Super Deluxe: There are more things on heaven and earth…

There might be the odd spoiler, so beware. But as with most of my reviews these days, read it after you’ve watched the film, please?

Those of you who have been following my reviews, sporadic as they are, would have noticed that I seldom write about the whole movie anymore. I tend to focus on that which grabbed my attention. Two viewings and a lot of thinking about Super Deluxe later, I still don’t know what to talk about.

I could talk about the performances. The powerful ones, the delightful ones, the surprising ones, the one that made my skin crawl, even the one that lasted maybe a minute and involved pretty much just one word: Go.

I could talk about the sound: Yuvan’s minimalism, his use of just ambient noise to underline a mood in incredible ways. The layering of voices and overlapping conversations (some of them from TV and radio) — like Robert Altman on steroids. The use of music in surprising ways: Maasi maasam aalaana ponnu plays over a visual of a ponnaana aalu. A localized rendition of the Star Wars theme over, well, a Death Stair?

I could talk about what each subplot reminded me of. Like Eugene Ionesco’s Amédée, or How to Get Rid of It, a play about a married couple dealing with a corpse. Or Guy Ritchie. Terry Pratchett. Tarantino. BaashaArjun Reddy. The recent dist-up around Radharavi’s ill-advised comments about Nayanthara. Trust me, if you ran a drinking game around finding them, you’d have cirrhosis by the time you get to the interval point.

I could talk about guilt and acceptance, and how each subplot explores these themes in its own way.

I could talk about any of these things and it would make for a lengthy blog post all by itself. Rarely has a single film given us so much to take in. I was speaking to Baradwaj Rangan recently about how keeping my eyes wide open during a film has made the viewing experience so much more enjoyable, but nothing prepared me for the kind of sensory overload I encountered in Super Deluxe.

So, instead of talking about these things, let me talk about what the film seems to be about.

Filmmakers have dealt with the concept of connectedness of individual stories in different ways. Mani Ratnam in Ayutha Ezhuthu took three individual stories and have them dovetail into a single incident. Linklater in Slacker followed one character for a short while, then followed another who was in the same scene, and then another who was in the same scene with the second character, and so on.

But connectedness can be so much more than just people and stories and even objects caroming off each other. And so much less.

Sometimes, as one character says in the film, we look for a deeper meaning in patterns that could have just been random coincidence. A man turns his life around because he survived a natural disaster, and holds as the basis of his faith, the object that was the instrument of his survival. One could argue, as Jules did in Pulp Fiction, that it didn’t matter if it was an “According to Hoyle” miracle. He felt the touch of God. God got involved. But this character, who has named himself Arputham — meaning miracle — is himself dealing with a crisis of faith. Not only do the others not understand his faith (he doesn’t consider himself Christian, although everyone else seems to), he no longer understands it himself. Has he been seeking meaning where there was none to be found?

But here’s the thing: this is a movie where a character tells us that we might be reading too much into random coincidence, but there is nothing accidental about its making. Nothing.

A little boy learns the f-word when an adult uses it, but it’s not a one-off. You see another boy using the word kamnaatti after you’ve heard an adult in his family use it in an earlier scene. One father’s attempt at suicide is mirrored in his son accidentally harming himself, but that’s not all: another father worries that his sins have been visited upon his son. A throwaway line in the beginning about television beating porn on a phone is illustrated later in an unexpected way. I could go on.

All this does not just happen in a movie. Someone has to make it happen.

And so it is that two viewings and a lot of thinking about Super Deluxe later, all I know for sure are two things:
a. Thyagarajan Kumararaja has made a great film, and
b. He’s definitely messing with us.

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On the craft in Gully Boy

Caution: Spoilers ahead. Read this only if you’ve watched the film.

Gully Boy is a rousing tale, but it’s easy to look at the broad outlines of the plot and dismiss it as Dharavi’s 8 Mile or some such thing. That would be doing the film a huge disservice. A genre exercise must not automatically be classed as generic; it deserves its place in the sun if the story is rooted in its milieu and respects both the setting and the characters while still hewing to the broad outlines. Much of what worked for me in Gully Boy were in fact the little things, the evidence of “craft”, the moments where Zoya found truth and beauty in places that most people would pass by without a second glance. And in this film, she has found herself a mighty team of collaborators who have executed on her vision in a manner that does the material credit.

To begin with, how good an actor is Ranveer Singh? There’s not a single thing I noticed that others haven’t raved about already, so let me not bother with it at all. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little bamboozled by his outfits off screen, but watch him in the film, and see how he reins in his flamboyance, and only slowly lets us see the energy within. Watch how his performances change, and how they build up to the unbridled energy of Apna Time Aayega. This is an extraordinarily well-calibrated performance.

The running time helps. This is a story of an artist discovering his voice, discovering that he is a person of worth. Zoya takes her time in showing us this process. The first thing you see about him is what he doesn’t like: rap music that is purely about a lifestyle rather than a point of view. Then you see his life, his environment, what he likes, where he finds space to breathe and grow. You see a man with talent, but no yardstick to measure his own worth — when he presents Doori to his mentor, watch how much he yearns for that iota of appreciation. Watch his comfort with a mic and with the recording process grow over time. You don’t get it all done through a lazy montage.

Alia Bhatt’s performance too is a thing of beauty. I would gladly pay money to watch a movie about Safeena “Danger Apa” Firdausi. To begin with, it’s a very well-written character, but so much hinges on her being able to find that exact tone, and Alia delivers. She gets a lot of big moments, a lot of crowd pleasing moments, and some beautiful ones with Ranveer (I think doing all those MakeMyTrip ads together really helped). My favourite, though, comes during his rousing solo performance right at the end. She’s sneaked out of her house to watch him, perform. You see her putting on lipstick while waiting for her train — something that is foreshadowed by a comment in an earlier conversation with her parents. And when she arrives at the venue, you see that she’s done her best to pretty up for her boyfriend’s big night, and that it still looks just that little bit different, just that little bit less practised, as compared to the women around her. And when the whole crowd is going nuts and waving their hands up and down, you see her doing it too. But her movement is just that little bit more awkward. This isn’t her world, but she’s there for him, and the film recognizes both aspects. You see this for literally just one second, and yet it registers. Incredible.

Bridges are a recurring leitmotif in their relationship. The one they meet on regularly, the sharing of a pair of earphones, their gesture with their hands… And it’s an appropriate leitmotif because, in their little world, they still have to bridge some gaps in order to be together. Even their relative position on the vertical axis is used thoughtfully.

There’s a reconciliation scene between the lovers late in the film. He’s had an intimate moment with another woman earlier, which she suspects but he doesn’t admit to. Her confrontation with him about this leads to their breakup. When they reconcile, she asks him about her and he says, they’re just friends who make music together. She still presses him with a gentle but firm “But…” — he has to come clean, it is important to her, to them. He does. When she says, “So it’s okay if I do that with someone as well?” he responds with “You can do whatever you want.” And they kiss. Don’t read the lines. Read between them. His response isn’t about reciprocity, it’s about freedom. There is an earlier conversation where he worries about the things he can’t give her, and she says that her ability to be herself with him is what matters to her. This conversation starts off about his little infidelity, but that last question and response is not about that. It is simply a reaffirmation of what is so right about their relationship.

But the film is not just about these two. It’s about the world they inhabit, about the characters around them, and these characters are written with respect for their lives.

His friends, for instance. Moeen stalks the screen like an apex predator, and in their little world, he kind of is. Murad disapproves of his actions, and they’ve had the odd tiff about it, but it comes to a head in a scene where he sees that Moeen is using local kids in his drug trade. That scene is set up to play out exactly like so many others in so many other movies, but the way it actually plays out is truer to the world the characters inhabit. Murad breaks down, and Moeen sends the other kids away and finds out what’s going on. Even his earlier conversation about Murad’s break-up with Safeena doesn’t adopt the “my friend is always right” tone — there’s some quiet truth-telling about what he owes his girlfriend.

The relationship between the rappers is another plus. MC Sher is outstanding as Murad’s mentor, of course, but what stood out for me is the positivity. You don’t have manufactured drama around a veteran feeling out of sorts at being bested by his protege. Even the rap battles are verbal pugilism, but you can see that they regard this as sport. Right at the end, when Murad performs at the final, even his rivals are nodding along — they respect the craft, the talent. (Which is why the big moment in the semi-final where he defends his roots against an “entitled” opponent, while crowd-pleasing, feels just that little bit false; the sentiment is true, but the situation feels a bit manufactured.)

It’s lovely how the music reflects the sensibilities of the characters driving the action. When Sky and her friends invite Murad for some late night vandalism, the music that plays over the scene isn’t hip-hop. It suggests a sort of genteel protest. One character doodles
“Feed me” on a picture of a fashion model. In their presence, Murad looks just that little bit awkward. What makes this scene work is really the context outside the film — Zoya’s Dil Dhadakne Do was panned for focusing on first world problems — and by placing a little window to that world inside Murad’s own, Zoya seems to slipping in a sly bit of commentary herself.

There’s so much detail even in throwaway moments. Like the way Murad’s new stepmom has a habit of leaving her plates and cups in the kitchen for his mom to wash, and how it is mirrored in the household she works in. (Again, all it takes is a second for a shot to linger on a particular thing for a good storyteller to tell a little story on the fringes.) Or the way one character slamming the door is reflected in another’s similar action in a late scene.

And finally, in a movie that is about an “English ki poetry zor zor se sunaane-wala” art form (thank you, Bombay 70, for that succinct description), the words. In a late scene, Murad says “I have a gift from God, and I don’t plan to return it.” Watch the word choice. He doesn’t use a word that suggests throwing away or wasting the gift, but returning it. Returning is an active measure, one that suggests an individual’s complicity in his own failure, and Murad will no longer have it. There’s also the scene where he describes his life without Safeena with an analogy that is so unexpected, yet so perfect. You realize that this ability to find the words even in a halting, awkward conversation is what makes him who he is as an artist. And his artistry reflects, in turn, that of the makers. Kudos!

Manmarziyan

Taapsee Pannu occupies the center of Manmarziyan like this was the role she was born to play. And why wouldn’t she? The role’s a peach, and Pannu mines a vein of ferocity that makes her character in Baby and Naam Shabana look mild in comparison.

It has been argued that the level of agency she gets in the film makes her a more feminist character than most others who inhabit the Bollywood landscape. It has also been argued that smoking and drinking and having sex with whomsoever one wants does not a feminist make.

Personally, I can see the merit in both points of view, but one little moment early on in the film encapsulates my own take on the issue. Rumi is walking down a narrow street, furious about something. (Which, for Rumi, is a naturally occurring state.) She bumps into some random guy. He turns around, angry and presumably ready to do what countless men in countless small towns in countless movies (and, sadly, in reality) have done. And then checks himself and apologizes to her. You don’t see her reaction, just his. For all we know, she might not even have noticed any of this and simply ploughed on. Some people, you simply don’t fuck with, no matter what their plumbing is.

And the plumbing is important to this film, which is concerned with both pyaar (matters of the heart) and fyaar (think further south). All three characters want both. Whether they realize it, or want both at the same time, is another matter entirely.

Vicky (Kaushal) at first appears to be all about the fyaar, and it is easy to interpret his commitment-phobia a standard issue douchebaggery. But it doesn’t take long to realize that he is actually quite committed to her. It’s not like he is willing to walk away from the relationship. He just isn’t ready for it to be anything more than it is.

Robbie on the other hand wants it all and is willing to play the long game. While the broad template is that of a husband willing to step aside if his wife is in love with another man, Robbie isn’t written as a generic type, either. (Abhishek is well cast here – this role isn’t a stretch, but you can see why they’d have wanted to cast him.) He knows from the start that Rumi is in a relationship. If she and Vicky both want each other, there’s nothing I can do about it, he says, but that doesn’t mean I will remove myself as an option. If you saw her, you’d understand why, he says at one point. And we do.

His outburst towards the end, though, is somewhat strangely written/performed. I can see what Anurag Kashyap and writer Kanika Dhillon wanted to achieve, which is to get him – the one capable of making considered decisions – to do something and disrupt the rhythm. Left to the other two, the plot would go nowhere. However, Robbie’s reason for doing what he does doesn’t ring true. And Abhishek plays his cards too close to his chest for us to figure out if we’re seeing bad writing or good acting.

Still, this is much sharper writing than most films with this template manage to have. Even the peripheral characters have something. Their conversations have a lived-in feel to them – consider the banter between Robbie’s mom and her domestic help, or the quiet exasperation with which Rumi’s family regard her outbursts. There’s a lot here to enjoy on a second viewing.

When my wife and I were discussing the film afterwards, she made an interesting comment: the families look way too chill about all that is going on with the principal characters. It’s not that they don’t have opinions. They’re just expressed at a muted pitch. Even the guy who’s supposed to fill in the role of the hot-headed brother is actually so mild mannered that nobody actually takes him seriously. For his part, he’d much rather put his MBA to use than his hockey stick. I wonder, though: Have we watched so much melodrama that anything short of loud arguments or honour killings – basically, anything resembling sanity – doesn’t seem plausible anymore?

Plausible or not, it’s nice to see a woman get the space she needs to figure out what she wants. Or maybe they just don’t want to tangle with Rumi. Like I said, some people you simply don’t…

Seethakathi: State of the Art

How did a film like Seethakathi even get funded in the first place? The story lends itself to a kind of dryly comic narrative (Isaac Asimov’s One Night of Song comes to mind), but here’s the thing: the contemplative mood that permeates much of the film is not the one you might imagine while hearing it.

The first 40 minutes are so sedate, so quietly affecting in their depiction of an ageing theatre actor’s life, that you wonder if you just stumbled into a Balu Mahendra feature. (Archana’s presence as his wife helps.) There’s a moment when Ayya Aadhimoolam, the aforementioned artiste, returns home by auto after a stage performance that only a handful of people have attended, and passes by some youths watching something on their mobile phone. The film just shows him observing them, but the earlier scenes have made his reaction unnecessary. Watching this film on the Prime app on my phone, I felt vaguely guilty when that scene played out. Lovely.

Even when the film goes on to take a slightly supernatural turn, the elegiac tone doesn’t change. If at all it morphs from a Balu Mahendra film, it is into an M Night Shyamalan one.

And then, when you least expect it, the film finds a funny bone. A film shoot in a park goes horribly, hilariously wrong. That Balaji Tharaneetharan has a deft comic touch has been evident from his debut feature, but this sudden shifting of gears is, well, startling.

There’s obvious comedy featuring some of the best bad acting I have seen in a while, but the straight guy in the scene plays it so beautifully straight that his performance becomes a stand-in for the movie it has been so far. It feels as though the humour is somehow finding a way to bubble up through the layer of sombre contemplation that the film has wreathed itself in. The effect on the viewer is unexpectedly cathartic.

It goes on a bit too long, and there’s a similar sequence later on where you really wish they’d get on with it, but this is, to be honest, a minor quibble. I still found myself laughing both times.

And then, even more amazingly, the film turns into a sort of satire on the prevalent state of cinema, our tendency to worship our stars, and our rigid notions of what the A, B and C centres want to see. While it appears a bit preachy at times, the script finds room for nuance. Even the stereotypical I-want-every-cliche-in-my-film producer is not depicted in an entirely unsympathetic manner – he is simply a man who has invested a lot of money in the film and cannot afford to deal with an actor who refuses to turn up. The notion of cinema as a collective, as well as commercial, art is driven home in more ways than one.

Perhaps the film’s most interesting reading, for me, comes from a meta perspective. Here’s a mostly well-reviewed venture featuring a great actor who loomed over the film’s promotions in much the same way that his character looms over the story it tells. It enjoyed but a modest run at the box office, and yet, soon after its release on Prime video, I find a slew of complimentary posts about it on my Facebook timeline.

Seethakathi lives on.

Petta: A lightweight film that works beautifully as a tribute, but that’s about it

Petta functions wonderfully as a supercut of Rajni’s filmography, set to old தமிழ் film music. The Mullum Malarum references abound, obviously – with a name like Kaali, that’s almost a given. One of them comes right at the end and is an absolute beauty. But there are so many others that much of the pleasure of watching this film comes from spotting the call-outs to other films.

In that sense, this film can be slotted in roughly the same category as Om Shanti Om. The craft is visible, but it is the cheekiness that you notice. The film is so cheerfully self-indulgent that you don’t feel like begrudging Karthik Subbaraj his ultimate fanboy moment – getting Rajni himself to recreate for him, his memories of growing up as a Rajni fan.

My favourite is actually one of the non Rajni film references (and there are quite a few of those as well) . The line ‘Naan veezhvaen endru ninaiththaayo?’ accompanies a shot that seems to reference one at the end of Mahanadhi where the same line is heard in the background. Is that a hat tip to his greatest contemporary? Maybe it was accidental, but remember, this is Karthik Subbaraj we’re talking about. But I’m not trying to divine the director’s motives so much as explain how I reacted to the film.

And to be honest, for the first hour or so, this is all there is to do. The story seems to be going nowhere. He’s a fun-loving hostel warden who seems to have developed a soft corner for one of his students, and runs up against another, a prototypical entitled brat who believes he runs the place and finds out that there’s a bigger dog in the pound. But the film seems to be spinning its wheels just on the basis of this premise.

Then suddenly, some semblance of a plot kicks in. The flab all but disappears. This is not a great story, and nearly every character other than the hero gets short shrift, but you can see a degree of competence in the treatment, and the performances cover up for the deficiencies in the script. The filmmaker has not entirely been sublimated by the fan.

It occurs to me that Rajni movies over the past decade or so have suffered from a lack of balance more than anything else. They’ve wanted to tell a story with Rajni in it, but in their desire to accommodate the star, they’ve added so much hero-glorifying flab that the output suffers as a result.

Pa Ranjith went the other way by situating Rajni in the middle of some very interesting stories, but his inability to match his vision with top notch execution has resulted in uneven products of another kind.

Karthik Subbaraj might have found one answer to the puzzle. Make a film that embraces its Rajni-ness so completely that there’s hardly any conflict between the film and the star. This does not make the film itself great, mind you – this might be the most lightweight film this director has made – but it mostly hits what it aims at.

Now, if he could marry his skill as a filmmaker with Pa Ranjith’s depth of field in creating a world around his central character, you’d really have a Rajni movie for the ages.

96

Please, please go watch this film before reading my blog post.

What an amazing, amazing film this is!

I didn’t get to see it during its theatrical release, and I had the dubious fortune of being laid up with an infection on Deepavali evening, so it was just me and the TV at home. (Not that I agree with Sun TV’s decision to telecast it so soon after its release.) There’s a lot to say about the film, but let me just list a few things that struck me.

The film opens with a depiction of Ram’s life, and it is a thing of beauty. You see him swinging from a branch, playing in a sand dune, sleeping in the hollow of a tree. Here’s a man doing things by himself: the sort of montage that sometimes features a free-spirited heroine. But the tone is different. It is one of a man content to live within himself. You’re not thinking Roja, you’re thinking Henry David Thoreau.

Jaanu’s songs always start from the second stanza. Always beautifully sung (Chinmayi is in top form here, but even by those standards, the one sung at the reunion is an absolute standout), yet always incomplete. She only sings one song from start to finish, and it is exactly the one that needs to be sung that way. To be fair, it’s a small song with not much middle to it, but I suspect this was a deliberate choice.

Lots of scenes of the couple in an elevator. Two lives in limbo?

For what is principally a two character drama, there’s so much warmth provided by the supporting characters. Devadarshini (as well as Niyathi, the girl who plays her younger avatar) oozes sass. Bagavathy Perumal has an absolutely hilarious moment when he fakes a phone call to exit a frame and starts it by saying “Hello, Dubai-aa…?” And who better to evoke the 90s than Janakaraj?

My favourite cameo, though, was that of Kavithalaya Krishnan as a barber. There is a lived-in feeling to this character that owes as much to our memories of Crazy Mohan’s comedies as to the brief expository dialogue. It’s as inspired a casting choice as that of Janakaraj. There is a moment when he understands more or less precisely who Jaanu is without actually being introduced to her, and he absolutely, perfectly nails it.

The scene in the coffee shop with Ram’s students is an interesting one. It appears at first that the focus is Jaanu’s re-imagining of their past, but there’s another story being told on the sidelines – Prabha’s. There’s a lingering handshake at the end that speaks volumes. For a long film, some of its most eloquent moments are startlingly brief.

There’s a conversation in Ram’s apartment where Jaanu worries about Ram being single. The content is reminiscent of the last scene in Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya. But where the tone in the earlier film was more elegiac, there’s an urgency here, an undercurrent of desperation. The difference lies in the woman’s state of mind — Jessie has moved on, but Jaanu hasn’t. Listen to her talking about what she needs Ram to do, as opposed to what Jessie wanted Karthik to do.

Half the story is told in body language, in the distance between the characters. To begin with, Jaanu is the one who determines it. Ram resists, then gives in, and sometimes simply passes out. Sometimes it’s in small gestures: There’s a moment in her hotel room where he recounts a memory, Jaanu pats a space closer to her, and Ram simply scoots over. It’s casual, it’s telling, it’s beautiful. But by the time they’re driving to the airport, it’s Ram who takes charge. Left to Jaanu, they’d still be stuck on neutral, unable to move on.

On beginnings, storytelling and Vada Chennai

Consider the prefix “Once upon a time in” that is affixed in the English subtitle that appears during the opening credits. Here’s a director who has pretty much announced, right at the start, that he’s attempting to do to the bylanes of a fisherman’s slum in North Chennai, what Sergio Leone did to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in Once Upon a Time in America. This film too, has a sprawling canvas, a nonlinear narrative, characters who are perpetually armed with their baggage if not their weaponry…

If you’re looking for other gangster sagas to point to, there’s Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. Or, if you’re looking towards literary cues, there’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose memory is evoked in its circular narratives and repetitive motifs and knack of having a larger story nudge a smaller story every once in a while. Or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

The thing is, if you’re making an epic, and Vada Chennai is indubitably one, you’re unlikely to break a heck of a lot of new ground in terms of the basic emotions and storylines. Yeah, there’s lust and greed and betrayal and vengeance. And a girl and a gun. At that level, we’ve probably described most stories.

Where you make your mark is in how rooted the story is, how organically its characters’ motivations are tied into the time and place they’re from. Vada Chennai’s characters are driven by the same base impulses as anyone else, but you can’t imagine them in any other milieu. And what’s more, this film is not just about its characters. It’s about this location, about its importance to the people living there. The film is narrated in chapters, each named for three of the characters. But the key chapter that details the genesis of this story uses the word Oor, meaning place. This place.

One useful way of understanding a film is to ask yourself: what has changed between the beginning and the end? A narrative this nonlinear doesn’t lend itself easily to such analysis. But consider the opening and closing shots instead. The opening shot is of a bloodstained murder weapon casually thrown on a table. The reasons for this murder have to do with this place, and what people want to do with it. The closing shot is of the oor itself. There’s an old wall separating this neighbourhood from the more “gentrified” world on the other side. The other wall is the sea. The place hasn’t changed. Nor have the pressures from the outside. The people dealing with them have, and sometimes their stories have their genesis in that of the people who came before them.

A character with an ability to look beyond the immediate term gifts a pair of binoculars to a little boy. You see him sitting on top of a tower with the binoculars as a young adult. You see him capable of looking past the short term as an adult. And you realize that even a throwaway moment, where an adult gifts a child something he fancies, has such an emotional resonance in hindsight. These stories are like geological formations. Scrape away a layer of rock, and there’s another layer that tells the story of a previous age.

You don’t see them all in chronological order, though. The nonlinear nature of the storytelling is a wee bit disorienting at first, but you realize soon that this is not mere gimmickry.

The effects of a murder — the one referenced in the opening shot — are seen well before the murder itself is shown, in what is probably the standout sequence in the film. As good as the film-making is in that scene, the emotional charge comes from the fact that we already know how the ripple effects of this event will be seen in the coming years.

An attack that happens around the interval block comes as a surprise, but in the scenes that follow, Vetri Maran interleaves the backstory that motivated it along with its aftermath, thereby shaping our perception of that attack in very interesting ways. And then he adds another layer of motivation that precedes this one, thereby reshaping our view once again.

This is not a filmmaker toying with form, or with the audience. This is a master storyteller telling us that Once upon a time is not where the story starts. It’s just where you begin to narrate it.