Mysskin’s terrific new film, Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum, begins with an extension of an episode from his Anjaathey, the one where a man lay dying on the street and no one would do anything about it until someone on a bike came along and decided to save him. The setup is almost exactly the same, give or take some visual bravura. (The film opens with a swath of empty highway slashing across the screen; rarely has nothingness seemed so ominous. Then, the wounded man – he’s been shot – slowly limps across.) Instead of the old woman who sold flowers in Anjaathey, we have, here, a beggar, and instead of the good-hearted man in that movie we have a boy, a medical student named Chandru (Sri), whose legs buckle under the wounded man’s weight. He takes this man to a hospital, and when refused help, he takes him home and attempts a splenectomy. A little later, the man has disappeared, and Chandru is in a café where the title song of Skyfall is heard. This is the end… Indeed. His life will never be the same again.
We smile at the aural joke, as well as its insistent quality – and I found, then, that I had completely made my peace with Mysskin’s filmmaking. It’s rare to find a filmmaker who’s so good with technique and who has so much to say (in terms of story as well as philosophy) – and yet, in his earlier films, I was often frustrated by the crudeness, the amateurishness if you will, in some stretches, which gave us the feeling of a talented filmmaker setting off flares to draw our attention to his talent. Look, look, this is what I’m doing here… But now, I feel that this lack of sophistication or subtlety or whatever you want to call it is just his way of making deep films whose depths can be plumbed by the average viewer (as opposed to a handful of cineastes). And yet, this is not the dumbing down we find in filmmakers who won’t take risks or who take risks and then end up explaining everything to the audience. (A tattoo of the name Bob, for instance, is shown once and never brought up again. ) This is some sort of fusion, the equivalent of staging a ballet with koothu techniques – and somehow, this unholy-sounding technique is producing some sensational cinema.
And very mannered cinema. I can, offhand, think of no one in Tamil cinema whose work is part melodramatic Tamil theatre (underscored by equal parts silence and a score; this time the music is by Ilayaraja), part minimalistic Noh play, part expressionist painting (those seemingly disembodied legs), part noir comedy, part existential thriller, and part action adventure. Two characters in a car are stopped by cops and interrogated, and they look straight ahead, never once at the cops; behind, a villain is flanked by two guards, who pose as if made of stone — they’re one with all the other frozen tableaux, two hostages waiting for the villain to return, or just a gun lying at the corner of the screen. And then we’ll have the highly charged (in emotion, though not in action) revelation from a woman who says that she was about to give away the hideout of a wanted criminal, but thankfully someone kicked her on the chest and she blacked out. And then we’ll find ourselves laughing at an elderly cop, stuck in a salute, fearing for his life as excruciating seconds tick on. And then, we’ll applaud a thrilling killing, say, of a ninja-like twosome who are memorably united in death.
And all of this is awash in philosophy. A CB CID officer gives a superb speech about why Chandru’s act of saving a wounded man isn’t quite as humanitarian as it seems – for the man turns out be a criminal named Wolf (Mysskin, in a literally balls-out performance). This man killed a boy about Chandru’s age and he will now bring out the inner animal in Chandru. And this seemingly highbrow conceit will segue into a visual in which a character, an animal, has something that looks like a tail, an actual tail. And this seemingly lowbrow sight would have been preceded by a single-take shot, where we see the static, spoken version of events that could have been made cinematic, through a flashback (though this is its own kind of cinema). That we do not end up laughing hysterically at this mix is a testament to Mysskin the storyteller, Mysskin the filmmaker. He was horribly out-of-sync with himself in the ill-fated Mugamoodi, but his skills have survived that disaster.
Along with his fetishes. A logical-minded (or literal-minded) viewer may end up with a lot of questions. How does Sri turn into a crack shot after some random target practice? Or, how are the late-night streets filled only with cops and criminals? And the big story behind a criminal’s actions is a bit underwhelming, an updating of the crux of the Rajesh Khanna starrer Dushman (or its Sivaji Ganesan-starring remake Needhi), and we see, also, flashes of Yuddham Sei, from the mysterious family in the background to the fate of the children. But then, Mysskin’s movies are essentially rearrangements of his pet themes, visuals, tropes. One could argue that Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum is less a mystery than a mood piece, the latest collage of Mysskin-isms. The Christian imagery, from the man who carries around the Holy Bible to the cop named Isaac to the goings-on in a cemetery. The visually impaired characters, more in number here than in any other Mysskin film. The flower seller at the corner of the screen. There’s no item girl in a yellow sari, but we seem to have a new fetish, Lord Ganesha himself, who appears several times: at the bottom of the stairs leading to a railway station, at a temple beset by beggars, and at a roadside shrine. History can answer the question whether Mysskin is a true-blue auteur. For now – and it’s enough – he’s a damn fine filmmaker.
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