Between Reviews: The New Tamil Cinema

Posted on May 9, 2009

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Picture courtesy: fresh.cinesnacks.in

THE NEW TAMIL CINEMA

MAY 10, 2009 – IN TERMS OF APPLICATION OF TECHNIQUE, at least, it appears that Hindi cinema is wantonly promiscuous, tempted by the wicked blandishments of world cinema, while Tamil cinema has remained the model of dull fidelity, content to cohabit with past masters from within the state. With the exception of a few big directors – the usual suspects – the average Tamil filmmaker directs his energies towards the shaping of performance, screenplay and dialogue, and little, if any, consideration is expended on craft. This isn’t about pretty photography – the screen’s expanse filled with a shimmering sunset, or a song sequence shot with enough megawatt sparkle to light up the village in Swades. I refer to craft being applied in service of the content (and the context) of the scene – as, for instance, in Taare Zameen Par, when the little boy, Ishaan, is dropped off, for the first time, at boarding school.

The father snaps that it’s time to leave. Outside the car, as the boy stands in pitiful isolation, we are given the reactions of the older son and the mother, both of whom are distraught at the prospect of abandoning their beloved Ishaan. A closeup of Ishaan’s face reveals big baby-eyes rapidly filling with tears, a sure sign that the audience is going to be emotionally manipulated – but the beauty is in how this manipulation is accomplished. Ishaan shudders involuntarily when the driver starts the car, and as the vehicle begins to pull away, we stay with the sobbing mother, the stationary child rapidly receding in the background. The next cut, however, deposits us behind Ishaan, and now we see the car speeding away from him. The gentle rise and fall of his shoulders informs us that he’s crying – but we don’t see his face yet.

Only after the car turns the corner and vanishes from sight, only when Ishaan is truly alone, only after this moment has been milked for maximum drama, does the camera swing a smooth arc and bring us face-to-face with Ishaan, for the money shot of his eyes streaming with tears. Would the same effect have been achieved had the camera cut to the sobbing child immediately after the car began to pull away? Possibly. We Indian audiences are a soft-hearted bunch. It doesn’t take much to make us cry. But this way, a similar end is accomplished with remarkable restraint and grace. The boy’s shaking shoulders prepare us for the awfulness of his situation, the half-circle of the camera slowly pulls us towards Ishaan’s reaction, and by the time we set eyes on him, we’re helpless puppets at the filmmaker’s mercy, expertly yanked around to empathise with Ishaan.

Such delicacy and deliberation in craftsmanship wasn’t easy to find in Tamil cinema – we’re more likely to be assaulted with the jump cut accompanied by the soundtrack whoosh – but, in a wonderful turnaround, we’re witnessing a parade of first-time filmmakers whose subjects are unabashedly local but who think in terms of global cinema. I was stunned by the display of virtuosity in Subramaniyapuram and Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu, and I asked a cinematographer acquaintance how these first-time filmmakers were so alert to the visual possibilities of cinema. Was it something in the water in the Madurai hinterlands? How are these directors able to marry content and craft with such assurance, with such little trace of the dialogue-heavy drama tradition of Tamil cinema? He replied that these youngsters are steeped in world cinema – watching it, discussing it, arguing about it – and it shows in their films.

I think he’s right. If the shadow of Scorsese loomed over the bloody brutalities of Subramaniyapuram, the mischievous spirit of Fellini haunts Pasanga (which was produced by M Sasikumar, who directed the former). But that’s just the feel, thankfully, and not the content, which is blessedly homegrown, and which appears to have been cultivated under the shadow of Ilayaraja. When I watched the numerous references to the maestro’s music in Subramaniyapuram, I figured it was because the film was set in the eighties. But what, then, explains the O papa laali ringtone in Pasanga, or the prelude of Paadavandhadhor gaanam being employed to underscore a romantic moment? In a similarly reverential vein, the equally contemporary Kungumapoovum Konjumpuraavum features, in quick succession, Vandhanam vandhanam, Paattaale buthi sonnaar, Velakku vacha nerathile, Solam vedhakkayile, Aaha vandhiruchu and Ore naal unai naan.

Besides their Raja-love, these filmmakers are united in their attempts to mine poetry from the quotidian – from the unvarnished faces of untrained actors, from the undecorated sets, from the carefully cultivated distance from all things urban (and the corresponding affinity for all things lumpen), in the rites and rituals of community living (not just in the religious context, but also, say, in the musical chairs sequence in Pasanga), and most of all, in the aimlessness of the youth in these stories that informs the amiable aimlessness of the storytelling. There’s also the taint of tragedy. Ever since Kaadhal demonstrated that Tamil audiences weren’t sticklers for hero and heroine traipsing off into widescreen sunsets, it’s become increasingly commonplace to witness love thwarted by an unfeeling world. Kungumapoovum, in fact, opens to the sounds of a keening village, without the slightest attempt to conceal from us the fate that befell its protagonists.

This new Tamil cinema is filled with characters who behave in memorably unpredictable ways – like the brother in Kungumapoovum who roughs up someone who labelled his sister a prostitute. As he makes it amply clear, he knows his sister is a prostitute – his beef is merely that someone dared to voice this widely acknowledged fact. The husband and wife in Pasanga are also beautifully written characters, separated by a series of quietly simmering resentments, built up steadily over the years, and yet united by the responsibility of raising their children. Earlier, the great directors of Tamil cinema shaped exciting new characters with the broadest of brush strokes – these characters were thrilling because they were nothing like anyone we knew – but these young filmmakers, today, are doing the opposite. They are burrowing into the people we already know, and the newness is from the unpredictability in psychology and behaviour.

Of course, as Kungumapoovum ultimately proves, these ways and means and techniques cannot alone guarantee a good film. Raw faces are fine but raw performances aren’t. Several scenes erupt with scant buildup, as if entire emotions were shifted forward with a jump cut, and as a result, the story unfolds at a cold distance, with hardly any development coming close to touching the heart. Pasanga, thankfully, restores your faith in the new Tamil cinema. The film plays like Anjali meets Amarcord – a Felliniesque amalgamation of childhood memories (though necessarily G-rated, like the class clown scanning a calendar for the number of holidays every month) leavened with the bracing pop energy of Mani Ratnam (in the joyous Naandhaan goppanda and Who’s that guy song sequences; composer James Vasanthan is surely a child of the eighties, going by his ceaseless fascination for foot-tapping pop-rock compositions bolstered by booming synth chords).

The filmmaking is nowhere as sophisticated as in Sasikumar’s directorial debut, and several stretches are constructed to appeal primarily at a gag-reel level – but the writing is so winning, the lines so funny and true, the romance so blushingly inviting, and the inner lives of the children detailed with such knowing empathy, the film’s charms are hard to resist. But more than anything, the success of Pasanga is in its depiction of childhood as not some blissed-out period of innocence but a blisteringly miniature version of adulthood, with the same desires to succeed, the same fears of failing, the same instincts of competition, and the same drives to get even. The eponymous children are appropriately boisterous, but this bluster is tinged with a grownup sadness – due to underachieving parents, say, who cannot afford to buy their son a bicycle, thus scotching his hopes of winning a local sporting contest.

But this solemnity is lightened by the playful literalisation of the less abstract (and more entertaining) aspects of these children’s lives – like how the kids fashion imaginary motorbikes out of thin air, or how they appear to take their cues from the “rowdy culture” in our cinema. (The ragging in school is along the lines of the ragging we’ve regularly witnessed in our “college movies,” and the fisticuffs in the school playground are clearly modelled on our longstanding tradition of outlandishly entertaining action sequences.) Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know when to stop, and the last half-hour or so is ludicrous. The accrued momentum is sapped through endless sermons calculated to send the audience home with life-affirming ideals, and the climax – again harking back to Anjali, with a bedridden child relentlessly exhorted to rise again – is an infuriating insult. Call it the revenge of old Tamil cinema on the new.

LOOKING BACK AT FEROZ KHAN’S CAREER, today, you wonder how this most resolutely outsized of leading men allowed himself to be shrunk to the requirements of old-world Bollywood drama – as the unprincipled businessman of Aadmi aur Insaan, or the namby-pamby third-leg in Arzoo, or even the insecure spouse in Safar. It wasn’t always pretty, seeing him in those mushy musicals, buckling down under the box-office clout wielded by the likes of Rajendra Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. The star’s true calling was in striding across the screen in a black poncho and a gold medallion, clutching a rifle as he sang to a group of children, Jeevan mein tu darna nahin (Khote Sikkay). With another actor, you might have questioned the wisdom of wielding a firearm in such proximity to innocents, but Feroz Khan revelled in that kind of macho madness.

The apotheosis of this testosterone swagger was Janbaaz, one of the great trash-entertainments of Hindi cinema. From the scudding time-lapse clouds on the opening credits to the underground London clubs spilling over with barely decent dancers, every aspect about this film was the lip-smacking equivalent of junk food, topped with a killer soundtrack – all pop-disco flash, beefed up by bass lines that possessed a swagger of their own. Feroz Khan knew his music. He introduced Biddu in Qurbani, and gave us a peek into the broad aesthetic of today’s techno-driven sound. He had Rekha shimmy on screen for the duration of Pyaar do, pyaar lo (Janbaaz), and offered us a glimpse into the star-studded item number trend that still drives our films. None of this enriched the movies in any significant fashion, but now that Feroz Khan has galloped off into that last great sunset in the sky, aficionados of a certain B-movie vibe will remember him as a cowboy who lived by his own code on the frontiers of mainstream cinema.

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