Friday, August 1, 2014

Jigarthanda (2014)

It's always delightful when young filmmakers show ambition in technique. One of the earliest scenes in "Jigarthanda" is a long take which, although only runs for less than half a minute, is nevertheless a pleasant sight. It follows a young man as he makes his way onto the stage of a reality television show about film-making. The buildup he gets will have you believe otherwise, but the young man, one of the four contestants on the show, is a tongue-tied nervous wreck waiting for the jury to announce their verdict about his short film. A highbrow film director calls it a "kuppa padam". A lowbrow film producer, who wears his heart on his sleeve and his dislike for the director on his face, calls it the "bestu padam". Chaos ensues and the young filmmaker somehow lands a one film deal with the producer to make a blood-curdling gangster film. So off goes our hero Karthik Subramani (Siddharth) in search of a story to Madurai, the land of barotta-mutton chuka, jigarthanda and crime. He picks his subject: Sethu (Simhaa), a gangster at the top of his game. And then he observes.

I understand one should never let expectations dictate the terms of their movie viewing experience. I expected "Jigarthanda" to be a gangster film - which it is, and a rather decent one when it is being just that. Politics, assassination attempts, abusing power, sambhavam, betrayal, more violence. But then the film decides leave behind existing rivalries to pit the wimpy filmmaker against the ruthless killer. It's a mildly fascinating idea but the odds are ever stacked against the filmmaker whose only tool is a camera. Then the film decides the push the idea further and eventually goes all the way. And here is where the gangster cloaks are shed and comedy caps put on. The issue here is not just that I didn't expect it to take the turn it does; it's also that film's tone completely changes into broad comedy. I don't know if that makes it any less of a gangster film, but it definitely deviates from what one is likely to expect from a film carrying such a tag. And the resulting film stops feeling like a cohesive, singular piece.

Karthik Subbaraj is part of a rare breed of filmmakers who know what kind of good cinema exists outside the confines of Tamil film industry and are trying to make something good in the local milieu. While it is too early to be looking for an authorial stamp in their individual works, it is rather evident where they are drawing their influences from. Even though their stylization is a welcome change to the drab and unimaginatively filmed action sequences we have been subject to more often than not, there's not enough integrity to it. For example, in this film, look no further than the graphic that announces Interval - it is something right out of a western. It's a regurgitated mishmash but it's a pretty damn good looking mishmash.  

What Subburaj is good at, though, is creating atmosphere, building tension and staging his set-pieces to Santhosh Narayanan's phenomenal music. There aren't any major shootouts or fights - the kind one is likely to find in a more conventional Tamil film. In that regard, I guess we have to appreciate the action in "Jigarthanda". But I find it hard to do just that because of how natural and obvious such a massive improvement/change of pace feels to me. I am also certain almost everyone in the audience also felt the same way. I guess good cinema is not an acquired taste. Coming back to the set-pieces: the first one involving a journalist burnt to death and the one after where an assassination attempt inside a dingy washroom of a theater goes embarrassingly wrong are both masterfully directed sequences. The third one, though, is bit of a misfire for multiple reasons. The scene of an ongoing crime is bugged and two people are remotely eavesdropping. On its own, the events at the crime scene are tautly edited. But Subbaraj decides to crosscut back and forth to show us the reactions of the eavesdroppers. As if this wasn't annoying enough, for some bright reason one of them narrates everything he hears to the person standing next to him because there's only one earpiece. But suddenly, due to an appalling continuity error, there are two earpieces and the entire fearful narration now seems even more pointless. I am willing to accept that this is the kind of film that expects its audience to take multiple leaps of faith, but quite a few coincidences and developments remain unexplained. 

Outside these specific standout scenes in the first half, there are surprisingly too many lean patches. As Karthik attempts to find a way to get at least one of Sethu's confidantes to open up about him, and fails, a good chunk of the running time passes, amounting to little. Instead of actually doing some character development, Subbaraj simply assigns quirks to each - which is alright by me. While most of them seem to hold very little significance in the bigger picture - weakness for porn, liquor or garrulity - some of them are downright puzzling - like the couple who are watching Titanic while wearing masks of DiCaprio and Winslet. 

Subbaraj almost makes you wish filmmakers would resist the temptation of writing themselves into the film. Not all films need to look like an autobiographical. Not so obviously, at least. The self indulgence is on par with Anurag Kashyap's, who was so much in love with the world and the characters he conjured in Wasseypur that he struggled to let go. But while Kashyap's dillydallying was at least supported by some crackling writing and a more well defined motive, Subbaraj is let down by his own weakness for duplicity and twists. Unlike Wasseypur, "Jigarthanda" is not content being a cut-throat gangster film infused with humor. When it wants to be funny, it wants to go all out. You cannot have it both ways. Maybe you can, but this is not the film that will convince me of that. So we witness Sethu attempt film acting. What was, till this point, a gritty gangster saga unexpectedly, and not in a pleasant way, becomes a silly sketch. And just like how the people around Sethu stop taking him seriously after seeing his unintentional tomfoolery, it's hard to take "Jigarthanda" seriously after what it becomes in the second half from what it promised to be - or even was. The stakes vanish into thin air. 

After "Pizza", and now with "Jigarthanda", I am beginning to wonder if Subbaraj is interested, or even capable, of making films without being ironic and irreverent about the subject. I'm not saying a writer's insecurity shows when he keeps adding twists on top of twists in the closing minutes of a film. But maybe I am. "Jigarthanda" too ends with a change that's oddly incongruous with the rest of the film. Karthik goes from being a tongue-tied wuss to someone who stares at death without flinching. What's puzzling is that there's actually nothing that happens that would bring about in him such a shoehorned transformation. And then, as always, Subbaraj pushes things further and turns Karthik into a bully. I understand how Sethu learns that respect is greater than fear; but how does Karthik come to believe in "nothing works like a good beating"? The message the movie is sending makes little to no sense. 

"Jigarthanda" still remains a film that deserves to be cherished for how much it gets right.