Between Reviews: One in a Thousand

Posted on January 30, 2010


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Selvaraghavan’s controversial new film is far from perfect, but he does succeed in leaving his fingerprints all over the most generic of genres.

JAN 31, 2010 – A FILMMAKER ACQUAINTANCE GREW LONG, POINTY TEETH and bit my head off when I uttered but three words in relation to Selvaraghavan’s Aayirathil Oruvan: “I enjoyed it.” Fuddled by the force of his fury, I clarified that I didn’t thrill to the film the way we do with the great films (or, at any rate, the films that we think are great), and that the first half was embarrassingly generic, but a good chunk of the latter portions bore the stamp of a magnificently eccentric vision. And that I respect. Isn’t it refreshing to witness, among other things, a drastic reimagining of the Cholas and the Pandiyas – no longer the benign, benevolent, gold-encrusted royals from Tamil-screen historicals and mythologicals of the fifties and sixties, but blood-soaked barbarians? At least till the climax, neither dynasty is painted in a particularly sympathetic light in order that we (as mainstream-movie audiences) can “root” for one over the other, having sniffed out the good guys from the bad. They’re both simply and unapologetically the creatures they are, forged by creation and conditioning.

The qualifications in my assessment of the film somewhat mollified the filmmaker acquaintance – but he’s not the only one so quick (and so vituperative) about denouncing Aayirathil Oruvan. The bad word of mouth (combined with the bad press) makes me wonder if we, at times, decide to fully love or fully hate a film without stopping to consider that all films position themselves someplace along the mile-long continuum in the middle. All films have problems – what’s important is whether these problems overwhelm our experience (in which case, we consign the film to the “bad” bin) or whether they sneak past unnoticed (ergo, a “good” film). Is Aayirathil Oruvan a sometimes frustrating, oftentimes problematic experience? Absolutely. But is it worth a watch (or two, or three), especially if you’re seriously into cinema and if your interests lie, along with entertainment, in examining to what extent the largely inflexible boundaries of the mainstream can be remapped? Again, absolutely.

Loosely put, if the three Indiana Jones installments were filtered through a cracked prism of Tamil history, Aayirathil Oruvan would be the lysergic rainbow that bloomed forth. The creepy-crawly snake-infested attack from Raiders of the Lost Ark is reinforced with the savage, cave-dwelling cult from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and routed through the graph of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where an archeologist-father goes missing, causing the archeologist-child to embark on an expedition retracing his steps. With this in mind, we expect a generic action-adventure ride with a splash of the supernatural, and that is the tone dictated by the early events. We think that the team (comprising Karthi, Andrea, Reema Sen and an unwashed truckload of mercenaries) will dodge the usual traps for three-quarters of the film, until they reach the destination, in the final quarter, where the hitherto mysterious knots will begin to unravel. We think this because that’s how movies of this stripe have conditioned us to think – rather, that’s how these films have conditioned us to not think, and to simply sit back and strap up for the ride.

And so the attention drifts to the ways in which this particular film does not live up to those expectations. We gripe that the CGI effects are substandard, and we wonder how films like this one and Dasavatharam can spend untold crores and yet fall short of the special effects-driven visual elegance of, say, Aladin (never mind that the latter had little else but visual elegance; at least it got that aspect right). We complain that the dangers along the way aren’t staged in a fashion that will stoke our appetites before satisfying our hungers. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, for instance, we’re introduced to a monstrous head-lopping obstacle and we’re clued in to the fact that “only the penitent man” shall pass. The audience is in as much agony as Harrison Ford, until the second he realises that the penitent man is one who bows, which is how his neck escapes those revolving blades of death. In Aayirathil Oruvan, there’s no such anticipatory anxiety. We’re informed that snakes will arrive, and the snakes dutifully arrive. We’re warned that quicksand pits lie ahead, and quicksand pits dutifully lie ahead. There’s no buildup – merely showdown after mildly diverting showdown.

The joke of the film, however, is that this entire stretch is nothing but buildup to a second-half-long showdown. Once these obstacles are navigated, the film mutates into a beast that could scarcely be imagined from the chromosomal constituents of the first half – which is bad news if you’re a creature of cold logic, but a thrilling turn of events if you’re willing to surrender to heavy-lidded imagery on the threshold of a fever-dream. (The trippy sensation is exaggerated by spectacularly nightmarish soot-and-flame cinematography and slo-mo editing rhythms with ceaseless fades-to-black.) The generic machinery of the first half grinds to a groaning stop, and a visceral fog descends over the proceedings. The last obstacle faced by the team results in their becoming possessed by spirits, and as if taking a cue from its characters, thenceforth, the film itself becomes possessed. This is where the real story begins, one that unceremoniously yanks you back from sit-back-and-relax blockbuster-mode and instructs you to focus with all your (supernatural) powers.

This section also introduces one of Selvaraghavan’s most astonishingly deranged characters (and this film’s best-written) – the Chola king portrayed by Parthiban. He is introduced as a Dionysian despot, defined only by his appetites – for food, for sex, for cruelty. (He has no qualms about butchering pitifully starved subjects who lunge at the sight of fresh meat.) But after a while, he receives vital information that has been awaited for generations – he’s the latest in a long line of Chola kings who huddled for survival in these dank, distant caves – and he transforms in a manner that suggests that his apparent inhumanity was simply the result of frustration, of leading a life with no light at the tunnel’s end. Once he sees that light, though, he’s humanised – his eyes well up as he shares these good tidings with his subjects, and he lightens up enough to engage in an informally choreographed dance item with Karthi. This is an unforgettable character, and Parthiban plays him unforgettably – as a decadent, self-serving Roman monarch who nonetheless holds such a sway over his people that they seize the right to slap his cheek when, in a weak moment, he attempts to slit his throat.

There’s so much that’s compelling in the second half that I readily forgave Selvaraghavan his sins in the preceding portions – the squeezed-in songs, the shabby effects, the shoddily cast heroines (neither of whom is remotely interested in convincing us about their fluency in the spoken language). But other audiences haven’t proved as forgiving, though, and I wonder why. Were they stupefied by the need to connect the dots between, for instance, a character pricking her finger and dripping blood into a reservoir and the payoff scene, much later, where scores of parched soldiers die from this poisoned water? Are these synapse-frying, dream-logic ellipses the reason audiences haven’t been appreciative of a filmmaker who has – instead of spoon-feeding them with overly expository dialogue – chosen to tell his story largely through imagery (frescoes and film), through folk theatre and song (Thaai thindra manne details the deprivations of the Cholas), through documentary footage (about someone’s mysterious past), and through uncharacteristically (for Tamil cinema, at least) economical storytelling?

When a character learns about her father’s disappearance, all we’re shown is her profile in relation to a photograph (of the family in happier times), and a subsequent image has her curled up in a self-comforting foetal position. Neither music nor dialogue is allowed to amplify her emotion. When another character sights a much-sought treasure, she sheds tears of relief and joy, and we cut to a flashback image that intensifies the significance of this treasure – but that’s it. Where another filmmaker would have exploited these opportunities for putting us through the wringer, Selvaraghavan remains coldly clinical. Is this lack of an “emotional connect” the aspect that’s keeping audiences away? But is emotional connect – sympathy, empathy, however you choose to label it – absolutely necessary every single time we step into a cinema hall? Isn’t thoughtful craftsmanship its own reward? Isn’t the real thrill of Aayirathil Oruvan in the way it makes us loop back to earlier events and absorb the gradual coherence and correspondence – in the way Parthiban’s spitting on a statue is complemented by Reema Sen’s spitting in Parthiban’s direction, in the way a search party with torches at the beginning gives way, by the end, to a search party with torchlights?

Or is the issue that of a hypocritical brand of conservativeness? Tamil “family audiences” who’ve evinced no discomfort when sex is shaped on screen in an oblique fashion – when the likes of Jayamalini thrust crotch and cleavage at the movie camera, or when scores of leading ladies in the slightest of saris had their most intimate contours sculpted by pouring rain – appear to be up in arms at Selvaraghavan’s “perversions,” because he makes no attempt to disguise the prurient in penitent garb. The baser instincts of his mind – as indeed the baser instincts of our minds – are up there on screen for all to see, and perhaps we chafe at our innermost secrets being shouted out to the world at large. When Selvaraghavan wants to show a half-naked man sandwiched between two shivering women, or when he wants to depict his hero as someone who carries a condom in his pocket in the hope of an easy lay, or when he wants to show that this hero isn’t beyond adolescent impulses like peering down a woman’s blouse as she bends to administer an injection, he shows us these very things, these very images.

And thus, he continues to direct well-deserved dropkicks towards the nether regions of that nebulous entity we love to hail as “Thamizh kalacharam,” Tamil culture. Not only does the director reduce the Cholas and the Pandiyas – those princely progenitors of much that we recognise as Tamil culture today – to all-too-human savages, he does something similar with their modern-day counterparts. He positions Karthi and his cohorts as repositories of the Dravidian way of life – which translates, as always (and as the film’s title indicates), to worshipping MGR in all his Technicolor glory – and then he tells us that they aspire to nothing more than the company of white-skinned, English-speaking goddesses who drink and swear like sailors, and who think nothing of manipulating their sexuality to achieve their ends. (Parthiban even wangles a scene where he waves his royal sceptre at an appalled Andrea.) That Selvaraghavan has delivered these self-castigating indictments in a film so steeped in a reverential old-Tamil ethos – one where rain is referred to as “maari” instead of the more contemporary “mazhai,” and truth takes the form of “mei” instead of “unmai” – is all the more stunning. Aayirathil Oruvan is far from perfect, but it’s also a perfect example of how a talented filmmaker can succeed in leaving his fingerprints all over even the most generic of genres.

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