The introductions to Satyajit Ray’s “Our Films Their films” and Michael Ondaatje’s “The conversations, a chronicle of his interactions with that doyen of the editing room Walter Murch, emphasize a single universal truth about cinema. Neither the making nor the success of a film can be laid at the feet of a person. As I contemplated the windfall of National Awards that found their way to the doorstep of the Tamil Film industry in the in the middle of May, I could not but appreciate the applicability of this plurality. After all, this sudden glut of recognition for the films of Tamil Nadu is not entirely due to a surge in the quality of output. While they are not entirely gratuitous, it would be simplistic to ignore the other influences that affect the decisions of award juries.
Consider, for instance, the increasingly altered attitude that committees in recent years have adopted towards the populist cinema in our paradigm. Time was when the national awards were the dominion of obscure art house flicks, directed by people that Romy Rolly, that quintessential old school producer from Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance, would derisively address as ‘instoot’. Over the last decade juries have openly embraced the cinema that graces our pop culture and the box office for longer periods of time (this, despite a special award for films that provide “wholesome entertainment”, as if that were somehow independent of the quality of the film). Another factor that is discussed much less frequently are the behind the scenes lobbying mechanisms. While a majority of us ordinary citizens remain insulated from such machinations it would be naïve to assume that they do not exist. And so a number of evolving factors, some entirely outside the imaginations of the popular conscious, possibly contributed to the prizes sent the way of Tamil cinema.
Therefore I prudently decided to restrict my pondering to the realm of comparative cinematic appreciation, but even this is fraught with danger. As a film enthusiast, I am cursed with an incurable condition. A condition that sets my pulse racing and adrenaline pumping at the very thought of a new release. Two decades ago a release only meant a film print being acquired by a local theater of reasonable proximity. Today, however, the word release has come to signify a wide array of possibilities. Home video has made available anything from an extended director’s cut of a cult classic to the digital remastering of an obscure European film. Subtitles ensure that linguistic differences do not stand in the way of cinematic experience. Yet, as I watch those translated and transcribed words appear in white italics scroll through the bottom of my screen, there is always a niggling doubt in the recesses of my cranium. Watching films in languages foreign to the four I understand, always leaves me worried that I am missing out on some nuance or idiomatic humor and in thus experiencing less of the film than a native speaker. I could not imagine a more nightmarish assignment than having to objectively evaluate the multiple regional language films and adjudicate that one is better than the other. An honest evaluation would restrict us purely to an estimation of the outputs within each regional paradigm.
And so, this is what I will attempt to do – restrict myself to the celluloid commerce of Tamil Nadu and if possible understand its vicissitudes purely in relation to itself. Are these awards the crescendo of a growing creative wave that will sustain or are they a freakish, one-off occurrence? Is there a silent renaissance happening in the cinema of our southern tip and if so what has fomented it?
Let us hark back to the early seventies to see if we can glean a larger narrative over the course of time. By 1975 the sturdy star hierarchies of sixties Tamil Cinema had peaked and were on he decline. Those were, in some senses, the lost years the industry’s lost years. K.Balachander, the recipient of the 2010 Dada Saheb Phalke award and the source from whom the star systems of the eighties would spring forth, remained the lone stalwart. With his countering of middle class hypocrisies and strong female characters he established beyond a reasonable doubt that an auteur of substance could be a box office draw. Slowly but surely these trying times became a fertile ground for a generation of directors who would mould the popular consciousness the next decade, in both urban and rural contexts. In quick succession Mahendran, Mani Ratnam, Balu Mahendra and Bharathiraja all made creatively impressive debuts. Until the total ascendance of Rajinikanth and Kamal Hassan into stars with combative coteries, these were the names that drew audiences to theatres. It was also the age of Ilaiyaraaja, the man who would, in many ways, redefine the scope and influence that music could have in films.
Fast-forward to the beginning of 2004 and history, as it is wont to, had found a way to repeat itself though not in an entirely similar fashion. The frequency of film output from the two reigning stars in the state had unquestionably waned. The only Rajinikanth release between the roaring successes of Padaiyappa in 1999 and Chandramukhi in 2005 was the rather unremarkable, Baba. Consequently the intervening years were surrendered, not entirely but in large part, to the antics of poseurs. The result was a spate of soulless, formulaic films filled with foregone conclusions that remain nearly indistinguishable for anyone not entirely enamored by the mechanics. Of the famed directors of the eighties Balu Mahendra, Mahendran and Bharathiraja had all but stopped making films (they have each made only one film since). This time around it was Mani Ratnam, the man who had come define what it meant to be an urban upper middle class young man in Tamil Nadu, who remained the last standing stalwart. The three Tamil films he made during this otherwise barren patch only underscore my disappointment at his progression to bigger canvases and mixed results. Even that reliable bastion of vigilante films, Shankar, only produced Boys, an honest yet amateurish attempt, during this period. Kamal Hassan, the other star in the constellation continued his efforts to defy classification, attempting to straddle the parallel tightropes of sidesplitting comedy and sincere artistry at once. But these two cineastes, in new avatars and a few maverick filmmakers, would reorient the direction that the industry was taking.
In the five-year period between 1999 and 2004, Kamal Hassan directed two features. The first of these, Hey Ram, was a sprawling epic that attempted to trace the tail of the serpent of communalism in a free India. Unfortunately this multi-lingual pan Indian effort, while still critically lauded, did not make the impact it deserved. What did leave an indelible mark was his latter attempt in 2004. Where Hey Ram’s spatial coordinates stretched the length and breadth of our subcontinent, Virumandi restricted its location to a specific region of Tamil Nadu. But in its subtle depiction of the mutable nature of truth and agrarian politics he painted a riveting picture of rural Tamil Nadu that went well beyond simple star crossed romance or a cursory commentary on the inequities of caste. Shankar’s impact would not come from the director’s chair but through his independent film production company. Produced S Pictures, Balaji Sakthivel’s Kadhal would go on become one of the most influential films of the decade. To describe Kadhal on paper would be to reduce its cinematic splendor to absurdity. It is a simple rich girl – poor boy love story set in a suburb of Madurai and employs every commonly seen cinema trope in these situations. Yet the sympathy it awards its characters, its portrayal of the lack of privacy in our cities and its unfailing seriousness elevated the film to iconic status. Both Virumandi and Kadhal were harbingers. Whether they began Tamil cinema’s march to Madurai or were simple the first to see an opportunity to tell untold stories, we may never know.
In the coming years Tamil filmdom has marched on Madurai like never before, sometimes armed with well crafted screenplays and at other times hoping to find some external inspiration in its soil. Majority of these films feature bearded wastrels, half-saree clad heroines and stylized, gratuitous violence. The first of these films, and the one with the most influence on the template was Ameer’s immensely successful and critically acclaimed film Paruthiveeran. The brutality in Paruthiveeran is placed on a pedestal, so much so it earned the epithet ‘Cruel Cinema’ at a University of California Berkeley Film Program (Link reference: http://www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/film/FN18956). Its characters are so given to the hacking and hewing of the curved blade of the sickle that a viewer could be forgiven for believing that violence is the central point, the reason for existence even, of the film. The second aspect of Paruthiveeran that caught on like wildfire was the sarcastic humor derived from the lilting dialect spoken in the Madurai area. With this film the hinterlands of Ramanathapuram had arrived as the go-to location for filming. Today lesser filmmakers land in Madurai armed with cast, crew and flimsy scripts believing that the producer’s returns are guaranteed by location, dialect, the two earlier tropes discussed and one more borrowed from Subramaniapuram – the sanctity of friendship.
If Tamil cinema were to be believed, one of the important choices facing the Tamil male, whether he may be a city or mofussil resident, is between his male friends and the girl he is wooing. The dilemma, labeled “friend or figure” in the local parlance, is central to Sasikumar’s explosive debut film Subramaniapuram and the more recent Nadodigal. These two films elevated a conflict that had predominantly been comic fodder for Tamil filmmakers into a defining problem of the age. Set in the eighties, Subramaniapuram tracks the lives, love and death of a band of unemployed young men exploited for political gain. One of the key moments in the film is the betrayal of one of the young men by his lover. The elegiac execution of this sequence is one of the films lasting impacts. This disillusionment with the traditional mores of cinematic romance has also in some ways become a signature trope in the Tamil cinema of today with fewer and fewer simple boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl romances being made. Opposition to romance is no longer purely external to the relationship. It isn’t dissenting parents or guardians but the characters themselves who are conscious of class differences and practical difficulties. This realization is not restricted to the rural love stories of Madurai alone. The angst and internal strife is present in the context and psyche of filmmakers who specialize in the urban milieu as well.
Despite making his debut with a romantic comedy, Gautham Menon, Tamil cinema’s urban filmmaker of this generation, earned his stripes through gritty cop stories. But when he decided to follow up an intensely personal film, dedicated to his father, with a love story about a cinema crazy lad and commitment-phobic lass it came as no surprise. For even in his earlier films his penchant for the romantic interlude had endeared him to the anglophile urban youth in the major cities of the state. This love story, Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya, went on to become a smashing success on the strength of A.R.Rahman’s music and the vacillating characterization of Jessie, its female protagonist. Despite their varied locations from rural to urban, films such as Vinnaithandi Varuvaaya, Nadodigal and Subramaniapuram are all aimed at the same demographic – the young, educated and upwardly mobile exposed to the cadences of Hollywood and European film. This comes as no surprise because most of the filmmakers themselves belong to this demographic. They also seek to repudiate some of the romantic notions fed to them by the earlier generation while remaining conscious of the contributions to their growth. Consider for instance the recurring presence of Ilaiyaraaja numbers in the background scores of a number of these films. This is undoubtedly a tribute to the most prolific composer of the most widely listened form of music of the formative years of these filmmakers. This regional aural influence combined with the visual aesthetics of the west (from the long tracking shots Scorsese employs in Goodfellas to the more recent slick editing and quick flash cuts) has become par for the course in today’s Tamil Cinema.
It is to the industry’s credit and benefit, however, that this generalization is not all encompassing. Within the paradigm there do exist iconoclast filmmakers who consciously reject a western influence. The first of these is Mysskin – who aptly borrows his pseudonym from the pages of Dostoevsky – claims to have stumbled into filmmaking after working myriad odd jobs, most famously in one of Chennai’s prominent bookstores. From his very first film Mysskin adopts a visual style that is influenced more by the fareast in general and Kurosawa in particular. Mysskin’s films exhibit a persistent reticence for obvious visuals, often adopting camera angles that may seem gimmicky for the untrained eye, but always have interesting payoffs for the patient and more discerning viewer. While the penchant for stylized violence is present even in his films, the modus operandi is far removed from the usual fare. Despite what detractors may have to say about the filming techniques he employs there is no doubt that he is an important voice. The preference he exhibits for the darker aspects of the human psyche makes him an important counterpoint to the larger filmmaking community.
Yet another independent voice, someone who almost always raises eyebrows with his choice of subjects, is the 2009 National Award winner for best director, Bala. Of his four released films, the last two have both been recognized on the national stage. Pithamagan garnered a national acting award for its leading man Vikram for his portrayal of Siththan, overgrown man-child raised in a graveyard. Characterization’s that are difficult to envision and nearly impossible to pull off seem to be Bala’s forte. His 2009 film Naan Kadavul, which brought him his first national award was detailed the story of an Aghori ascetic who walks into the lives of a group of physically disabled people and delivers one of them from worldly suffering. With a visual style perfected over his first two films and a caustic sense of humor that draws us into his universe and past his characterizations, Bala has created a niche for himself that may never be perfectly understood. This may be for the better, for it means his style may never be replicated. The one person that Bala does have in common with a slew of filmmakers now making interesting films in Chennai is his mentor – Balu Mahendra.
When Sethu, Bala’s first film, released in 1999 it was the first in a series of illustrious debuts that Balu Mahendra’s assistants would make. Despite being one of the most influential cinematographers and visual artists to take residence in Chennai, Balu Mahendra hardly seemed to influence Bala’s preoccupations or aesthetic. As more and more of his pupils, Ram with Katrathu Thamizh and Vetrimaaran in Pollathavan both in 2007, made impressive debuts it became obvious that this lack of overpowering influence was not an exception. Bharathiraja’s assistants, Bhagyaraj and Pandiarajan who would go on to make several entertainers in the eighties, all showed a definite influence of their mentor in their films. It was their individual sense of humor that helped carve their niche. Balu Mahendra’s pupils however exhibit significantly different creative concerns from their guru. These concerns are often very divergent and have little in common with each other as well and one must give Balu Mahendra credit for allowing his assistants to grow into their own creative spaces.
While speaking about this years multiple award winner Aadukalam, its director Vetrimaaran quite clearly states that while it is a fine film it is only a step forward in his oeuvre. Anyone who has the matter-of-fact finale of Aadukalam will also realize that Dhanush, the protagonist and star of the film, and Vetrimaaran were much more committed to finding an honest conclusion to the tale they were weaving than creating a grandiose statement in favor of the trappings of image. It is this sort of filmmaker – one who is aware of the larger narrative and invested in stories of his characters – who should be the torchbearer of the industry moving forward. Investors in cinema should ensure that such voices are not crushed or shepherded towards mediocrity in the search for returns. Today there exists in Tamil the two things conducive for a renaissance of sorts: a quorum of committed creators and an audience that is requesting for creative experimentation. The regular star powered action fare has consistently found failure at the box office. If harnessed appropriately I believe that there is reason for hope and that good things lie in wait.