Short films come in two flavours. One, the really professional kind, made by real filmmakers – these are shown at festivals, nominated for Oscars, and they do everything that feature films do. Check out, for instance, the insanely inventive German short The Centrifuge Brain Project, which lies somewhere between a mockumentary and a special-effects driven Hollywood summer blockbuster. The second kind of short is the amateur kind, something for aspiring filmmakers to hone their skills on, something that will serve as a calling card. The six shorts in the portmanteau movie Bench Talkies are of the latter kind, and it’s a testament to Karthik Subbaraj’s clout – he’s the presenter; he’s also directed one of the films – that they’ve ended up on the big screen and not on YouTube. As such, we must be realistic about our expectations. The key word is amateur, so it won’t help to go in expecting pro-grade acting or craft. What we can do – what we must do – is see how these films fare in purely directorial terms.
The problem with a lot of non-hero-centric Tamil cinema is that the themes are almost always interesting, but the films don’t manage to transcend the basic idea. We have a lot of talented thinkers, capable of dreaming up terrific subject matter, but when it comes to translating this thought onto the screen, when it comes to making the idea live and breathe, the results aren’t pretty. This is what we see in Bench Talkies as well.
Anil Krishnan’s The Lost Paradise is the story of a man who’s released from prison and finds his way home. It’s filled with “poetic” touches, cloying music, and the kind of achingly sincere sentimentality you want Tamil cinema to get away from. If new-gen filmmakers are going to end up giving us more of the same, then why bother? The evocatively titled Nalladhor Veenai, directed by Monesh, is about the dangers from pedophiles who lurk in the most unexpected places. In other words, it’s a message movie, and the message is inscribed on the head of a sledgehammer. Surely today’s young filmmakers have grown up scoffing at older directors who did this very thing, rubbing our faces in unspeakable horrors and aiming to change society in the course of two-and-a-half hours. Where are the grace notes? Where’s the filmmaking?
Puzhu is the story of two men who lie bleeding on a rocky hillside. Even as life ebbs out of them, they aim to kill each other. The director Charukesh Sekar is after something existential – there’s talk of God, and rays from the sun stream down on these sinners, as if in benediction. He doesn’t quite get there, but at least there are tantalizing glimpses of what-could-have-been. In Agavizhi, office drone Anjan loves colleague Zara and marries her, despite her interest in Sid. Or maybe he’s just dreaming about it all. Maybe he’ll wake up when rings from his phone permeate his (un)consciousness. Gopakumar, the director, has a playful side. He keeps us off-kilter all the way to the twist ending. And despite that very Tamil title, the dialogues are almost entirely in English. If things go per plan, we may be looking at the next Gautham Menon.
On the evidence of the rollicking Madhu, Rathna Kumar RM seems all set to make his big-screen debut. He throws in everything the box office demands: romance; broken-hearted sentiment (the girl, naturally, is engaged to someone else); zingy one-liners that are far funnier than anything you’ve heard from Santhanam recently; much consumption of sarakku; loyal friends who all but come in T-shirts with the legend Nanbenda; and an overlong running time.
But it’s only with Karthik Subbaraj’s Neer that we get the sense of watching a genuine filmmaker. Despite its amateurish look and feel, Neer checks off most boxes. The story, about three ill-fated fishermen who wander off into dangerous waters, is solid. The screenplay is written around these characters – nothing’s in your face, nothing’s wrapped up in a neat bow. The dialogues are flavourful, but without calling attention. And the direction is tight – it’s just what’s needed. Neer proves that the only difference between short films and features is the duration, which is another way of saying that we shouldn’t tolerate in short films what we don’t excuse Friday after Friday on the big screen.
- Nalladhor Veenai = see here
- Puzhu = worm
- Agavizhi = The Inside Eye (see here)
- Madhu, sarakku = liquor
- Nanbenda = I’m your bestest buddy!
- Neer = water
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