Bullet-point Report: “Mayakkam Enna”

Posted on November 29, 2011


  • I remember reading an interview with the actor James McAvoy where he said he was terrified of doing sex scenes because at some point he would have to make some moves, and he didn’t want the audience to think that those were his moves, the moves he employs in real life, at his home, on his bed. He didn’t want audiences to think that this is how James McAvoy really makes love. Selvaraghavan, on the other hand, gives me the impression that he wants us to know this is who he is, this is what he thinks, this is how he treats his women, this is what his idea of a dream dad is, this is how he wants to be bathed in bodily fluids when he farts, and this is how he pays tribute to the women (the irumbu manushi-s) in his life, the ones who put up with him despite his gajillion madnesses. He is the first Tamil director since KB who makes me think he’s putting bits and pieces of himself into his on-screen relationships.
  • This is not to say he’s a salivating exhibitionist. Not at all. Rather, I think he’s more in touch with his subconscious (or unconscious, to use the correct term) than most filmmakers while writing, and doesn’t flinch when he sees the results on the page. From his films so far, I get the feeling he can write no other way. (It’s probably a weird form of therapy, the kind that plenty of artists put themselves through.) He is always going to make intense, personal films, even within the generic ambit of “adventures” like Aayirathil Oruvan. This intensity is why a Selvaraghavan film, at least in my experience, characterises itself as a queasy feeling in the pit of the stomach.

Hosted by imgur.com

  • Mayakkam Enna abounds with skanky little truths any man (and probably any woman) will recognise. You walk into the bedroom shared by your friend and his girl, the one you’re beginning to have feelings for. The half-rumpled bed will catch your eye, right?
  • The man of little accomplishment who goes on to redeem himself through a complicated process of love – that was true of the hero of 7G, that’s true of Dhanush here. The white-faced woman of limited expressiveness who, despite her better judgment, ends up falling for the “little man” – that’s true of Sonia Agarwal in 7G, that’s true of Richa Gangopadhyay here. She walks around as if the lower half of her face were weighted with cement, as if it’s an effort just to prise her lips open. All her scenes we watch by imagining what a better actress could have accomplished in this role. And even that indulgence deserts us as she attempts to put through her emotions simply by gesticulating and screaming, while mopping up her blood on the floor. Maybe we should be grateful that at least her lip sync was somewhat okay?
  • But despite the problems in pacing and staging, I’d rather watch an individual/idiosyncratic film like this (or the similarly poetic/problematic Manmadhan Ambu) than something generically bloated like 7aum Arivu or Endhiran or Dasavatharam. The former films are ambitious in thought, always a rewarding thing, while the latter’s ambition manifests itself mainly in terms of scale. These films are, despite their occasional achievements, best described by paraphrasing Arvind Swami’s boss in Roja: “Directorgal seyyara high-tech sadhi.”
  • The film begins with an unintended joke, the disclaimer that smoking and drinking are injurious to health – the very first shot that follows is that of empty beer bottles. Don’t they know this is a Selvaraghavan film? But a bigger joke may be that Kumudham has taken a break from showcasing sexy (or at least trying-to-be-sexy) young things on its cover and switched to wildlife photographs. Of course, the point is that the hero gets his deliverance from the humblest, most unexpected, the most local of places – as opposed, to say, the internationally renowned National Geographic, which appears to be the domain of upper-class twits like Dhanush’s nemesis – but still, the thought of a Kumudham with an elephant on the cover had me doubling over.
  • And what is this film, really? In Martin Scorsese: Interviews – which is just what the title implies, a collection of terrific interviews – the director says, “You have films with happy endings, which show the triumph of the human spirit, in films like Rocky. And then you have pictures that are a little more realistic… In the ‘50s through the ‘70s, they seemed to exist together. Now, it seems that some films don’t even have the right to exist. With the advent of Rocky and Star Wars and the Spielberg pictures, on the best side they’re morally uplifting… And on the worst side, they’re sentimental. Lies.” In essence, he’s cleaving the world of current American cinema in two – the Rocky clones, with their heart-warming epiphanies, and the grittier films, and it’s not a stretch to extend this slightly unscientific theory to mainstream Indian cinema, which thrives on the assumption that the audience wants to leave the theatre on a high, uplifted, feeling good, and the other kind of films doesn’t have the right to exist. Filmmakers like Selvaraghavan make nonsense of this bifurcation by coasting along its boundaries. Mayakkam Enna is ostensibly a Rocky-style fantasy about achieving your dreams (the dream, here, is of becoming a wildlife photographer), and it leaves us with a big, fat sentimental lie at the end (which, to some, may seem uplifting), but the path it treads to get to that lie is filled with thorny truths. Mayakkam Enna is a feel-good film that, for most of its running time, makes you feel extremely bad. Scorsese might label it a realistic Rocky.
  • We might also call it a subversive Rocky, an upending of the very clichés that comfort us in that kind of movie. The guys gets the girl – but at great personal cost. The trainee approaches the professional – but the latter is anything but encouraging, a mentor in no sense of the word. There are supportive friends around – but they fall for your girlfriend, and even your wife. The guy gets repeated shots at the big leagues – but only for destiny to keep denying him glory. Until it finally does. The biggest subversion of Mayakkam Enna is its insistence that we can do all we want, but things will happen to us only if they’re meant to. That’s hardly the basis of feel-good cinema, which insists that we can pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and get what we want. Each time an opportunity presents itself – at an ad agency, at a forest – we think that’s it, that’s the cue for happy tears and triumphal music, but then we see, hearts sinking, that that’s not it. Destiny is not done dicking around with Dhanush.
  • Walking into the film, I thought it was going to be a full-on love story. After all, one of the words in the title is the almost-onomatopoeic mayakkam – just saying it out loud conjures up a sense of intoxication. But it isn’t – and that’s the other tweak to the feel-good Rocky-type fable. The love story is not a subplot – it plays out in parallel. (Have you wondered why Rocky, despite the fact that it was not the first such story, has come to stand in as a kind of shorthand for any such against-all-odds, zero-to-hero tale?)
  • So yes, this is what a realistic Rocky-type story would play like, but Selvaraghavan’s realism is not real realism, the realism we see around us. It exists in a kind of heightened emotional zone, filled with bleeding-heart poetry, and this gets quite ugly to watch at times. That “poetic” moment with the leaf descending on Dhanush – seriously? But that moment with the Valentine’s Day hug that brings Dhanush and Richa close, in the arms of the man they are going to betray – that’s good poetry. As is the scene where he pours out the contents of the bottle, but not before pouring himself one last drink.
  • More amateurishness arrives in the graphics in songs and in the scenes of nature photography. Time and again we are left to wonder why Tamil filmmakers think we’ll accept the worst when it comes to CGI, makeup… It’s more frustrating in films like this one and Dasavatharam. At least with the others, we can say that the makers didn’t know any better.
  • What is the point of becoming (and being hailed as) a major filmmaker if you cannot attend to the minor details? Which ad agency is going to entrust a photo shoot for a “periya client” to an unproven photographer who takes pictures mainly of his friends and of girls who’ve come of age? And is wildlife photography so easy that anyone, with a bit of luck, can clamber onto machans and lie down in glades and capture, perfectly, nature’s bounty? Why not show him read a book or two, ask an expert or two? And why does this girl, working in an ad agency and presumably making good money, turn into this dowdy creature in saris, like one of those women you find in Tamil serials? Yes, she’s an exhausted nurse now, married to a man who talks to trees – but still!
  • One of the things I enjoyed most was how the love triangle played out. It is surely one of the most unusual we’ve seen on screen. We’ve rolled our eyes through zillions of stories where two best friends position themselves at opposite ends of a ping-pong table and use the heroine as the ball, but Mayakkam Enna is the only film that understands that friendships don’t stay at the same level all the time, but fluctuate, instead, like voltage. We can be best friends with people and yet not want to wish them heartily at their weddings. After a fight over a girl, we can make up over booze, crawl back into that sacred umbilical space, and yet, minutes later, when the scotch has left the system, we can find ourselves adrift in resentment again. And then, upon the passage of time, upon finding this friend in dire straits, we can forget the past and root for him like we used to. This is a stunning strand of “realism” in Tamil cinema, the la-la land of the evergreen nanben da.
  • But that scene on that beach where the friends pounce on one of their own for daring to date a girl without telling them is right from the la-la land of the evergreen nanben da.
  • Speaking of making up over booze, that scene is one among many that plays out better in the mind, when you think about it, than on screen, when you actually see it. The concept, in other words, is defeated by the execution. When that father extended an arm, silently, secure in his bro-code wisdom, I burst out laughing. The actors are stiff, the staging is mannered (with near-catatonic pauses between moments, which unfold so slowly as to suggest that the action is taking place, at times, at the bottom of the ocean), and at many moments I didn’t feel that these people belonged together.
  • Which brings me to my next point, where I’m going to try to be as politically correct as possible. Whether we want to or not, whether we like it or not, we identify some movie-faces as upper-class (or maybe upper-caste), and the others as lower-class. We would never believe Tamannah, for instance, as a girl from the slums, even though we may know from life that people don’t always look the way we stereotype them in our minds. So the point is this: Selvaraghavan cheerfully mixes and matches faces. Of fathers and sons. Of brothers and sisters. Of friends, even. And throughout I kept wondering if this is an unfortunate accident of casting that such a diverse set of movie-faces got thrown together, or is there’s something more to it, something that only Selvaraghavan and his unconscious can tell us.
  • More such blurring (or subverting our stereotypes of how people are, how they live, what they know and do): Dhanush knows Hindi and can explain dialogues to Richa; Dhanush being part of a group that celebrates Valentine’s Day by slow-waltzing to Tonight I Celebrate My Love and hanging out at the beach to the accompaniment of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters (they played my favourite part of the song: “trust I seek and I find in you”) and with ring tones that sound out with It’s Been So Long Since I Haven’t Seen Your Face, and yet, he bashes up someone as being “Peter.” What ya!
  • Yes, that “Peter” happens to be a TamBrahm, as does the heartless neighbour who demands that Dhanush leave the house at once. And of course this neighbour slinks away, tail between his legs, when confronted with the spectre of sex. There’s apparently nothing between his legs but that tail.
  • Tribal dance? Really? And the background score was too heavy, and the same snatch of music seemed to be playing all the time, till is smoothed over into annoying elevator muzak. Many of these scenes are so low key that they don’t even warrant this kind of soupy music, as if angels with twinkly tiaras were sighing and rising to the skies.
  • The cut to the marriage is a bloody masterstroke. It is one of the most disorienting feats of editing I’ve seen, and for a second, I thought I was dreaming (or maybe that he was dreaming).
  • I like the actor Dhanush is becoming, the roles he’s picking up. Will any other actor from the current crop allow himself to be slapped – twice – by the heroine? Of course, he gets to slap someone inferior to him, someone he can feel better than – a woman who wants to promote her heroine-material daughter at any cost – but the slaps from the woman he feels inferior to, he has to bear silently. My favourite acting moment – rather, reacting moment – of his is when he is caught by his best friend. He accepts the friend’s slap, of course. And his head hangs in abject shame. He makes you feel his wretchedness.
  • A photographer asks Dhanush to act like a dog. Much later, after he snaps, he barks at a man and boots him out and hangs a sign outside his door: Karthik jaagiradhai – the way owners of dogs do. Almost immediately, we see him alone at night, on the street, with only a dog for company. “The use of canine imagery to characterise the hero in Mayakkam Enna” – Discuss! (20 points.)
  • Funniest line in the film? “You are like my sister.” And the way Dhanush says it, suggesting that even he doesn’t buy it for a second. I died.
  • I like the fact that grownups say aai. They do, in life, of course, and it’s high time they started in films too. When I was a kid, DD, one afternoon, screened a Marathi movie called Shyamche Aai. We must have laughed nonstop for fifteen minutes. (Yes, I know what it means now – duh!)
  • I never got why the hero was called Genius. I get the feeling he didn’t get it either. After all, at the beginning, he does confess, “Naan konjam loosu…”
  • She bathes with the door open, and when he comes in and doesn’t look, she says later, “Paappe-nu nenachen.” Almost as if she wanted it. But later, when he orders her to strip, she’s lost all interest. That’s what happens when life takes over. Or as the French say, C’est la vie.
  • The film’s most wrenching scene is the one where a disillusioned Dhanush walks home after flunking the ad-agency opportunity and sees, on the side of the street, an ordinary old woman – except that she seems to be lit from within, like the subject of PC Sreeram’s camera circa Nayakan, when the actors on screen would resemble newly polished brassware. We are, of course, seeing this woman through Dhanush’s eyes – he’s found a beautiful subject, and this is the beauty we are sharing. He takes pictures – and she is restored to normalcy. The glow isn’t on her anymore, it’s in her picture, which her husband sees and marvels at. “Yen pondatti azhaga irundhu naan paathadhe ille,” he says. Of course not. After all, he doesn’t have Dhanush’s eye. That’s why the man wants to be a photographer.

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

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil