Between Reviews: From Verse to Words

Posted on October 3, 2009


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“Unnaippol Oruvan” plays down the poetry of “A Wednesday,” but its muscular prose is effective in its own way.

OCT 4, 2009 – THERE’S A THROWAWAY SENSE OF inconsequence about the title A Wednesday. All it denotes is a day of the week, a day in the middle of the workweek, a day like any other – and the film develops its power from how this day, ever so gradually, turns out unlike any other. This Wednesday, at first, is as anonymous, as common, as the character played by Naseeruddin Shah, and as his true colours are revealed, as his uncommonness is unmasked, this unremarkable Wednesday too begins to assume uncommon proportions. The Tamil version, on the other hand, has little use for such quotidian poetry. Its title is all muscular prose – Unnaippol Oruvan, someone like you! There’s nothing throwaway about this title, which is calculated to grab the audience by the collar and shake it out of its apathy (towards meaningful regional cinema, one could argue, as much as the issues of terrorism tackled in the film).

Another aspect of the two films lends itself to a similar poetry-prose consideration, and that’s the revelation, towards the end, that gives the audience a sliver of insight into the motivations of the protagonist. We’ve already been informed, by this point, about the reasons for this man’s actions, but there’s still something missing. As much as larger political and social concerns are valid (and valuable) from a moviegoing standpoint, the audience still seeks a primal personal connection – the lit fuse, so to speak, that causes the smouldering pile of faraway issues to explode inches away from our face. When Naseeruddin Shah speaks of this personal connection, it’s a delicate abstraction, a gossamer-light flashback about a young man in a train who was about to get married and whose dreams (and, indeed, life) went up in flames due to the actions of terrorists.

In the Tamil version, this scene transforms into an actor’s showcase in tight close-up. The narration is no longer about an anonymous man in an anonymous train – it’s now about a pregnant woman who was stripped and whose womb was violated in full view of an uncaring public. There’s nothing poetic about this stretch except, possibly, the remarkable control that Kamal Hassan brings to this scene as an actor. The incident is intended to descend on your head like a sledgehammer wielded by a champion muscleman – and that it certainly does. You wince as you’re meant to. Where, in the Hindi version, the ghastliness was glazed with poetry, the Tamil scene-equivalent taunts our sensitivity with the naked brutality of a newspaper headline. It’s all prose, burly prose.

When a film is remade, there is the inevitable sense of déjà vu that clouds the remake – but even if the larger intent of the story and the scenarios remains intact (and therefore predictable), there are smaller decisions that are fascinating to parse. What interested me most in the translation of A Wednesday to Unnaippol Oruvan was this transformation of subtle poetry to sensationalistic prose, and because a film critic wouldn’t be a film critic if he didn’t overreach for meaning, I was also intrigued by how this transformation informs the definition of multiplex cinema – and by extension, the multiplex audience – in the context of films made in Hindi versus Tamil (and other regional languages).

A Wednesday is the kind of movie made for the Hindi multiplex audience, which is a very small subset of the audience that watches Hindi movies in general. (The fact that a film is viewed in a multiplex doesn’t automatically mean it’s a “multiplex film.”) As the recent mega-success of Wanted has proved – and that’s as far away from a “multiplex film” as you can possibly get – audiences all over the country delight in action-comedy, or to put it slightly differently, the promise of “entertainment.” So it’s ridiculous to think of all viewers of Hindi cinema as sophisticated lovers of poetry – it’s really just small pockets of adventurous movie-watchers (Hindi-speaking and otherwise) across the metros. (And this is true the world over. Even in America, say, it’s the big, noisy action blockbuster or the date-friendly romantic comedy – in other words, the fuss-free “entertainer” – that plays equally well from coast to coast. Something like There Will Be Blood will always be of interest only to a niche audience.)

After all, it’s not as if a film like Mithya – another instance of poetry on screen – commandeered “House Full” signs across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It just made a bit of noise in cities like Bombay and Delhi and Bangalore. So whenever I’m asked why the poetry of Mithya cannot be replicated in Tamil, I venture that it’s primarily a matter of economics. The real reason a film like A Wednesday is successful – both financially, and (more importantly) in terms of being crafted with a vision that’s not simply “entertainment” oriented – is because these pockets of metro-audiences do not mind paying multiplex ticket prices for an engagingly offbeat movie. The disproportionate price of tickets (as compared to the single screens) makes these movies viable, and as, in Tamil Nadu, there is still some sort of government-imposed price-control in the theatres (even the multiplexes), the system does not allow an alternate film culture to flourish.

Given these realities, it’s all the more reason to celebrate something like Unnaippol Oruvan, which is an urban-multiplex movie in the truest sense – without a whiff of the lumpen that characterises the typical offbeat Tamil film (and makes it more palatable to audiences across the state). When we think of movies that broke the mould in recent Tamil cinema, we think of Subramaniyapuram or Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu or Naan Kadavul or Pasanga, all strong films but still dependent on a combination of various formulaic elements to reach out to broad sections of the audience. Unnaippol Oruvan, on the other hand, has proved that it is possible to make an offbeat film that’s niche in its concerns and yet universal in its implications and acceptance (going by early box-office reports).

But would the film have been just as successful had it not left behind the poetry of the original and crossed over into the realm of hard-hitting prose? I don’t know. Perhaps, with the story being a tough sell, it made sense to be more direct, more in-your-face, so as to play better with audiences across the state (as opposed to a “sophisticated” audience in a handful of Chennai multiplexes; after all, if the numbers of poetry lovers are limited across the length and breadth of the country, what sense does it make to chase them across the length and breadth of a state?). Of course, I’m just speculating. After all, we have had gentle poets like Mahendran and Balu Mahendra, who, at one point, made extremely successful films while hewing to their subtle sensibilities. But perhaps that audience doesn’t exist anymore – and, really, when the prose proves as effectual as poetry, why complain?

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