Readers Write In #252: Respecting and understanding a genre

Posted on August 27, 2020

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(by G Waugh)

One thing I get reminded of when I see films like Notting Hill or a few romcoms like When Harry Met Sally,is that whenever Hollywood picks a genre to make a movie out of, however ordinary or common the genre is regarded generally, they do it with, utter seriousness. In other words, whenever they work on a particular genre they make sure that it gets the respect it duly deserves. To put it crudely, it is completely unlike what we have back home in Tamil mainstream cinema. A practice that could be called ‘genre discrimination’ is generally observed here as though there are some genres that are never meant to be analyzed seriously and in strict accordance with those rules, one is prohibited to enter the theatre with his ‘critic’ hat on to watch these films.

Take the films of M Rajesh, for example. Whenever you try to tell fans of these films that they are bad, they retort by saying that these are all light films which you must not examine with a microscope as though that is what we critics usually do to films. They have been programmed somehow to regard critics, in the proper sense of the word as paid, full-time nitpickers. But it is often forgotten that all that we expect from a film-maker, is nothing but respect for the patronizing audience which naturally means only some semblance of respect for the work the film-maker is doing.

In the Sivakarthikeyan-starrer Seema Raja directed by Ponram, at the interval block, there is a wrestling competition and we audiences are asked to buckle up for some unadulterated physical comedy which people like Siva and Soori are usually so good at delivering. But what happens next is something totally unexpected. Soori unbuttons his shirt to the cheering masses flexing his muscles and displays a real six-pack. It is quite understandable that Soori has worked on his physique really well, probably on instructions from the director and that they both must have expected to bowl over audiences by unraveling a beefed-up look, something that is totally unexpected from a comedian. Honestly, I concede I was surprised. Not for one moment during the film I had expected someone like Soori to become utterly serious about the wrestling competition he was supposed to fight, and the director’s trick to make me jump out of my seat was quite smart. But did I really come into the theatre expecting that? Or was it really supposed to play out like that? Isn’t that a comedy film that should have milked the famous Siva-Soori combination for more laughs rather than trying to surprise us by turning ridiculously serious on us like that?

But that is just an indicator of how the rest of the film plays out in the second half. I was invited into the theatre to leave my serious side outside and wallow in the hilarity and light-heartedness akin to what I witnessed in Siva’s first film with Ponram, the genuinely funny Varuthapadatha Valibar Sangam. But what was revealed slowly as the film progressed was a pathetic drought of ideas on the part of the writer-director, something that moved me seriously more than Tamilnadu’s state of affairs post the demise of Jayalalithaa.

Ponram in the early part of the second half, brings in a computer-animated Tiger out of nowhere that must have cost the production team close to a few thousand dollars to pep up a thoroughly unfunny scene with Soori. After the debacle with the tiger,it appears like he has found out at last that he has actually been working without a script all the while and conjures an easy trick to hold the wavering viewer’s attention by raking up the currently super-hot ‘Farmer-Corporates’ Issue. And towards the climax, when he finds that almost all of his tricks have failed to engage the viewer, he decides to use his Brahmastra – the multi-crore heavy VFX sequence that tries desperately to imitate the glorious Bahubali war sequence. What was initially advertised as a comedy-romance suddenly morphed into becoming an ‘issue’ film that tries to wipe the tears out of starving farmers and in one final flourish, it became a period epic drama that stirs a languishing audience to wake up to the glories of forgotten centuries-old Tamil bravery.

Some of my readers might think that I am picking an easy target such as an already critically-panned film like Seema Raja as the quintessential Tamil comedy-romance film and excoriating it with a view to degrade Tamil film-makers working in this genre as a whole. It is not my intention to choose and unfairly criticise them because comedy films of the last decade most of them starring Santhanam or Sivakarthikeyan or directed by M Rajesh have only followed patterns such as these. Even blockbusters like Oru Kal Oru Kannadi, Boss Engira Bhaskaran, Kedi Billa Killadi Ranga etc. have behaved similarly with rambling narratives and shifting personality disorders. The way Kedi Billa directed by Pandiraj starring Sivakarthikeyan turned from an SMS-joke dispensing light movie into a somber, super-sincere tribute to fathers is one of the most outrageously conceived heists in Tamil cinema history at the expense of the audiences.

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But this issue is not confined to the comedy genre in Tamil cinema alone. You see similar tragedies in other famous genres of the recent times such as drama-romance exemplified by the likes of Atlee’s blockbuster works.

Raja Rani directed by Atlee is considered to be one of the greatest romances in modern Tamil cinema but you just have to re-watch the film at home to find how ordinary and over-rated the film is. The first half, I concede was pretty entertaining where the switched-gender equations between Jai and Nayantara lead up nicely to their romantic union. But as soon as Jai is shown to go missing and Arya’s flashback kicks in, the film becomes something that looks like a stranded passenger who has completely forgotten his destination. Santhanam’s comedy scenes that follow belong in a completely different movie and somehow Nazriya gets attracted to Arya and as expected she meets a horrific death.

Cut to the present, Nayantarais shown to be softening now towards Arya immediately after having heard his past out fully as she decides to patch up with him in the end. There certainly is no arc as to explain how two persons who had been fighting with each other like unruly kids at school suddenly decide to come together and love each other as never before. But that happens somehow and I was relieved at last to be out of the theatre quickly to escape traffic at the usually crowded parking lot of my local theatre. But what surprised me most in the next few weeks was how big an ordinary film like Raja Rani had become, all of a sudden emerging popular not only at the box-office but also in the conversations heldat food courts and near water-coolers in my office.

Atlee after Raja Rani soon turned out with the help of Vijay into one of the hottest directors in Tamil cinema and the greater he grew, the worse his screenplays were becoming and for the first time in a decade last year  I decided to skip watching a film starring Vijay only because it was directed by Atlee.

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Coming back to where we left, what Tamil mainstream cinema gets wrong often when it comes to its screenplays is something as simple and basic as, staying true to a genre. Film makers such as KV Anand, Pandiraj, AR Murugadoss who all started out nicely seem to have been bitten by a bug that gives them the power to write consecutive scenes belonging to completely unrelated genres and tones as a result of which their final products when strung together end up like deserted, long-lost children who grow up to be nomads or hippies without a defined culture or sensibility to return to.

Most of their films look like they have been written with an intent to throw something out on the faces of their audiences every now and then, hoping desperately that one or the other would stick rather than with a purpose in mind to realize what you call, a film-maker’s vision. If people like me pan these films, there are apologists for them everywhere who immediately call us snobs and ask us to get out of the discussion rooms for being too prudish and censorious. Some people beg us to ignore their flaws saying these are all just mindless entertainers and one must not study them like how we would analyse a Kamal Haasan- directed magnum opus.

If some genres like masala and comedies are not to be analysed seriously as one would do with an issue film or a crime drama, how come films like say, a Naan-Ee or a Monster get made in the first place? Both these are if anything, films for kids and according to the rule-book of these people, they must not be bothered to have proper character development, threads that have a proper beginning and an end and situations that intrigue and hold the interest of the viewer.But both these films, I could safely say without sounding outrageous or ridiculous, are memorable examples of cinema that Kollywood can really be proud of.

That brings me to another film that I saw recently, the Ranbir Kapoor-starrer Jagga Jasoos. The film was never in my radar for more than a couple of years owing to the pummeling it had got from both the critics and the audiences alike. I decided to watch it for a few minutes only to pass time last week when my official watch-list had suddenly gotten exhausted. But right from the first frame, I had to concede that I was spell bound. This was a new genre for me, the action-comic book genre and I could see what a huge risk it was on the part of the director to make a film based on that.

A precocious hero who is too young to be caught in the affairs of grown-up guys but is eligible to belong there on account of his super-intelligence, characters and situations that break deus-ex machina taboos with abandon since children cannot be bored with logic when the magic quotient is all that is badly needed, villains who are outrageously evil yet hare-brained at the same time whose lack of prudence is always a curse that befalls proud and overweening gentlemen like them, delightful visuals spanning the length and breadth of continents that teem with exciting wildlife and finally, a strong, ever-present elder character who might serve as a guiding light or a beacon for children usually dependent upon the assuring presence of parents or elders to keep them in the right path; all the must-haves for an action-comic genre were in place and the film went along beautifully even if there were a few hiccups here and there.

But as you see, the film was panned by everyone and if you ask me why, it is all because our audiences were not quite conversant with the genre that might have been too new for them. But even discounting the alien-ness of the genre, there are a few crucial mistakes, our audiences tend to make when it comes to reading and judging films like these. People generally tend to introduce their sound logic of science and probability while analyzing these films which in fact, in my opinion is a completely useless baggage.

Most audiences don’t appreciate the fact that there is a difference between scientific logic and genre-logic. When a film like Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham shows a mother sensing the nearness of her children who suddenly have landed from abroad at quite a distance without having been informed of it directly, it is wrong to dismiss the scene based on grounds of scientific logic. KKKG, one must understand is a Karan Johar work which belongs to the era of melodramas that celebrate and exaggerate the virtues of family bonding. A mother may not in real and practical terms be able to divine the presence of her children somewhere beyond  the limits of her visibility but the very purpose of these films is to glorify her love by adding an ethereal quality to it. A complaint for lack of scientific logic, might be raised in say films belonging to a different genre, like Hollywood-style science-fiction thrillers or crime whodunits whose tension or narrative thrust is strongly built upon the foundations of physics and sound reasoning and if there are scenes with flaws in adhering to them, they are bound to be condemned appropriately. But KKKG is an example of a family melodrama whose parameters for analysis are totally different.

But let not my readers climb upon the very plank I gave them and ask me why I am imploring them to be more lenient towards KKKG on account of its being, say a ‘lowly’ family melodrama. If you think so, you are getting me wrong. What I am saying is there are different types of logic to be looked for in films of different genres and you cannot go in with a one-size-fits-all approach. In films like KKKG, I am not saying you must not look for logic at all. A melodrama like KKKG is bound to its genre by other specific rules such as say, emotional logic. Emotional logic is something such as whether a character has a defined emotional background, whether it remains consistent to it throughout the narrative, whether the transformation the character undergoes are emotionally possible,etc. If that is missing or weak in films like KKKG, you have every reason to criticize it.

Similarly, a comic-action film like Jagga Jasoos by belonging to a different genre that brings its own set of grammatical compulsions must operate accordingly without fail. As mentioned earlier, the genre’s must haves such as the precocious hero, the elder-guide presence, deus-ex machina breaking sequences were dutifully adhered to and nicely integrated into the screenplay and as one may observe, each one of these must-haves have been conceived and worked upon with only kids in mind. Your gifts to test and diagnose scientific flaws might come in handy at your workplace but they could sometimes be a huge burden if all you want is a pretty good time inside a packed cinema hall.