India: Tamil cinema gets reel

A scene from the Tamil comedy Va Quarter Cutting, a film by the husband and wife directorial team of Pushkar and Gayathri.</p>

A scene from the Tamil comedy Va Quarter Cutting, a film by the husband and wife directorial team of Pushkar and Gayathri.

CHENNAI, India — “Aadukalam” or “Arena,” the Tamil film that won India's 2011 best picture award, opens with arthouse slowness. But the gangster-bio voiceover lays out the stakes, lest there be any confusion. This isn't ponderous, naval-gazing. It's Tamil cinema's new wave.

The camera lingers on the white dust floating in the air as a cockfighting enthusiast carefully chalks out the ring for an upcoming battle, then cuts to a closeup shot of an attendant lovingly trimming and sharpening his bird's talons. But, foreshadowing the murderous action to come, in a deep, resonant voice, the narrator intones: “Cocks fight. Humans fight. Sometimes this sport ends in fights and death.”

For the Tamil industry, the realistic treatment is a radical departure — even if “Aadukalam” does end with an operatic fight scene.

For decades, Tamil movie makers have specialized in almost surrealist “masala movies” — potboilers so-called for their "masala," or "spicy," stories — in which beefy heroes pummeled villains by the dozen on the way to winning the heart of one or two scantily clad, fair-skinned starlets from up north. But over the past five years, thanks to a crop of young directors influenced by Korean and Latin American movies, as well as Hollywood, a new wave of hard-hitting films featuring tight scripts and convincing, understated performances is shaking the industry's foundations.

Like the French new wave spearheaded by Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, these movies blend an artistic sensibility with a deep attraction for popular culture and a gritty, almost amateurish film-making style — a stark contrast with the glossy films of Bollywood and super high budget Hollywood.

The shift is starting to bring global attention to Tamil cinema for the first time, with new wave films now earning invites to prestigious film festivals in Toronto and Berlin and garnering a place for Tamil-language films at Indian festivals across the world.

“The audience now sees a wide range of different films [from other countries], and they are ready to accept different kinds of content,” said Vetrimaran, who directed "Aadukalam" and an earlier movie called “Polladhavan,” or “Ruthless Man.”  “We know the limitations and we know the restrictions. … People are ready to accept films that both entertain them and have serious content.”

“Aaranya Kandaam,” an amoral neo-noir written and directed by first-timer Thiagarajan Kumararaja was named best film at the 2010 South Asian International Film Festival. Madurai-born Ameer Sultan's “Paruthiveeran” received a special mention from judges at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008.

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But critical accolades aside, these are films designed to make money, too.

That's why for “Polladhavan,” a “Rebel Without a Cause”-style drama loosely based on Vittorio De Sica's 1948 classic, “The Bicycle Thieves,” Vetrimaran tweaked the key elements of the Tamil masala movie rather than eliminate them altogether. The story he wanted to tell was about the alienation of the lower middle class — reflected in the protagonist's desperation when a thief steals his motorcycle. But to make it a success, he needed a heroine, songs, a car chase and a few well-choreographed fight scenes.

“Then it became a hero film,” Vetrimaran said. “But the most interesting thing for me is that it was a common man's film, a lower middle class story.”

The new wave

At first glance the new wave films have little in common, apart from documentary-style, on location shoots and scripts and performances that are more understated than typical masala movies. The subjects are varied, the settings are urban and rural, the stories elegaic, comic and tragic.

In one of the earliest films of the new wave, “Autograph” (2004), veteran director Cheran, previously known for movies with strong social messages, used flashbacks to tell the story of a young advertising executive revisiting his past loves to invite them to his upcoming wedding.

“Paruthiveeran” (2007) , a romance set in the Tamil Nadu countryside, portrays a tragic love affair between a village girl and a petty criminal whose biggest aspiration is to commit a crime worthy of a trip to the central jail in Chennai. “Subramaniapuram” (2008), a period film set in 1980s Madurai, is the story of young unemployed thugs maturing into full-fledged murderers. “Aaranya Kandaam”  or “Jungle Chapter” (2011) dramatizes the conflict between an ageing mob boss and his ambitious young lieutenant, orchestrated by a sari-clad femme fatale.

But despite their varied stories, most of these films feature common themes related to India's modernization and the failed promise of an idealized Tamil state — the nationalist pledge made by the political parties responsible for creating the Tamil film industry over its first 40 years. 

Like the counterculture movies produced in 1960s Hollywood, the movies of the Tamil new wave pit young against old, depicting a society whose every tradition is breaking down.

In “Polladhavan” the young hero defies his parents to buy the motorcycle that leads him astray. In “Aadukalam” the old cockfighter tries to engineer the murder of his young protege after the youth's reputation begins to eclipse his mentor's. And in “Paruthiveeran” the heroine runs away from her parents to elope with an illiterate thug.

At the same time, the Tamil-speaking characters of these films are depicted as society's hopeless failures. Even in cheery “Autograph,” for instance, a nostalgic song from one of the flashbacks posits that the hero's girlfriend loves him so much she wants to learn Tamil. But as the plot moves forward in time and the hapless guy eventually gets a job his failings in English hold him back.

Similarly, in “Aadukalam” the Tamil-speaking hero's caste and class are no doubt unacceptable to the parents of the Anglo-Indian girl he pursues — but his unworthiness is dramatized through his stumbling English. And even in new wave films where the references are less specific, the message is clear that the characters most tied to their Tamil identity are the society's biggest losers.

“The running [theme] is the sense of betrayal, that they were promised a world where the Tamil land would always remain high, where being a Tamilian would be an entitlement to prosperity and success. And, it is exactly the opposite today,” said K. Hariharan, a professor at the L.V. Prasad Film & TV Academy in Chennai.

By making losers and gangsters their heroes, the new-wave filmmakers are inverting the Tamil nationalist dream, Hariharan argues. They do not respect their elders. They don't bother with studying or looking for a conventional job. But they aren't '60s style free spirits, either. This is a world without free love or a free lunch. Its heroes are defined by their inability to acquire any of the trappings of India's rise that surround them. And the solution is nearly always violence.

“I am calling this the cinema of disgust, an emotion that has rarely been touched in the Indian narrative process itself,” Hariharan said.

Regressive progress

In tapping that disgust, however, some critics fear that new-wave filmmakers are reproducing and amplifying some of Tamil cinema's most regressive messages. And while writers and directors insist — like American hip-hop artists — that they're merely reflecting what they see on the street, the audience reaction to the dramatization of the society's unfocused anger can be disturbing, according to Uma Vangan, another professor at the L.V. Prasad Film & Television Academy.

The Tamil film industry emerged as a propaganda vehicle for Tamil nationalists who challenged the dominance of Hindi-speaking North India and local upper castes. So many of the mainstream films of the 1950s-1980s addressed caste and class. But the attitude toward women and sex has always been problematic, Vangan explained.

The treatment goes beyond garden variety depictions of women as sex objects or the virgin-whore formulation common across many cultures. In the mainstream blockbusters featuring Rajnikanth — the biggest star of the past two decades — the hero routinely advises the largely male audience to keep their women in line. Crowds clap and whistle when Rajni insists that a woman's place is in the home, and boys no older than 4 can rattle off a famous monologue from “Padayappa” describing the ideal woman as submissive, Vangan said.

The mainstream movies of the past 30 years allowed their heroes to tap almost superhuman powers to bash up a horde of villains and take that idealized woman home to marry her. But the raw, angry, new-wave Tamil films — addressing a changed society where women are financially independent, and rising even further out of reach — refuse to allow that happy ending.

“Men are already feeling as if their role is no longer very clear, they don’t know what their role is anymore in a family, in a society,” said Vangan. “When the man on screen takes action, the men in the audience love it, because this is what they cannot do. They feel powerless in real life, so they’re acting out this catharsis of watching these men abuse these women, kill these women.”

You still see scruffy, uneducated heroes wooing fair-skinned, English-speaking heroines in new-wave Tamil films, but all too often the fate of the heroine is sealed from the beginning.

In “Paruthiveeran,” for instance, one of the most romantic of the new-wave movies, the childhood sweetheart sacrifices everything for the film's crass thug of a hero, finally running away from home to marry him. But before she can exercise her will, she is kidnapped and raped. And when the hero finds her already dying, she begs him to chop her into pieces so nobody will know what happened. When he's finished the grim deed, her family catches up to him, assumes that he was the kidnapper, and beats him to death.

As in many of the new wave films, the violence is justified by the story and the positioning of the characters, and coupled with fantastic camera work, brilliant art direction, and amazing performances, said Vangan. And that's the trouble.

“All the best things about cinema being used to enforce certain regressive and aggressive tendencies, that’s the disturbing thing for me,” Vangan said.

Akhila Krishnamurthy in Chennai provided reporting assistance for this series.