A lot of filmmakers make “message” movies. SP Jhananathan makes propaganda movies. His films aren’t about walking home with a warm glow and a trite little homily ringing in the head. He weaves complex tapestries from skeins of impassioned ideology. His first film, Iyarkai, an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights, was something I didn’t care for at all, but his follow-up, E, made me sit up. It wasn’t just a rich-versus-poor story. It was about the First-World rich versus the Third-World poor. If the film didn’t become all that it could have been, it’s because Jhananathan is less a filmmaker than a pamphleteer – but the points he brings up are incendiary, plucked from the headlines and set ablaze by his fiery passion. (Prakash Jha, who tries to make similar films in Hindi, could pick up a trick or two.) Then came Peraanmai. The movie was a mess of badly executed good intentions, but its protagonist was a man from the minority, a tribal. And with a difference. He wasn’t the kind of exotic creature Tamil cinema usually throws at us – say, someone familiar with the ways of the jungle who helps the hapless city dweller – but a smart man in uniform who cared about his country. The best part was the end. He saved the day, but retreated into the shadows as a superior officer took all the credit. He wouldn’t be a Jhananathan protagonist if he allowed the government – the establishment – to pin a medal on him.
Jhananathan’s new film, Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai, is also about a man – Balu (Arya) – from the minority. But this isn’t about his affiliation to a particular caste or class. It’s about his affiliation to a particular colour: red. He’s a Communist. A line in the film acknowledges that, in an increasingly capitalistic world, Communists are but a bare handful – a minority – but someone’s got to fight the good fight. (Not my words. The film’s.) Purampokku begins with Balu’s arrest for waging war against the Indian Army. He’s sentenced to be hanged. A little later, he is seen in a police vehicle alongside a cop rather pointedly named Macaulay (Shaam, surprisingly effective). Why that name? Maybe because he is one of “Macaulay’s Children” – if not a slave to Western culture and ideology as the phrase has come to mean today, then certainly a blind follower of the laws of the land, most of which were laid down by Westerners. (He believes that hanging criminals will result in the eradication of crime.) Macaulay sees a group of people holding up placards, demanding Balu’s immediate hanging. He tells Balu that this is what the country wants. Balu replies, “Neenga paakardhu mattume Indhiya jananga kidayaadhu.” He’s so filled with self-belief, he makes these protesters seem like the minority.
In other words, we have Balu espousing what appear to be Jhananathan’s views. Balu calls Macaulay a “uniform poatta rowdy.” He says he doesn’t consider himself a criminal. He declares that the way forward is not thani udamai but podhu udamai. In a lair where a wall displays a Guy Fawkes mask, his comrades talk of the Russian revolution, of Mao, of Lenin. Looking at a prisoner being tortured, Balu brings up the Geneva Convention. (This is some kind of war, after all.) He speaks about the overpopulation of our prisons. He is portrayed as a modern-day Bhagat Singh, a revolutionary whom the establishment doesn’t want to make seem a revolutionary. A higher-up tells Macaulay, “Balu should not die like Bhagat Singh. He should hang like Kasab.” (Purampokku is dedicated to fighters who were sentenced to death.)
The film’s big tragedy is that this beacon of change is played by Arya. I’m not saying that the only way to play these “seditious” roles is to do what Sivaji Ganesan did in Veerapandiya Kattabomman, all but leaping out of the screen, grabbing your collar and bellowing into your increasingly spittle-flecked face. But at least some inner spark has to shine through. Arya is laidback to the point of being catatonic. The hanging seems redundant – there’s very little life in his eyes to speak of. The other problem is that the character’s motives aren’t sharply defined. He’s some sort of generic, all-purpose do-gooder. He targets a train carrying food and medicine and distributes these supplies to the poor and needy. He protests against First World countries using the Third World as a dumping ground for hazardous electronic, nuclear and pharmaceutical waste. It’s hard to get a hold of him. It isn’t a good sign when Macaulay calls him a fool and you kinda-sorta agree with Macaulay. It’s like watching a Robin Hood story and rooting for the Sheriff of Nottingham.
What’s surprising, amidst all the lal salaam salutes, is the preponderance of religious imagery. We get a scene with an old man’s last rites being performed as per Hindu tradition. We get a dialogue with Kali, who’s seen, in some parts, as a subaltern goddess. We get a wall plastered with pictures of deities, including Jesus, and a line that references the Biblical story of God asking Abraham to kill his son Isaac. A retired judge speaks about the law versus dharma, and – as an extension, in a touch that tickled me no end – a hangman invokes NT Rama Rao’s advice to the paralysed Muthuraman in Karnan as an exhortation to do one’s duty.
The hangman is named Yemalingam (Vijay Sethupathi, who just seems to have stopped trying). I wasn’t clear why he’s the only “experienced hangman” around (that’s what the law demands), given that he seems to have witnessed a hanging just once and was subsequently severely traumatised. But his entry into the story infuses some much-needed momentum. Without him, we may have been subjected to endless ideological back-and-forthing between Macaulay and Balu, but when Yemalingam joins Balu’s comrades, the film slowly transforms into a gripping prison-escape drama. The latter portions are especially well-done, with top-notch technical contributions, especially from cinematographer NK Ekambaram, who transforms the prison into a character. He leaves no part uncovered, from the roof to the bowels. Who could have guessed that inside Jhananathan lies a pretty proficient genre filmmaker? If his principles let him, he could jettison the speechifying and end up making pure action movies – and a lot of money.
But this doesn’t mean his pamphleteering side is subdued. One of the pleasures of Purampokku is how, at times, it achieves the magical mean that many films strive for, to entertain people and yet be about something. We get a crash course on everything a hangman does – how the rope is fortified, or how the height of the prisoner is measured (from the neck down). We even get to know how hangmen were recompensed in earlier times. Jhananathan’s sympathy for minorities is evident throughout. In a standout moment, after learning that Yemalingam hangs out with prostitutes, his mother realises that no one from a “decent family” is going to give him their daughter in marriage. She tells Yemalingam’s friend that maybe they should just get Yemalingam married off to one of “those girls,” who can always be made a “kudumba ponnu” after marriage. She’s not preaching. She’s just a frustrated mother at the end of her tether, and the “message” is secreted into a situation, a conversation. In another scene, Macaulay stumbles on cops censoring the newspapers. One of them is cutting out pictures of sexy-looking women. The other is cutting out an article on homosexuality. Macaulay tells the man to let the article be because only those in prison know what it’s like. What could have become an easy joke about dropping the soap in the showers is transformed into a casual plea for tolerance.
I was also impressed by a bit that weaves in lines of Sanskrit. I expected a Santhanam-type comedian to scratch his head and make a joke by mangling the words – a lot of mainstream Tamil cinema, after all, prides itself on being anti-intellectual. But the scene stays serious. Of course, there are other mainstream compromises. There’s a silly song involving Kuyili (a thoroughly ineffective Karthika; with those strangely sinuous eyebrows, she should be playing the evil snake queen in a remake of Kanavane Kankanda Dheivam). We also have one of those songs inside the jail, with the name “Macaulay” worked into a lyric. Vijay Sethupathi, meanwhile, gets full-on hero treatment, with a heroic entry scene followed by a song. But he doesn’t get a love angle. Neither does Macaulay. In these films, we usually get a scene where the tough cop returns home and his little kid comes running into his arms. Ask those directors why and they’ll say they’re “humanising” the character. I wondered if Jhananathan felt there was no need to humanise this character, or if he didn’t want to humanise this representative of the majority, the establishment. But to be fair, Balu doesn’t get a love angle either. By not opting for a romantic track here (and in Peraanmai), Jhananathan is himself in the minority, at least among mainstream filmmakers.
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