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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Depth of Field: Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Vada Chennai

I remember walking out of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam with mixed feelings. It felt precise, like the work of a master, but not fulfilling. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what didn’t work for me, and to be honest, I am still unable to explain it.

A few days later, I watched Vada Chennai and found myself blown away. I even wrote about it back then. But I kept returning to CCV in my head, and trying to articulate to myself what I liked and what I didn’t. Then, a few days ago, something hit me.

The obvious first. Both films begin the narration in the middle of the story. In Vada Chennai, a murder has just been committed, and that deed will shape the lives of not just the perpetrators, but that of so many others. In CCV, it is an attempted murder.

But it is more than that. Both films drop us in the middle of the action in other ways. The characters in both movies carry a lot of baggage, and their actions in the present are informed by their past. But where Vada Chennai chooses to tell the story through a series of flashbacks, CCV is completely linear.

Whatever you need to know about the past is told to you through dialogue, and through how the characters interact with each other. You understand the characters and their relationship with each other through the performances and the dialogue, which is sometimes expository but very often just loaded enough to make you fill in the gaps in your head.

This is not to say that one approach trumps another. In Vada Chennai, the structure itself is designed to reshape our understanding of each character’s actions by peeling away the present and revealing the past. Also, it is not just the story of those people but also of the place. It needs to show us, not just tell us. CCV, on the other hand, tells a simpler story. The layers matter, but we don’t need to know everything.

The most obvious parallel, to me, is the first two Godfather films. The first film tells a loaded story in a linear fashion and uses dialogue to tell us what we need to know. The Godfather uses the long opening sequence around Connie’s wedding to introduce the characters and how they relate to each other, and then ratchets up the tension with an attempt on Vito Corleone’s life. CCV uses an attempt on Senapati’s life to introduce the characters and how they relate to each other, and then ratchets up the intrigue through a key conversation at his granddaughter’s naming ceremony.

The second Godfather film, on the other hand, tells two stories set in different timelines, in an attempt to show us how the past impacts the present in myriad ways. Michael and Vito Corleone. Anbu and Rajan.

Bhoomi.

Ooru.

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.

Entertaining half-truths, nuanced truths and (un)intended consequences

One of the now-inevitable sideshows that accompany most big releases is the group of people objecting to something in the film and taking their grievance to court. Sometimes it’s religion (Kevin Smith’s irreverent religious comedy Dogma comes to mind), sometimes it’s the depiction of real life personalities (too many to count), sometimes it’s the misrepresentation of government policy… it doesn’t really matter.

The latest one has to do with the “unscientific” basis for the villain’s ideology in Rajni’s 2.0 — apparently a bunch of people are up in arms about a film espousing the idea that cellphone towers might be dangerous.

This discussion doesn’t just rage in public spaces. My friends recently got into a discussion on a WhatsApp group on whether the caste politics depicted in Pa Ranjith’s films were faithful to reality. 

As with most things, the truth is complicated and doesn’t lend itself to binaries. Punch dialogue in films, and much of what passes for reasoned argument in public forums, seems to have no use for anything but binaries.

Take Vijay’s Mersal. There was a line in there about how liquor doesn’t have GST while medicine does. Which is true, but also disingenuous — liquor is taxed by the state and has VAT. His fundamental point, which is that access to quality healthcare needs to be free for all, is reasonable. (Whether or not it is achievable in our country is besides the point. It is a reasonable thing for a man to ask for.) 

The ruling dispensation had a problem with the specific argument about liquor, which is fair as well. (They also shot themselves in the foot by protesting about a bunch of other things that they should’ve left well enough alone, but that’s a separate story.)

The straightforward way of looking at the issue is to say that films are no place to search for truth — as long as the story has emotional truth, the facts don’t matter. This is an easier concept to sell when a straightforward rout in reality is depicted as a nail-biter in the sports movie based on it. But when the consequences of this misrepresentation involve a bit more than box-office receipts, this begins to get tricky.

So what were the consequences of this dust-up?

First, the push-back from the ruling party simply gave the film an additional boost. I suspect that curiosity contributed at least partly to the film’s collections.

Second, and here’s where it starts getting tricky, Vijay has increasingly been showing signs of political ambition, and this little brouhaha only added to his political capital. Instead of ignoring him, they engaged with him — for someone taking his first steps in the field, the engagement is the win. While the specifics differed, the fight itself played out so similarly in Sarkar that it almost felt pre-meditated.

Third, and now it gets really tricky, we’re increasingly finding ourselves in a world where confirmation bias is not just a cognitive blind spot but a consciously adopted strategy. Plus, political rhetoric has traditionally been a bit light on facts, but now, practically anything goes. The intended consequence of something like Mersal could be that people start talking about universal healthcare, and if Vijay makes it part of his political platform, people would remember the film and go “Ah! I knew it!” But the (perhaps) unintended consequence might be that their opinions are now informed not only by the overall message, but also by the half-truths he used to support it. (Vijay himself gets the best of both worlds — if his political manifesto turns out to be at odds with the film dialogue, hey, it was just a movie.)


None of this matters to 2.0, of course. Not just because it’s a Rajni film. The contention that the radiation from cellphones can harm loving beings has not, to the extent of my knowledge, been proven. I might be wrong or misinformed. But even if we’re gonna discuss the film’s themes or their relevance to Rajni’s political ambitions, we’re gonna do it on, well, WhatsApp.

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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.