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The Defiant New Postmodern Tamil Cinema

Fed up with the empty rhetoric of utopian ideology and highfalutin discourse, the new generation of filmmakers take their frustrations out on the grand narratives of Tamil cinema.

The aesthetic revolution launched in the late noughties by Tamil cinema’s avant-garde has now escalated into a protracted struggle, rather like many unfinished political upheavals in the developing world launched at the same time. The civil war waged between the established studio system with its flagship action-masala genre and the revolutionary independent filmmakers continues unabated. Unlike other internecine conflicts, however, this struggle has been for the better. After decades of mass-produced star-centric clichés, a new generation of iconoclastic directors wants to make the narrative superordinate, without compromises to the integrity of the storytelling enterprise.

State authorities in the Censorship Board were not too pleased when these directors tried to capture the carnal and the savage. Conservative producers rejected these political incorrect scripts as unprofitable ventures, even though their action-masala films titillated with raunchy song-and-dance items. And Tamil cinema’s superstars wondered why no one else watched their formula films but their most devoted fans.

Perhaps what the Tamil film industry’s ancien regime did not understand was that the post-industrial spectator, exposed to foreign cable television, international film cultures, and Youtube videos, were getting more conscious about what they consumed, and demanded more bang for their buck. To the globalized Tamil consumer, the action-masala genre with its paeans to superstar personality cults, moral simplicity, didactic paternalism, and predictable sentimentality, were quite simply, dumbed down.

Refreshingly unpredictable, what has been called the ‘Tamil New Wave’ became distinguishable by circa 2007. Neo-realist dramas like Kattradhu Thamizh (‘Learned Tamil’, Dir. Ram, 2007), Paruthiveeran (2007), Subramaniapuram (Dir. M.Sasikumar, 2008), and Naan Kadavul (Dir. Bala, ‘I am God’, 2009), crystallized the features from incohate cultural predecessors like Kadhal (‘Love’, Dir. Balaji Sakthivel, 2004), and Pudhupettai (Dir. Selvaraghavan, 2006). Gritty, gory, and fatalistic, the ‘New Wave’ realism avoided the distortions and glosses associated with escapist commercial cinema. Cringe-worthy but nonetheless compelling, neo-realism fired the first salvo against the ancien regime to tear through the veil of ignorance that separated the filmgoer from reality.

Eminent film scholar K.Hariharan called these films the “cinema of disgust” for its exploration of grotesque subcultures, shocking sadism, and how it plundered the depths of human depravity for tales. The “cinema of disgust” was either critically acclaimed or sleeper blockbusters, but never failed to capture the critical attention of the public, thereby making neo-realism the vogue as the new millennium entered its final years.

Emboldened by setbacks to the big budget action-masala genre and the major studio system from the ‘New Wave’, the next shocks came from independent films. Though completed in 2009, the neo-noir Aaranya Kaandam (‘Jungle Chapter’, Dir. Thiagarajan Kumararaja, 2011) spent close to two years on the Censorship Board’s cutting floors that demanded a massive 52 snips for coarse language, sex, and violence. After a legal tussle for the integrity of the production, Aaranya Kaandam was finally released, but not before an unfinished version won the Grand Jury Award for Best Film in the South Asian International Film Festival in New York in 2010.

The Sartrean sardonicism in Aaranya Kaandam was likewise purveyed in the low-budget comedy thrillers: Pizza (Dir. Karthik Subburaja, 2012), Soodhu Kavvuum (‘Gambling Devours’, Dir. Nalan Kumarasamy, 2013), and Neram (‘Time’, Dir. Alphonse Putharen, 2013). All three were either declared blockbusters or were superhits with profit margins that far outstripped the humble cost of production. Made by cinema fanatics who transitioned from experimenting with short films to make their own full-length feature films, they imagined the micro-narratives that catalyzed the development of postmodern Tamil cinema.

While critics have written about these films individually or in parts, a synchronic analysis as an oeuvre within the history of the film industry has not been forthcoming. If we historicized the recent Aaranya Kaandam, Neram, Pizza, and Soodhu Kavvuum, we would realize they represent an apotheosis in the evolution of Tamil cinema – its postmodern turn. Rejecting any grand teleological vision as naïve, these micro-narratives weave compelling tales celebrating the taboo, and the uncanny. The amalgamation of cultural influences in the pastiche reveals not only transnational stimuli, but also bears the imprint from local predecessors.

In fact, the allusions to multiple older films and film soundtracks have become an unmistakable feature of the postmodern mise en scène. Repudiating the film-politics nexus and post-colonial modernity, in the postmodern condition, Tamil films are not message bearers that imitate life, if anything, they imitate other films, a storyboard made up of popular cultural memory, only to overturn these expectations in the most subversive way. The postmodernist auteurs would have us believe that they have created an ephemeral phantasmagoria to be enjoyed and not hermitically dissected, typifying the cultural products of late crony capitalism. However, read against the grain: they are flag bearers of a daring new sensibility based on experimentation and enterprise.

Death of the Hero

The foremost symptom of Tamil cinema’s postmodern condition was its disavowal of the heroic quest that has been its coalescing modernist feature. Very much a product of modernity in India, cinema as an art form created legitimizing myths that were bounded, coherent, and structured in a linear fashion. The occasional flashbacks, comedic interludes, and song-and-dance items notwithstanding, a grand mission provided the underpinning metanarrative for every film text.

The first hegemonic duopoly of male megastars, made up of M.G.Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan from the '50s to the mid-'70s, made sure of that there was an ideological message to their films because they were also members of rival political parties. Mostly about the triumph of the working class hero against the elites, or in the case of the latter, the patriarch’s struggle to uphold traditional family values, there was nevertheless a greater purpose to the logic. An extensive literature exists on how Ramachandran used his films as propaganda to ascend to power as Chief Minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, India in 1977, and remained in office till his death in 1988.

The duopoly that succeeded them from 1980 to circa 2002, made up of Rajinikanth and Kamalhaasan, continued the mission of the ubermenschen hero in personal vendettas, vigilante crusades, or less frequently, inter-class love stories. The ‘angry young man’ genre dominated by Rajinikanth, and to a lesser extent Kamalhaasan, provided ample opportunities to play out the heroic journey stemming from a social injustice, transcendentalized into a wider discourse about a rotten superstructure, the corruption of the Indian state, and the failure of the Indian legal system.

A discernible anti-establishment ideology for the achievement of liberty, equality, and social justice, propelled these countercultural metanarratives. Whether he was a swashbuckling prince, bleeding heart reformist, suffering patriarch, lover, anti-hero, outlaw, vigilante, or social bandit, the Tamil film protagonist was a centripetal force providing the narrative with a rational objective: the emissary of postcolonial modernity.

Postmodern Tamil cinema started to question the efficacy of this model to reality using dysfunctional protagonists unable and unwilling to serve any greater teleological function. The neo-realist films began the aesthetic revolution against the status quo by ritually sacrificing the hero. The gory death of an ignoble protagonist, and the ultimate triumph of the villain or villainous coterie, an unthinkable situation in Tamil melodramatic tradition, now became a trend. The Dostoyevskian intellectual in Kattradhu Thamizh, the village brute in Paruthiveeran, and the lumpenproletariat in Subramaniapuram were either driven to suicide or murdered in fatalistic denouements.

Realizing the hero was no longer sacrosanct, the postmodern films gleefully dismantled the cult of the hero, supplanting him with anti-villains, mercenaries, schizophrenics, and slackers too incompetent and unwilling to ‘save the world’. Indeed, the postmodern Tamil films mock what Jean-Francois Lyotard calls: “the Enlightenment narrative, in which the hero of knowledge works toward a good ethico-political end” as though suggesting that since omnipotent heroes do not exist in reality, why bother? However, “incredulity toward metanarrative” was a rejection of the postcolonial modernity that was a narrative tradition in Tamil cinema, throwing the entire ideological mission associated with each film text into a nihilistic disarray. Yet, it is a purposeful trope insofar as it allows access to the hidden world of le petit recit or micro-narratives hidden away in the cul-de-sacs and dark alleyways of history.

Aaranya Kaandam visualizes the obscure micro-narratives in those zones of the city outside the surveillance of the state. Three parallel plots run simultaneously, but are loosely connected to a stash of cocaine fought over by two of the city’s biggest mafias. In one plot, the andropausing neurotic crime lord Singaperumal, tries to eliminate his chief enforcer Pasupathy, who has aspirations of taking over the mafia’s illegal operations from his aging boss. The other plot focuses on Singaperumal’s unwilling young mistress Subbu, who has an illicit affair with Singaperumal’s servant boy Sappae. The final plot explores the relationship between an penniless former aristocrat, Kaalaiyan and his young son Kodukkapulli, surviving on the wins from illegal cockfighting, who steal the cocaine belonging the brothers Gajendran and Gajapathy, Singaperumal’s rival gang.

Almost every major character in the film has violated moral codes in one way or another, and there are no heroes in the film. Pasupathy, a fugitive to the police and the target sought by Singaperumal’s gang, might be considered the protagonist -- parts of the story are told from his subjective point of view -- but despite his fighting skills, street smarts, and understanding of realpolitik, his is by no means a heroic monomyth.

Critics rightly described Aaranya Kaandam as a neo-noir film for its moral ambiguity, dim lighting, its gratuitous violence, liberal dosage of profanity, and lengthy discussions between characters about crime stories only loosely connected to the main narrative. Staying true to the genre, localization is held at abeyance, and the film has no song and dance interruptions. A fan of Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino, debutant director Thiagarajan Kumararaja fuses his own guerrilla-style cinematography with influences from his favorite auteur, with the stylized fight sequences, the quick turns from comic interludes to tense showdowns, the slow-motion zoom ins, cutaways, and non-linear tandem narratives that intersect at the end.

The anarchy caused with the death of ideology and the exhaustion of metanarratives is evident in the film’s title, which intimates towards the law of the jungle prevailing in the underworld, also heightens the tensions, because without a stabilizing hero, every character is vulnerable, and liable to be devoured. A strategy further alluded to in the naming of every character after an animal or animal-dervied names, or ascription of animal-like characteristics to characters: Singaperumal: lion, Gajendran and Gajapathy: elephants, Sappae: dog, etc.

This style would also be less subtly mimicked in another postmodern crime thriller: Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum (‘The Wolf and The Lamb’, Dir. Mysskin, 2013), made in a nourish style. Hence, the postmodern scrapping of rules leads to a slugfest ethic in which only the fittest survive. The only major character not ascribed animalistic qualities is the sexually abused mistress, Subbu. But by the end of the film we are asked to believe that she is the foxy lady.

Femme Fatales

The shocking twist at the end of Aaranya Kaandam is that Subbu, the helpless mistress to Singaperumal, was actually an assassin – finally introducing the neo-noir staple of a femme fatale. In the denouement, Subbu manipulates her lover Sappae into killing Singaperumal, and finally she shoots Sappae herself using her own gun when the three characters are alone. Pretending to be an innocent bystander to the shootout, she is let off. The suggestion is that she is a hired killer who awaited the opportune moment to kill Singaperumal, outfoxing everyone else.

Her identity and motivations are not revealed, she has no origin story, or an end, we do not even know if Subbu is her real name. She was probably the centerpiece device interpolated to generate an exciting cliffhanger style finish to a film that was first conceived of having an exciting denouement in mind; only later were the introductions and middle included. And so, it should come as no surprise that Aaranya Kaandam sees no necessity of closure to reveal who Subbu really is, open-ended narratives are vogue in the postmodern age where there is no metanarrative to fulfill.

In postmodern Tamil cinema, the femme fatale emerges as a refreshing new trope, the catalyst that drives the micro-narrative. Unlike her hypersexualized counterparts in Hollywood, the postmodern Tamil femme fatale’s sexuality is implied rather than explicitly demonstrated. Instead, she serves as the temptress who coaxes and cajoles her conservative male counterpart to transgress moral and ethical norms.

Likewise, Anu Michael is a key actant in the micro-narrative of the supernatural comedy thriller Pizza. She goads her pizza deliveryman boyfriend Michael, into stealing the diamonds his boss had hid with him to evade income tax officials. Anu is the one who finds out that the package Michael was carrying contained diamonds. She plots to steal the diamonds, then, countering Michael’s fears, she finally wins him over to her designs. An aspiring writer in the process of finishing a supernatural novel and a fan of horror films, Anu uses her smarts to concoct an elaborate hoax to fool Michael’s superstitious boss, who is convinced that Michael truly lost the diamonds when he was trapped in a haunted mansion.

In Pizza’s non-linear narrative structure, the viewing audience is unaware that Michael’s experience in the haunted house is a fabrication by Anu. The entire sequence where the hero experiences a supernatural haunting is narrated from an unreliable first person point-of-view, and we are made to believe that Pizza is a horror film when only in the ending is it revealed to be in fact a black comedy-thriller. The elaborate detailing of what happened inside the so-called haunted mansion was made possible by Anu’s extensive knowledge about what Sigmund Freud calls the unheimlich, or the uncanny, that would trigger a frightful response from Michael’s boss and his co-workers, who are convinced by Michael’s story, and Michael gets away scot free.

Likewise Shalu, the imaginary girlfriend of Das, the ringleader of the band of kidnappers, in Soodhu Kavvuum, goads her boyfriend, into committing kidnaps as a means of living. She mocks his decisions, suggests counter-policies, and even insults her ‘boyfriend’ to make him act according to her dictates and whims.

Ironically, the fiercely independent femme fatale was a big progress from the misogynistic inferior position female characters had in the action-masala genre. After years of being marginalized as a sexualized glamor doll, with no other role than to be the love-interest to prop up the hypermasculinity of the Tamil action hero, the Tamil heroine is finally liberated. However, as postmodern Tamil cinema rearranges other conventions, the purpose of the heroine has been reinvigorated, and the femme fatale has truly arrived.

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Above image: A show of defiance against grand Narratives of Tamil cinema.

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