Conversation with the Creator… of Naan Kadavul

Posted on February 12, 2009

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Picture courtesy: extramirchi.com

CONVERSATION WITH THE CREATOR

Bala cancels a much-anticipated interview. A disappointed Baradwaj Rangan mulls over the director’s latest film – and the questions it raised.

FEB 13, 2009 – YOU KNOW THOSE DAYS WHEN YOU’RE out on the street with a smile on your lips and a song in your heart, when the grass seems greener, the rose redder, even the Chennai air cleaner, when suddenly a bus passes by and a passenger leans out and squirts a stream of tobacco juice in your direction, and you end up with a stained shirt, a smarting eye and a murderous impulse towards the kid pointing at you and clutching his stomach? Today was one of those days. I was on my way to an interview with Bala, a director I admire and respect enormously if only for single-handedly casting the sepulchral pall that looms over much of recent Tamil cinema. After Sethu, Nanda, Pithamagan, and now, Naan Kadavul, morbid is the new muse. How could anyone not be excited about peering into the darkness and the demons that surely haunt this gaunt artist?

And then his PR person calls. The interview is cancelled. Bala is upset with the review published in this paper. He’s sulking. He’s miffed. He’s angry. So am I. My journalist’s pride is pricked. I want to scream and shout and invent obscenities that will make the messenger break out in a cold sweat, but he’s delivered his dispatch and hung up. I simmer and seethe at my impotence – but soon, the writer in me takes over. I calm down. I understand. Bala is, in the end, a creator, a parent, and no father wants to be told that his child is ugly. But despite that review, I wish he’d met me. I could have told him I really liked his film. I could have distracted him from his distress, engaging him with at least a few of the five thousand questions circling inside my head ever since I exited the theatre.

I would have begun with my heartfelt appreciation of his having made, among other things, possibly the most perverse Tamil film yet. Isn’t it startling, in a cinema culture that swears by love stories, that you cast names like Arya and Pooja and barely have them breathe in the same vicinity? Did you, director sir, deliberately set out to confound audience expectations this way? Surely you would have known that your viewers would hope that, at some point, the tracks about his story (he’s Rudra, an Aghori mystic) and hers (she’s Hamsavalli, a blind beggar) would converge in a heartwarming fashion. But instead, you have a film named after the hero (and yourself perhaps, the director as God?) but a story about the heroine. The hero is just an enabler, an agent – if he’s God, he’s merely a deux ex machina, a last-minute deliverer from evil.

Did Arya know about this, sir, when he signed up? I would have asked you that. Or was he seduced by the grandeur of what, in Tamil film language, we call the Hero Introduction Shot. When we first see Rudra, he’s in an impossible yogic pose, and the camera circles him the way it would in any other Tamil film that worships its hero as a virile god – except that, here, he is literally God. “Aham brahmasmi,” he keeps reminding us. Did you inform him, sir, that you were crafting a modern-day mythological? In the tales of yore, God would leave His celestial abode, descend to earth, do what He needed to do to uphold dharma, and return to the heavens. Isn’t that what the aptly named Rudra does here, leaving Kashi for a village down south, where he is needed, and returning home after his work is done?

And then, sir, I was intrigued by the sequence where Rudra’s father comes to Kashi in search of the son he’d abandoned, 14 years ago. (That number, sir, fourteen years spent in austere exile – could it be a quote from one of our epics?) The Good Samaritan who helps Rudra’s father remarks that Kashi is a fathomless sea of people, and yet, the latter has little trouble finding his son. Isn’t that because this man-God wants to be found (in accordance with the dictates of this avatar of His, so to speak)? And, sir, another question. Why did you name the demon of this story, the villain who runs a begging racket, Thandavan? Isn’t that a name of Shiva too, as Rudra is? Is there a bigger point you are making here, about Manichaean duality or suchlike?

I enjoyed every single one of your conceits, sir. I’ve heard noises that Arya hasn’t been given enough to do, enough of a part to play. But am I right, sir, in intuiting that you needed him less to effect a performance than embody a presence? After all, no less an authority than Rudra’s mother declares him to be suyambhu, self-created, so why would he need to be a character that showed a conventional graph with respect to – for instance – his family? He’s detached from it all – even the screenplay. He sounds a conch. He smokes grass. He recites shlokas so pregnant with import that even Mangaattu Saami, the deformed saint who refuses to see, opens his eyes in deferential acknowledgement. And only when push comes to shove, only when Rudra’s “penance” is disturbed by Hamsavalli’s pitiful entreaties, does a bloody gash on his forehead reveal itself as an angry third eye.

That’s what I meant, sir. This is a perverse masterstroke, to cast a hero in a film from an industry that worships the hero, and then reduce this hero to a mostly passive hanger-on, waiting in the wings for his last-scene cue. As an Aghori, Rudra can prevent the cycle of rebirths – and that’s the sole purpose of this avatar of his, isn’t it, sir? Hamsavalli is born into a family of beggars. She’s snatched away from one life of suffering and “reborn” in another family of beggars. And finally, when a Malayali trader threatens to snatch her away (yet again, from this life), when he attempts to kill her ties with her current family and force her rebirth in yet another family of beggars, she seeks moksha. And who, other than the hero-God can deliver her from this apparently endless cycle of metaphorical rebirths?

What a mind-bogglingly fantastic conceit, sir. Bravo! Where another filmmaker would have been content to have the hero kill the villain (namely, the God kill the Demon), that aspect, in Naan Kadavul, is almost an afterthought. (At least, it appeared that way, sir, because a lot of the latter portions were patchy to the point of distraction. You must forgive my effrontery, sir, but surely this isn’t intentional. What the hell happened?) And sir, you know what else fascinates me? A filmmaker who dabbles with such high-minded hokum would typically be making art cinema, gently gloomy tracts that reflected the lambent sadness of life and it all. But you, sir, are Mr. Commercial! On the one hand, you employ an enigmatic art filmmaker’s trick of leaving the audience in muted suspense about a character’s end. And yet, you don’t shy away from playing borderline-crude melodrama at the highest pitch possible.

Your composer recognises that, sir. We’ve seen Ilayaraja conjure up beautifully understated background scores for understated filmmakers like Mani Ratnam. He’d develop themes, leitmotifs, and these would become as inseparable from the characters as the actor’s faces. But here, sir, he goes for thrilling bombast, and while I personally prefer the other, mellower approach, I can see why that wouldn’t have worked in Naan Kadavul. He sees your scenes play at the high pitches we’re used to in Tamil melodramas, and he responds by scoring at a similarly high pitch. (Incidentally, sir, Maa Ganga Kashi padhaari, the bhajan sung by Kunal Ganjawala over the opening credits, is moving beyond words. I wonder why you didn’t release it as part of your soundtrack.)

I am always taken by this extremely unique aspect of yours – packaging high-minded material in an engagingly lowbrow style. And you do it with such style, sir. The comedy scenes in your films, for instance, aren’t disassociated item pieces, but integrated with the characters and with the spirit of the story itself. I was vastly amused by the sly, dark humour in Rudra’s attempts to settle into his new surroundings, much like a village bumpkin’s misadventures in a glittering city. And that Ambani joke, sir, was genius, as was the bit about the policeman being reprimanded for his faulty English in court. Were these the efforts of your writer Jeyamohan, sir? Was he also responsible for shaping the vast array of memorably colourful characters, especially those misshapen beggar-misfits whom you sometimes linger over a little too lovingly (perhaps even exploitatively)?

These people with severe disabilities have accepted their lot in life and have decided to make the most of it. While we squirm in discomfort at having it so good (in comparison), the incessant humour in their lives ensures that they don’t particularly beg for our sympathies. That’s a touch of real class, sir, to accommodate the commercial compulsion of comedy in such an organic manner into your story. Because we aren’t invited to cry along with them (for the most part), we take them to our hearts. One of my favourite scenes is when their drunken “manager” bonds with them, his conscience uncomfortably (and hilariously) out in the open. (By the way, sir, did you name this character Murugan because you wanted to use the song Ammavum neeye and its unforgettable chant of Muruga Muruga? Or was this merely coincidence? Either way, sir, the effect was blisteringly funny.)

But speaking of golden songs from a golden era, sir, I thought the medley sequence here was a bit too reminiscent of the one in Pithamagan – even if it was great fun to watch, and also better woven into the film (because that’s how we meet Hamsavalli’s first “family;” the elaborate scene establishes the dynamics between these people in a succinct and entertaining manner). And, sir, I didn’t understand why Hamsavalli would sing some of these old songs in “her” voice and some in, say, P Susheela’s (Sondhamillai bandhamillai, from your composer’s first film). Even the new songs, sir, the ones Ilayaraja created specifically for this film, left questions about how and where they were employed. I thought both Pichai paathiram and Om Sivoham deserved better use than just as sonic background for very literal and very obvious montages (about begging in the former; about the hero in the case of the latter).

If I could go on about my issues with the film, sir, I’d contend that the characters went a long way towards compensating for the ungainly transitions in the screenplay. I suppose, sir, that this has (unfortunately) been a consistent part of your work – much like the device of making us love a bunch of misfits before you unleash sadistic brutalities on them – but in Naan Kadavul, I wonder why I felt, for the first time, some sort of creative conflict. What was that late plot point about Christianity, sir, in a film based on the Hindu concept of rebirth? I’d have liked to chat with you and clear my head of these niggling nits, sir, and also tell you, again, how much I remain awed by your efforts to pull off something of this nature. I think you’re terrific, sir. I’m a big fan. And I hope the next time you make a movie, I can say this sitting across you.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil