Between Reviews: Make Mine a Double

Posted on July 11, 2009


Visaaranai Commission 6


Two new exhibits from The New Tamil Cinema – one the real deal, the other a pale imitation.

JUL 12, 2009 – YOU DON’T NEED TO KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN to see that Vasanth’s new telefilm – Visaranai Commission, shaped for Doordarshan and sourced from Sa Kandasamy’s Sahitya Akademi award-winning novel – is rooted in the senses and the sensibilities of The New Tamil Cinema. You just need your ears. You just need to listen to the soundtrack spilling over with Kannan oru kaikuzhandhai and Ponmaalai pozhudhu and Ennadi Meenatchi and En vaanile ore vennila. What is it about Ilayaraja’s glorious early period that today’s filmmakers seek to recapture in their works? Is it just a whiff of a particular time – and if that is all, why not sneak in the occasional chartbuster by Shankar-Ganesh or T Rajendar or even Chandrabose? Or is the connection more personal, a declaration that this is the music these filmmakers were weaned on, this is the music that became milestones along the way to where they are today?

That, thankfully, is not the only way Visaranai Commission slots itself alongside the likes of Subramaniyapuram and Pasanga. If were to pick a defining moment, it would be the stretch where a young housewife is hanging clothes out to dry on the terrace. Her eyes are drawn by an unshapely garment, swaying on a line in cocky solitude – her husband’s unclean briefs. She makes a face, picks up a pole and gingerly extricates the offending piece of clothing from its perch. She deposits it in a bucket, which she fills with water. She squeezes her foot inside the bucket and stomps on the underwear, as if she couldn’t bear to use her hands on something so alienating, so disgusting. Finally, she cleans her feet by scraping it on the floor, under running water, thus obliterating every trace of contact with a man’s privates (even if it’s only her man).

Visaranai Commission is ostensibly about the events revolving around a procession – but the latter is referred to only in vague terms (“andha oorvalam”), and even when we’re shown shots of this procession, the agitated participants are a blur. They’re indeterminate – just like the policemen, who are deliberately framed in compositions that chop off their faces and instantly reduce them from people to pawns. The outside world – the politics, the system, the establishment – does not concern Vasanth, and even if it does, it’s only as some sort of MacGuffin. The hints that something of note will occur during the procession keep us hooked to the narrative – but like a lot of The New Tamil Cinema, Visaranai Commission is really an excuse to examine the people in it, the schoolteacher wife and the bus conductor husband whose lives unfold over a few decades.

As if acknowledging his inspirations, Vasanth devotes a shot of considerable length to the schoolteacher browsing through her bookshelf, stocked with names like Ashokamitran and Thi. Janakiraman and Indira Parthasarathy and Bharathidasan. There’s the depth of novelistic detail in the shaping of these characters. We get to know them minutely through the minutiae of their unremarkable daily lives – the smile of the husband as the wife tacitly acknowledges that there will be sex that night, or the wife subsequently plucking out strands of grey from her husband’s head, or the wife handing over a cup of tea to her coffee-addict husband and educating him about the evolution of tea-drinking, or the wife and husband discussing getting a dog, or the shades of grey in the husband who alternates, as real people often do, between sensitivity and senseless tantrums (he’s shown to have been beaten up as a boy).

At one point, he hurls on her face the food she’s prepared because there was a strand of hair in it, and yet, at another time, when she is unwell, he instructs his dog to take care of her. (The couple is childless, and the line the husband utters is remarkably poignant, “Tiger, ammava paathukkoda.”) This isn’t a film that shies away from dialogue. Perhaps because it’s a telefilm, Vasanth luxuriates in the inconsequence of everyday conversation that’s not tied to a hurtling narrative purpose – something that even other films that slot themselves as The New Tamil Cinema are unable to do, despite their undeniable attention to character detail. But despite everything, you have to wonder who will watch Visaranai Commission. Does Doordarshan have, any more, an audience of loyalists in this age of cable television? Will it be released on DVD or maybe online?

No such questions arise in the case of Naadodigal, which has extended Sasikumar’s winning streak to levels that can only arouse envy among his contemporaries. (Who else has scored consecutive hits as director, producer and actor, all during their first attempt?) The film, however, is a sham, its pretences of belonging to The New Tamil Cinema merely on the surface – in the rawness of the real-world cast, in the occasional spark of low-key humour, in the romanticising of the lumpen. This is otherwise a crude, shrieking, old-world melodrama that harks back to the days of Pudhu Vasantham, where it was not uncommon to walk into a theatre and walk out with your ears still ringing with mind-numbing orations about the nature of friendship and love. Worse, its morality is baffling, with the rites and rituals of friendship stretched to breaking point. So for every step forward, we take two steps back?

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil