Tanhaji and field notes on Indian politics

I’ve noticed a pattern at the movies. Every year seems to be ushered with a particular ‘type’ of content that seems to elicit a similar kind of response from the audience during the harvest season. It’s Tanhaji-the unsung warrior this year, Uri-the surgical strike, last year and Padmaavat, the year before, almost, like a ricochet from the parliament. You see the pattern now, don’t you? Of rebellion of a historical personality or a nation against a particular ilk based out of a particular mulk. Anyways going back to Tanhaji, it’s a cinematic retelling of an episode of great sacrifice and valour involving the eponymous Marathi warrior who held fort against a tyrant from the Mughal camp. I personally loved the movie. It had a certain kinetic-earnestness about it, be it the well staged set-pieces, the economies of performances that kept hitting the emotional sweet-spot without over-dwelling and the overarching sense of doom stemming from the lopsided affair that lends a tragic gravitas to the heroism and of course the tik-tok immediacy of the proceedings. Uri isn’t very different. It’s like the contemporary soul-cousin of Tanhaji from across the LOC. If the latter is rooted in history, the former is a pulsating account of the army’s recent strategic strike on a Pakistani militant outfit, after their barbaric misadventures on this side of the border. These are mainstream, blow-by-blow onscreen recreations that you walk in to, with little expectations of finer aspects like nuance or arcs. They’re the cinematic equivalents of an adrenaline shot, where onscreen victories coincide with wolf whistles, depending on which of an Arnab debate you find yourself. To cut to the chase, these are bloody-good mainstream movies, quite literally if you’re in the habit of enjoying them.

Life imitates art, national climate at times. Vice versa. Why wouldn’t it, for the mimesis-meets-money nexus is what keeps the movie business afloat, even more than the others.
And it’s not like right and wrong are predisposed on being right and left only now. It was here that a bunch of elder statesmen led a mob that brought down a religious monument, Gods were paraded naked in a religious pageantry while an entire nation stood mum when “emergency” was the finger on an autocrat’s lips. So it’s not like there weren’t murmurs of disagreement or dirty laundry to wash before. It’s just that there weren’t as many mediums to broadcast them.

A stroll on any social media platform feels like skating on a frying pan. It’s a scalding, hyper-opinionated place that prefers dissent over discussion, name-calling over nay-saying and absolutism over subjectivity. Which is to not to say that we were a docile nation of hand raisers, who waited their turns to partake in a debate, decades before. Tea shops, saloons and parapets were as much about beverage, grooming and fencing as much as they were about gossiping. venting and political dissection. Just that the smart-phone wielding not-so-smart hoi-polloi is endowed with the tools to scale up the dissent to a global level. And thanks to a culture of novices hyper-ventilating about every thing under the sun, there are a lot more opinions than solutions at any given point in time. Sportsmen, film people, politicians and even scientists; literally anyone worth their salt has to be wary of not putting a wrong foot forward, for it would open them up to an avalanche of trolls, whose very identities are founded on this.
And no movie can merely look to tell a story, entertain or engage, It has to be overtly careful about coming across politically correct and reverential about any kind of depiction, be it in terms of gender, sexuality, orientation, religion, community, cast or a political/historical figure.

And to add to this is the majoritarian appeal of the current ruling dispensation that seems to have irked a few and intimidated some others, who earlier felt in charge of shaping the mainstream-narrative from their ivory towers. And after towing a certain ideology all their lives and building an equity  in the process, the present socio-political developments from another affiliation seems to have made them queasy. Which probably explains why they constantly go after low hanging punching bags while on the lookout for inconspicuous places to vent out, like in, say a literary fest or while critiquing a widely accepted mainstream movie like Tanhaji or a Uri, which seem to be in sync with the masses, with which they kind of seem to be out-of-sync.

Which brings me back to this one particular review by a renown critic. She had great things to say about most aspects of the movie in general. Then the “but” came with a sullen expression about the politics of the film being “problematic”. I know better than that to know that the “but” isn’t as innocuous as it looks. It is in fact the battle cry of the disenchanted. While it’s assumed to be a modest stand-in at the end of any positive assertion or appreciation, one needs to look again, carefully, to know that the assertion at the beginning was mere artifice to soften the blow of the “but” as a conduit of constructive criticism, when it was the pin from under the balloon, all along.

What was problematic to her were the suggestive ‘hyper-Hindutva’ tropes employed by the film, where Mughals are depicted as the unanimous philandering, plundering, barbaric, kohl-eyed enemy. This is the aspect I found the most troubling about her review, that of letting her politics colour her opinion of a film.
There are a few things to be kept in mind while trying to deconstruct a movie beyond the surface level. What is the film set out to do or achieve. This gives it a point of view, which lends the film its context, direction, protagonist-antagonist demarcation and the resultant disputes. Run time is another bottleneck that decides what is said and unsaid, what is told and left, the anecdotes to be included and excluded in the flow of a screenplay. So you can’t blanket yardstick a film willy-nilly, in isolation. For instance, you can’t compare Tanhaji to a Jodha Akbar despite them appearing to be in the similar genre. The latter’s a loving hagiography which aims to shine light on its protagonist’s(Akbar) romance with Jodha. The movie unfurls from his perspective, letting each anecdote brew and linger. We see the rights and wrongs, good and bad through his lenses. And given the space, it moves in a languorous fashion as the stakes are more personal, with no major conflict in sight. We walk out with a proximity beyond the CBSE textbooks with the Mughal ruler. This can, unlike Tanhaji afford nuance, character arcs to assume shape and form as its primary goal prerequisites that. But Tanhaji can’t or more importantly needn’t operate at this level of detail, for its eyes are set on a different target. It intentions are to take us through the travails of its protagonist to achieve his goal. So, we get the the why, what and how from his shoes, that imbue the proceedings with a sense of sweaty-urgency. And it is through his vantage, that we also get to participate in the strategems, carnages, losses and the eventual victory. And like how Jodha… wasn’t a Islam propaganda, Tanhaji isn’t about Hindutva or xenophobia.

Going by the current trends at Ayodhya, Kashmir, the ongoing NRC-CAA circus and the upcoming colonoscopic legislation looking to get passed, it would really be interesting to see what is going to be the first release next year. Is it going to pander to the sentiments of the nation, make our chests swell up in pride, tow the pattern at the cinemas or is going to break it? And should it carry the pattern forward, how are the critics going to respond to it then? Throw a hissy fit about it not being in line with their political ideology or just review it as a film alone? We’ll know in the coming months. But it is fascinating to observe a personality, who has been gone for a little over three centuries, polarising the nation, on the same lines as he did when he had a pulse. History does repeat itself, after all.

Roast of Sarileru Neekevvaru

Sarileru Neekevaru(No one can match you) is a one of its kind movie. Being matchless is both, good and bad depending on the context. A few paras later, I’ll let you figure that out. SN is one of those movies where the hero, an army officer, keeps staring at a waving flag from a picturesque river bank. It’s an expression of brimming patriotism apparently. Yeah, it’s that kind of a broad-stroked generic affair. Later, when pushed to a corner, he stares intently at distance…destiny maybe. So staring is a motif.  So is randomness. Then he goes on to clean a dirt-addled archaic tractor. When the thing that really could use a clean up, the script, keeps springing up such imaginative sequences. So Mahesh Babu plays this all-rounder army officer who defuses bombs nonchalantly, conducts covert operations singing yesteryear songs, woos hordes of women by his sheer vanilla presence, travels to break bad news to a fellow officer’s family while doubling up as a grim reaper cum conscience keeper to the corrupt political ecosystem there. All of this is another way of telling there are songs, dances, romantic escapades, fights and endless platitudes.

The movie really tries; by tries I mean shits bricks to work as an action-comedy and position MB as a saviour with a sense of humour. Having watched a wide array of movies, I’m fairly abreast with most kinds of comic outcomes onscreen- conversational, political incorrectness, hare-brained, screw-ups, set-pieces, mistaken identities, body shaming and even scatological. But the “suspension of disbelief” genre the movie pedals is a first time. Picture this, a dad handing out daughters to outright ugly fuckers only to make knock-knock marriage jokes. A mother pimping out her daughter to a random stranger on train while leching at him. The said girl using rape as a pick-up technique. Drop in a bunch bizarre catch phrases to this mix with some hefty animated acting. If your idea of wholesome entertainment is this, then two things. One, you need to be straight-jacketed right away. And two, you may actually find this funny, you deviant.

But the funny does come pretty unintentionally, albeit excruciatingly at that.  The funniest part is the movie thinks it’s serious enough to warrant a separate comedy track. Take the stunt sequences for instance. It’s a very literal movie, SN. “Falling like a pack of cards”, ever heard the idiom? There’s one fight where twenty odd men after being touched by the fingertip of the hero’s wrath, literally arrange themselves in ascending order of height like a pack of card to only fall. Basketball, know the sport right? Now imagine, every two hundred pound hoodlum bounced off the ground like one, to only be kicked away to sweet oblivion like a football.The ball is dropped on the stunt sequences. And gravity is that ball.

The movie basically exists to service the legend of MB. A gander at MB’s twitter handle, one might think MB’s the movie’s PR. But the truth is you need to have seen the movie to know that it in fact is an elaborate PR campaign to MB. What else can explain a new tertiary character introduced, every twenty minutes into the run-time, to only sing praises of devotion and surrender to Babu. Eyeballs diluted, a hint of treble in the voice and dramatic gesticulations, their expressions while elevating him, range from a saint taking the lord’s name to a honest perv beating off.
A special mention to DSP, whose music is the insult to our injury. His music exists squarely to remind us that the end of world isn’t necessarily through calamities and plagues. Only if the jihadis knew the power of bad lyrics and dalda dabba rhythms.

To be fair, SN would have worked gloriously as a spoof of the commercial-potboiler space, given how farcical it keeps getting. But it’s too tightly-wound for its own good. The screenplay is structured in a way it blows hot and cold. If one scene escalates the conflict between the antagonist and the protagonist, the next shows them playing pranks on each other. If one scene is a sermon on empowering women, it is followed up by a joke on their desperation to get laid. Imagine a belly dancer gyrating to wolf whistles at a dimly-lit ally. To only follow it up with shaming the audience about their collective misogyny. As sweet irony begins to sting, goes on to talk about motherhood with a straight face. SN is that kind of a random cocktail, where the jokes are morbid and the sermons are hilarious. Only if it were a spoof, it would’ve then been a matchless one.

Darbar- Cobwebs on the colossus that is Rajinikanth

Amidst much fanfare, now that Darbar has been watched, where exactly do I begin expressing myself? Hmmm…pass. I’m going to meander for a while, but I’m sure I’ll get going somewhere; eventually, like I did to the restroom twenty minutes before the long drawn out climax played out with the surprise of a giant trampling over a small furniture he was hiding behind.
First, when your pant is torn in the crotch from you trying to overstretch, it’s fine. It’s after all a battle scar of flexibility, albeit an embarrassing one, but still fine. Fine, till you start bending over repeatedly as light is shone upon. Second, due to an irrational amount of love, a toddler’s gibberish endears in the drawing room on a weekend morning. But the mushy feelings quickly wear thin, when the toddler in question climbs up a stage to do a concert, to which you find yourself buying tickets worth a functional kidney, the same weekend to only be held ransom by the perseverance of the said toddler. Third, now imagine the reverence evaporate from a majestic antique vehicle as it decides to leave the precincts of its display area at the museum to drive alongside contemporary vehicles on a Monday morning, while constantly huffing, puffing and choking up the roads to only break down at a signal. Follow my train, that’s the last of the abstract metaphors for now. I guess.

Now think of an ageing superstar who’s been around for twice your age and is sort of closing in on his second childhood onscreen, while trying to do younger things with elder faculties deceiving hard to be more robust than they actually are. Next, think of the compulsive need to buy tickets today as a result of the goodwill from a body of work, that designed zeitgeist around you while serving as a bookmark for episodes in your life. Rajini is many things- doyen, Thalaivar(not Thalaiva you Hindi speaking morons), an emotion in this part of the world, built systematically over decades of image conscious movies. And it is in the service of these run of the mill stories of David vs Goliath, that the super-stardom that he exerts today was given as a license to flex. Like any creative liberty worth its salt, this license was valid as far as it was in the service of a story- either to up the stakes, to volt up the drama or to humanise something out of the ordinary. When outside the film when in service of the star’s image alone, this license becomes vapid vanity. A untrue untruth peddled hard. This was the constant thought bouncing inside  my head while watching Darbar. Instead of the superstar being in service of a film, this was  a film in service of the superstar if the constant aural homage cues in the form of BGMs, the tip-toey reverential meta dialogues of characters around and the sheer unquestioned infallibility in ‘dire’ stretches were anything to go by.

While the warmth of nostalgia makes us go easy on the signature left-feeted steps of the superstar, it begins to frown after the second time. Same applies to the stunt sequences; while the fanboy in you has given a license to levitate for a brief bit intermittently, it’s really pushing things to operate permanently from a seven feet above level and swat hoodlums thrice your size from there with mosquito disdain. Nostalgia or not, why would you pummel dear gravity so much and expect to not be unintentionally funny?

And I understand the monumental task of introducing Thalaivar onscreen. While mere non committal shots of hands, legs, fingers, forehead and eyes are enough to titillate the crowd into a thick orgasm. The idea is to introduce his character in terms of his garden variety facets without giving much else away, like the profession he does(auto driver, milk man, labourer etc), his ability to break a pumpkin with mere head, his fondness to an ilk or an animal or a reptile among other things. Here I was shocked to see a major spoiler handed over in the form of a pivotal character’s death at the very beginning, to only render the introduction massy. The introduction wouldn’t have missed a beat without this this give away, but still precious information is littered for the heck of it. This robs the story of an element of shock at a critical juncture, which we now see coming from a distance.

And don’t even get me started on the bad guys. They are wooden-faced and funeral-serious, each one of them, even in their own birthday parties where they are dressed as Viking merchants in suburban Juhu resorts. They could’ve instead worn t-shirts with prints that read “menacing” and still looked less corny. These are the kind of men, on seeing their faces, one might think they’re in fact conducting a surgical strike when in actuality are waiting for their Uber rides. And also they tend to be unintentionally hilarious, like this time Sunil Shetty with a post coital face is shown performing a hysterectomy with a diabolic looking knife with which he stabs a man in his gut, to only realise that he did not possess an uterus after all. Now that I think about it in hindsight, it is in sync with the spirit of the entire movie, which itself felt like a colonoscopy.

To cut to the chase, Darbar blows. It neither is a holistic socio-commercial pot boiler like Murugadoss’s earlier films nor is it a quintessential Rajni outing like, say a Petta from recent memory.  What it manages looking like in the end, resembles the distant vitamin deficient cousin of Thuppaki.

Why NGK didn’t work for me at all

I remember a recent interview in which an actress was talking about the unconventional methods of acting she had picked from Selvaraghavan while filming NGK like not blinking, to avoid diluting the emotional intensity of a scene. There’s also this fascinating discussion which springs to mind, involving Selva and Baradwaj Rangan which gave me an insight into his style of working, the process that goes behind shaping the psyche of his protagonists. So with all the accrued curiosity I could gather I finally caught up with NGK on opening day. I’m not sure, but somewhere around the halfway mark I felt I enjoyed the interviews about the movie, the anecdotes about how it got made than the movie itself. The word middling comes to mind. Scratch that, half-baked explains what I felt much better.

The movie is about an educated man grappling with the politics around him, one knew as much from the trailer, so no surprises on that front. Somehow politics has become an ubiquitous motif in the past few years in movies this side of the country; political awareness seems to be the new “in” thing, what with brooding youngsters across platforms discussing (don’t even ask me about their level of understanding though) “social” causes, marginalization, representation in between cricket, celebrity wars and memes. That explains why off late, there are more politically motivated protagonists than usual leading the proceedings. It’s the new license to flex, to go anti establishment and come across as a cool messiah in the process. We saw it in Sarkar, Bharat Ane Nenu, LKG and now NGK.

In my opinion, there’s still a lot of fodder left to be juiced in this genre. After all, the “larger than life” aspect comes with the territory itself. When in another run of the mill masala movie, the protagonist has to be elevated with dramatic sequences as a hero, a leader of the masses. A lead man who is playing a cabinet minister or say a CM, is de facto all of that and more which makes it an automatic breeding ground for “mass” movies.

There are a few kind of movies that can be made here. One where the politics is the milieu in a personal, character driven story like an Iruvar, where an arc assumes shape an runs parallel to the journey of its lead and we find ourselves in their head space. And then there are these movies where politics is the grand central piece holding the proceedings together and the personal trajectories are merely incidental and in service to this larger scheme. A Rajneeti or NOTA fall into this bracket. These movies keep dropping stats, mimicking current affairs with pseudonyms and give a vicarious sense of going through political happenings with a fairy tale solutions. And there’s the third kind, which combines the best of both worlds, giving us an entertaining story of the protagonist while informing us in detail about the politics inundating his ecosystem. Here, both the personal and politics take turns to become cogs in each other’s wheels. Kodi or Sarkar come to mind in this space.

Coming back to NGK, it falls in the middle of nowhere. It’s neither a character study of its eponymous protagonist, his grand scheme, his personal journey and the close ones in it nor is it a intricately put together political movie which gives us a fresh perspective to the politics of his constituency which we didn’t already know of. It’s a laboured exercise in bizzareness, that strives to be a cult classic in every frame, with a motley bunch of broken characters displaying varying degrees of weirdness. Their collective range of emotions is somewhere between the third joint and being possessed by a confused spirit. Their decibel level is either a screech or a scream, depending on how abnormal the scene is. There’s this particular sequence, where NGK comes back from a really tight spot. Wide open glassy eyes, a weird smirk of an accomplished pedophile plastered across his face and a dance movement that would make tribal mating movements look sophisticated, Surya’s performance feels like the SOS call of a possessed man with a really heavy stone suspended from his balls, trying to recreate Dhanush’s “Divya Divya” moment from the director’s Kadhal Kondein.

Characters can’t be interacting among each other in an abnormal manner without an extraordinary reason to be that way; loose ends and loop holes cannot just exist and be deemed to be hidden symbolism that warrant a shameless rewatch because the film’s supposedly avant garde. There’s a difference between dropping hints, leaving some plot points open for interpretation and lazy writing that doesn’t give a rat’s ass to the viewer’s intelligence. Playing with the viewer’s imagination and leaving most things to his imagination are not the same thing.

Agreed, politics is a grey area and the characters cannot be black and white. They can be amoral, ambivalent, complicated and even unpredictable, as far as there’s a method to the madness or a “why”, even a small-flickering one lurking at some turn over the course of the screenplay to tie up the idiosyncrasies. Otherwise, they’re just a bunch of weird people, you couldn’t care lesser about, doing random shit with no rhyme or rhythm whatsoever.
There’s this litmus test I usually have for finding whether a movie with an antihero/unconventional hero works or not. If by the climax, a movie makes me feel bad, disturbed, overwhelmed, vicariously happy about the victory of evil in his form or at least like the rug was pulled from under my feet, I walk out a satisfied man. But if the only thing that lingers in the end is the after taste of butter popcorn, gratitude for not being an insomniac or a sincere hope for the director to be straight jacketed, you pretty much know how much the movie worked.

Bharat- Of all things Bhai and nice

Fifteen minutes into the movie, there’s this stretch in a circus involving a bike, a death defying race, a clueless character who has the gumption to even think of outdoing Bhai in a Bhai film on Eid and Bhai. We’re prepped for an adrenaline gushing gratuitous race for him to defy, both death and gravity to go past the finish line first, to bring up the “Slow Motion” song.(With the round the clock promos, nothing onscreen is enigmatic anymore. Plus it’s a Bhai movie, predicting a song placement isn’t rocket science exactly.) So as expected Bhai does win. But how? The stakes are dialled up. He leaps over two speeding cars that come his way on the WALL OF THE WELL a la Spidey, to climb atop his bike on the other side to complete the victory lap. Again,this dalliance with speeding motor vehicles doesn’t happen on flat ground, but on the motherfucking wall of a circular well. And the response, uninterrupted wolf whistles! Now tell me how many people can pull this off and get away with whistles.
Salman is an emotion that personifies all things larger than life; an alter ego, an actor we love enough to overlook his inability to act. All of this is another way of saying, he’s one of the last surviving superstars of Indian cinema. Watching Bharat made me realize this yet again.

Normally, actors draw their identity from the characters they play, whereas with Salman it’s always the opposite. He doesn’t dissolve into the role, but it dissolves into him, drawing from his persona. What is on display isn’t the acting chops, but textbook narcissism which somehow seems to be drawing men to it by the million, in a state of trance that usually precedes an elongated orgasm. That’s the thing about phenomenons, they get harder with each attempt to get to the bottom of. And what people don’t understand, they begin to resent. They get on a high horse and condescend the admirers/supporters of a personality, by branding them a certain way.  Like with Salman fans, who are collectively assumed to be  misogynistic deviants who worship and emulate the toxic charm of an iffy celebrity who’s far from being a model citizen. We saw this presumptuous elitism backfire on the Modi haters this elections. And looking at the opening figures of Bharat, it’s an encore at the movies for Salman haters as well.  There’s no rational way to gauge a popular wave, than humbly acknowledging it from the other side.

Coming back to Bharat, first things first. Age finally seems to be catching up with Bhai. Especially in the initial portions, when he’s playing a young man. And the fact that a much younger actress plays his mother and an even younger one plays his love interest makes this more atrocious than it already is. Bhai, love you to the moon and back. But please be a little, just a little age appropriate onscreen. That said, he totally rocks the five ‘o’ clock shadow and the salt ‘n’ pepper. Not to mention the swag and screen presence which seem to be intact.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there has been another director in the recent past who’s leveraged Salman’s persona as holistically as Ali Abbas Zafar. When most collaborators with Salman can’t resist the temptation to keep pulling the trigger, Ali knows when not to. Be it Sultan, Tiger or now Bharat, he seems to imbue Bhai with a touch of innocence, vulnerability, fragility, heart that lend a new dimension to the larger than life characters he portrays, which make us not just hoot, but root for him. If the breakdown before the mirror in Sultan was beautifully vulnerable, there’s a similar emotional high point here in the preclimax, where the actor within completely overtakes the star.

And I think screaming like a neanderthal who’s ass is on fire, every time Bhai’s shirt comes off isn’t going out of vogue. Agreed, one’s more likely to stumble upon a gym than a pebble these days and being muscular isn’t that big a deal as it used to be. But the ritual of straight men going nuts at the first sight of Bhai’s exposed torso, is a very personal heave of nostalgia. An unsophisticated, primal doff of hat to the beloved legacy of a man, whose body of work is inseparable from his body.

On the need to protect culture and women from 90ml

I recently saw an interview of a renown film producer, where he spoke at length about how he felt repulsed about a film like 90 ml and his guilt about not condemning a  similar adult comedy that released a while ago. He seemed genuinely disturbed about the taint women talking lesbianism, lighting cigarettes and quaffing alcohol willy nilly onscreen. might bring to the Tamil culture.

Titanic ran for an entire year in this country. And the nude sketch sequence and the love making in the car were witnessed by lakhs of Indian families that hitherto thronged the theatres with similar fervor only for a Barjatya/Vikraman film. So the myth about making films for “ladies” and “family audience” was busted. As far as nudity and sex fit in aesthetically to the scheme of things, they weren’t complaining. But instead of breaking the taboo, Titanic remained a lone anomaly in an oxymoronic country obsessed with navel and cleavage of actresses, while continuing to worship its several goddesses.

As far as the culture of a place goes, it’s a fluid concept. A begged, borrowed and stolen thing on the constant lookout to usurp newer aspects, extramural into its scheme of things.What we observe as culture of our time is nothing but a recent addition in the pile of similar iterations stacked one over the other. Its relevance exists only till the next paradigm shift adds another layer over it. So it absolutely makes no sense to become romantically involved with something as ephemeral as culture.

The times we live in is characterised by Whatsapp conversations, breakneck speed inter-connectivity to one another,unfiltered-hassle free access to porn, heightened sexual awareness and alcohol soaked weekends to name a few things off the top of my head. Live in denial under the rock for as long as you want, but this is the continuum which most likely will extend into the distant future. And as you guys keep censoring cuss words and cleavages in movies, hundreds of porn sites, graphic shows like Game of Thrones are going to be made and consumed parallelly.

And coming to the joke of protecting…rather preserving women dignity onscreen, nothing really destroys a self respecting woman’s dignity than the bad cardboard roles that are written, almost as an after thought. Forget brawn, she doesn’t have brains of her own. In mainstream cinema, she either has to be his object of desire, his fluffy distraction from higher purpose or a damsel in distress waiting for her proverbial rescuer to arrive, if not his muse. One way or another she has to satellite around him. Even our most beloved movies tow this line. Seriously, why did a revolutionary film like Indian need two exotic North Indian actresses fighting for Kamal’s attention? Why did Padayappa keep snubbing Neelambari‘s advances? Was it because she was sophisticated, wore her heart on her sleeves, was chivalrous enough to make the first move or was not the kind of woman who would put up with her man categorizing womankind by the lakeside? And the sad part is this trend seems to continue in most mainstream movies till this very date. Case in point being a Mersal or Kaththi. Take the women out of these films, you wouldn’t miss a beat. So where were these woke activist types all this while?

Women empowerment isn’t merely a Wonder Woman, Irudhi Suttru, Dangal or a Mahanati. It is also a 90 ml. Why should she be moving mountains all the time, train for a sports tournament, do things deemed consequential onscreen to earn one’s respect. Why can’t she tend to her below the belt pangs, be turned on or have an inebriated conversation with her cohorts? Why can’t she just scratch her itch and not be judged for that. Why should that itch come with only one man or only as an expression of true love. Why can’t it be mere lust? Promiscuity isn’t an exclusive male franchise after all.

With regards to low brow adult comedies like Hara Hara Mahadevaki and Irutu Arayil murattu Kuthu doing really well, there’s nothing to get alarmed about. These are like the American Pie movies that were made in Hollywood. They aren’t meant for a well rounded man with a regular sex life or for viewing with one’s family. They cater to the section of the youth grappling with their puberty and coming to terms with their sexuality. They are meant to be crass. They are supposed to be riddled with innuendos and suggestive visuals. They’re designed to titillate. Not to provoke one’s thought, but his penis. And I seriously don’t understand what’s wrong with an A rated movie doing that? And something’s psychologically twisted with being irked about the fact that these movies can’t be viewed with one’s mother and sisters. And if the society wasn’t teeming with misogynists, chauvinists and hypocrites, the director wouldn’t have used a pseudonym after all.

Peranbu- A moving love letter to love itself

Nature is an ubiquitous aspect in Peranbu. It’s there, literally in every frame, when it’s not doing the rounds figuratively in the metaphors doled out. It’s the inundating solicitous character that constantly lends to the mood of the drama, while not contributing to it. It’s even a motif and only fittingly finds itself in the name of every chapter, the movie is deconstructed into.

So Amudhavan’s wife elopes, leaving him stranded with his spastic daughter, who has hitherto been a distant scenery in his convenient life in a land far off, that has let him be the secondary parent. And like that, life quickly becomes the middle part of a sandwich, between a condescending society and a special child, who screams(quite literally) for attention, to only reject it. This conundrum makes him take up a life of isolation, devoid of judgement in the wilderness. Trapped with a spastic daughter, who is yet to acknowledge his territory, the solace in the woods is initially unsettling. But then with time, the healing begins. It comes fortuitously in the form of a trapped sparrow, he helps set free. She opens up a little and he gets a gist. Next, he turns up with a pet horse and her face gleams up. He gets a pattern. It’s through nature, can he decipher her.

He stops trying to understand her, begins embracing her with her imperfections. Slowly the imperfections melt into uniqueness. A bond develops. Prejudice melts. Rough edges begin to soften at nature’s chisel. We see a restless man mellow down. A creature of urbanisation, finding peace in his primal self. We never really know whether the woods brought this out in him or merely facilitated this transition, explicitly. We just get a sense of this through Mammootty’s internalised performance, which is just about visible enough to be felt. It is around the half way mark, we get to see the largehearted man he has turned into in the empathy he displays to a couple who’ve just conned him. As this newly minted man on the cusp of another identity, he returns to the chaos of the city with his daughter to only get asked more questions.

His spastic daughter on the verge of womanhood begins expressing herself lasciviously. He’d doubled up as mother and father in the woods. Changed her tampons even. The boundless nature around them had rendered gender minuscule, helped him move past the icky line. But there’s only so far a man can go as far as the needs of his daughter go. And it doesn’t help that this phase comes in a place with it’s constant four walled judgement , trained spirit of survival and an absolute intolerance to anything deemed extraordinary. It’s at this point that Meera, a transsexual sex worker— personifying the very ambivalence in his mind — enters his life. Unlike other men, he neither judges her for who she is or what she does. And through this relationship, he learns to— at least tries — grapple with his daughter’s sexual needs objectively without getting offended.

In the end, the journey of self discovery that began when his wife eloped comes a full circle, with him starting a family with Meera. Every conventional distinction he’s been taught to make between- right and wrong; man and woman; appropriate and inappropriate blur out as he happily observes the two unique women in his life bond. Amudhavan finally becomes a man capable of unconditional love(Peranbu).

Petta- The Rajni movie we all deserved

I think I was in the ninth, when my entire school was making a variant of “the cow” with their fingers, while a horde of auto-rickshaw rears read “Known is a drop, unknown is an ocean”. Baba euphoria had taken over the city and I couldn’t wait to watch it on its opening day. I guess it was my first Rajni movie in theatre on the opening day. But anticlimactically it turned out to be a damp squib. But one thing that was palpable was the aura of this person in the dark of the theatre. The movie was filled with humanly impossible stretches, but nothing really seemed to deter the electricity in the air. Make no mistake, I’d watched a ton of Rajni movies before this, but nothing compares to the experience of being in a frenzied theatre, that too at the cusp of adulthood. Some years passed and Chandramukhi came, which  exactly wasn’t a quintessential Rajni film. It was a plot driven remake, in which he was a catalyst and not the centerpiece. Then came Sivaji, which simply put, was a train wreck barring a few moments. It heralded a partnership with Shankar, in which they made soulless tent pole movies where the Superstar was buried under layers of VFX, towering budgets and tumbling skyscrapers. Then started another even more problematic collaboration with Ranjith that yielded a bunch of neither-here-nor-there movies. These movies touched upon the marginalization of the Tamil diaspora, making the Superstar a broken messiah minus the trademark mojo, who was neither super nor a star. If the Shankar movie diminished his aura under constant spectacle, Ranjith movies went one step ahead and neutralised it.

So you can understand the cynicism when Petta was announced with Karthik Subbaraj, another avant garde kind of filmmaker. I was prepping for another snore fest with identity crisis. But it all changed in the wee hours of the tenth of January this year.

Right from the opening fight sequence I knew I was in for something special. We are introduced to an unassuming(cough) warden’s carnage— verbally and then visually —as a gang of thugs get decimated in an enclosure, while various profiles of the decimating silhouette alone are revealed, eventually building up to Thalaivar smirking at us. Coming to think, even King Kong  and Godzilla don’t get built up this way.
I’ve never seen a movie since Padayappa that has treated him with such reverence. He’s not only written as some sort of a guardian angel, but consistently framed like one, as his silhouette appears from or dissolves into a sepia beam of light.

There are so many things worked for me, that I don’t really know where to begin. Like this moment he’s asked to play cupid to a young couple. He gets overwhelmed and then implodes. It’s a meta moment. History’s repeating, both within the context of the movie and his oeuvre. For be it, Dharmathin Thalaivan. Nallavanuku Nallavan  or even Padayappa, how many times has he been assigned this role.

There were these little directorial touches that we rarely come across in a Rajni film. Like the one where he’s in the mess kitchen narcissistically relishing his own cooking and talking about doing things with love, as we’re introduced to a couple making out. I even loved this stretch before an action block, which has “Malarnundhu Malaradha” playing in an archaic transistor as a subplot about long lost siblings is about to kick in.

Even the costumes fit in beautifully this time. The jackets, cardigans, turtlenecks, the characteristic round necks under unbuttoned shirts, winter boots that hitherto made no sense in the midsummer of cities, factories and villages, make sense in this foggy ecosystem, that seems to have been carefully crafted for Thalaivar to look and dress a certain way.

Petta promised to get one “Rajnified“. That is exactly what it achieves as an unapologetic homage to its star, with a doff of hat at almost every turn. Some subtle and some blatant, the film is filled with Easter eggs, be it his name from Mullum Malarum, the fake snake alarms from Annamalai, the koan studded life instruction song, the mouth organ from Padayappa and even the “Oole Po”(go inside) moment from Basha.
And I couldn’t help but notice the myriad uncanny resemblances to Basha in particular. The way his character’s look is styled in the present. his past as a dreaded gangster in which he loses his best friend, who also happens to be a Muslim. And did I mention the fact that this best friend’s son is called…. Anwar?

But my favourite moment of the lot has to be the manner in which the climax pans out with a band performing  “Raman Andalum” from Mullum Malarum that gradually segues into “Marana Mass” from this film as Rajni’s character continues to dance ecstatically. It pretty much summarizes the purpose of the entire movie, a nostalgic jog down the memory lane for an entire generation of fans.

Why 2.0 did not work for me

That large bird surveilling the city’s sky looked vicious. It felt that real when seen through the 3D glasses, that I even fended a few times from my seat. The mere sight of a sea of mobiles ringing together, before hacking into a victim was perversely a beautiful sight to behold, notwithstanding the underlying element of gore. I watched it in a theatre, the seats of which vibrated every time these killer phones came alive in unison. The production value was top notch, though I could’ve done with a little less of being in the face. It’s a visual experience as much an aural one. 2.0 had all the kitschy elements you find in a Michael Bay tent pole. But something was amiss. No denying the spectacle it was, but it was a kind of soulless affair which keeps throwing things at us in the hope that something would stick. And the same can be said about Shankar’s 2.0 version, post Anniyan.

Take for instance, the Chennai we see. After Kadhal Desam’s cutting edge PCOs and ice cream bearing trees, it’s probably the most wildly imaginative depiction of Chennai. The roads are bordered with glass castles and skyscrapers, constantly beautifying the city’s skyline, with only police stations,Thirukazhikundrum and Lalita Jewellery outlets looking like precincts of good old Chennai. Glad that they kept talking months without years. The Chennai in 2.0 reminded me of heroines from the director’s movies. They might be called Thenmozhi, Susheela, Sana, Diya, Madhu. And these women might be village belles, Mylapore bound TamBrams, a break inspector’s daughter, if not S.Ve.Sekar’s. But one thing that unites them all is the fact that they look absolutely alien to us and belong in a set in Mumbai.

All the Shankar tropes are in place here as well: system wronging an individual. Individual making futile attempts to fix the system. System ignoring individual. Individual turning into a vigilante force who choreographs really cool looking murders, while not breaking into statistical sermons. Just that this time around, the hero isn’t the said individual, but the villain. Suddenly we’re left with a moral conundrum of whose side to take: that of a smart ass humanoid saying corny things or a bird loving dead man who has been wronged. This screws up with our reflexes, when blows are traded. We don’t know to wolf whistle or feel bad. And it doesn’t help that the scientist who makes all these humanoids is one of the blandest cardboard characters ever conceived.

Ideally these futuristic exodus movies will have a modest human as the story’s hero, thrust in the middle of things beyond his control or comprehension. He would be scurrying— through gladiatorial bouts between towering creatures as skyscrapers tumble and tectonic plates open up —from one set piece to another. It is through this character’s travails and his eventual triumph, that we empathize and become invested in these out worldly happenings. This is what, in my opinion went wrong with 2.0. After a point, the movie becomes all about the one upmanship between a robot and a ghost. Robot throws things. Ghost throws things back. Ghost transforms into fancy things. Robot transforms into fancier things. There’s absolutely no human perspective. Rinse. Repeat. And apparently we’re supposed to make do with reaction shots of random junior artists and smaller/fancier robots turning up to save this robot. As a result, we feel no real connection. We don’t really care who comes on top. And quickly we begin to feel like being trapped inside a video game, which just wouldn’t stop.

Another aspect in Shankar films I’ve been peeved off late are the juvenile dialogues.
If it was “Six ku aprom Seven da, Sivaji ku aprom yavan da?” or “Ivanga ellam city la top ten rowdies” in Sivaji, it is, “Number one. Number two lam papa vilaiyatu. Naan eppome Super one.” or “King of birds, king of robots is coming” here.
Writing with children in mind is one thing. Writing childlishly is another. Understood you’ve set out to create a humanoid that plays out to the gallery, but should it speak like an angry fifteen year old every time it’s rubbed the wrong way?

And last but not the least, Rajni. He’s one of those rare actors you watch and instantly realise that it’s almost impossible to hate him. Seeing him look like a kati roll wrapped in aluminium foil or a transsexual DJ in a shady Thailand pub is deeply unsettling.We’re witnessing the evening of his career. But what hurts is the grace without which it is happening. His version 2.0 also like Shankar’s has been a pale shadow of his once illustrious self. The signature sonic gait has slowed considerably. The baritone that had given content for a generation’s T-shirt graffiti is shaky. Age seems to have had the better of him, finally. And it doesn’t help that the directors off late seem hell bent on tainting the halo. Barring Sivaji, Rajnism seems to have got lost in translation in the last decade or so. Be it Chandramukhi where Jothika overshadowed him, the VFX addled Endhiran, the forgettable Lingaa, the unnecessarily over serious socio-political hotchpoch that Kabali was or the angry anti-Hindutva blog that Kaala‘s script was, the spotlight seems to have shifted. He isn’t the guy who does the heavy lifting anymore. It’s either another character, a concept or the director’s ideology which hogs the centre stage, with him being a cog in its service. Not a bad thing at all, for an uninitiated movie buff maybe. But ask the three generations of fans, who’ve been raised in stories that were there in Rajni films and not Rajni there in stories, they would strongly disagree.

Vada Chennai- A fable of Karma,destiny, cause and effect

My face was gleaming with that radiance as I was walking out of Vada Chennai, which usually comes at the end of an overwhelming piece of cinema. It was delicious. I hadn’t felt this content in a while at the cinemas. On the way back, as the high had subsided, I was musing on the myriad blood dripping episodes, over and over again. There was just one underlying thread, one direction all the chaos condensed towards; an overarching motif- Karma. Suddenly the tea bag I had appropriated from the office pantry seemed like a bad idea.

To me, Karma has always been this Utopian watchdog fantasy propogated by a bunch of altruists to keep anarchy at bay. Do good, you’ll be done good. Fuck up, Karma will chase you like a rabied dog to bite you back. This LHS equals RHS— sooner or later —symetry of dividend accruing over deeds seemed too mythological for my vision, that’s been trained in the commonplace of “nows” and “hows”. But Vada Chennai got me pondering, what with the history repeating with the unhurried fuss of shifting tectonic plates. Every event not only has a cause and effect, but with time goes on to cause and effect something or someone else. Like a grand betrayal of a bunch of cohortst that ebbs into a gory murder. None of them, aware enough about what they’ve set to motion. All of them do go on to graze greener pastures at the other end of this severe moral compromise, but not at the price they had set aside. Each of them gets earmarked, sized up from the moment they betrayed; swung their knives. The backstabber begets a backstabber, both literally and figuratively. A casual stabber casually gets stabbed back in time. The once underdog opposers of the establishment eventually go on to become one, to only find themselves opposed, again by an underdog. Every happening in the present, seems to be an echo from the past. Even the seemingly insignificant domestic designs- like the timid younger brother of a numero uno or the self reference to an anchor at the end of a tussle with a cop. The stray events that seem so, at least when they occur, go on to form meticulous cogs in an unforgetting wheel. Seen in retrospect, after the storm settles, it all seems like a part of an elaborate, dense design put together by destiny ever so slowly, that we don’t really know the sea bed these sediments were coming together for.

Who knew I would end up walking out with a new found reverence for Karma after a gangster flick. But that’s what god cinema does, it surprises you in ways you can’t imagine. It lends fresh perspective to predispositions. It becomes cathartic. And what better way to learn life, than as a mute witness to the life of others.  Thank you Vetrimaaran for sharing this epic tale of love, betrayal, revenge and self discovery, Karma feels like a fathomable poetic justice, not the alien eastern promise it used to be.