Bullet-point Report: “Avan Ivan”

Posted on June 19, 2011

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    • If Picasso, faced with failure, had decided to paint a piece of turd, it would still have been a cubist piece of turd. So too Avan Ivan. It may be, at least on the surface, just commercial cinema – but it’s still Bala’s commercial cinema. Every scene, every character, every contrivance is stamped with a signature vision, and when a filmmaker is so original, even the half meals are vaguely filling.
    • This is an often-frustrating, oddly misshapen film – and yet, you cannot tear your eyes away. I’ve seen it twice, and both times I’ve teetered crazily between admiration and extreme irritation.
    • Why twice? Because one school of thought says that your only reaction to a film is the gut reaction you leave with after a single viewing. But with films that are so different, with filmmakers who are so unique, I find that rule somewhat inadequate, because the first viewing acclimatises me to the film’s rhythms and the second time is when I use my awareness of those rhythms to gauge my actual reaction to the film. It’s like learning a new language. You need to learn the vowels and consonants first before you begin to read prose and poetry.
    • The two defining moments of Avan Ivan, as I see it, are the bits where the beleaguered cop (a very funny character), unable to bear the yelling match between two wives, drops in a faint, and where the judge, unable to bear Arya’s refusal to get to the point, moans, “Ayyo, kollraangale!” That’s the general feel Bala seems to be going for, not making a movie about something so much as around it, refusing to get to the point – or a point, any point – because, till the end, there isn’t much of a point to be gotten to in the first place.
    • Bala proves, once again, that he’s a master at creating characters – and not so much at crafting a narrative that can satisfactorily contain these characters. In earlier films, this didn’t matter much because they were plot-heavy and there was always something happening, some danger lurking in the unseen beyond, and even if Scene 2 was unfulfilling, Scene 3 would come along and smoothen things out. Here, because the interplay between characters is all there is and because “plot” is put away until the last twenty minutes or so, the narrative had to be a rock-solid winner. It isn’t.
    • There are a dozen burning questions, chief among which is this: Why not introduce the villain earlier on, if only as some sort of shadowy sideshow? (Just as you feel the apparent aimlessness is going to go on till the cows come come, a few hundred cows really make an appearance and the film shifts into gear.) And once he’s introduced, Avan Ivan kicks into abrupt overdrive, and it’s over even before you know it.
    • This is not a film about Avan or even about Ivan but about Avar, about Highness, who is easily one of Bala’s most fascinating characters from the fringes of society. The way he looks, the way he behaves, the incidents in his life (of which more below) – everything has been shaped with so much love that the rest of the characters, including the heroes – who are merely commercial props, the palanquin bearers for the story of His Highness – come off as somewhat undercooked. (Hence that half meals comment at the beginning.)
    • And what borderline-surreal incidents they are – a humiliation in front of foreigners resulting in 108 dips in a temple tank; karate stances in the midst of a flock of pigeons; a bell rung in a downpour to summon a family; punishment being meted out through uppumoottai; posing like a hunter after a kill with a stuffed tiger under the foot…
    • This borderline-surreal behaviour (as in, am I really seeing this?) is glimpsed in other characters too – the overweight boy distracted by the gold watch in a hand that he’s biting into, the woman who demonstrates her appreciation of Vishal’s dancing by kissing his buttock, the heroine doing somersaults…
    • With the nominal heroes, Arya and Vishal, Bala launches into what I suppose a film-studies student would call “an inquiry into gender.” At first it looks like Arya is all man, at least in the traditional way manhood and masculinity are defined, and that Vishal is the woman, the one into arts, the one fond of wearing saris, the one who doesn’t tackle a problem head on, like a man, but instead moans about it to Highness, the one whose fluttery wrist movements make his mother slap him in exasperation, the one who takes (womanly) pity on a victim, a little woman who’s lost her father, the one who gossips like a woman (while getting a manly shave). But when push comes to shove, this “woman” is the real man. Arya is the one who gets beaten up in fights with villains, while Vishal is the one who does the beating. And when something horrible happens to Highness, Vishal is the one who does something. Arya, the man, simply faints.
    • Is there a reason Vishal is so frequently found in a squatting pose? (My apologies to the taste police, but I found it very funny when he, this son of a maavarachufying father, whined to his mother that his shit was coming out like maavu and the latter responded with a wisecrack about making rottis with it. There’s a great scatological genius, clearly, residing inside this Bala.)
    • Yes, Vishal is a kalaignan. Yes, his face lights up whenever he’s called a kalaignan. Yes, he loves to dance. But what is that navarasa sequence all about? Yes, we get that this stretch is meant to prefigure the shoka (rasa) that his features will essay later, this time for real, and again in the presence of Highness – but this is way too vague a scene. And it’s shot so badly too. With embarrassing cutaways to applauding audience members.
    • The cutaways to reactions shots are even more embarrassing. The acting is so broad and theatrical (as in bad Tamil-stage drama) as to appear caricatured. (Intentionally so? Who can say?) There isn’t a character who seems capable of speaking without gesticulating. (That TV reporter? Really?) And I don’t think I’ve seen this many kicks planted in the back and slaps directed at the cheek since the heyday of Goundamani-Senthil.
    • And is Bala the only major filmmaker in the country who’s not the least interested in camera setups? His films are functionally well-shot, little more. Does his engagement with a film end at the script level, and does he just call up his cinematographer and tell him, “Boss, now do whatever it is you think you should do?”
    • And because Vishal gets such a big showcase for himself, in that navarasa stretch, we move to a subsequent showcase for Arya, in a scene by the river that somehow manages to incorporate Daddy daddy from Mouna Geethangal. This seemed, at times, like the balancing calculations done by old-time commercial filmmakers. Scene where Vishal gets a girl? Then we must have one where Arya gets a girl. Scene where Vishal has a love song? Then we must have one for Arya too. Big actorly scene for Vishal? Let’s write one for Arya too.
    • With the exception of Sangeetha in Pithamagan and Pooja in Naan Kadavul, has Bala ever written strong heroine parts (as opposed to mothers and others)? The useless heroines here are the latest in that inglorious tradition, and the fate of Arya’s romance (in what is supposed to be a big dramatic moment) ends up as significant as a fart in the wind.
    • The two wives and their hate-hate relationship provide much mirth early on, but soon they forget their differences (after a stray scene where they stick up together for Highness) and mysteriously appear as one. These are the portions you feel Bala is emulating his guru Balu Mahendra and making his version of Neengal Kettavai. “I break my back and make these works of vision and you reject them in favour illogical dreck like Siruthai, where characters come and go as they please, change as they please, and events unfold with near-cosmic randomness? Well, let me show you I can be illogical and near-cosmically random too.”
    • So just like Singam and Siruthai, when Vishal paints himself like a tiger and opens his mouth to growl, it’s a real tiger’s roar that we hear on the soundtrack. Except that, this being a Bala film, this tiger comes with a squint. At the end of the Vikatan (or maybe it was Kumudham) review of Neengal Kettavai, the reviewer lamented, “Balu Mahendra, idhaiyaa naangal kettom?” There are times you come close to asking this of Bala.
    • And yet, no mere masala movie, no mere commercial entertainer, comes loaded with such parallelisms – the hints at the relationship between Highness and Arya-Vishal’s family (a red car there, a red bike here; the similarity of the cigarillo-type things that Highness and Ambika smoke); the introductory scene of Highness in front of a mirror (admiring himself, along with his “wives”) being contrasted with that later scene of Highness in front of a mirror (loathing himself and his solitary existence); the celebratory chariot ride versus the tragic chariot ride…
    • I’m no psychoanalyst, but I’d wager that Bala has some kind of fixation with fair-skinned heroine-types and fairer-skinned upper-class types, especially higher-caste judges. Add to this the mock-Brahminical accent adopted by Arya as he rags the gaggle of exam-bound girls, and…
    • Did anyone else feel that Avan Ivan is kinda-sorta the evil twin of Agni Natchatiram? A man with two wives, two warring sons, and these two warring sons unite in the cause of a father figure, and there’s a fight sequence in the slushy mud, and like Nirosha, Arya is never referred to by name (except in that one bit at the beginning)…
    • For the second time in as many weeks, the Tamil screen is host to the pixellated private parts of a naked man.
    • Not for this director the songs of the eighties, or of Raja, so beloved by other current-day directors. It’s Yaaradi nee mohini and Ange maalai mayakkam yaarukaaga. There is, however, a smallish Raja connection, in that the heroine at the bus stop as the latter song comes up does look like the heroine in this very sweet (then-like, if you will, given the name of the bus-stop heroine’s character) and altogether awesome duet.
  • Like Simran in Pithamagan, Suriya makes a special appearance here, plugging his work with Agaram Foundation. Was Bala too tired to think of a more interesting event in which to place the guest star? Let’s at least be thankful that Arya deflates the general air of noble self-congratulation with that he’s-making-crores dig.
  • For some reason, I found it outrageously funny that the father of Walter and Kumbudrensami was named Srikanth. The way his wife calls out to him – it’s priceless! There was a lot of pre-release fuss about this film being Bala’s sojourn into comedy (or some such thing), but Bala’s films have always been funny in parts, and I must say I prefer the throwaway bits to the more overt attempts at making us laugh. There’s a happy little spot that burns bright, really bright, inside this dark, dark man.

Copyright ©2011 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.