Sunday, August 24, 2014

Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam (2014)

The most admirable aspect of "Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam" is that it is not a product of some industry newbie, but a filmmaker who has clocked a little over three decades. In its intentions, "Kathai Thiraikathai.." can be looked at as a less subtle companion piece to "Jigarthanda". While the latter was a pissed off condemnation of the system, this film is an understanding acknowledgment of problems in Tamil cinema. Director R. Parthiepan doesn't preach, and the attitude is anything but holier-than-thou. It's a film with a bit of everything; ideas are tossed all around to see what sticks. And when a film is about nothing, it is, intentionally or otherwise, about everything. It's a story of a filmmaker suffering writer's block; about his deteriorating marriage; a meta movie within movie; a high concept science fiction and even a murder mystery. As intended, the plotting appears arbitrary, but is, in fact, always deliberate, ever in an attempt to make a bigger point.

It opens with a series of four short films, which we soon learn are treatments being deliberated by a tiny film crew at a young director's house / makeshift production office. The stories couldn't be more different from each other. One is imagined as actor Vishal playing a lone survivor of a massive calamity; the other has Sethupathy playing the lovable hero of basically every other comedy; and the third stars Prakash Raj playing Brahma. While I think there's nothing more to be said about these three stories, I have to talk about the fourth, starring Taapsee, in more detail. 

She plays a mute guitar teacher who is teaching a group of kids in a war torn land, evident from the sounds of jet planes whooshing overhead. A little after she plays a chord, a bomb drops nearby. People die. Kids die. Some time passes and the survivors are forced to take refuge in a bunker. To cheer up the kids, Taapsee plays the same chords again as camera moves out of the bunker and we hear fresh sounds of jets. Here's when I told myself, "wouldn't it be hilarious if another bomb found them?" And it does, killing everyone except her. It's a glorious sight - perhaps the film's funniest moment. There's no respite from horror as the girl sees a bunch of soldiers approaching her. Fearing imminent rape, she slits her throat with the strings of her broken guitar. It's a harrowing torture porn that feels all too familiar. Because all it misses is a title card with the words: A film by Bala. That's the tone "Kathai Thiraikathai.." upholds for most part. 

Like Rangan says in his review, the film "urges us to give the proceedings the benefit of the doubt." The choice to accept whether the film is being self-aware or not is left to our own devices. The film makes observations which very closely align with my own. Because it has given me a reason to talk about them with a context (or the excuse to say, "hey, this is an essay with little coherence about a film with no story,") I'm going to indulge myself.

A few days ago, I wondered aloud on my Twitter how much the interval block has been affecting the writing process of today's Tamil (or all of Indian) filmmakers. The pressure to manufacture a high at the halfway point of a film irrespective of the story's demands must be unreasonable. Even though we all know that this is what our filmmakers signed up for, I cannot deny that my heart breaks just a little to see every director invariably bow to this practice. You can make a 200 minute film or 90 minute film - an interval block will be put in, whether you like it or not. Assuming we all agree that a twist - a cliffhanger - has become the convention, I also wondered when was the last time one of our filmmakers underplayed with something subtle or truly innovative with the intermission. This unique and indigenous structural challenge is something that no script writing manual can prepare a writer for. "Kathai Thiraikathai.." gives me the perfect excuse to further that thought. Although the meta nature of the film grants it the liberties to be excused for what it does with its own interval, it does throw some light on the process of structuring a story. "The need to lay bare the film's story within the first 20 minutes and end the first half with a conundrum is what's been happening since the beginning of Tamil cinema", a character chips in. 

One of the reasons I thought about the interval block was how it affected "Jigarthanda". It's quite apparent that Subbaraj was sure where he wanted the split to happen. The point where Sethu meets Karthik is undeniably a high point. But in my opinion, the meeting point should have been ideally happened around the 45 minute mark. I would say the interval should have followed Sethu's announcing of wanting to act in the film himself, but I'd be wrong. That's the thing with "Jigarthanda"; correcting it in post-production is virtually impossible because its structural issues, if I may call it that, exist at a script level - and are born solely due to having to accommodate the intermission. So eventually, while I agree that Subbaraj's solution is the most ideal, I also cannot deny the film would have benefited considerably if it didn't have to carry to weight of an interval. It's one of the biggest issues that's hindering the evolution of storytelling in this part of the world. "Kathai Thiraikathai.." doesn't offer a solution, of course, but it does raise this question: now that we are finally getting "serious" about our cinema, are we still going to value popcorn over art?

Among Tamil films' list of vices, one that very rarely fails to occur is that of the need to show a man and a woman fall in love. However irrelevant it is to whatever else the film is about, it needs to be there - and there are very few exceptions to this rule. Is it because deep down we, as an audience, are huge suckers for love at first sight, and that these filmmakers are merely catering to a market where the demand is perennially high? I can't think of another reason. Remember in "Singam 2" where in spite of Suriya's character clearly being shown to be married at the end of the first film, they simply bring Hansika in so they would have a reason to do the song and dance routine? I know it's too much to expect a film as terrible as Singam 2 to explore the married life of Durai Singam, but I hope you catch my drift. In "Kathai Thiraikathai.." too, in spite of the protagonist being a married man, there's love at first sight. To accommodate this "quintessential" element, the film brings in another female romantic interest, who, at first threatens to be a manic pixie dream girl type character who would inspire our hero out of his writer's block. But later, she reveals herself to be a different kind of a plot device.

The Intha ponnungala ipdi thaan sentiment reached an alarming high in 2013, with every third movie featuring a drunk dancing love failure song bashing women for doing something as harmless as rejecting the hero's advances. After the aforementioned romantic interest's signals are not reciprocated, the dejected woman tells our hero how he's being unappreciative of a woman being open about her feelings. This might feel a little uncalled for, given our hero's gentlemanliness, the woman immediately follows it with a spectacular dig at the female bashing habit of our industry. She calls out Vijay, the biggest actor to have partaken in the practice, and Santhanam for their Vaangana Vanakkangana from "Thalaivaa" to make the point. Like I said, the plotting is always deliberate. 

There's also a producer who only produces his own stories, a subplot about our hero's first script being stolen and turned into a very successful film, and more. But among the things "Kathai Thiraikathai.." does discuss and doesn't condemn lies the film's central idea: the gimmick. It's another element that I personally look at as problematic. Down the years, some out of idea writer decided to sell the same old story coupled with a high concept. I don't just mean echolocation, conjoined twins, extra sensory perception, short term memory loss or multiple personality disorder.. even something as dated and commonplace as a double role is a legitimate gimmick (Kamal playing ten characters in Dasavatharam is a father of them all.) It's like they say, how after the first 10 episodes, all of our mega serials are just the same. The saying is equally applicable to most of the films, where the gimmicks wear thin quickly and we end up watching something we've seen a dozen times before. In "Kathai Thiraikathai..", there's not one but two. The first one is the film's own intention of selling itself as a film without a story. It sure is an interesting proposition, but the film is unaware that it is perpetuating one of the several other trends it is otherwise bashing. The second gimmick entails the concept of 'intuition'. Here's where it becomes particularly hard to tell if 
Parthiepan is making an example of an industry trend or unknowingly succumbing to it.

It's also hard to let Parthiepan off the hook for the characterization of the wife (played by Akhila Kishore, who I can't wait to see more of) just because he repeatedly has the hero Tamizh describe her as eccentric. It feels like a convenient cop-out because he only shows us moments of her heightened sensuality or bizarre tantrums, completely skipping the middle ground. It's unfair to the character that she has to be interpreted as eccentric when we don't get to see her "normal" self. On the other hand, at a time when we are suddenly left counting Priya Anand drinking vodka as a minor victory, one great thing Parthiepan does is be progressive about female sexuality. The marital life reminded me of "Hey Ram".

On his other side, the hero Tamizh has Tambi Ramaiah's Seenu, a man with encyclopedic knowledge about Tamil cinema who, I now realize, is ever present to constantly imbue a bit of pessimism to the proceedings. He's not nasty while doing so, but he is always unsure about every new angle Tamizh is seeking to explore in his script. When conversation pivots around how ahead of its time Rudraiyya's "Aval Appadithan" was, Seenu is quick to add that the film was a financial failure - only to assuage the already radical line of thought prevailing in the story discussion session. When at one point, the discussion segues to the topic of the ending of films being open to interpretation, Seenu once again digs out an example from the back of his head to convince others why that's a bad idea. This unwillingness to let go of the rigid structures of the past partly explains why he never found success of his own. While most other characters are less memorable, there's this guy who cannot wait to tell anyone who cares to listen how he's going to kick his ill mother back into a government hospital if he doesn't find money for her treatment. It's more funny and bizarre than it is shocking.

At regular intervals in the film, director Parthiepan squeezes himself into the narrative. It is mostly manageable when he is subverting twists by revealing them early. You can never hold it against a film that's more than happy to put all its cards on the table. Wanting to fool the audience is the last thing this film tells you it wants to do, but then goes ahead and does it anyway. It's only when he plays God and replays scenarios, you can tell that he's simply showing off. You can see just how much fun Parthiepan is having making this film. He barely resists the temptation of turning this into a three hour long film appreciation course - though I admit I'd pay good money to watch that.

As the film within the film continues to make little progress, we find ourselves in a room where Tamizh is telling the now finalized story to a prospect producer. Here is where, as a film, "Kathai Thiraikathai.." massively stumbles. Instead of giving quick rushes of the film that's going to be, it casts Arya and Amala Paul, and laboriously recreates the incidents which are quite apparently inspired from Tamizh's own life. It's not just boring and predictable, it also runs for quite long. Coupled with some spectacularly cringe inducing dialogues, the last act threatens to reduce the rest of the film's good work down to nothing.

In the end, becoming the change it aspires to see, the film finishes with an open ending. Given how less subtle and accessible it is, I believe "Kathai Thiraikathai..", with a wider viewership, has the ability to do what "Jigarthanda" couldn't manage even with the help of critics - that is to become a conversation starter about the state of Tamil cinema.