At the beginning of Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam, directed by Radhakrishnan Parthiban, we watch a tidal wave demolish a skyscraper, and from this Hollywood-style scene of destruction we move to a house, in another corner of the country, where a young man delivers a Kollywood-style aphorism, about the difference between biriyani and pazhaya soru. Then, without warning, without proper introduction, we encounter a guitar player, her students, and menacing soldiers – it’s some kind of wartime situation. Quite naturally, the next scene deposits us in Brahma’s abode, where the Creator is cramming brains into infants like an assembly-line worker and dispatching them to earth. If none of this makes sense, at least not taken together, there’s a reason. We are in the midst of a story discussion session, and these disconnected scenes are possible ideas for a movie.
With Jigarthanda and Kathai Thiraikathai, we seem to be in the midst of a little “meta” festival, with filmmakers outside as well as inside these films offering a running commentary on the state of the industry. Both films are centered on aspiring directors, and both feature a crass, money-minded producer as well as an older character (Thambi Ramaiah here; and he’s fantastic) who dreamed of being a director but is now a hanger-on in the fringes. Both films make space for a cameo by Vijay Sethupathi. Both films, in the second half, depict a film-within-a-film (based on the experiences of characters). Both films toy with genres – in this case, we segue from a “plotless” comedy to a drama. And both films wink at well-established tropes. We have, here, a spin on that cliché of the girl falling for the boy when she’s literally… falling, and he catches her and they lock eyes. Love at first sight, I believe it’s called.
Kathai Thiraikathai isn’t as powerful or resonant as Jigarthanda, but it doesn’t need to be – its aims are more modest. For a good part, it just wants to make us laugh – and that it does very well. The one-liners and Parthiban’s trademark dialogues are funny enough (or corny enough, depending on your taste) to camouflage the fact that this is actually a pretty serious premise, about a filmmaker (Thamizh, played by Santhosh Prathap) who reads Scott Fitzgerald and Ponniyin Selvan but is forced to listen to anecdotes about Anbe Vaa, Namma Veettu Dheivam and Vellikizhamai Viratham, that superhit about snakes where the meet-cute between hero and heroine is engineered by a monkey. The writing team, later, goes into raptures over Aval Appadithan. How great it is to see a film that’s over thirty years old, and still so inspiring. And then, we get this rude reminder: upon its release, the film was a flop.
To aim for posterity or to (as a song goes) “live the moment”? Parthiban blithely opts for the latter approach – and quite literally. Thamizh decides that his film will not have a story, and this allows Parthiban to dispense with a conventional plot where each scene locks into the next one. He just lives from… moment to moment. This is the logical culmination of the film’s beginning, with those seemingly unrelated sequences, and it urges us to give the proceedings the benefit of the doubt. Is the bar scene there because today’s films are inconceivable without a bar scene – in other words, is Parthiban selling out with an eye on the box office – or is the scene there… just because? Are the rhyming dialogues simply the result of Parthiban’s love for wordplay, or are they spoofing such lines from our cinema? The nods to the thaali sentiment are easier to recognize – they’re just wicked nudges in the rib.
Kathai Thiraikathai, for the most part, is borne along rhythms that are slightly off-kilter, and it has the snap of a student film – and also the awkward, self-conscious performances. The only parts that didn’t work for me are those where Thamizh quarrels with his headstrong wife (Akhila Kishore) – these stretches are too tethered to plot. Suddenly, a free-flowing film, which lingered on a whim on subplots about a suicide and a daft watchman (my favourite character), begins to crawl along a straight line. I could have also lived without the scenes in which the director chooses to become part of the film, a living-breathing quotation mark. But the ending is terrific. Parthiban manages to have it both ways: he remains true to the film’s philosophy, and he remains true to his audience’s (namely, the Tamil film audience’s) need for closure. Isn’t Tamil cinema’s newfound meta-love just wonderful?
* Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam = Story, Screenplay, Dialogue, Direction
* biriyani = see here
* pazhaya soru = leftovers
* Anbe Vaa = see here
* Namma Veettu Dheivam = see here
* Vellikizhamai Viratham = see the “bulbul” song here
* Aval Appadithan = see here
* Parthiban’s love for wordplay = see here
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