Between Reviews: It Takes a Village…

Posted on July 10, 2010

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IT TAKES A VILLAGE…

A beautifully narrated rustic romance hints that there’s still a place in the mainstream for languid storytelling.

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JUL 11, 2010 – TODAY’S AUDIENCES HAVE NO PATIENCE, we are repeatedly instructed by filmmakers who chop their action choreography and music videos into a million fragments, and then go on to employ ramping effects and jump cuts with little sense for the mood of the moment. The reasoning is that lingering on an image for too long will result in ennui, ennui will result in catcalls, catcalls will result in bad word-of-mouth, and bad word-of mouth will result in diminishing returns. It sounds very lucid and logical, until you realise that if this were really the case, A Sarkunam’s Kalavani would have slunk out of theatres after a couple of shows attended only by the ticket punchers. What’s remarkable about this gutsy, talented, first-time director is that he trusts himself, which is at least as important as putting your faith in the fickle tastes of the audience.

Let me explain why. No one, in the movie business, knows anything. (If they did, and if there indeed were surefire formulas for success, wouldn’t every film balloon into a blockbuster?) You could make a bad film – compromised by excessive audience pandering – and it could turn into a hit. Or it could flop. Or you could make a film that you believe in, a good film, knowing that it could, again, succeed or fail – but at least you’ve got your calling card out there. At least people know, now, what kind of filmmaker you are, what you’re capable of. Sarkunam is the latter kind of filmmaker, the best kind, who doesn’t set out so much to pander to the audience as pleasure them. His film doesn’t feature bloody action choreography or cacophonous kuthu songs or sexual sops (save for a glancing glimpse in a moment I’ll come to later). Even his story, located in Mannargudi and looped around the romance of a boy and girl from warring villages, is nothing special.

What’s special, for the audience, is the director’s refusal to cut away from a scene until it’s found its rhythm and fulfilled its reason for being. Like a campfire raconteur who takes his time spinning a yarn, confident that he has clever reveals up his sleeve, Sarkunam structures long scenes with long stretches of dialogue that go against the grain of conventional movie-wisdom. These endlessly inventive sequences are his film’s greatest strength. Kalavani opens with a cricket competition for children, amongst teams bearing names like Bayamariya Thambigal. (The perfunctory translation would approximate to fearless lads, but that carries not a whiff of the insouciance of the original phrase.) As the colourful commentary gets going, with a bowler being described as “Arasanoorin McGrath” (namely, the McGrath of the village of Arasanoor), the stage seems set for a facsimile of Chennai 600028. But cricket, eventually, does not figure at all in the larger scheme of things.

Where it comes useful is in a cheeky sequence where the titular wastrel (Arikki, played by Vimal) and his equally profligate posse run through their neighbourhood, amassing funds for a match they say they intend to stage. There is, of course, no such event. The funds, instead, are funneled into a boozy evening, which erupts into a heated conversation which erupts into a kidnapping which erupts into a chase which erupts into a rift between Arikki and his girl Maheswari (Oviya). This is how Sarkunam spins his story, planting an innocuous seed and watching it sprout into a thicket of unrelated activity. Another terrific stretch unfurls at a local festival, and this time the seed is revenge. Arikki’s enemies know he’s going to be there, and you expect a visceral action segment to explode. But the action, when it finally does ensue, is a mere bookend to a sequence that’s otherwise another long stretch of unrelated activity (which allows for the mandatory Ilayaraja homage, with the prelude to Nila kaayudhu).

What a thrill it is to not be assaulted by breakneck editing rhythms executed under the pretext of narrative propulsion, leaving you with the dispiriting sense of being dangled from a car by the scruff of the neck and dragged through gravelly roads. The flow of sequences in Kalavani is languid, but not lifeless. You feel you’re sitting around the campfire, popping peanuts, as Sarkunam regales you under the light of a half-moon. Despite his love for our discursive oral traditions, Sarkunam has a flair for the smoothly cinematic as well, as in the purely visual sequence of Arikki shoving a protesting Maheswari into a running bus (and hauling her bicycle in to boot) in order to escape those on their tail. The men in pursuit hail from Maheswari’s village, and they want to get her married to someone else. Their efforts should have typically accrued into a violent meditation on yet another star-crossed romance, but a humorous undertow keeps things from becoming too serious.

It’s not just the comedy track (which Ganja Karuppu provides, as a villager constantly confounded in an uproarious running gag). Sarkunam has a delightfully subversive sense of humour, which announces itself at the most unexpected places, in the most unexpected ways. (I was reminded throughout of Bhagyaraj’s Thooral Ninnu Pochu, another slyly amusing village-set story of a love nearly thwarted by familial feuds.) He stages a song (Ooradangum saamathile) along the lines of the older film’s Yerikkarai poongaatrey, revolving around hero and heroine pining for each other, a one-time staple of romances now near-extinct due to the mantra that audiences for mainstream movies have no patience for anything in songs but frenzied choreography. Well, based on the growing word-of-mouth for Kalavani, they apparently still do. Give them a story populated with strongly felt relationships, vibrant vignettes laced with lots of comedy and lived-in atmosphere, and narrated in a fashion that respects their willingness to be swept along the director’s pace (the manner in which Arikki’s father discovers that his son is in love is another beautiful stretch of unrelated activity that’s capped with a mini-climax), and they will show up.

The resurgence of the rustic story has certainly revitalised Tamil cinema in recent years, but there was the slight weariness that too many of these tales were steeped in sorrow. You came off Kungumapoovum Konjumpuravum or Subramaniyapuram or Poo or Paruthi Veeran or Aval Peyar Thamizharasi or even Vennila Kabaddi Kuzhu (despite its abundant humour) as if emerging from the underworld, filled with souls writhing in endless torment. It was a relief to walk out of the theatre and note that the sun was still shining. Kalavani, on the other hand, envelops you with joy. As for that borderline sexual moment I said I’d come around to, the heroine, while tiptoeing past her sleeping parents at night, brushes against her mother’s feet. Still deep in slumber, the mother rebukes the father to hold back his amorous advances. You laugh heartily at the misunderstanding, but in the background is a sense of the relationship between two people who barely matter to the story. That’s the sign of a good storyteller.

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