In Pizza, Karthik Subbaraj displayed a talent for the twist, but that was simply at the level of the narrative. In his second feature, Jigarthanda, Subbaraj pulls the rug out from under the traditional constructs of the hero and heroine, whom we almost always know as good people, washed in white. Kayal (Lakshmi Menon) says, at one point, that she is not like a “cinema heroine”, and we nod fervently – for she’s done something vengeful, something a “cinema heroine” would never do. As for the hero, Karthik (Siddharth), his moral centre is… well, he doesn’t seem to have one. He uses a friend (Karunakaran). He uses Kayal. He’s an unabashed opportunist. He’s a maker of short films who’s got his big shot at making a feature, based on the life of a Madurai gangster – “Assault” Sethu (Simhaa) – and he goes about his work with the ruthless single-mindedness of a hungry shark chasing its prey.
Karthik trains his camera on Sethu and requests him for his catalogue of sins, and when Sethu begins to talk about murders and kidnappings, Karthik isn’t horrified – a slow smile spreads over his face. Kaching. All this is material for the movie. As Sethu narrates the story of his life, Karthik sees these events as scenes from the screenplay he will write – each scene unfolds with “actors” he will cast, and with screenplay notations (“EXT”, “SCENE”), and he even gets a fix on the interval point. In a scene that’s played for laughs – but really shows how far Karthik will go – Karthik positions his camera on a tripod as Sethu, surrounded by his goons, sits across a rival for talks. Karthik realizes that the scene is flat – it needs some action. So a complicit Sethu (he’s bought into the fact that his life is becoming a movie) issues a signal and all hell breaks loose, and Karthik snatches the camera from the tripod and begins to film the scene in hand-held fashion. The only thing that matters to him is his art. His producer wants a blood-spattered gangster movie – the brief sounds juicier in Tamil: “raththam therikka therikka”– and that’s the most important thing.
So on the one hand, Jigarthanda is the gangster movie that the producer wants. It takes the classic trope of a mole infiltrating a gang and turns it on its head – it’s a filmmaker who sneaks in. Subbaraj’s detailing is meticulous – also quirky and tongue-in-cheek. When a couple makes out, they aren’t just making out – they’re making out with Kate and Leo masks in front of a television set that’s broadcasting Titanic. When a character gets out of an auto-rickshaw, he doesn’t just step out – we see his legs first, swinging out in slow motion, clad in checkered pajamas. And the editing rhythms are slightly (and delightfully) out of whack. Karthik asks a gangster he’s befriended to tell him about Sethu, and the next instant we cut to the song Kannamma, which follows Karthik and Kayal through the early stages of their relationship. And I loved the extra seconds the camera lingers on Sivaji Ganesan’s face when a shootout occurs during a screening of Paasamalar. (The juxtaposition of the gentle song, Malarndhum malaraadha, and the gory action has to be the drollest touch in Tamil cinema this year.) The writing is refreshingly out of whack too. An assassination scene ends with Sethu calmly doing what he came to do in the first place. (I won’t spoil it for you. It’s hilarious.)
But there’s something else going on in Jigarthanda, and that’s a meta movie about moviemaking itself. Not for nothing is the hero named after the director. Subbaraj seems to be saying that the only way to make the movie you really want to make in the present Tamil-cinema scenario – where anyone, apparently, can become a hero and begin calling the shots, and where directors with vision are forced to compromise – is to become some sort of gangster, so that you don’t have to fall at the feet of others; the others will do the falling, at your feet. Jigarthanda is, at some level, a perverse wish-fulfillment fantasy, and its narrative arc traces the progression of the making of a movie. First, we see the flash of desire. Then the money kicks in. Then it’s on to the scripting and location scouting. Then, we end up on the sets – lines are fed to non-actors, “sarakku” songs are staged, love happens, comedy happens, a kinda-sorta love triangle happens, and we see what happens to wannabe filmmakers who don’t have the drive of a Karthik (whether Subbaraj, or the hero). They end up with hoarded dreams, refusing to wake up even after decades.
Scene for scene, Jigarthanda is fresh and alive and cracklingly inventive, and there are stupendous stretches of comedy – with an acting coach; with a revolver loaded with a single bullet; with a camera that needs recharging. But the two films – the gangster movie and the meta movie – never really cohere. When the film begins, it’s a drama. Then it takes a detour into borderline-absurdist comedy. And it becomes a drama all over again. The changes in tone are jarring, and most problematic in the case of the characterization of Sethu. Simhaa is terrific – he’s the film’s centre, its anchor. His hair and beard are graying, his teeth are mottled – he looks like Rob Schneider after a month at a tanning salon. He has a great intro scene, where he sets a journalist on fire, and the entire first half is devoted to furthering the legend of this man’s grisliness. But midway, he’s reduced to a buffoon. His shtick is good, but it’s also terribly out of character – it’s like watching a film where the Robert De Niro character from The Godfather: Part II transforms into the Robert De Niro character from Analyze This. (Or closer home, one where the Kamal Haasan character from Nayakan transforms, in the second half, to the Kamal Haasan character from Vasool Raja MBBS.) Why did we need such an elaborate buildup to Sethu’s life of crime (the film runs a numbing 170 minutes) if his best scenes are going to milk his character for comedy? Or seen the other way, why would a character so steeped in blood stoop, overnight, to such tomfoolery? Or is Subbaraj saying that the lure of cinema is such that even such a man, this “oru maadhiriyana psycho,” cannot resist his life being turned into a big-screen gangster saga like Nayakan or Thalapathi, even at the cost of his dignity?
Subbaraj thinks exclusively in terms of twists – the one involving the eventual destinies of Karthik and Sethu is a doozy, at least in theory – and he shortchanges us when it comes to the emotional graphs of the characters. This wasn’t a problem in Pizza, where all we were required to do was scream (and later, slap our heads in surprise), but it makes the character-heavy Jigarthanda a lesser movie than what it could have been. I wished Kayal had been given more to do – the part comes off as underwritten, and when she expresses strong feelings for Karthik, we are taken back by her teary intensity. And with the others, things seem to happen too conveniently. I was never convinced that Karthik, who’s shown to be such a scaredy-cat at first, could pull all this off, befriending gangsters without breaking a sweat and eavesdropping on others. As for Sethu, he’s reduced to the plight of the garden-variety Tamil-film gangster – reacting to scenes with “mother sentiment” and “child sentiment”. It’s a good thing Santhosh Narayanan is around. His flamboyant score imbues even the weaker scenes with a Tarantinoesque swagger.
And yet, we are readier to forgive Jigarthanda its flaws than we are with other films – and I think it has to with its new-gen vibe. When earlier filmmakers displayed ambition, they still worked within the contours of the “Tamil film” – at most, you could call their work a “Westernised” take on the Tamil film – but filmmakers like Subbaraj are ushering in genuinely singular and outré modes of expression, with morally ambiguous characters and with take-it-or-leave-it tropes from the wide world of cinema, and yet trying to infuse it all with a sense of Tamil-ness. He isn’t just walking a tightrope – the tightrope is oiled and he’s riding a unicycle and it’s all happening over the Niagara Falls. You can’t stop watching. He even works in a bit of reflexive criticism. At the beginning, Karthik is on a television programme, awaiting the jury’s verdict on his short film. A National Award-winning director calls it rubbish. A producer, a less lofty man, concerned only about profits, says it’s the best film in the competition. And a war of words ensues between Art and Commerce. Films like Jigarthanda, targeted at Twittery youth, fight a mighty fight to bridge that divide, striving to make a commercially viable entertainment with truckloads of auteurist artistry. If nothing else, you have to respect the man on the unicycle.
* Jigarthanda = see here
* Pizza = see here
* mole infiltrating a gang = see here
* Titanic = see here
* Kannamma = see here
* Malarndhum malaraadha = see here
* Simhaa is terrific = see here
* Rob Schneider = see here
* oru maadhiriyana psycho = some kind of psycho
* the man on the unicycle = see here
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