Sivappu, directed by Sathyashiva, begins with some tight writing. A construction worker falls to her death, and this tragedy gives us multiple insights. One, the working conditions are unsafe. Two, women are in especial danger. (The fall may have been the result of a rape attempt.) Three, Konaar (Rajkiran) is the general fixer-upper around – he has contacts with an MP (Selva), and he also has good equations with other workers, especially Pandian (Naveen Chandra), whom he regards as something of a son. The woman’s death causes a chain of events. Workers protest and leave the site, so Konaar has to get replacements. He finds them when he stumbles upon a group of Sri Lankan Tamils, duped by an agent who said he’d take them to Australia. The construction site, thus, becomes a refugee camp. The inner life of characters, their external relationships, the overall circumstances, and the engine of a plot – everything’s established with admirable efficiency. The film’s running time, after all, is just about two hours.
But soon, our admiration dims. Formula kicks in. First half = comedy + romance + dramatic pre-interval block. Thambi Ramaiah, the foreman at the site, hears moans from inside a room. He suspects sexual activity and barges in. It’s the toilet. A man is taking a dump. Ha ha, et cetera. Pandian, meanwhile, falls for Parvathi (Rupa Manjari), one of the refugees. Actually, they fall in hate first, getting off on the wrong foot. Then they fall in love. All this is stupefyingly generic. And filmmakers have got to do something about the interval block. I’m talking about how the film’s rhythm changes as it approaches this point, how its pulse rate shoots up gradually, and how we can predict exactly when we’re going to spring out of our seats. Can you remember the last time an interval block snuck up behind you, surprised you?
A more important question: How seriously are we to take an “issue film” when it would have worked just as well (or just as badly) without this issue? Sivappu opens with an impassioned, gravelly-voiced screed about Tamils in the island nation – how they were there before Christ, how they fared through the Chola and Pandiya empires, how a lot of this can be proved from the Arikamedu excavations, and how, in 1948, Sri Lanka obtained freedom but Tamils did not. The screen, then, fills with blood, and the title appears: Sivappu. There’s a bookend too. At the close, we are left with the thought that we should either welcome refugees or close our doors, but we should not play politics with (or using) them. Somewhere in the middle, we get the throwaway shot of a procession commemorating someone who set himself on fire for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. All very well – but why such solemnity for a star-crossed love story that’s essentially a Kaadhal where the class/caste divide is replaced by the fact that hero and heroine hail from different nations?
Films like Sivappu make you think – not just about the issues at hand, but also about the validity of their dramatisation for narrative purposes. The events in a film like Bombay take place in the city of the title, in 1992. The storyline of The Terrorist cannot be divorced from its (implied) Sri Lankan roots. Sivappu, on the other hand, is like a Ratha Thilakam, where the Sino-Indian war was just a great dramatic device, something to fuel the narrative. This isn’t very different from the way “issues” about migrant workers or organ theft or exploitation by MNCs are appropriated into masala movies just so that there’s a “fresh” villain. But at least these films don’t pretend to be about these issues. They don’t begin and end with lectures about the issue. There’s a point about how Pandian cannot afford to rent the kind of houses he’s building – a touching point, and it would be just as effective without the Sri Lankan angle. Sivappu may have been more effective had it simply told a story and let that story comment on the issue, tangentially, the way Kaadhal did.
Or the way Nandha did. The Sri Lankan issue is never forgotten, and some images are seared into our brains, but the film doesn’t disrespect the gravity of the issue by pretending to be about it and then going on to focus on a rowdy’s life. Because after all that noise, the Sri Lankan issue in Sivappu is buried under all the melodrama about the lovers and the will-they-won’t-they-unite plot points, peppered with stray character touches illustrating Parvathi’s plight – her fear of helicopters, her shrinking back from the sea that others so joyously plunge into (remember what’s on the other side!), or her dislike of the colour of the film’s title. I suppose the question really boils down to this: Do you want to judge these films on the intent-versus-execution curve, the way one ideally should, or do you want to simply express gratitude that at least a handful of filmmakers are making movies about something, and without stars?
- Sivappu = red
- Arikamedu excavations = see here
- Bombay = see here
- The Terrorist = see here
- Ratha Thilakam = see here
- Kaadhal = see here
- Nandha = see here
Copyright ©2015 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.