Between Reviews: To Market, To Market…

Posted on April 10, 2010


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Where, once, the rural narrative was the harbinger of hope for Tamil cinema, it’s the urban stories now that are upping the ante. Or are they really?

APR 11, 2010 – CAN THE OPENING MINUTES OF A MOVIE encapsulate its dominant philosophy? Yes, says Vasanthabalan’s Angadi Theru, as a barrage of images from the realm of reality rains down upon us – crowds on streets, vendors of flowers, neon-lit nooks, men barking into cell phones, a lone auto-rickshaw at night. And in the midst of all this gritty place-setting, we arrive at the crux of the story, with Boy and Girl stepping playfully on each other’s toes at a bus stop, asking the bewildered older woman behind them if they truly make a good couple. That’s the film in a nutshell: artifice propped up by naturalism, a realistic backdrop shielding the most cinematic of contrivances. It seems slightly strange to accuse a piece of cinema as being too cinematic – as if its very existence, its very nature were a pejorative. Would we hold in similar contempt a romance for being too romantic, or a slice of melodrama for being too melodramatic?

But over the years, “cinematic” has come to mean not “of the cinema” but “unrealistic,” and that’s the problem with films like Aval Peyar Thamizharasi and Angadi Theru, which flash their “realistic” credentials like medals of hard-won honour, only to resort, subsequently, to unrealistically manipulative storytelling. The point is not that the tragedies in these stories are removed from real life. These events are undoubtedly drawn from tangible truths, and it’s a credit to these filmmakers that they chose to tell these brutally bitter tales instead of spinning sickly-sweet cotton-candy fantasies. Angadi Theru, for instance, attempts a peek at what lies behind the glittery ads of gaudily clad actresses that adorn textile showrooms in the city, which, to the freshly recruited youngsters from faraway villages, appear the apotheosis of glamour. An early shot looks at the shutters going up in a multi-level store from a low-angle, and the wide-eyed expressions on the rustics suggests that they’ve just witnessed the unveiling of Burj Khalifa.

But little do they know that this gleaming façade conceals the cruellest of concentration camps, commanded by a supervisor so one-dimensionally evil, Hitler would think twice before shaking hands with him. These stretches of the film are speckled with detail that’s based, undoubtedly, on hours of diligent research. The new employees are fingerprinted, and forced to cough up cash for uniforms that will obliterate all semblance of individuality. That they are now part of a faceless flock is reinforced by an indelible image of their sleeping quarters, the floor littered with supine, serpentine bodies as if in rehearsal for a tableau of a board game: “Snakes and Ladders,” but without ladders. Another hard-to-watch visual delivers a close-up of the blackened varicose veins of a former employee, reduced to this state by standing on his feet from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. We flinch. We’ll never look at these salesmen the same way again.

But once the detail has been delivered, once these inhumanities have been laid bare for our shamefaced awareness, the film needs to keep the gears moving – and that’s when the cinematic contrivances creep in and pretty much take a wrecking ball to the carefully constructed atmosphere. We’re treated to a scene where city-dwellers are caricatured as exotic fools, like the Chennai girl who visits a village and nibbles on strawberries. You’d think an outsider-visitor would yearn for the tart tang of the gooseberry, but no, we’re clearly the sort who’ll pack along crates of fruit we supposedly cannot live without in our high-flying city existence. (It’s like how the Tamanna character, in the small-town college in Kalloori, advertised her city-bred otherness by biting daintily into white-bread sandwiches, cut neatly in triangles, as if idlis are an unknown phenomenon to the upper-crust residents of Chennai). In addition, this strawberry-muncher is severely flatulent. There! That’s putting us city types in our proper place. We cart around exotic produce, and we fart unapologetically.

Even worse (read “cinematic”) is the typecasting, in these films, of the Tamil Brahmin as a ritualistic cretin, high on learning but low in humaneness, lips perpetually wrapped around prayers to gods but heart completely shuttered against the suffering of fellow-men. When the heroine’s pubescent sister, in Angadi Theru, begins to have her period, she’s cast outside the home of the Brahmin couple she slaves for. So far, this is a sadly realistic scenario, a reflection of the superstitions and rituals that have putrefied our society in the name of organised religion. Where the departure from reality begins is in the invention that this poor girl is thrown into a cage, next door to a yelping dog. So let us, in a fit of free-mindedness, assume that such a scenario is indeed commonplace. Then why not introduce this sister earlier in the film, even if only through an offhand reference in a morsel of dialogue? Why wait until this scene, and haul the sister into the story only at the exact instant a crisis is needed?

The screenplay forever takes the easy way out, with characters falling victims not so much to circumstance as convenience. (I imagined the outline of the script as filled with punchy interjections: “Insert tear-jerking stretch here,” or “Kill off supporting character there.”) This isn’t melodrama but hysteria. The film doesn’t seem to realise that there’s a difference between exposing us to raw realities and rubbing our noses in it, burying us in a quicksand-marsh of noxious swamp gases till we flail for fresh air. Early on, the mess where these employees eat is portrayed as a veritable battlefield, with each man waging a war with the competition to lay hands on a mere plateful of food. But at a later point, we see men and women seated peacefully, lunching in neat rows. What, then, was the purpose of the earlier scene of stampede if not to induce in us a cheap frisson of disgust? Bala, too, deals with the underprivileged on the fringes of society, but his is a gaze of eccentric empathy. This is exploitation.

The sole saving graces are the epigrammatic dialogue (“Yecha kai aatina aayiram kaaka,” boasts the despotic store owner, that his serfs are utterly expendable and replaceable) and a handful of scenes that prickle like a whiplash (as when the hero impresses upon the heroine that, despite her taunts that he is a coward, she is as afraid as he is). And of course, fans of golden-age Ilayaraja can always bide time by counting the maestro’s hits that have become a de rigueur aspect of these films, like a superstition or a propitiation. (I counted Kaattukuyil paattu solla, Muthamizhe muthamizhe, and arrangements from Chittukuruvi vetka paduthu.) Otherwise, there’s little of the craft of, say, Casino, which also culled heavy reams of research into a satin-smooth rush of cinema. But why go as far as Martin Scorsese when there’s Mahanadhi at hand? That film, too, was a litany of endless sorrow, but it was touched, equally, by great moments of grace. There’s exactly one shot of grace in Angadi Theru, when a woman in a burqa stands in front of a store mirror with a sari draped around her shoulder, as if in anticipation of the instant she’ll be able to cast off her robes of black and sink into these swirls of colour. This is cinema; the rest is shoddy contrivance.

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Mundhinam Paarthene is far less ambitious, but a little more admirable. Not only is the title a nod to a song from a Gautham Menon film, the director Magilzh Thirumeni is his apprentice, which explains the raft of familiar storytelling devices: the voiceover, the despondent hero who wants nothing more than a girl to love but whose efforts in finding a mate are forever thwarted by feminine vacillation, heroines who seek to study in Princeton University, and the Tanglish feel of the dialogue. “Machan, get a grip on yourself, da!” Or, “It’s a common male ego thing!” And they say “ten grand,” not “ten thousand.” There’s even a reference to an Oscar Wilde quote from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a translation of the lines, “And all men kill the thing they love… The coward does it with a kiss, the brave man with a sword!” You might sneer at this appropriation, as if there’s no equivalent Tamil quote to embody these same sentiments, but there is a Tamil population out there that’s begging for representation in Tamil cinema – the kids who are Tamilian but not necessarily “Tamil” in sensibility.

And this half-breed is making its presence felt in films such as Mundhinam Paarthene. Sociological concerns apart, this story of a man in pursuit of his ideal woman (he must choose from three) is evidently a first-time feature, with the ungainly touch of the well-intentioned amateur in the acting and the staging. But the beats are ever-so-slightly different. The hero hears a sad backstory from one of the heroines, and we cut not to her despondent face but to a shot of him playing basketball with friends. This life-goes-on feel elevates the goings-on, which are also aided by big laughs. And it’s refreshing to see women treated as women, neither Madonnas nor whores, neither sexually fetishised objects nor dreary embodiments of all things maternal. These heroines are strong. They possess minds of their own and refuse to be cowed down by a society that fears nothing as much as the liberated female. Even the girl who spreads malicious rumours isn’t castigated as a bitch but rather painted as a warts-and-all human being. Let’s not jinx things by proclaiming that the winds of change are upon us, but a muted hurrah is certainly in order.

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It would appear, based on Angadi Theru and Mundhinam Paarthene, that we are witnessing, in Tamil cinema, something of a quiet turnaround. Where, once, the backwoods-based narrative was the harbinger of hope, it’s now the metro-movies that are nudging the envelope in myriad little directions. And then comes N Lingusamy’s ultra-urban Paiya to shatter that notion to smithereens. This is, on the surface, a superslick road movie – but with zero acceleration, zero chemistry between hero and heroine (each with laughably motivated villains on their tail), and zero prospects for the audience save for marathon stretches of yawn-inducing dishoomdishoom. And once again, the city slicker is reduced to a buffoon, someone who sips on Coke to advertise his job with an MNC, as opposed to the hero (Karthi) who apparently cannot understand much English despite seeking employment in those very MNCs that are being scorned, and despite a natty wardrobe that wouldn’t seem all that out of place on that man with the can of Coke. We can file this one under Height of Hypocrisy.

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