Is it possible to make a sophisticated entertainment for a regional audience? Sure. But sophistication should not be confused with the superficial.
Filmmakers had it easy in the decades before the 1990s. There wasn’t much TV to speak of. If you owned a VCR, you still couldn’t see the really new movies. The cheapest mode of entertainment was to slip into a nearby theatre, where the quality of the film mattered less than the fact that something was playing, something to keep us occupied for three hours. We were the very definition of a captive audience, as we couldn’t even check messages on our mobile phones during the movie. We didn’t mind it if filmmakers kept making the same movie over and over, and we didn’t mind that the films ran so long – there wasn’t much else to do anyway. It wasn’t that hectic a life. But today, when the censor certificate for the Tamil film Thaandavam announces the running time as 167 minutes – the running time is no longer stated in terms of the number of reels – it’s hard not to groan. It’s harder, still, to go on to watch a needless heroine-introduction song (for a heroine who doesn’t matter to the movie in the least; that’s five precious Facebooking/Twittering/Chatting/YouTubing minutes down the drain).
I am sometimes asked to compare Hindi and Tamil cinema – these being the two Indian languages I cover – and this, I say, is the difference. Not the heroine-introduction song, for the Lord knows (and, I assume, applauds) the presence of one such number in Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, as Anushka Sharma made herself known. But that film was only 140 minutes long – and even that seemed something of an eternity. Along with the needless heroine-introduction song in Thaandavam, we have needless comedy (by a painfully unfunny Santhanam), needless action (with not a single move that’s imaginatively choreographed), and a needlessly protracted romance segment that softens the hero and introduces the film’s real heroine. (Now you see why I called that earlier heroine-introduction number needless?) And, much as I hate to generalise one badly made movie to represent all the movies made in a language, this is the problem with a lot of Tamil cinema: the naked yearning to be everything to everyone.
The logic isn’t difficult to understand. Unlike Hindi films, which have ridden the multiplex wave across the nation to the extent that a young actor like Ranbir Kapoor can be rightfully called a superstar despite making mainly city-centric movies, regional-language cinemas depend on audiences from the A centres, the B centres, and the C centres. It’s simply not possible to make a Rockstar or a Barfi! without diluting these stories with more traditional elements that make these films appealing to those in the hinterlands. That’s why the best of Tamil cinema is usually found in the stories picked up from those hinterlands. Even the recent Sundarapandiyan, with the director Sasikumar as the hero, had its moments. The elements that diluted this story for the sake of entertainment value were elements that looked like they belonged organically in this milieu. The film looked one of a piece, and even if you had issues with its content or style, you couldn’t fault the film for its vibe, which was maintained throughout.
Where we run into a problem is with these meant-to-be-sophisticated entertainers like Thaandavam, with its central gimmick of a blind hero who uses echolocation to find his way around. The question, now, is whether you make this premise palatable to an audience that just wants to sit back and enjoy something like Sundarapandiyan (which means the addition of all those “needless” elements), or refrain from touching this subject in the first place – and as a viewer, I would vote for the latter option. Why take up a subject and make a movie so far-removed from its promise that what remains is an ugly, unrecognisable amalgam of everything and the kitchen sink? By the time the songs play out, by the time the comedy runs its course, by the time the romance (in a long flashback) comes to a close, there’s hardly any time (despite the 167 minutes) to meaningfully explore the aspect that drew many of us to the movie in the first place: the hero who uses echolocation. Remove that angle, and the film wouldn’t have suffered one bit. (In other words, it would still have been as generic a big-hero project.)
Sundarapandiyan is a crudely made melodrama, but I’d watch that any day to the supposedly sophisticated Thaandavam. Because that film is what it says it is – this one isn’t. One of the most important things for the viewer is that he’s allowed to settle into the film’s defining vibe (even if that vibe is crude melodrama), and if the vibe calls for sophistication and you’re scared of it, then you shouldn’t be making that movie. You could be sophisticated and still make a movie that might appeal to the B and C centres, as was the case with the recent Attakathi. The vibe that that film started out with was the vibe with which it ended. Whatever your problems with the film (mine was that it settled, after a while, into a gentle monotony), it wasn’t parceling out bits of itself saying “this is for action lovers” and “this is for those who want comedy.” Everything came together organically. You don’t need echolocation to make a unique Tamil film. You just need a good script.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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