Tuesday, November 20, 2018

‘Men’mai – Thoughts on the portrayal of men in Tamil Cinema

“How far do Tamil films accurately portray men as well-rounded personalities with real challenges, goals or needs other than getting laid?”  This was a question posed on Twitter by Iswarya V, one of the most outspoken activists on the perils of stalking and its glorification in Tamil cinema.  It’s a very loaded, thought provoking question.  Loaded, because the question I also pose to myself while watching films is, a particular character might be truly representative of some of the realities of our society.  But is it necessary to show everything as is?  Sure, a filmmaker might consider his primary responsibility to bring a story authentically to screen and not always have societal consciousness as his primary goal.  But isn’t it also the case that in a film culture like the one in Tamil Nadu where heroes and heroines are adored, worshiped and imitated, that at the very least a filmmaker should not come across as blithely irresponsible?  Having grown up in an urban milieu, I might not be able to instantly relate to characters from say, a slum or a rural setting.  But it is a filmmaker’s conviction and his ability to use all the tools at his disposal to tell a story, that could transport me to a setting, a way of life and understand why the characters do what they do. 

Back to Iswarya’s question – Tamil films in the last few years have gotten truly diverse in terms of content, quality and taste.  This heterogeneity extends to the representation of male characters.  On the one hand, we have filmmakers like Hari, Lingusamy and their ilk make commercial cinema with larger-than-life heroes projected in scarcely believable scenarios.  The men sometimes get well-written characters (I liked Madhavan in “Vaettai” a lot) but for the most part, their job is to vanquish a cartoonish villain, be adored by a clueless heroine to whom they would invariably direct casually misogynistic remarks while simultaneously extolling the virtues of womanhood!  Since the masala template is set up for these men to emerge victorious on every front, there is not much of an opportunity for nuance of any kind. 

The other prototype of a male character that became hugely famous in the wake of Ameer’s spectacular debut “Paruthiveeran” was the uncouth aggressor.  While these characters are not the kind that I might encounter in my everyday life – I thank the heavens, stars and every surface in space for that! – they certainly are more multi-dimensional than the types you see in masala films.  The most famous of these characters, of course, is Parthiban’s unforgettable character in his debut feature, “Pudhiya Paadhai.”  In choosing to focus an entire half of his movie to the detestable sides of the lead character, Parthiban took a mighty gamble.  But to me, the redemption in the second half is what makes the movie shine brightly to this day, nearly thirty years after its release.  Whether a rapist deserves such benevolence is a moot point.  Whether “Pudhiya Paadhai” is a socially responsible film can be debated for hours.  But to me, this film is powerful in a number of ways.  Firstly, the protagonist realizes that he has been an incorrigible beast to a very undeserving, innocent woman.  Even though his orphan status is mentioned repeatedly as a reason why he turned out the way he did, it is not brushed aside as an excuse.  The character is made to realize the error of his ways and genuinely turns over a new leaf in the second half.  The arc of this character is complete in a touching scene where he falls at the feet of his wife who reformed him.  Many films have followed the style of characterizations written by the likes of Parthiban, Bala and Ameer.  But to their detriment, many fail to realize that the humanization of a flawed character is a tightrope walk that requires tremendous thought to be put into the writing. 

By the end of a film, if we the viewer do not sense a certain level of respect afforded to the women characters, then these male characters are going to unfortunately leave a negative impression on viewers, especially young minds.  If we walk away with the sense that the negative sides of a character are portrayed in an exploitative manner, then that is going to overshadow any attempts – sincere or otherwise – at showcasing the positive facets of the character.  This is especially true in films about youth or adolescent characters.  “Boys” didn’t work at all because Shankar’s camera seemed to gleefully focus on the escapades of the irresponsible youth while the attempts at realization and repentance in the second half barely registered.  There was no conviction in the scenes where the Siddharth character pays for his past mistakes.  The ‘playful’ scene outside the court was just about the worst possible finish to an already wobbly script.  On the other end of responsibility spectrum are the films of writer-directors like Cheran and Samudrakani - well-intentioned but preachy.  Their intentions and sincerity of purpose are laudable.  But the male protagonists invariably come across as mouthpieces for the directors than flesh-and-blood human beings.  Somewhere in the middle is a film like “7/G rainbow colony” – it does have scenes where the son calls his father names, in a drunken state.  It does have scenes of the hero stalking and harassing the heroine.  But there is something matter-of-fact in the sure handed writing and film making of Selvaraghavan that suggests that what is onscreen is life as is.  The director shows, but doesn’t celebrate or even condone the negative sides of the rudderless youth.  The couple's exchange after the lovemaking scene and the conversation the next morning just didn’t work for me.  The lines came across as completely phony.  But I could at least sense that the director was striving to have the audience understand his male lead, who was making a transition from boy to man in the most painful manner possible- painful for him and for those around him. 

The kind of writing though that appeals instantly to me is one that attempts to portray the male protagonist as inherently responsible, warts and all.  These men are not angels.  They make mistakes, take missteps and don’t always ‘get’ the people around them.  But they want to do right by the people around them, especially the women.  They rightfully treat their women as their equals or, in some cases, put them on a pedestal that they deserve.  Filmmakers like Mani Ratnam (Alai Paayuthey), Vasanth (Keladi Kanmani, Rhythm), Gowtham Menon (Yennai Arindhal), Radha Mohan (Mozhi), Karthik Subburaj (Iraivi) and most recently C Prem Kumar (’96) have created fascinating, well-rounded, urban - and in some cases, urbane - characters that have made an abiding impact on me.  

I smiled at the way Madhavan barked at Shalini in a heated argument about visiting her ailing Dad (who had previously slapped him in public) only to tell her first thing next morning that they should call on him.  I like the way Vasanth’s male characters, even the younger ones like Ramesh Aravind in “Rhythm”, usually address women as “neenga.”  I find it incredibly poignant that in "Keladi Kanmani," SPB refers to Radhika's parents as "...enakum avanga thaan Appa Amma."  I applaud the way in "Mozhi," Prithviraj says that he wants to “share his life” with the mute, hearing-impaired Jyothika and is not “granting” her a life.  I find it sweet that in ’96, the only time Vijay Sethupathi touches Trisha in the entire movie is when he stops her from hurting herself in the bathroom.  I teared up in the scene where Ajith refers to Trisha’s daughter (in “Yennai Arindhal”) as “unakulla irundhu vandhava.”  Even in an intensely disturbing movie like “Iraivi” – that polarized public opinion greatly – the SJ Suryah character delivers several unforgettable lines in the climax on the innate weaknesses of men.  Regardless of whether the writing truly worked in these movies, it is heartening to me to see the male protagonists treat women with empathy and respect without having any inflated opinions about themselves.  Isn’t genuine menmai the mark of a true man than superficial notions of aaNmai?  Isn’t everyday heroism, the heroism of the deepest kind?  I only wish that more writers and directors follow the path of these trailblazers.  That way, we have films that appeal to and resonate with a wide audience, regardless of gender.  That way, Iswarya will happily admit that her question to me has become completely redundant!

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A memory to remember - My review of '96 [Bonus - Ravishanker's 96 cartoon]

Kamal Haasan once presided over a debate where the topic was, art house pictures vs. commercial cinema.  His verdict was, “Artistically made commercial cinema is what will endure.”  His judgment could be summed up in one number – 96!  96 takes place during the course of a night, focusing on a man (Vijay Sethupathi) and woman (Trisha Krishnan) who, partly owing to choices and largely due to destiny, took different paths in life and are meeting after two decades at a high-school reunion.  What happens during the course of that one night is the crux of this tale, lovingly brought to screen - and to life - by writer and director Prem Kumar.

For a first-time director, Prem Kumar comes across as a filmmaker completely assured of himself and his command over the medium.  This is a beautifully photographed movie - the unobtrusively lovely work is by Mahendran Jayaraju and Shanmuga Sundaram.  Simple shots like the school kid driving a cycle across a puddle of water are aesthetically done.  And the close-ups of the lead pair capture every minute change in expression.  Every choice of lighting is tasteful yet purposeful – a case in point, the use of the flashlight in the power cut sequence.  The tools that the director utilizes to bring the 90s to life too, are not flashy, yet make us smile– a floppy disk in the hands of a Computer Science student, a student singing a snatch of “Thendral Vandhu Theendum…”  Govind Vasantha's exquisite score ("Kathale Kathale..." is a haunting melody) too fits the mood of several scenes in an undemonstrative yet impactful manner.

In addition to being an aesthete, Prem Kumar is also a masterful storyteller.  He knows exactly when to cut away to the school portions.  Every flashback reveals a little facet of a character or chips away at a plot point.  He has a couple of recurring elements such as the hands-on-the-chest gesture or the craving for the “Yamunai Aatrile…” song that have sweet, little arcs of their own.  But to me, the pinnacle of his writing skill is the college sequence, which plays in two versions.  It is so splendidly written that it leaves a lump in the throat by the end of the second version.  There are subtle touches (like the way a young Vijay Sethupathi asks the name of a supporting character) that make the two versions distinct.  The two versions say pretty much what needs to be said about fate and how seemingly little choices seem monumental in hindsight. 

If the cinematography of the movie is the eye and the writing the brain, the actors are the heart and soul of ‘96.  Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha, individually and as a pair, well and truly make the movie.  This role is a breeze for the former, who uses his casual body language and undemonstrative dialogue delivery to full effect to bring to life a man who is stuck in a time warp.  This is Trisha’s finest work yet.  She imbues her character with immense warmth.  Of course, the writing plays a part in shaping her performance. (Chinmayi’s voice work is pitch-perfect too.)  But the actress is wonderful here – be it sobbing her heart out in the bathroom or smiling impishly while asking if Vijay is a virgin, she is as ‘alive’ as I have ever seen her.  She also does something nuanced – she underplays the parts where she playfully lords it over Vijay Sethupathi.  There is a refreshing casualness in the way, for instance, she squats on the floor and asks him to sit closer.  Or the way she insists on a clean-shaven appearance.  This dynamic does wonders for their chemistry.  The duo goes into top gear in the concluding portions, working perfectly with one another, knowing exactly when to cede the spotlight to the other.  If Trisha sparkles in the restaurant scene, Vijay Sethupathi is brilliant with the monologue that he delivers about attending a wedding.  Devadarshini and Bagavathi PerumaL have delightful cameos.  But the movie, especially the second half, belongs really to the lead pair and they lift it to great heights.

It is very rare that acting, writing and filmmaking all cohere as well as they do in ‘96.  It is a testament to Prem Kumar’s thoughtfulness and taste that ‘96 comes across as a film that is not only pleasing to the eye but also tugs at our heartstrings, lingering long after the end credits roll.  This is the type of cinema that endures.  This is the kind of cinema that a certain Mr. Kamal Haasan will especially be proud of!

Ravishanker's terrific cartoon of 96:

His website - with numerous nifty sketches and witty writings - is: