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.

Do you like Rajini or Kamal?

Kumararaja’s take on the underworld in Aaranya Kaandam is not only Tarantinoesque in its insouciance towards hyperviolence but also the way it deploys homage and pastiche to cult classic Tamil films, film songs, and film stars, as well as forgotten pop tropes. Aaranya Kaandam’s film score features original music by composer Yuvan Shankar Raja, as well as the classic songs of his father Ilaiyaraaja, who was a famous film composer from 1976 to 1993. Characters in Aaranya Kaandam are perpetually tuned in to the radio or the radio is always playing an Ilaiyaraaja-composed song in the mise en scène whose tunes are ubiquitous.

Redefining guerrilla filmmaking, these directors have turned low budget independent filmmaking from a highbrow luxury doomed to perform poorly in the box office into a winning strategy. A testament to the power of the medium to awe, inspire, and shock, they would have us believe that judicious plagiarism is the highest form of praise.

At times the lyrics of the song are awkwardly juxtaposed with the situation faced by the character as though inviting the audience to have a laugh at what is a serious situation. In the opening scene, Singaperumal tries to force sex on Subbu, but it is suggested that he is not having an erection, while the dance-rock song “Tholin Mele Baarum Illae” (No Burden on My Shoulders) about sexual liberation and youthful rebellion from the soundtrack of Ninaivellam Nithiya (‘Nithiya On My Mind’, Dir. C.V.Sridhar, 1982) plays in the opposite room that makes Singaperumal irate.

In a subsequent scene, the erotic song “Ponmeni Uruguthae” (My Body Melts) from Moondram Pirai (‘Crescent’, Dir. Balu Mahendra, 1983) plays in the dingy restaurant when Pasupathy and his gang meet a crooked cop who is also their informer. Breaking the tension, the cop makes lewd comments about the vamp actress, who features in the tribal dance visualization of the song, who died under mysterious circumstances in real life. The saturation of the mise en scène with allusions to pop culture is a marker of realism in the Tamil country where film, politics, and society are intimately related, where language is infused with cinematic idioms and gossip about film celebrities is a part of social interactions. Kumararaja has admitted that he was inspired by to make films in part by the manner in which Ilaiyaraaja’s film scores and songs augmented the audio-visual potency of the Tamil film.

More importantly it celebrates the ability of cinema to screen the taboo, and exposes the seedy underside of society, far beyond the hegemony of law and order, or traditional Tamil values. Besides the multiple censor bleeps in the audio to cut the expletive, there’s even a full frontal nude scene of Singaperumal in Aaranya Kaandam, with censorship pixelizations, an unthinkable visual strategy in politically correct Tamil cinema. The connections between scopophilia and cinema are recognized, with cutaway comments about getting smartphones to watch videos of actresses bathing. When unencumbered by a Censorship Board that is itself loosening controls in the face of changing social and sexual mores, the film apparatus functions as a tool of voyeurism in postmodern society.

There’s a recurring pop question in Aaranya Kaandam that multiple actors ask each other that serves as a homage to countercultural predecessors who first challenged the established aesthetic conventions. After an irate Singaperumal, who is having a libidinal malfunction, storms outside of his bedroom to tell his henchmen to turn down the volume on the radio, the henchmen commence a banal roundtable discussion about their sexual escapades. One henchman, Chittu shares his experiences of hook ups with married women.

The question that allows Chittu to decide whether or not he should continue his seduction is to ask who is their favorite legendary actor: “Do you like Rajini or Kamal?” Chittu continues to say that if they replied the action hero, Rajinikanth, he rejects them, but if they replied Kamalhaasan, he intensifies the pursuit because it reveals their preference for the megastar’s infamous hypersexualized romantic persona as the ‘King of Love’. Though unrelated to the main story, if there was even one, at that juncture, the homage is critical.

In the late ’70s, Tamil cinema saw the rise of a new generation of controversial and unorthodox protagonists, starring Rajinikanth and Kamalhaasan who were just breaking through to the top echelons of the film industry. They portrayed leading men who were starkly different from those of the’950s to the mid-’70s in their ambivalent relationship with the law and the state, and risqué violation of sexual mores, essentially casting them as anti-heroes. However, Rajinikanth and Kamalhaasan started to play less taboo roles to take up the cause of grand narratives as their legion of adoring fans grew, and settled to become the alternative heroic duopoly in Tamil cinema by 1980. As a pastiche Aaranya Kaandam signals its intentions to return to the repressed first explored in ’70s Tamil cinema, to take the camera back into the dark abyss of the human condition, through postmodern micro-narratives that mock, parody, and satirize conservative morality as hypocritical and naïve.

Because the postmodern Tamil film appears to be made for a niche audience of film buffs and an informed cinematic spectator, the filmmaker leaves behind sufficient clues that will allow only the most discerning viewer to unravel the hidden codes revealed at the conclusion. While we are fooled into believing we are watching a supernatural thriller in Pizza, in the haunted house setting when the lights go off, the television still plays the song “Thillu Mullu” (Deceit and Trickery), the theme song of the eponymously named Rajinikanth-film from 1981.

Thillu Mullu was a comedy, Rajinikanth’s first after establishing himself in revenge-themed action films, about a young man who pretends to have a twin brother in order to save his job. The notion of skullduggery used in Thillu Mullu, augmented by getting an action star to do lighthearted comedy, is pastiched in Pizza, to satirize and undermine the horror film genre as nothing more than a product of our human weakness and a fears of the unknown. By representing the unrepresentable, Pizza takes the spectator through the tropes of horror films, stripping away the mystical, the superstitious, and the uncanny to reveal that the genre intertextually build on our cultural memory of superstitious beliefs, unsolved mysteries, urban legends, and other horror films, rather than anything intrinsically frightening. Suggesting that anyone who has watched enough horror films from around the world can create their own horror stories, Pizza uses pastiche to create an exciting new storyboard from the enjoined pieces from older films, we are also privy to the hyperreal world created by Michael’s storytelling, only to realize that all is not what it seems.

A floating signifier, the homage to Rajinikanth can serve multiple semiotic functions. In Aaranya Kaandam, it’s a subversive critique about gender stereotypes and phallocentrism in Tamil cinema, retrieving sublated micro-narratives from the cutting room floors, restricted YouTube streams, and backroom shelves of DVD stores. During the post-sex conversation between Subbu and Sappae, the pop question re-emerges: “Do you like Rajini or Kamal?” Subbu first replies with a third option, she says likes the actor turned politician Vijayakanth, currently a Member of Parliament in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Vijayakanth was known as ‘the poor man’s Rajinikanth’ in the ’80s, acting in cheaply made versions of Rajinikanth’s big budget films, before becoming a major star in the ’90s in nationalistic action films where he saves India from the machinations of Pakistani terrorists and their local agents. When Sappae insists she pick between the two, Subbu says she prefers Rajinikanth. When further questioned, she says her favorite movie is the blockbuster Baashha (‘King’, Dir. Suresh Krissna, 1995) because of how we are made to believe that Rajinikanth’s character in Baashha is the meek autorickshaw driver Manickam, only for it to be later revealed that he is the dreaded mafioso Baashha in cognito.

The fight scene where Manickam transmogrifies into Baashha, and the repressed returns, has an iconic status in Tamil film history living on in YouTube, parodies on film and television, and continues to be remade in other films. Likewise it is paid tribute when Subbu herself undergoes a transformation from victim to clinical assassin, shooting her lover Sappae remorselessly in the final scene of the film. Hitherto, Tamil cinema audiences were used to the angry metamorphosis of the male hero to save the damsel in distress — in Baashha the threat to the chastity and life of his sister forces Baashha to end his masquerade as a weakling — to reveal his true identity.

However, in Aaranya Kaandam it is the woman who is empowered to become the master of her own fate, and phallically castrates the male figures in the narrative. The film also reminds us of this trope by diegetically replaying the audio of the bedroom conversation between Subbu and Sappae about Baashha when Subbu shoots him. The trope of the castrating female figure, which enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Bollwyood and greater success in Telugu cinema as the Avenging Woman genre in the ’80s, never became popular in Tamil cinema. Female action films existed only in low budget or B-grade sexploitation films, never reaching the heights of popularity of the ‘angry young man’ genre during that decade.

Presently, these micro-narratives are restricted to the pages of Tamil pulp fiction anthologies, hidden away in cheap DVD storerooms, and some can be found on YouTube streams with adult filters. However, the trope resurfaces in Aaranya Kaandam via popular cultural memory, a development hinted at by Subbu’s fascination for Vijayakanth who had his roots in low budget films, and her enjoyment of the suspense surrounding the hero’s origins and subsequent revelation in Baashha to assault the expectations of the characters in the film and the viewing audiences.

“I steal from every movie ever made.”

The references to retro pop culture also occur in Neram in the opening credits that thank Rajinikanth without quite explaining why. Neram’s position in postmodern Tamil cinema lay in its farcicality and self-reflexivity. The protagonist, Vetri is an unemployed computer engineer who loses his job, is on the run from a murderous loanshark from whom he has borrowed money, but cannot pay back because the money he intended to return to the loanshark has been stolen by pickpockets who literally emerge from nowhere. Moreover, he has to save his girlfriend whom the loansharks’ kidnap, and has to find money for his brother-in-law who passive-aggressively threatens that the consequence of not getting the loan is divorce from Vetri’s sister.

Neram’s novelty is in its jumbled non-linear narrative, thrilling pace, and the cinematography does well to capture the cityscape with all its tight congestions, and open spaces with ample room to stage the chases as the clock ticks away before the loansharks catch up with Vetri. Intertextually similar to Aaranya Kaandam that is also staged over the course of a day, Neram takes place on the deadline for returning the money he owes to the loanshark, and occurs within a span of a busy 24 hours.

Characteristic of the postmodern condition, the denouement of Neram is not the triumph of the questing hero that ends with the defeat of the villains. Instead, Vetri, whose name translates to victory, almost ends the story as a loser, too incompetent to complete his mission, or resolve his personal crises. He is saved by pure chance, and good fortune – not even the favour of the gods who seek to reward him for his valorous journey. Instead, by pure happenchance, a deux ex machina intervenes at the end of the narrative to financially support Vetri, because Vetri happened to be at the right place at the right time, and the villainous loanshark is defeated not by the Vetri, but is killed in an accident by an autorickshaw before the loanshark could catch Vetri.

While there is a brawl with one or two petty thugs who stole Vetri’s money, it appears to be a most perfunctory nod to the conventions of Tamil cinema, with its excessive build up, and background score to anticipate an epic showdown that ultimately turns out to be a farce. In a soliloquy at the end, Vetri himself rejects all eschatological explanations stating that life is absurdist, and whether positive or negative things happen, it all boils down to their timing, if times are good, life is a breeze, it times are bleak, life is a struggle. The circularity and defeatism goes against a rational and logical outlook of existence associated with the postcolonial modernity.

What, then, is the enterprise in Neram, as far as the director is concerned, if any? It is to celebrate life through cinema in its most absurd, farcical, and illogical forms. The opening credits commence with a Tarantino quote: “I steal from every movie ever made”, revealing that the reality constructed in Neram is based less on real life but from other films – a pure pastiche made from popular cultural memory. Devices like the unemployed graduate as hero, the menacing villain, the beautiful damsel in distress and her unsympathetic greedy father, and the petty thugs who populate the cityscape are by no means new, an assemblage of timeless tropes borrowed from decades of Indian cinema.

Similarly, in Pizza, the ‘reality’ of Michael’s experiences in the haunted mansion is merely a pastiche of ghost stories from horror film DVDs from around the world, not an attempt to generate a new supernatural tale. This is also reinforced in Soodhu Kavvuum, when a character that runs for office learns realpolitik and populist strategies by watching DVDs of Tamil films about corrupt politicians – and there are no shortage of those.

The novelty lies in undermining the expectations of the audience, by closing the narrative in the most absurdly unsatisfying way, to prove that it’s just a random episode not to be taken too seriously with no greater cultural-political significance or social commentary. A film made for the joy of making films is evident in the post-credits scenes showing bloopers and camaraderie between members of the film crew and the actors. There’s even a disclaimer at the start of the video of the most popular song in the film, stating that the lyrics are not to be taken too seriously. It’s merely a nonsensical hodge podge of words in Malayalam and Tamil languages, remixed from an older comedy song, not an esoteric language containing hidden codes that the listener must research to find its meaning. The revolutionary avant-garde in contemporary films wants to liberate film from its political functions, to enjoy it for what it is.

Why This Murderous Rage?

With the deconstructivist assault on postcolonial modernity taking no prisoners, it may appear pointless to consider what inspired the revolution in the first place. At face value, these filmmakers want us to believe that they are apolitical and ideologically disinterested, they just want to be good storytellers. Yet, herein lies the conceit, to ignore the deeper political significance beyond just the attack on ideology, metanarratives, and modernization, is to miss the monumental significance of these films.

The spirit of postmodern Tamil cinema is exemplified in Soodhu Kavvuum, in the adventures of a band of kidnappers, made up of four unemployed losers who could not make it anywhere else in life: Kesavan, Pagalavan, Sekar, and their ringleader, Das. The quietly eccentric Das even has an imaginary girlfriend, a nod to postmodern icon Tyler Durden in Fight Club (Dir. David Fincher, 1999), who instigates him to get rich quick and eggs him on make himself more powerful. Das devices a code of ethics for kidnappers, guiding principles for their operations – never make high profile kidnaps, no threats to murder the victim, set limited objectives that the victim’s loved ones can achieve, no weapons to be used, and to retreat in the face of a botched operation rather than risk escalation – that serve as ‘customer-friendly’ business strategies.

Uninterested in being big stakes daredevils, they go about their business with the professionalism of a corporate executive as though their toil was a legitimate means to make money. They cross paths with Arumai Pragasam, the good for nothing son of the incorruptible government minister Gnanodhyam. Arumai enlists the help of the kidnappers to stage his own kidnap, so that he too can get a cut from his tightfisted and morally upright father, with the kidnappers in effect breaking their own principles. Arumai, Das and the kidnappers, go on a run from the police and are pursued by the ruthless bad cop, Bramma.

Finally, Gnanodhyam is forced to resign from office by the Chief Minister who finds out about the kidnapping plan, and is also kicked out of the party because his honesty was costing the party millions in potential bribes and kickbacks from investors. Instead, the corrupt Chief Minister gets Arumai to join the party recognizing that his shrewdness would be more profitable than his father’s anachronistic moralizing. Using his acumen to good effect, the final scene shows Arumai becoming a member of parliament helping the masses through populist schemes publically, while making millions and partying in private, much to his righteous father’s displeasure. Das and his kidnappers continue their business as usual after getting away by the skin of their teeth from Bramma, who has an unfortunate accident, as he was about to kill them vigilante cop style.

Soodhu Kavvuum is the triumph of the absurd and the taboo over the predictable and the conventional. According to its director, Nalan Kumarasamy, Soodhu Kavvuum is a dark comedy, dealing with serious crimes like kidnapping and political corruption without descending into the slapstick, to achieve its laughs. The thrilling progression of the micro-narrative, constant plot twists, the fast paced narration, the way we are invited to sympathize with the losers, and the manner in which the ending subverts all our expectations won over the unforgiving Tamil audiences. Just like Das and his kidnappers, and Arumai who laugh all the way to the bank, so did the producers in real life. Soodhu Kavvuum was one of the biggest blockbusters of 2013, which had its remake rights sold to nearly every major film industry in India, including Bollywood, with clones forthcoming.

A polysemic text intended by its creators to be a hyperreal micro-narrative based on popular cultural memory, it nevertheless allows readings about contemporary Tamil and Indian politics. With the ideological bankruptcy of Tamil nationalism, and the failure of the Indian state, unfettered capitalism and greed has now filled the vacuum. The death of the metanarrative in Tamil cinema accompanies the death of ideology, the failure of the political system, whatever model it chose, to fulfill national aspirations.

From a historical perspective, K.Hariharan has argued in various essays that the corrupt politician figure in Tamil cinema, emerged as a result of the failure of the ethno-nationalist dream to turn the Tamil country into a utopia, as depicted in ancient Tamil classics, where their culture, language, and moral codes, would be protected from the threat of North Indian political domination and the intrusion of Hindi in the Indian nation-state. However, every political leader who became Chief Minister claiming to defend the rights of the Tamils, rhetorical flourish aside, was more interested in retaining power and cozied up to the Congress Party and become an regional satrap of the Central Government in New Delhi.

As the dream of Tamil autonomy harkening to a glorious past became more elusive, we should not forget that it was further jeopardized by the crisis of legitimacy faced by the socialist Indian nation-state, especially after the Indian Emergency of 1975 – 1977. Popular consciousness of widespread poverty, unemployment, environmental devastation a partisan judicial system, callous bureaucracy, police brutality, political corruption, and low intensity civil wars, was a double bind for the hapless Tamils. The blood-soaked ‘angry young man’ genre from the late ’70s and ’80s was one way the Tamils expressed their frustrations with the Indian state they found themselves trapped in by the accident of colonial history and postcolonial neglect. Watching their Tamil heroes violently dispose of malfeasant cops, and, of course, corrupt politicians, rather than waiting for an inept judiciary, was a vicarious means of overturning existing power structures, using the weapons of subjugation on the oppressor.

In the ’90s, economic liberalization came with greater promise. The ‘opening up’ of the Indian economy was expected to be a panacea anticipating that capitalism would bring greater opportunity, solving key socio-economic problems, and finally allow India to take its place among the great powers in the international system; a civilizational destiny from before the advent of the West. The Tamils, who by now had resigned to stay within the Indian-state, hoped to fulfill their cultural aspirations within this context as the region that would power India’s economic rise. After an initial burst of success, by the end of the noughties, these hopes were also crushed.

Indian capitalism had decayed into monopoly corporatism, and unfettered crony capitalism, accompanied by stagnating growth, inequality, worsening corruption, and rising crime rates. Let down by one modern ideology after another: nationalism, socialism, and recently capitalism, it appears that the third generation of Tamils in independent India has had enough of politics and ideology. Fed up with the empty rhetoric of utopian ideology and highfalutin discourse, which promised great things but achieved nothing, and betrayed by a succession of charismatic leaders who positioned themselves as messianic figures who saved no one but themselves, the new generation of filmmakers took their frustrations out on the grand narratives of Tamil cinema.

Rather than be seduced by grand narratives, the young avant-garde sought to make meaning of their post-ideological existence through petit recits, and pure phantasmagorias, inspired by postmodern directors outside of India. When read against the grain, the new spirit advocated in postmodern Tamil cinema is a pragmatic one: to pursue individual aspirations within an imperfect present, and to carpe diem without waiting for favors from the state and system.

Aaranya Kaandam opens with a quote from the Indian Machiavelli, philosopher Chanakya (c.370 – c.283 B.C.E.), espousing that the highest virtue is to do what is expedient given the circumstances in a difficult situation. Similarly, the theme song of Soodhu Kavvuum, eulogizes this transgression of moral codes for personal advancement in a text where the kidnappers are the protagonists and the corrupt politician-in waiting is the biggest winner where politics is the greatest gamble.

Inversely, the morally upright politician is fired for a lack of enterprise and the uncompromising cop literally shoots himself in his backside while using a rusty old gun to kill the kidnappers after an extended torture scene. Kodukkapuli, Pasupathy, and Subbu in Aaranya Kaandam, Michael and Anu in Pizza, and Vetri in Neram corroborate the refreshing new vision that to ensure survival within the circumscriptions of the corrupt superstructure, an attitude of enterprise, pragmatism, and utilitarianism, rather than ideological purity and righteous indignation, must be followed.

Armed with new technology, social media connectivity, and exposure to transnational film cultures, the new generation of Tamil directors have created compelling new worlds out of the wreckages of the old, inspired by narrative traditions elsewhere. Aaranya Kaandam, Pizza, Soodhu Kavvuum, and Neram, were made by outsiders to Tamil cinema who began their careers making ad-films and short films. In interviews, these directors reveal that they started out making short films, the literal petit recit, as bricolages out of their own interest, paid from their own pockets, and with the recording material at hand. The debutant directors of Pizza and Soodhu Kavvuum had both taken part in a cable channel film making competition, and got their big break through an independent producer, committed to raising the aesthetic quality of Tamil films.

Proudly declaring themselves independent filmmakers, all four auteurs have indicated a deep love for Tamil cinema, but an equal fascination with Western directors like the Coen brothers. In particular, Pizza director Karthik Subburaj, has explicitly indicated a love for their open-ended aesthetic, while both Subburaj, Kumarasamy, and Putheran named Quentin Tarantino as their biggest influences. Tarantino-himself famously made the transition from film buff to film maker, starting off with short films before going on to become the master of postmodern action films.

The directors of postmodern Tamil cinema did not learn the tricks of the trade under the tutelage of a director, working as an assistant director, or by going to film school. They understood the medium by watching the proliferation of cable channels that bombard the senses with visual narratives, and gleaned ideas off of DVDs of other films (as referenced in Pizza, where the couple spend hours watching horror film DVDs), and by watching the hundreds of Indian movies and foreign movies available on the Internet and all over YouTube.

Redefining guerrilla filmmaking, these directors have turned low budget independent filmmaking from a highbrow luxury doomed to perform poorly in the box office into a winning strategy. A testament to the power of the medium to awe, inspire, and shock, they would have us believe that judicious plagiarism is indeed the highest form of praise.

In late 2011, a Tamil pop song took the Internet by storm, evidencing all the features of postmodernity discussed here: the discrediting of metanarratives, the good-for-nothing hero, the pastiche from popular cultural memory, the deconstructivism, and death of ideology. As a promotional for the psychological drama 3 (Dir. Aishwarya Rajinikanth, 2012), the making of a song from the soundtrack was released entitled, “Why this Kolaveri di?” (Why this murderous rage girl?). Rendered in broken English and Tamil, its nonsensical lyrics portray a inebriated broken hearted youth singing about his unrequited love.

The music video went viral. Within weeks, parodies, clones, and localized versions in different languages around the world emerged. The no frills music video was shot in a recording studio showing mostly only the lead actor who is also the singer, the lead actress, and music composer with karaoke-style subtitles in a stripped bare version of cultural production, deconstructing the mystique of aurality in Tamil cinema to ‘reveal’ the voices behind the songs on film. Harnessing the sharing power of YouTube and social media, the anthem for angsty middle class youth rendered through Tamil folk beats had a cross-cultural appeal that baffled even the Tamil intelligentsia.

How a song devoid of coherence, and purpose to reach 83 million views at present, was beyond anyone’s explanation – hundreds of thousands of Tamil songs have been churned by the industry and the most globally popular one was in a mongrel ‘Tanglish’. Many Tamils decried that a classical language that was nearly unchanged since antiquity had been virtually butchered for the sake of marketing.

None of these criticisms mattered because the picturization of “Why this Kolaveri di?” in 3 became an ad-film of sorts, used as product placement for many local and foreign businesses such as Audi, AirAsia etc. It appeared in 3 that late capitalism found a perfect ally in Tamil visual culture: loud, colorful, and carnivalesque. Those who understood this correlation have enterprisingly seized the initiative to make money out of it – a postmodern marriage of convenience as bizarre as the one in 3 where a Hindu wedding takes place on the crowded dancefloor of a night club.

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Splash image from Aaranya Kaandam, the Tarantinoesque neo-noir film.