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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