Why do directors act? The situation, if you think about it, is a bit of a paradox. Someone who steps into the film industry to become an actor knows that he wants to be in front of the camera – he wants to be the film’s face. Someone wanting to be a director, on the other hand, wants to be the film’s voice. He knows full well that his is a life conducted behind the camera. How, then, does this crossover happen – and so frequently, in Tamil cinema? How does someone with the desire to make films arrive at the point where he realises he’d rather be acting in them? Is it because directing is too onerous an occupation, requiring far more investment of oneself than just memorising lines? Or is it the money, the visibility, the fame that directors are often denied – despite being the architects of the films that make stars of actors? It must be galling to see your hero appear on more magazine covers than you, and then finding that he has no time to spare for your next venture. Why not, therefore, become the hero, the top dog of the movie-industry food chain? Why not become the one who really calls the shots?
Every time I watch a film where M Sasikumar plays the lead, I find myself beset by these thoughts – but this time, the film abets this inquiry. Bramman, directed by Socrates, is partly a “family entertainer” (about that, later), and partly a meta meditation on the Sasikumar persona. And it’s not just the usual self-deprecation – declaring that he never imagined himself a hero, or being told, by a sidekick, that he cannot dance. As if anticipating the question “Why are you wearing designer duds and singing romantic songs in foreign locations, while lending an ear to Santhanam’s one-liners, instead of dreaming up the next Subramaniyapuram?” Sasikumar tells us – through his character Siva, who owns a single-screen theatre in Coimbatore – that it’s not easy. Siva’s mother is obsessed with mega-serials. His father is content with other television programmes. And his sister watches films on pirated DVDs. In addition, the single screens, where a balcony ticket costs Rs. 30, are being replaced by marriage halls and commercial complexes (and if they have to survive, it’s by screening soft porn). “I want to give people good cinema,” Sasikumar/Siva says. But…
Siva reveals that even as a boy, he was crazy about cinema, stealing film strips from the local theatre and gazing at the frames. And this obsession stuck. The fight scenes in Bramman are staged in front of cinema halls, and they come about because Siva cannot bear to see these temples defiled by audience members who put their feet up in the seats in front of them or by others who drink and relieve themselves in the premises. (At other points, he calls theatres his schools, his world.) Siva is such a devotee of cinema that he allows himself to be shamed by Gayathri (Lavanya Tripathi) – a student of, wait for this, Mass Media. She goes about tearing posters of the films he’s screening in his theatre – and when cornered, she says that it’s not right to promote cinema near temples and schools and government offices.
And as the film shifts, in the second half, to Chennai – to Kodambakkam, the capital of Tamil cinema, where Siva ends up being asked to direct a film; in other words, we have, here, a director playing an actor playing a director – we get scenarios written around the life of strugglers in the industry, boys who follow their dreams and make short films; Tamil directors finding fame in Telugu cinema; the importance of marketing and presentation; our gruesome obsession with leaving the audience with a message; the value of the bound script (and the valuelessness of the screenwriters who deliver those scripts). Even the constant smoking – everyone lights up, including Soori and Santhanam, who provide a few laughs – may be some sort of insider reference. And the title, we discover, stands for the creator… of cinema.
With all this, Sasikumar could have made his own movie, a scorching drama about a man with ideals forced to prostitute himself in the marketplace. Instead, he opts for the safer route, coating this bitter pill with the sugar of “family sentiment,” “friend sentiment,” a last-minute love triangle, and an item song. I feared the worst as I sat through the early scenes, which set out to appease fans of MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan and Vijay – Rajinikanth’s entry in Aboorva Raagangal is replicated in a comic moment, and the visual of a poster of Nichaya Thamboolam is used to cut away to an engagement ceremony. The number that plays over the opening credits has the lines “Vaazhkai cinema thaanda, adhula hero endrum neeye thaanda” – and soon after, Siva makes his entry in slow-motion, on a bike, carrying reels of a Rajinikanth movie, high-fiving children along the way.
But Bramman isn’t a “mass hero” movie, thankfully – the “villain,” so to speak, is just the Corporation that demands that Siva pay up tax arrears if he wants to keep his theatre. But this major crisis, which seemed to be the film’s central plot point, is resolved with a whimper, and the story abruptly changes tracks to gaze on a dreadfully sentimental friendship. The love angle, similarly, is all over the place. These, along with the circumstance of Siva moving away from home, are portions that could have helped us invest emotionally in this story, but we get scenes like the one where Siva, calling his mother in Coimbatore for the first time, many days after moving to Chennai, asks for her vatha kozhambu recipe – she cheerfully obliges, as if she just heard from him five minutes back. With someone else at its centre, we might have said that Bramman is just about watchable, but with Sasikumar, we begin to wonder if Subramaniyapuram was a one-off. It’s coincidence, of course, but a few days after the demise of Balu Mahendra, we have another instance of a serious-minded filmmaker hurling at us a few reels of perfunctorily shaped cinema. He could be saying: Neengal Kettavai. But is this what we asked for?
* Bramman = Creator
* Why do directors act? = see here
* that he cannot dance = see here
* soft porn = see here
* even as a boy, he was crazy about cinema = see here
* relieve themselves = see here
* leaving the audience with a message = see here
* Rajinikanth’s entry in Aboorva Raagangal = see here
* Vaazhkai cinema thaanda, adhula hero endrum neeye thaanda = life is a movie, and you’re always the hero
* dreadfully sentimental friendship = see here
* vatha kozhambu recipe = see here
* Neengal Kettavai = see here
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