Monday, September 29, 2014

Madras (2014)

This article is intended for people who have seen Pa. Ranjith’s Madras.

Set in Vyaasarpadi, "Madras" tells the story of the residents of housing board apartments who are caught up in a turf war between two political parties. In an expository prologue, a narrator establishes the film's primary conflict - whoever controls a particular wall of an unfortunately located apartment gets to establish themselves as the stronger of the two parties, thus cementing political success. Disregarding the nitty-gritty logistics, on a baser level, the issue boils down to show of power, the wall holding the key to all the problems for the stakeholders. It's a simple, yet potent and compelling premise that ever pivots around this sevuru. Painted on the wall is the face of a dead man whose son Kannan is a member of the incumbent political party. Hidden behind a huge mustache, always lit up in the dark, ever appearing to be in a smile mocking the people caught up in this senseless mayhem. It's a territory war saga that has trickled down generations, destroying too many families, taking too many lives, with a ceasefire offering only temporary solace.

Then we meet people who are threatening to affect this status quo: chief among them is Anbu, a young low-level politician obsessed with reclaiming the wall. His best friend is Kaali, a software engineer whose life has so far turned out a little differently when compared to the rest of the young men of the area we meet. Kaali sees Anbu's selflessness but also the futility of securing the wall. "Sevura pudchita intha area va Anna Nagar mathiri maathiduviya?", he asks. Anbu, drunk on idealism and bearing the weight of all the dead souls who lost their lives for the cause, is unable to look beyond it. At one point, Anbu tells Kaali that he's likely to go to settle in a better area after getting married, but for him, this is it. Lives have been lost, And we know that there will be blood.

If Selvaraghavan's "Pudhupettai" had  a deeply cynical perspective of the class difference and an angry enga area ulla varatha rhetoric, Ranjith's "Madras" goes out of its way to not blame the rich for the misery of the poor. "Kasimedu, Ennore yenga area; Anna Nagar, KK Nagar unga area" type of sentiment is no where to be found here. There's more pride and less anger. Barring scenes at court and Kaali's office, the film is set entirely in streets that all appear to share the same pincode. Not once do we even get to see the city burgeoning outside the corridors of North Madras. This unrelenting deliberateness regarding staging the entire film in a single area gives the film an unsettling quality. There's no escaping the wrath of the omnipresent wall. Where there's ignorance, superstition breeds. But Ranjith takes it a notch further by using the wall as some sort of a possessed demonic object. All of this adds to the overall tone and texture making the first half exemplary. This kind of myth building is never seen outside horror in Tamil films.

The milieu detailing stands out. The tiny houses with paint peeling off the walls forming shapes of islands; the corporation playground where the guys play football by day, hang out by night; where a little dance group comprising a bunch of neighborhood boys practice in front of their own sevuru - proudly carrying a wall graffiti with the words 'George Town Blue Boys'. Kids doing handstands, women carrying thanni kodam gossiping around hand pumps in the housewife version of a watercooler conversations, a neighborhood bum named Johnny who refers to everyone as Johnny. Ranjith is rigorous about the image he wants to paint of the people. He also decidedly avoids associating the residents of with stereotypical professions like fishing and automobile mechanics. He wants to show hardworking people, and to suggest that their lack of growth is due to reasons beyond them. Kaali and his friends are also never shown consuming alcohol, something which a lesser director would have seen as a most natural thing to do. Yet, "Madras" feels like a film about "us" the way very few films do.

If you thought Ranjith’s "Attakathi" hit close to home with its precise observations about the romantic life of an average Tamil boy, wait till you watch "Madras", where the big and unarguably good-looking Karthi is cast against type as a tongue-tied embarrassment around girls. Rarely do we see protagonists in our films anymore who are more than willing to get into an arranged marriage. Every film tries to find new ways to make the hero and the heroine fall in love, but very few come close to making it feel organic and un-filmy. Our cinema has taught us that stalking is an " acceptable" form of wooing a woman. So when you see Kaali's friends resorting to catcalls and his name to tease the neighborhood beauty Kalai, it's impossible to judge them, for you know their intentions are not malicious. But where "Madras" sets itself apart is by showing us the female perspective to this kind of accosting. "Naa yenga ponaalum un paera sollli koopiduraanga. Asingama irruku," she says. Catherine Tresa, with her pitch-perfect Madras accent, is a revelation.

Our films tend to graze over interactions between couples by turning it into a musical montage and/or by either reaching for cutesiness. I guess they make it so with the intention of not wanting to make the audience feel awkward. The scenes showcasing the relationship between Anbu and his wife Mary finds truth in the most commonplace interactions because Ranjith doesn't turn the camera away when most directors would. The apologetic and frightened look on Mary's face after accidentally dropping a ladle during an argument, while telling Anbu,"kai thavari vizhuthiduchi maama"will remain forever etched in my mind. They fight and they embrace. He builds a home by filling it with parents and grandparents who say the exact things that our own do. When during a regular session of emotional blackmailing, the mother realizes that she is on the verge of losing an argument, she out of nowhere makes the topic about Kaali's inability to purchase her a car. Or Kannan, who terrorizes his household just the same way he does his men, in a scene where he makes his docile wife run around to find him a toothpick. It's funny because it's true and relatable.

Once Anbu takes the first step at taking the wall back, it's safe to assume that we all, in some capacity, begin to anticipate his death. It's a loss that's the inevitable catalyst necessary to bring about a change in Kaali. Where Ranjith excels is in subverting our expectation by not doing it when we expect he would. In a nightmarish sequence, we see the two friends run from a certain misfortune. The dread that it manages to rake up is something straight out of a horror film.

Borrowing some wisdom from Jigarthanda, "Oru uyiru yedthutu than ulla varom, uyira vitta thaan veliye po mudiyum." While on the face of it, "Madras" isn't a gangster movie, on an intrinsic level, it very much is. If you take Kaali's character, it has the bones of every good-guy-dabbling-into-a-world-of-violence-owing-to-circumstances arc.

Everything so far works, scene after scene. You are likely to hear that it's all downhill once the second half begins, but that's very far from true. Moments of Kaali going through the mourning period and coping with loss are a rarity. He begins to weigh throwing away his life on the line against what he thinks he owes his dead friend. When Kalai asks him to choose between her and Anbu, we know that it's not a question she'd ask if Anbu were alive or if Kali had acted less self-destructive.

Regarding Maari, you get the sense that Ranjith has been playing the audience all along with intentional misdirection aimed to make us suspect his motives. In a masterful scene, both ambiguous and ridiculously tense, as we sit unsure of what to make of Maari deliberating taking money from Kannan after their parties form a coalition. I was convinced it was going to end with Kaali walking in on them exchanging money, misinterpreting the act and wrongly losing respect for an honest man for going to bed with the enemy. I imagined a final act born out of misunderstanding, ending with something deeply tragic. Although that would have had great dramatic potential, thats not what the film is about. So when the reveal happens that he was responsible for Anbu's death, it's more exasperating than surprising. In the same amazing scene, the film both reaches a fever pitch and also traps itself in a corner from which it would never come out unscathed. 

One of the things that I am unable to wrap my head around is if the residents of the housing board quarters come to a realization that they are putty in the hands of self-serving politicians or if they no longer want to be that. Because even before I watched the film, its central theme came across quite clearly in one of the film's songs. There's a line in the 'Sennai Vada Sennai' that goes "poster otti pandhal pottu kootam kooti vote'a pottu, yemaatrame yengal panpaadu thaan." This is essentially what the film is about. But because the song appears so early in the film, I hope I am right in assuming that this sentiment is common knowledge. If that's so, then what transformation do we witness in the scene where Kaali leads the crowd in washing the wall with paint? 

Suddenly, the film, which was so far quite well paced and plotted, has more action and drama than it can manage to carry. You get the feeling that a good part of the film's first football scene, where Kaali and one of Kannan’s men Viji (who wishes to become an itakaaran) come to exchange blows, was truncated or not enough to establish how big football is a part of Kaali’s life. That turns the strategic fight scene in the empty playground almost bizarrely random and comical. It does not work at all. It's Ranjith attempting to find a logical solution to the oft-asked question, "Oruthan yepdi pathu paera adippan?", and failing. Nothing really works from this point. There's another scene where Kaali fights from the dark like Batman. And even if he did take the help of Blue Boys, there's still something very silly about the whole sequence. It's mostly disappointment when you think of what the film promised to be at the halfway mark, or even late as the pivotal scene at the restaurant. There's some more action but it's too late. You stop caring. The narrator returns once again for the epilogue which is borderline preachy and very uncharacteristic of the rest of the film. Discrediting the potential of cinema, Ranjith instead relies on the narrator to blurt out a karuthhu.

Ranjith's ultimate intention is to shine a light on the devious political class which has exploited the ignorance and desperation of the very people who put power in their hands. If the film manages to resonate and stir something deep inside the hearts and minds of the very people it is portraying, then it would be a victory that no box office results or film critics can deny. But it also cannot be denied that the film squanders the dramatic potential and offers a weak resolution. Just makes me sad when I think that at one point, very late into the second half, I wanted to give this film a hug I loved it so.