Some films take an eternity to find a footing. Burma hits the ground running. From the first frame, we know we are in sure hands. The director, Dharanidharan, is a genuine filmmaker – not just because he has the craft, but because he loves the medium. And this love is evident throughout. Take the early scene where Guna (Sampath Raj) is released from Puzhal prison. It’s easy to imagine how this could have played out. Guna steps out from behind bars. He picks up his belongings. He strolls out. But that’s just the what. It’s the how that sets apart the filmmaker from the hack. The how is in Guna’s swagger. It’s in his printed shirt, which looks like the morning sickness after a Persian carpet made love to a greenhouse of orchids. It’s in the music that accompanies him – the twangy guitar, the congas, the castanets.
Burma is about a series of car thefts (the film prefers the term “seizing”), and it’s a heck of a ride. In the driver’s seat is Burma (Michael Thangadurai), who gets into serious trouble when he makes off with a Benz and runs afoul of Bothra Seth (Atul Kulkarni). Thrown into the crazy-noir mix are a mystery man who travels by auto and takes pictures, a violin-playing female gangster, two low-level goons called Bruce Lee and Jet Li (who argue about the name of the heroine of the semi-porn film Khajuraho Ilavarasi), and a beautician who’s really a thief and who’s hawking something that looks like a Fabergé Easter egg. Then there are Boomer (the excellent Karthik Sabesh, as Burma’s pal and accomplice), and Kalpana (Reshmi Menon), Burma’s happily amoral girlfriend who also becomes his partner in crime. The slice of pizza in her hand, after a getaway, is just one of the many glorious incidental details the film keeps throwing at us.
Burma is put together exquisitely. In a montage set to music (by Sudharshan M Kumar, completely in sync with the overall vision), we keep hopping between cross-hatched events. In another scene involving a couple of phone calls, we keep panning between split screens. In the midst of a heist being planned, we cut away to the gang leader’s drug use – this has got to be the most economical bit of character delineation I’ve seen this year. And – apart from that Fabergé – Easter eggs abound. If this film finds half the audience that the similarly fashioned Jigarthanda did – here too, we have ample rug pulling, the reveling in pop culture, plus vivid nods to Western filmmaking – then we’re going to be discussing why Burma’s ring tone is set to a Kamal Haasan line from Kurudhipunal, why so many of the songs heard in the background seem to be from films about crime (Shree 420, Arangetra Velai, Don), and why a key scene is cut in tandem with a key scene from Pudhiya Paravai.
There’s so much attitude, atmosphere, flavor and wry comedy in Burma that I readily forgave the minor sins (the film is a tad too art-directed; Burma’s terrace quarters is done up in the kind of shabby-chic that finds space for lanterns) as well as the major one – after a while, the story takes a detour into a race-against-time thriller, and there isn’t really all that much tension. But Dharanidharan doesn’t try to pump in life artificially – everything is beautifully organic, one of a piece. This is the kind of film that isolates a character by shooting him in lurid neon lights, and, elsewhere, intercuts between a liplock and a bottle of cola being slurped down. The writing is wonderful. I loved how we learn Burma’s given name, during the course of a romantic moment. I loved how Bothra Seth is introduced – his violence makes the water in a glass ripple, as in the scene with the T-rex in Jurassic Park. I loved the little echoes, how Guna completes Burma’s line about dogs and planes in the sky. I loved the joyous sting at the check point – it made me chortle. And I loved, most of all, the last scene – a superb twist, the kind we never get because of our insistence on happily-ever-after. Burma made me so high on how crime can entertain that I almost forgot it doesn’t pay.
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