Readers Write In #542: Annathe, Varisu, and oversimplified relationships

Posted on January 18, 2023


By Thulasidasan Jeewaratinam

(Written this when Annaathe came out and my recent viewing of Varisu only confirms this as timely. Posting only now).

My recent viewing of Annaatthe confirmed my long-running doubts over the arcs Tamil Cinema was shaping (the extent of which this discussion prevails in other Indian language cinema(s) is excluded from this, due to my own lack of expertise in them) – that a relationship, be any, exists purely in the realm of black and white. The opposite-ends polarization of relationships in screenwriting arcs serves well, especially since the writing tries to form characters comprising cleavages of opposite ends, and this worked pretty well to many protagonist-antagonist showdowns in Tamil Cinema, namely a labour union leader against a behemoth corporate conglomerate business, jobless against industrial elite heir, poverty against money, all-encompassing leader against a casteist, and it was this kind of distinctions that colored the camps our protagonists and antagonists in since the dawn of MGR’s cinema, to Rajini’s and their successors. There’s a two-part problem to this. One, this tends to colour how directors and screenwriters mold the surrounding gallery of characters around the protagonist-antagonist. Second, it’s a complete black and white, namely you against us, and it’s the latter point that contributes to the much absence of grey shadings in most relationships in Tamil Cinema, whether protagonist-antagonist, husband-wife, brother-sister, parents-children, and such.

I, for one, can never stomach the endless tear-jerking sentimentality of relationships, because they’re inherently artificial. Relationships, be any, aren’t dichotomous. They’re shaped by reverberations from the past, the existing conundrums, and the worries of tomorrow. They’re underscored by fragilities and murmurs, resentments and love, equal parts pain and anger, equal parts sorrow and love, and our screenwriters just can’t seem to fathom this reality. Instead, it’s easier to cave into the brother-sister sentimentality of Annaatthe, Namma Veetu Pillai, Thirupaachi, Sivakasi, Vedhalam (to name some of the recent ones) until all the way to their spiritual predecessor, Paasa Maalar. There’s no one gap of resentment or anger that builds up between them, and when it does, it gets showered over a sudden cloak of forgiveness, and instead, we get lectured through broad sermons that forgiveness is a virtue that should be upheld, even in times of siblings’ rivalry. What causes this line of thinking? Is it ancestral, and a lineage of values that’s colored Indian traditions about how families should always be together, loving and full of affection? Does that, in any way, represent what reality is?

I’m reminded of how, 65 years ago, Satyajit Ray could already fathom the existing contradictions and the push-pull tugs of relationships; according to Ray’s biographer, W. Andrew Robinson, in Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker, Ray had become moved by the writing of how the son feels upon the death of his mother. Much of this is described on Aparajito’s entry on Wikipedia (check the “Origin and Development” column) and a greater in-depth reading is available through Robinson’s book, but the core is this – Ray becomes fascinated with the idea of a son, when confronted by the death of his beloved mother, feels a ‘strange’ sensation, namely the pleasure of being finally feel, unconstrained and lacking in shackles, unburdened. The grief materializes later, it always does, but the idea of the relief that comes at the end of a relationship ending is almost never addressed in arts because of the taboo and the skepticism that it would invite. According to Robinson (2003), Ray’s wife, Bijoya voiced her concerns to Ray himself, “Do you think people in our country will accept a son’s relief at having won his freedom at his mother’s death?” Such questions propel us to ask what audacity the artist has to question the sanctity of the relationship between a mother and the son, but what fantasy do we live in anywhere? Women, baring nine months, even find themselves cursing at their stomachs, finding walking unbearable – but does that mean they hate their children? Children lash at their parents, throw tantrums and wish for them to die sometimes – aren’t these real fragilities of the minds of the children, or are we censored from depicting the true stony path of relationships?

Sometimes, I think the censorship and the taming nature of our artistic depiction goes hand in hand. Perhaps we’re past the age of censoring authorities, because we’re self-censoring these days anywhere. Questioning country’s policies can be anti-national, pointing out our dubious hypocrisies in history can lead to a social exile – and these aren’t just different entities from cinema. Especially in Tamil cinema, politics and cinema goes hand in hand. These are broad blanket of ideas of how we must interpret things around us, and they’re being confronted upon us. This is why, in places with rich histories of traditionalism and conservatism, the conversations and discussions about rape culture, sexual harassment within family members, and mental health, are often greeted with loud choruses of boos. A son, can never and ever, feel anyways different for his mother, besides love, affection and a bullet-greeting sacrificial loyalty. Anything else is taboo. This is especially worrying, because literature and the broad sphere of arts has greeted us with various complexities within relationships and to reduce them to mind-numbing dichotomies isn’t just pain, but a great disservice to art itself.

Just to take the case of mother-son, there’s a rich history of subtext. You can refer to Ray’s source material, Pather Panchali, or even before that, Hamlet, or study the theories of Freud, or analyses the tragedies of Oedipus, and you’ve barely scratched the surfaces. These are the most often quoted materials and sources of references. Tarkovsky once said, the inclusion of classical music in his films, is because, he’s trying to ‘deepen’ the film (per se), with an ever-reaching subconscious pools of associations. According to Tarkovsky, cinema is the youngest of all arts, and therefore, it must do a greater deal to involve other arts (music, paintings, architecture, literature) to deepen the pools of association within the works of arts, to make it mean something. Whatever your preferences in films are, you must admit, there’s a greater urgency to deepen our films from the cookie-cutter products (or theme park rides) that litters our halls these days than during Tarkovsky’s time, yet his advice goes unheeded. We have to deepen our cinema, and for that to happen, we must first confront the complex contradictions that exists within the spheres of all relationships.

I mentioned Incendies, the superb Villeneuve film, because the brother-sister plight in the film was something astonishing for me to see. The casual tone, the highly provocative altercations, the fights and hugs that bond them later, and the hug in the swimming pool that nearly teeters between a soul-warming comfort refuge and the incestuous bond that gave birth to them. Kenneth’s Lonergan’s realistic overlapping dialogues gets more credit that his almost-documentary level depiction of love, hate and care between the two siblings in You Can Count on Me. Again, you don’t have to Asghar Farhadi to portray siblings with all the complexities they come with, but just start with understanding that people don’t just walk around making proclamations that they’ll take a bullet for their siblings. Nor do siblings heed to each other’s words all the time. Some find each other annoying (not the “cute” altercations that exists between siblings in Tamil Cinema) but real annoyances. Doesn’t Vijay ever get angry at his little girl being irritating in Theri? Doesn’t Keerthy Suresh ever feel annoyed about coming back every week from the North? I can go on and on, but you get the point. For now, just a sigh.