Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Goliaths and Davids”

Posted on August 8, 2014

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On “Jigarthanda.” On the current state of Tamil cinema. On criticism, and why it’s important to not just praise a film because it’s… “different.”

Sometime last month, in the sify.com coverage of an interaction that had something to do with the teaser of the Suriya film Anjaan, the star was thus quoted: “Expectation about every film of mine is getting bigger and I have to satisfy the classes, masses, families and kids. My kids, wife and parents have to watch and enjoy my films. The business of my films is big and it has a market in Kerala, Andhra, Hindi and overseas. So the content and presentation has to match the sensibilities of all these audiences. So my responsibility is huge.” This is easily among the more depressing things I’ve read lately. I’d be thrilled by Suriya’s criterion for choosing films if I were a distributor, but as a viewer, as a fan of cinema, I’m left wondering: “Does he only care about ‘satisfying’ these various audience segments? What about ‘satisfying’ his creative urge? How about, once in a while, using his stardom to prop up an offbeat venture? Or is that not allowed to happen anymore, once you become a huge star?

And yet, at some level, I understand why someone like Suriya, who’s easily one of our better actors, doesn’t experiment as much as he used to. As his stardom has increased, his films have become unsurprising – they’re just well-oiled machines. But these machines make money, and that’s important – for his career, certainly, but also for the industry, if only because some of the profits may end up financing a smaller, edgier film, which cannot hope to have the kind of audience a Suriya film has. In the same report, he was quoted as saying, “Working with [the director] Lingusamy was a pleasure and there was no pressure at all. It was happiness from day-one to last day of shoot and when it was pack-up time, I felt like the last day in college. He knows how to satisfy the audiences and hence I was relaxed.” If that’s what Suriya wants from his on-set experiences – no pressure, happiness, relaxation – then that’s his choice, and he’s only voicing what most people want, once inside the theatre.

But if Suriya and the other big stars are taking care of the fun side of cinema, who’s looking after the serious side, the artistic side? Who’s making the kind of films that are more than just about satisfying kids and wives and parents? Who’s making the kind of films that we can be proud of, that sticks in the mind long after we’ve left the theatre, that we can sit down and discuss and analyse and lose our minds over?

Let’s backtrack a bit and consider something else, the tax levied by the state government (30 per cent in Chennai city; less elsewhere in the state). I spoke to a prominent trade analyst to get a sense of this, and discovered that there is a special committee set up by the state government that reviews films that are (a) certified “U” by the Censor Board, and (b) have a Tamil title, and decide whether or not to exempt this film from tax. In other words, a film like Jigarthanda, which was certified “UA”, will not even be considered by this committee. Plus, unlike in other metros, there is a government-mandated cap on the ticket price: Rs. 120. So Jigarthanda, when it plays in Mumbai or Delhi, will earn two, three, four times the amount per viewer than what it will earn in its primary market, Tamil Nadu.

Then there’s the question of profit sharing between the distributor and the theatre owner. In the first week, usually, it’s a 55-45 model – 55 per cent of each ticket sold (with or without entertainment tax) goes to the distributor, and 45 per cent to the theatre owner. In the second week, it’s usually 45-55, and in the third week, 30-70. With every successive week, the theatre owners get more, the distributors less – so it’s a cause for celebration for theatre owners when a tax-exempted film like Dhanush’s Velai Illa Pattadhari (VIP) becomes a blockbuster. This also explains why, despite that film being two weeks old and despite the enormous buzz around Jigarthanda, the latter wasn’t able to get the biggest theatres in the multiplexes last week, when it was released. It’s UA-rated, and so theatres stand to make less from it (in its first week) than they would from VIP (in its third week). And if this is the case in Chennai, which is the only major market for offbeat films – unlike Hindi films by filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, that play in metros across the country – then one can only imagine what it’s like elsewhere in the state, in the B and C centres.

The system, thus, is loaded against any filmmaker who does not want to make the kind of films that Suriya wants to make. So, in this climate, the very existence of a film like Jigarthanda is a miracle. The chorus of praise for the film is understandable, perhaps even necessary – if social-media hype can get more audiences to theatres to see such a film, then so be it. This film must become a hit – if only as a sign of encouragement to others who want to make such films. And yet, there is the feeling (maybe only to me) that this is the sole reason for the film’s near-hysterical critical raves – namely, the miracle that it was made in the first place. And this piece is about the need to celebrate films like Jigarthanda, while also remembering to evaluate them based on the bar they set for themselves. It is difficult, yes. We feel churlish and nitpicky while talking about the things that don’t work in these films when even with these “flaws” they’re far superior to ninety per cent of the films we see. But to not do so would be unfair to the film, and unfair to the filmmaker.

(to be concluded next week)

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. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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