Chennai Ungalai Anbudan Varaverkirathu is a variant on Angadi Theru. This, too, is about people from outside Chennai who come to the city with dreams of making it big, but find that life here is the stuff of nightmares. And yes, one of these dreamers – Chellapandi (Bobby Simha) – is a wannabe filmmaker. I know. I groaned too. But luckily, there’s nothing meta here. (Really, how many of those can you take all at once?) The film is just a straightforward depiction of the lives of these strugglers, who live in rooms crammed with other strugglers, and when they cannot make the rent or if the landlord boots them out, they go in search of another room crammed with strugglers. Did I just mention Angadi Theru? The antecedents may actually be older. Seen one way, Chennai Ungalai is the love child from a ménage à trios that includes Pattina Pravesam, Nizhalgal and Paalaivana Cholai. It sets out to capture slice-of-life moments. It wants to recreate the beat poetry, if you will, of the men in Nizhalgal, who practically transformed rootlessness into a lifestyle.
But here’s the rub. Those early films, made on film, had a certain cinematic quality. The light glimmered a particular way. The same light captured by a digital camera just doesn’t give us the impression of watching… cinema. We feel like we’re watching something shot on someone’s cell phone. While it’s a fact that the inexpensiveness of digital cameras is what’s getting these no-name films made – and certainly, art should not be made inaccessible because of economic reasons – you sometimes wish these films looked more… professional, for lack of a better word. There’s a reason I’m bringing this up. Someone like me is always going to see these films. But that’s just one ticket sold. In a cinema culture where audiences routinely hail emptily pretty frames as great cinematography, how are these films going to pull people in? Even if it is a verité look these filmmakers are going for, how many viewers are interested?
These questions keep coming to mind when I watch these movies, which play only on the weekends, in an early-morning show. Who are these films being made for? Chennai Ungalai is no one-off. Many filmmakers have stopped running after producers and are, instead, picking up digital cameras and casting their friends – all for a couple of shows on a weekend morning. These films are like the strugglers of this film, begging for a home, being booted out by mercenary landlords, and armed with nothing but an undying dream.
Chennai Ungalai is filled with actors who can’t hold close-ups, scenes that go on too long, and the director, M Maruthupandian, just won’t stop throwing new characters into the mix. We even get scenes with Chellapandi’s uncle from the village – a drunk. He could have remained in the village and it wouldn’t have made any difference. But you can see why the director wanted this character: to add texture. Maruthupandian has a novelistic bent, and aren’t novels full of little asides?
One of the reasons to see these films – probably the only reason, really – is to spot talent. And there’s definitely some screenwriting talent on display. See how the character of Vinodhini is shaped. She’s, at first, just a melodramatic contrivance – a divorcée who falls into an affair with Chellapandi’s rakish roommate Karthik. She becomes pregnant. We get the inevitable puking scene. But almost immediately, we skirt past cliché. She doesn’t dissolve into hysterics. (Chennai Ungalai may resemble Angadi Theru in terms of its narrative, but it thankfully steers clear of the latter’s hysterical tone.) This isn’t Poornima Jayaram in Vidhi. Vinodhini rubs her stomach and smiles. She knows the affair was her mistake too. She knows she was deluded. But at least now, she has a reason to carry on. I would have liked to see this character in a movie more people are likely to see.
There’s another interesting character, one whose name I didn’t catch. She’s the daughter of the woman who owns the flat Chellapandi is sneaking into at nights because he doesn’t have the money. This stretch is really good. The mother keeps watching songs on the music channels on TV, and these songs comment on the goings-on. When Chellapandi is trying to sneak in, we get Iravinil aattam. The daughter finds out eventually and she’s annoyed, but she senses Chellapandi’s desperation and thaws. Hence, Ponnukku thanga manasu. (In another song-related moment, much earlier, we see Karthik break down while watching En thaayenum kovilai from Aranmanai Kili. He’s just lost his mother, and… Songs can do that sometimes.) So we think there’s going to be a romantic track between Chellapandi and the girl. But this movie knows that that kind of thing happens only in the movies. He blurts out his love for her and is so embarrassed, he moves out. Later, she runs into him. She says she’s engaged. She asks him to come to the wedding. She walks away. Her non-reaction says it all. Shit happens. We can’t keep thinking about it. We have to move on.
- Chennai Ungalai Anbudan Varaverkirathu = Chennai welcomes you with open arms
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.