Between Reviews: Threesome!

Posted on May 22, 2010

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THREESOME!

Tamil cinema attempts to seduce us with a casting coup, a Western spoof, and the latest exploits of blood-soaked Madurai males.

MAY 23, 2010 – DIRECTOR SHANKAR’S PRODUCTION HOUSE, the unsurprisingly named S Pictures, advertises itself with a cannily imagined (but clumsily rendered) stretch of animation – a beating heart linked to a celluloid spool in the head. The apparent result of impassioned intellect is nowhere in sight in his latest production, Thamira’s Rettachuzhi, which concerns itself with a single question: Can a film, an entire film, rest on a solitary gimmick? Thamira casts haloed directors K Balachander and Bharathiraja as reincarnations of Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar from Subhash Ghai’s Saudagar (which, in its day, was sold on the basis of that casting coup). They’re gruff, ornery old men, nursing wounds that have festered through decades, and they have to come together if the other twosome in the film – hero and heroine, from opposite camps naturally, like Vivek Mushran and Manisha Koirala – are to be united. Where Rettachuzhi differs from Saudagar is in populating its canvas with a rabble of wisecracking children, facilitating the requisite changes of heart. It all sounds very winning, very much like Pasanga, but save the odd joke or three, there’s nothing to keep you from shifting restlessly in your seat – no charm, no tautness, no grace. There’s just the gimmick.

Chimbu Deven’s Irumbukottai Murattu Singam (which, translated, could easily be mistaken for a Liu Chia-Hui martial arts epic, The Brute Lion from the Fort of Iron) is also gestated from a gimmick – but with far more entertaining consequences. But first, the hitch. Wink-nudge spoofs, however affectionate and knowing, cannot sustain themselves for three-something hours. With a two-hour cutoff, and without the speed-breaker songs, we could have had an unqualified winner with this cheerful pastiche of the Indiana Jones adventures, the lighthearted Bud Spencer-Terence Hill Westerns, the treasure-hunting sagas like Mackenna’s Gold, and the inimitably demented oeuvre of cameraman-director Karnan (who employed Asokan, the formerly vigorous villain, to such chillingly effete effect, alongside the perennially drenched likes of Jayamala, Rajkokila and Rajmallika). At the centre of it all is a Tamil cowboy who must impersonate a legend in order to save a village, after being convicted in a kangaroo court where the blindfolded Lady Justice holds forth not a set of scales but a stein of beer, and whose residing deity is Anthony Gonzalves. (I jest not. Behind the judge hangs the image of Amitabh Bachchan, in that now-legendary top hat and monocle.)

Chimbu Deven is the king of sight gags. The resident Brahmin priest sports not just the sacred thread and holy-ash markings, but also a Stetson and holsters. Nasser, as the one-eyed villain, adopts the John Wayne walk skewered so sensationally by Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. I won’t tell you why a two-bit goon is named “Colour” Kadhiresan, but the sidesplitting reason is almost on par with the tollgate in the midst of desert-nowhere, which announces different rates for the passage of cattle, horses and humans. The director fashions an uproarious running joke with an Indian chieftain (played by MS Bhaskar, who in his feathered headdress, is himself a sight gag) and his translator-sidekick, who mimics even the emotion with which his chief imbues his words. And if you were of the thought that such a film would offer little scope for the kind of Ilayaraja-worship so dear to modern-day directors, from Sasikumar to Gautham Menon, the hero extricates himself from certain death by dancing to Azhagu malar aada, from Vaidehi Kaathirundhaal. But the showstopper number, clearly, is that evergreen from Paasamalar, Vaarai en thozhi, rendered in chaste Red Indian-ese. These highs smooth over the tedium – when you exit, it’s with a goofy grin.

A while ago it was the dark psyche of Bala that loomed, like a thunderous cloud, over the Tamil screen – gruesome unwholesomeness was the sure shot way to make your mark in cinema (as well as make your money back at the ticket counter). Today, it’s the lumpen lassitude of Sasikumar, the crimson shades of whose Madurai are splattered all over gory new dramas like Rasu Madhuravan’s aptly titled Goripalayam (which is the name of a simmering anyplace, just like Subramaniyapuram.) Well-weathered tropes of this kind of filmmaking include (but are not exclusively defined by) a series of loose but deeply textured vignettes woven around unemployed youths to whom killing comes as naturally as breathing, the unexpectedly violent detours taken by a romantic track that begins with shy looks between Boy and Girl, a series of unfortunate accidents that shapes the destinies of the characters, flavourful lowbrow comedy, powerful men and their pliant women, and, of course, the inevitable Ilayaraja homage. (Here, the song is Dham thana nam, from Pudhiya Vaarpugal.)

Goripalayam falls somewhere between the highs of Subramaniyapuram (which Sasikumar directed) and the lows of Naadodigal (which he produced and starred in). The depth comes from the detailing of the characters, who, on the surface, may appear clichés but are defined by unique idiosyncrasies. When a son is taunted by his father for being a freeloader, he doesn’t wash his hands over a half-eaten plate and mutely walk away, head hung with shame – he shoots back that it isn’t his problem that they gave birth to him, so they must feed him as well. It’s being a rowdy that enables him to retrieve money lost by his brother, through means and methods out of the purview of his policeman-father. But as with Naadodigal, there’s a ton of preaching disguised as narrative voiceover (about parents, about friendship; the interval point may make you wince, coming with the legend “Natpukkaaga yedhayum seyyalaam…,” that anything can be done for the sake of friendship.) And the melodrama is a bigger handicap, with tears and shouts and recriminations calculated to shape the simplest of happenings into dramatic life lessons. For all its appreciable advances over the years, will there come a day Tamil cinema will talk to its viewers, as opposed to talking down to them?

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