Between Reviews: Different Strokes

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There’s a whiff of exciting experimentation in the current Tamil cinema, never mind that the intents don’t always translate to fully fledged results.

FEB 7, 2010 – WOULD YOU BELIEVE ME IF I SAID January has come and gone and I’ve already seen the best Tamil film of the year? Well, alright, that’s the sort of hyperbolic hosanna critics are prone to when they enter a movie hall expecting a dog and exit having sighted, instead, a silver unicorn – but I walked away from Porkalam on a hefty high. Over a couple of decades, we’ve witnessed Tamil cinema inch away from screenplay-level direction, where the picture consisted of pretty much the words on page rendered through tediously static cinematography. We’ve seen directors – not just, say, Mani Ratnam or Balu Mahendra, but even first-time filmmakers – who varnish their screenplays with vibrant technique that’s more than a mere accumulation of eye-popping pictures. But in Porkalam, the first-time director Bandi Saroj Kumar (who’s barely in his mid-twenties, I hear) takes the visual-narrative to a wholly different level, in the sense that this is a film that might actually have worked without dialogue. (Please refer “hyperbolic hosanna” caveat above.)

When the hero (Kishore, making an impressively muted angry young man) is narrated a flashback (about a fight sequence) by an eyewitness, the participants in the long-ago action make their way through these two characters in the present day – which, of course, is a literal image letting us know that the hero and the eyewitness (along with us) are being sucked into the midst of that fight sequence. The flashback is a time-honoured time-travel device, but this visual eliminates the need for descriptive words — we see the earlier sequence not as a typical flashback, in which we’d cut away from the present to the past, but as a merging of the past with the present. It’s not just this one-off shot – Porkalam is stuffed to its gills with balls-out bravado, a style that resembles the off-kilter camerawork of a Ram Gopal Varma product filtered through the cello-propelled slo-mo aesthetics of a Zhang Yimou wuxia spectacle and served up with a dash of music-video aggrandisement.

For a while, though, it appeared that this fog of mood and atmosphere was mere affectation, a pyrotechnic sound-and-light show intended to distract (and distance) us from the reality that Porkalam is just your average hero-centric masala movie about good triumphing over unchecked evil, with amusingly offbeat characters like a hotel manager who doubles as a bellboy. But there’s a sensational twist at interval point that practically reshapes your entire experience of the first half, and you see why the palette is so drained of colour, why there are so many fades to black – and you realise, with a smack to the head, that this style is actually in service of the substance. (Well, perhaps not entirely, especially with an over-the-top finale involving medieval weaponry, but who’s going to deny an enthusiastic newcomer the mild embarrassments of overreaching!)

What’s more fascinating is the director’s attempt to layer our mythical tropes onto the must-haves of the Western (specifically a Takeshi Kitano art-house hit that I won’t name for spoilerific reasons) —from the barren landscapes to the girl seeking the man-of-few-words hero’s protection, from the leading man’s mysterious secret to the final carnage. The hero who’s larger than life (and yet, oddly vulnerable) is a universal staple of popular culture, but the splash of the Indian comes from the unflinching walk into the lion’s den, from the son yielding to a mother’s vow, from the hero’s declaration that his war with the villain is a dharma yudhdham that needs to unfurl in a porkalam (battlefield), and from the conflation of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (characters named after Karna, Drona and Bhishma, and a villain who rules an island named Lanka and who kidnaps the heroine). The question, though, is about the audience. The average movies-are-merely-entertainment audience member is going to be dulled by the brooding technique, along with the absence of sops like duets or all-out comedy (the humour is structured organically around the hero), while the movies-are-sacred-art ticket-buyer will likely shudder at striding into a broad action film with protagonists and antagonists painted in the blackest of blacks, the whitest of whites. So bravo and all that – but who, exactly, is Porkalam for?

At least, Goa doesn’t have that worry. It’s for anyone with the stomach for a free-association stream of apparently spot-improvised gags, which appear to have been more fun for the cast and crew than they are for the hapless audience. But amidst this high-spirited mess, director Venkat Prabhu manages two astounding achievements. He presents a gay couple in a way not even Karan Johar & Co. managed in Dostana – as a perfectly normal twosome integrated into the plot in a refreshingly no-questions-asked, no-explanations-given fashion. Also, he provides his scantily dressed heroine the opportunity to slap the hero who suspects her morals, impressing on him that clothes have little bearing on character. Venkat Prabhu clearly has his heart in the right place, but wouldn’t a little discipline help? Or is he happy dishing out loosely knitted gag-fests? Watching his heart-warming debut with Chennai-600028, I thought here, finally, was someone who’d propel Tamil cinema to unimagined heights – not with arty effects or with blood-splattered rustic melodramas, but with rooted storytelling in a recognisably urban milieu – but when it comes to commercial filmmaking, I suppose there are no saviors, only survivors.

For an empty gag-fest that’s a trifle more charming, you could do worse than Thamizh Padam, a spoof on Tamil cinema that gets going with an impressive opening credits sequence where the action is rendered in film negative, as in the old AVM masala movies. There are brilliant set-ups, like the invocation of the “wheel of time” conceit or the rip-roaring “family song” or the sneaky subversion of beloved moments from well-regarded hits like Mouna Raagam. There’s even a lot of focused writing, as in the climactic reveal of the villain that loops back to the birth of the hero, that most invaluable ingredient of Tamil cinema. Still, I wasn’t as tickled as I’d have liked – there was a curious low-keyness about the goings-on when the roof should have collapsed from the laughter bouncing off the walls. I also wished they’d dug deeper and travelled a few decades earlier. (The oldest reference I caught was the nod to Kizhakke Pogum Rayil, to the strains of Poovarasampoo poothachu.) The overripe Sivaji Ganesan, the brass-tongued KB Sundarambal, the pyjama-flapping Gemini Ganesan, the lipstick lips of Ravichandran – are these not appropriate targets for affectionate skewering? Or did the director, CS Amudhan, not want to burden the ADD-afflicted modern-day audience with the strain of recalling a distant past?

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36 thoughts on “Between Reviews: Different Strokes

  1. havent seen Thamizh Padam but the likes of Sivaji and 60s melodrama have been spoofed enough on TV programs like top 10 and also by Vivek and others. It might look a little dated. I think the director might have thought that the current gen might vibe well with a spoof of contemporary cinema, or atleast the last 20 years or so. This one is on my list to watch.And this was needed as well. I hope they had the usual red-carpet premiere for the entire industry to watch this.

    Porkalam didnt get much attention at all-you might be doing a bit of service here to the makers

    BR, have any of your industry acquaintances ever thrown any light on how/why KS Ravikumar keeps getting all these films? Seriously why havent we put him to rest yet? His brand of masala is past its expity date and yet even the likes of Kamal keep going back to him. I hear Kamal has signed yet again with KSR. Masala padamnaalum vera aalave kidaikkala? Disappointing.


  2. “There’s a whiff of exciting experimentation in the current Tamil cinema, never mind that the intents don’t always translate to fully fledged results.”

    I agree as I just made that comment in your AO review, but the hope is that if enough guys try we might eventually get there someday soon. Would like to see an Indie movement here.


  3. “There’s a whiff of exciting experimentation in the current Tamil cinema” – so true.

    Splendidly written article BR.

    Its these new directors coming from left of centre with no add-on baggage working with artistes with no hang-ups that make it all worthwhile.

    However, one of the aspects of these films is they are all urban in nature , it would be interesting to know what the populace in small towns think of these films – Chennai is after all not the end-all and be-all.

    Where is the next Bharatiraaja ?


  4. vijay: I don’t have many “industry acquaintances.” The few I know are far away from the hardcore Kollywood types. And you’re disappointed about the KSR aspect of that Kamal film? I’m more devastated about the Trisha aspect. This is my divine retribution for mocking NTR prancing around with Sridevi and the likes. Bleddy hell!

    Venkatesh: There is a lot of non-urban cinema, no? I think it’s very important that fresh directors come up and tell stories like (cough cough) Kadhal 2 Kalyanam ;-)


  5. Worry not Baradwaj, I believe (read as hoping against hope) Trisha will pair off with Udayanithi.
    BTW, you never answered a question I had much earlier if your association with Milind was the result of a comment he left on your ‘Race’ review.


  6. Err.. At the risk of being laughed at can I also offer parts of Vettaikaran (!)as samples for your aforementioned new age direction.

    It was a vijay movie and if anything it should have been the very anti thesis of experimentation, but I found the character development of the ‘villian’ fairly interesting actually. He gets a fair bit of screen time and is pretty articulate abt where he derives his power from – fear.

    And I liked that he was fairly even headed and didn’t holler arnd for the world to hear or didn’t even try looking evil, just a simple old fashioned opportunist, with fear as his sole weapon.


  7. shit … i missed porkalam :( … but i happen to see Aasal today … y god y? y do ppl make these kinda films even now!!! even kanada films would have developed in storytelling i guess.


  8. I guess you are possibly the “only” (“only” to be written in Georgia Font Size 72) person to have written and that too something positive about Porkalam? Haven’t seen it yet but I do not think so that I will be able to watch it in Cinemas…so will have to wait for the DVD.
    I am watching Tamil Padam tomorrow (Sunday), but yes, I would agree with you that is precisely why Amudhan would not have gone too far into the past, I mean, how many of them are in the mid-thirties (or is it early forties now) to remember all of that unless of course they sit and watch KTV’s matinee shows of Pasamalar, Paarthal Pasitheerum, Pavaminuppu?

    And can you please let us know when Kadhal 2 Kalyanam will be released or are you going to, like the alien-to-tamil heroine (her character will be named Tamilselvi), coyly say “adhellam director sollakoodadhu nu solli irukkaar” and we prod “konjam hint kodunga…director onnum solla maataar”. Come on dude, out with it please?


  9. With your mention of Zhang Yimou, even I am excited to see Porkalam. Would the viewing experience be anything less if the viewer doesn’t know a scintilla of Tamil?


  10. vijay, as I have mentioned in the past, there’s a reason KSR gets all these movies…he is a very good project manager!! :-) Pity, that’s his only qualification though…

    Yeah, I have to watch TP as well..Mahanadigan did a little bit of the spoofing but this one seems to be entirely built on it.

    The whiff of experimentation is a good trend…it has been blowing pretty strongly in Hindi in the recent times, so it’s good that Tamil cinema can also churn out some interesting films now.

    It’s interesting to see that we all have our share of disappointments with Kamal’s new film. vijay with KSR, Baddy with Trisha and in my case, Kamal choosing Thaman (the self proclaimed software engineer!!) :-)


  11. Deepauk M: I think Milind got the idea of working with me after my ‘Arre O Sambar’ columns, that vastly underappreciated trove of dazzling wit :-)

    Padawan: I thought sometime late last year, but now it looks like summer, probably? Yours, Tamilselvan.

    tejas: This is a very ordinary story — the age-old masala movie conflict of good versus evil — and so it’s hardly necessary that you understand each and every word/nuance. It’s the director’s vision/treatment that makes all the difference, so I don’t think language should be a problem.

    Shankar: Okay, but “self proclaimed software engineer” or not, Thaman’s been doing some good stuff. I’m sorry, but that’s that :-)


  12. Baddy, well…so are KSR and Trisha delivering hits!! It’s still a problem for a reason in this context, right? Adhe mathiri dhan!! :-)


  13. Shankar I am aware of that, but still..Time to find another project manager :-) Heard a Kamal with Gautam and Kamal with Mysskin films in between.But looks like those have been shelved for the time being.
    BR, I had forgotten about Trisha in that film totally. You had to remind me :-)


  14. At this point, I’ll be OK even if Kamal hires a namesake director like Chakri Toleti (who did UO), while he handles everything.More palatable than giving KSR another chance. Any publicity that KSR gets from doing a Kamal film results in subsequent torture like Adhavan, Makkubhai and so on. KSR needs to be phased out like Pee.Vasu.Or be relegated to do Vijay and Simbu movies.


  15. @Vijay, Kamal Hassan keeps going back to Ravi Kumar cause he loves sycophants – people who hail him as ‘Ulaga Nayagan’ …LOL! His ego has got the better of him, he is unable to leave his comfort zone in Chennai. Look at what Anil Kapoor has achieved with half his talent. Will Kamal do a role like Kapoor’s in Slumdog, he would probably want to play Dev Patel’s and the inspector’s roles too. Will he do a ‘Namesake’ like Irfan Khan? Kamal should be doing crossover, offbeat films with Mira Nair, the new-age hindi film directors etc., not mindless nonsense like Dasavathram with KS Ravikumar.


  16. Adithya: Dude, none of the films in this post are GRCA-material — one actioner, and two comedies. Unless you’re counting the Omaha zeeya song, with its genius “lalaaku dol dappi ma” touch :-)


  17. Oh I think he means the previous VTV comment and this one pertains to Kamal.
    In the words of Zero’s favorite philosopher – “SummA varumA sukumAri?”.


  18. Shankar,

    >>there’s a reason KSR gets all these movies…he is a very good project manager!! :-) Pity, that’s his only qualification though…

    See his first film “Puriyadha pudhir”.. it is so opposite to the KSR we know.


  19. Tejas : If i am right , Porkalam is more Takeshi Kitano and not Zhang Yimou .

    BR: There are no “proper” non-urban films , the ones that do come out are more semi-urban (Paruthiveeran is the only real exception ). Am i missing something here , “(cough cough) Kadhal 2 Kalyanam” ,, who/what is that film ?

    Clearly i am out of my depth here , the comments on this post are way too “in” for me to understand – Pray who/what is GRCA material ? Someone please elucidate :-)


  20. wait. he got you to co-write his film, thanks to your arre o sambar columns? people work in strange, strange ways.

    and every time i see arre o sambar mentioned, i just have to make my presence felt. nahin… *run away, tearing hair out* :D


  21. A letter to the paper… “gr8”? “thanq”? “u”? Guess the reports I heard about this filmmaker’s age are entirely accurate. He’s from a generation that thinks and talks in sms-ese :-)

    dear sir, i am BANDI SAROJ KUMAR [dir/porkkalam]. thankz a lot for the review about PORKKALAM. being a budding technician i am also thanqful for such encouragement from u. i will try to make such promising films in future, which could create big appreciation from a gr8 analysts like u. thanq once again….

    Venkatesh: Yes, more Kitano than Yimou. The latter is simply from a style aspect — the deliberately choreographed slo-mo action, set to a mournful cello score… that sort of thing.

    Priti: Ah, does donkey know the smell of camphor? ;-)

    Padawan / Venkatesh: GRCA is a top-secret Masonic society. And the first rule of GRCA is you don’t talk about GRCA. Unless, of course, the President himself deigns to explain ;-)


  22. Thamizh Padam was a spoof film unlike those we see in hollywood these days (Epic Movie/Meet the Spartans). It wasnt over the top or crass, which was
    a relief, had good production values and it actually managed to maintain a little bit of suspense as regards the hero’s motives (But with the benefit of hindsight, I should really have figured that one out) and the ‘D’ character. I thought it was gonna be Delhi Ganesh :)

    But you’re right. It wasnt rip roaring funny…It was smile inducing at best


  23. letter to the paper


    i watched porkkalam. but no words to say. after reading your article i was surprised which is coinsided with my feelings. i am very much happy with your presentation.

    thanking you
    BSN Moorty


  24. And another…

    Hello Mr. Baradwaj,

    My name is Burzin Unwalla. I am an Independent Film Maker from Gujarat, but have been in Chennai for quite some time.

    I read your review on ‘Tamizh Padam’ and I couldn’t help but think about what you may have meant when you referred to Dr. Sivaji Ganesan as “OVER RIPE”.

    I have known and been associated with Dr. Sivaji Ganesan and his entire family very closely over the years and find it a little strange for someone as yourself would make such remarks. I do understand that it was your viewpoint and you have full right to express the same. However, I am rather confused and I would appreciate it if you could explain in what context you wrote that and what exactly you meant.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Thank you


  25. BR: now i have to find out what GRCA is .. ?Do i need to stand outside the door somewhere to figure this out ?

    I just found out that your comment on “Kadhal 2 Kalyanam” – you are the writer aren’t you ?


  26. Sorry for spoiling the fun..GRCA is Guys who like Romantic Comedies Anonymous..

    to figure it out,you just have to be idle enough to use the google search in this site.


  27. sn: Oh man! You did spoil the fun! Was hoping to keep the befuddlement going for a while! :-) For explanatory comments from the honorable President, please refer this review of 27 Dresses, this obit for Anthony Minghella, and this Between Reviews on Sex and the City. (The latter also originated the related acronym, PETM.)

    Anyway, to fellow-GRCA members, just watched the press show of Valentine’s Day. Crappy first hour. But as the various Love Actually-like story threads begin to coalesce, there are a few moments. One, especially, is a true test of your GRCA-worthiness, in the sense that if embarrassed lump-in-throat doesn’t happen, you may want to reconsider renewing your membership. I leave it to you to figure out which :-)


  28. Wow, BR, I didn’t see that coming. With Vinnaithaandi Varyvaaraya postponed to 26th apparently, guess its Valentines’ Day this weekend with My Name Is Khan, which is surely running packed till Monday at least in our city.


  29. sn: “GRCA is Guys who like Romantic Comedies Anonymous..” — aaaah

    I don’t know if “About a Boy” counts but if it does then i think i should get an Auxiliary or Preliminary membership at least… :-)


  30. What do you think is the reason for most of the good/promising movies and directors in tamizh that have come out in recent years have been big action-oriented movies? Someone in the comments section of a previous tamizh-cinema article made a superb point: that some of the other ‘aspects’ of tamizh cinema, family dramas, sentimentality and the like (*emotions* in general) have moved to the television screens – female audience satisfied – so perhaps what’s happening now is big-screen directors are essentially making movies for men?

    “The average movies-are-merely-entertainment audience member…while the movies-are-sacred-art ticket-buyer”

    Baradwaj, you had a similar dichotomy in your Khan review that I just read… honestly I think it errs on the side of simplistic.. surely you know that there are many more shades of audience member than just “discerning v non-discerning”, or “masala vs art” – or are you yourself in making this a simple binary attempting to classify as the average man on the street would?!


  31. I enjoyed both Tamizh Padam and Goa. (Haven’t watched Porkkalam yet; not released in Bangalore … but I did see Kishore at Koshy’s Bangalore on Saturday!)

    Loved both the movies a lot. TP a bit more.

    In Goa, one scene that I really enjoyed:
    Piya singing Celine Dion (I think!) … Melanie & co discussing about her newfound love in English. Track back … the song changing to Ovvoru pookkalume and Melanie & co discussing in Tamil.


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