to, but when you’re excited about something and when you rush back for a second viewing immediately after the first (possibly to pinch yourself and check if, indeed, your reaction to the film was proportionate to its merits), you want to shout from the rooftops – especially when the kind of theatres the film is playing in are likely to deter certain classes of the audience. (Couldn’t the city’s multiplexes have knocked off one screening of The Dark Knight, say, or the dreadful Kismat Konnection, and accommodated this local product? Not even in a noon show?)
But go – please go. Go and strap yourself to the time machine that is Subramaniyapuram, which is set in 1980 – amidst single-sheet Bombay Dyeing calendars and plastic wire furniture and posters of Maanthoppu Kiliye and TV sets with sliding-door shutters bursting to life with Koodayile karuvadu. And against this backdrop lies the story of a bell-bottomed gang of five that looks ready to audition for the sequel of Paalaivanacholai, featuring a schoolteacher who wears the kind of fugly rectangle-rim spectacles we saw on Nizhalgal Ravi in Mann Vaasanai, and a heroine named Thulasi (Swathi) whose ears are pierced by gilt-hoop rings and who ceaselessly bats her enormous eyes in a manner that leaves us in little doubt that her favourite heroine is the Sridevi of that era.
My favourite bit of nostalgia would have to be the opening-day celebrations for a Rajinikanth movie. Just about everything in this sequence brings an oh-those-innocent-days smile to your face – the long lines in front of the current booking counter, the shrill ring of the bell to indicate that the show has begun, the row of red buckets filled with sand to put out potential fires, the Softy ice creams melting in their cones during the interval, and even the giant hand-painted cutout at the entrance, with the title of the film spelt out with little metal discs that shiver in the breeze and shimmer in the light.
That the film is Murattukaalai is most appropriate, for its success is one of the major reasons the cult of the super hero has become the albatross around our cinema’s neck. Which actor with a big draw wants to scale himself down to life-size in a Subramaniyapuram any more, when he can cut loose and loom large in a Pazhani or a Vel? Of course, the inclusion of Murattukaalai, here, isn’t to pound out some such overarching sociocultural thesis point – it’s probably just Rajini-related nostalgia, and this nostalgia is most effective. You may never have set foot in Madurai, let alone a boondocks hamlet like Subramaniyapuram, but it’s not difficult to appropriate the film’s nostalgia as your own. It’s like how you don’t have to have stepped into a bullock cart in order to empathise with the yearning for home in the song Sorgame yendraalum, when the fish-out-of-water hero rues, “Kaalai rendu pootti, kattavandi otti, gaanam paada vazhi illaye.”
But chintzy memories of a now-distant past can only take a film so far – and what’s remarkable about Subramaniyapuram is how it refuses, at any point, to sit down in self-congratulation. Its wheels keep spinning at all times, and once the silly grin upon seeing the fuss and the celebration around Murattukaalai wears off, you realise that the purpose of this sequence isn’t just lazy nostalgia. The way the scene builds, Azhagar (Jai) and his gang are loitering at the cinema hall, when Thulasi (his girlfriend; their love is expressed in such chaste terms, they circle each other with such innocent anticipation, it’s almost comical in this age of Thee pidikka, thee pidikka mutham kodu da) walks in with her friends.
Azhagar gets them tickets and later, during intermission, he gets them ice creams, and then, when someone makes a seedy remark about these girls, Azhagar gets into a fight. It’s this stretch of violence – unchoreographed, seemingly; it looks like the actors made it up as they went along – that we were being led towards all this while, this pointer to the simmering bloodlust in Azhagar. Like the earlier instance of a street-fight that erupted out of nowhere, this one too is a detail to be filed away about Azhagar and his cohorts, about how it’s a dangerously thin line these unemployed youths have to cross in order to commit murder.
For that’s the turning point of the film (which now plays like Sathya meets Paruthi Veeran) – when Azhagar and Paraman (Sasikumar, the director) and Kasi (Ganja Karuppu) kill a local politician who’s just set out for his evening walk, in spotless white socks stretched up to the ankles, over spotless white canvas shoes. Sasikumar superbly orchestrates the minutes leading to this murder, showing us how the victim is stalked, how the weapons are bought, and how the stage is set. When the moment arrives, they strike and the politician falls, and to make sure the job is done, one of them cuts the man’s throat before fleeing.
And that’s when you may want to ask how a bunch of lowlives who appeared hooligans but still nice hooligans could bring themselves to the brink of such premeditated savagery. That’s just one of the ellipses Sasikumar leaves you to fill in, and if you think back to the fight that broke out during Murattukaalai, and if you factor in the detail that the victim has brought ruin to Thulasi’s family (along with the consideration that this family has always provided for Azhagar and his friends), you can sense that it mustn’t have taken much for Azhagar and his cronies to cross over from beating people up to near-death to actually killing someone.
And having committed this murder in the name of duty, a second one follows in order to fulfill an obligation, and a third for revenge, along with a fourth and a fifth – and soon, Subramaniyapuram turns into a bloodbath. The film is very violent – but looking back, even before a drop of blood was spilled on screen, the whiff of violence was always in the air. There was the violence of Thulasi’s father slapping her mother when things weren’t going well at work, and there’s the violence of Azhagar picking up a fight with a random passer-by because he is frustrated with his mother’s nagging.
There’s been a lot of noise about how sickening the violence is in this film, but none of it is gratuitous. There’s a context for everything, cause and effect, before and after – and that’s due to the wonderful writing that ensures that the characters aren’t drawn with instantly identifiable (and stupidly overblown) quirks and mannerisms, the typically insulting kind that make you feel that the director has scrawled a colourful character definition on a post-it and slapped it on your forehead. The inhabitants of Subramaniyapuram are sketched out over time, through events and interactions, through incidents like the local festival, which hogs a great deal of screen space, but only because it’s exploited for atmosphere as well as the off-colour humour in the detailing of why the man who did not get the contract for the sound systems was, in fact, better off for it. And later, when Kasi accepts money for a killing, and when Azhagar and Paraman refuse, it doesn’t seem significant at all, but this little bit of information foreshadows a chilling development towards the end.
Subramaniyapuram is a busy film, teeming with the business of life. Sasikumar fills his scenes with a lot of background action, like Thulasi’s uncle walking into the frame while her father is on the phone, for no apparent reason than to say goodbye – but then, that’s life. Things aren’t going to come to a standstill because you’re in the middle of an important conversation, and there’s a lot in Subramaniyapuram that pulls back and takes in the larger picture instead of settling for the easier close-ups, both literally and figuratively.
This is a film that understands that the revelation about a beloved sister’s death need not necessarily be melodramatic in tone, that such a conversation can take place in a matter-of-fact matter, as if narrating details of a business transaction that went bad. This is also a film that doesn’t feel the need to explain everything. When you see a single tear coursing down the face of a dying man, you’re left to do the figuring out. (Is that remorse? Repentance? Relief?) And, most strikingly, this is a film of symmetries. Early on, there’s a very fussy scene with a little too much symmetry. A man brings his foot down on a kick starter (of a bike) and we cut to a woman bringing her hand down on the handle of a hand pump. Then, someone closes a door, and we cut to someone else opening a door. Then, water is poured into a tank, and we cut to water being extracted from a tank.
I rolled my eyes and hoped that this wasn’t going to set the tone for the rest of the film – but, thereafter, the symmetries become a thing of beauty, not cheap visual parallels, but deep emotional ones. The long tracking shot of Kasi that takes us into Subramaniyapuram, into the story that’s about to unfold, is complemented by a second one, at the end, that takes us out of the place, out of the tale. It isn’t just Azhagar who falls at the feet of a woman to save his life; the villain too puts himself in a similar situation to ensure that he doesn’t wind up dead.
There’s so much that’s breathtakingly right about Subramaniyapuram that I don’t feel like dwelling on the wrongs. So, yes, maybe Sasikumar overdoes the cuteness in the love angle, and perhaps his budget didn’t quite get him the kind of cast that could have taken this film to an entirely different level of achievement. There’s a scene where a man is betrayed, set up to be killed, and the look in his eyes as the first knife slices through his body indicates that he’s already dead, that the pain of his innards being ripped through is nothing compared to the pain from the stab in the back from the person he trusted the most – and you can’t help imagining how a Kamal-in-his-prime would have played it.
But there’s very little else that makes you wonder how things could have been. If anything, Subramaniyapuram just leaves you with the shock of recognition that this is what mainstream cinema could be if you don’t go in with the automatic assumption that the audiences are idiots, and if you understand that the only reason they appear to be endorsing films made for idiots is because they don’t have a choice. The success of a class act like Subramaniyapuram – in theatres that are typically looked down upon as those that cater to the “masses,” yet – is happy proof that the idiots aren’t the audiences so much as the filmmakers who’ve made careers out of chronically underestimating them.
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