Saturday, November 23, 2019

Politically Incorrect: Reflections on RK Selvamani’s Makkal Aatchi

The politics genre in Tamil cinema boasts of some true gems amidst a slew of wannabes.  I have lost count of the number of films that take cheap shots of contemporary issues without wit, depth or meaning. To do satire well, you have to have a grasp of the source material that extends beyond mere surface-level detail.  Manivannan was a master at this.  He was a well-read, societally conscious filmmaker who, at his best, carried a pen that was much sharper than the Hattori Hanzo sword in Kill Bill!  There is a reason why his Amaidhi Padai is still hailed as the best political film in Tamil cinema.  For instance, he understood the futility of caste-based violence so well that he skewered it mercilessly in the film.  Not far behind is his erstwhile assistant RK Selvamani.  It pains me to note that there is not much literature (even online) on his 1995 film Makkal Aatchi, which I reckon, is the best film of Selvamani’s checkered career. 

Makkal Aatchi is the story of a petty thief (Mammootty) who, through a mix of a huge slice of luck and dollops of street-smart intelligence of his confidante and advisor (R. Sundararajan), becomes the chief minister of the state.  He is a bumbling crook who can’t believe his luck, not a cunning politician covetous of power.  Roja plays his love interest.  Mammootty steps into the parlous world of politics without quite knowing what’s in store with his fellow politicians.  Anandaraj, Radharavi, Livingston and Mansoor Ali Khan are all embodiments of realpolitik, not averse to double-crossing and shifting allegiance to suit their needs.  All is fine and dandy for Mammootty as long as he is corrupt.  But when he decides overnight to turn a new leaf – and the reason packs tremendous punch – his life becomes miserable. (The twist around his wife is also superbly written.  It blindsides us but is convincing nevertheless.)

What sets Makkal Aatchi apart from many other political films are the many subtexts that Selvamani and his writers embed into the film.  Small time crooks and rowdies are jailed, yet scores of blatantly corrupt politicians get away with murder (literally so).  Big money and dirty politics get intertwined so much that to escape from that stifling net becomes an impossibility once you are caught in it – to hell with noble intentions!  A woman’s infidelity and a man’s lust setting a series of heinous activities in motion speaks volumes to the base instincts that shake the core foundations of humans.  A man’s drinking habit, which on the surface seems an acceptable foible, ends up assuming gargantuan proportions.  It is a testament to the intelligence of the story author (P Kalaimani), the felicity of the dialogue writer (Liyakath Ali Khan) and the vision of the director that all these themes are part of a cogent plot, not a series of disparate elements.  

A word about the written word.  Liyakath Ali Khan’s pen must have the same ink as that of Manivannan’s!  The dialogues are spectacular.  This is a talky film.  But you never get overwhelmed by the verbosity because the zingers keep coming at a fast clip.  The Anandaraj-Radha Ravi confrontation is especially memorable.  The way Anandaraj threatens Livingston (“Nee paadai-la yeranuma illa maedai-la yeranuma nu mudivu panniko!”) and the manner in which the latter kowtows to him are as scary as they are sharply delivered.  But the dialogues sparkle the brightest in the sequence where Mammootty decides to mend his ways.  The genuineness of emotion displayed by the actor is supported in no small measure by the potency of the lines he delivers.  The traffic signal comment hits a raw nerve, especially because so many of us have lived through it. 

Selvamani also gets the casting just right.  Every actor in this film inhabits their part with much assurance.  Mammootty is charmingly casual in the first half and delivers a knockout performance in the aforementioned reformation scene.  Roja lights up the screen not just with her dancing in the irresistible “Melooru Maman” song but also in the late-night scene where she makes dinner for Mammootty.  He is the man of her life, whom she hastily got married to the wrong person for what she thought was the right reason.  It is not only a deeply poignant scene but one that has complex emotions associated with it. (I wish Selvamani had dwelled a little more on this fascinating relationship.)  Among the antagonists, Anandaraj walks away with the acting honors.  He makes a menacing presence and displays controlled aggression throughout. 

Selvamani’s films boasted of superlative technical values and here too, his sense of grandeur is seen throughout the film.  MV Panneerselvam is a sadly underrated cinematographer who has done some fine work in films like this one and R Parthiban’s Housefull.  The tracking shots and the top-angle shot (from the tree) make even a slum look appealing in the “Melooru Maaman” song.  The shots in the climax where the camera follows a raging crowd from the sidelines are brilliantly executed.  Ilayaraja’s background score is magnificent in places.  My favorite piece is the one that marks the end of the titles (6:52-min point in the video above).  The beats of the percussion instruments are epic in nature but the score ends with a violin piece that evokes the eventual sad fate of the well-meaning protagonist.  It takes a music director of his stature to come up with such a short piece that is in line with the arc of the lead character. 

Makkal Aatchi was received well commercially and critically upon its release.  But the film and its politics, which are (sadly) relevant even today, deserves more recognition and shelf life.  Despite being Manivannan’s assistant, Selvamani branched out to be very much an original filmmaker.  With Makkal Aatchi, he created what deserves to be regarded as a well-deserving companion piece to his guru’s finest film in the same genre.  The two great minds executed differently but certainly thought alike! 

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Oththa Seruppu Size 7: A one-derful cinematic experience

Oththa Seruppu Size 7 features Parthiban’s finest acting moment till date.  In a journey that began in 1989, he has lit up the screen on several occasions.  The falling-at-his-wife’s-feet scene in Pudhiya Paadhai, the emotionally wrenching harangue in Devyani’s house in Swarnamukhi, the arms-widely-spread posture in Housefull when he sees his beloved theater, come to mind in a flash.  But he eclipses them all in this film in the small, quiet moment with his psychologist.  She has surprised him, in their first meeting, by referring to his “beautiful wife.”  With barely a hint of a smile, a little hesitation while saying “ava…”, a light shrug of his shoulder, he takes us right into the soul of the character.  It is such a gorgeously acted moment that spans a matter of seconds.  Blink or squint too hard, you are bound to miss the delicacy of the nuance.  But observe it, you will savor it and remember it.  For me certainly, that moment is not fading out of mind anytime soon.  Neither that moment nor this movie, I must add. 

Charitable critics of Parthiban have, in the past, praised his ‘different’ attempts while griping that save some disparate sparks of brilliance, that his films did not entertain them or hold their attention for the entire duration.  Of course, tastes vary.  But I dare anyone to an academic argument about the coherence and cohesion of Oththa Seruppu Size 7.  The different cinematic elements like sight and sound all come together in a never-before-seen manner.  This is a very complete picture, one that features Parthiban the actor, writer and director at the peak of his talents. 

The plot of this film is a seemingly simple one – a man who is accused of murder is interrogated by the police.  The film, except for a few stray shots of a room outside where his son is waiting for him, never leaves the scene of the investigation.  And as you may already know from the promos, Parthiban is the only one who is seen on screen.  One of the elements that aids Parthiban, the director, tremendously is his use of props.  Through years of watching Tamil cinema, we have come to associate certain objects with the police station.  Glass cups, lathis, walkie talkies, photos of Gandhi.  Parthiban deftly utilizes all these in his inimitably ingenious manner – the photograph of Gandhi even has an arc with a touching closure.  Ramji’s cinematography is stupendous.  And it is not just the more showy shots like the sun-bathed protagonist or the view through the glasses.  If you observe closely in the first scene with the psychologist, the camera’s gaze follows Parthiban’s lips and eyes.  The invisible craftmanship gets a superb payoff in a later scene when Parthiban thanks the psychologist for observing his eyes and trusting him.  Resul Pookutty’s sound design is another pillar that this film rests on.  Be it the sounds of a wedding or a dying man wailing, the sound design blends seamlessly into the narrative. 

While it is true that Ramji and Resul are pillars that the director rests his film on, the foundation is pure Parthiban.  What brings his singular vision to life are his dialogues.  It is not easy to write lines for a character who has the bulk of the responsibility to move the plot ahead without losing the core emotion.  The lines at times sizzle with wit, drip with humor and at other times, brim with poignancy.  The detailing is astounding.  A seemingly innocuous “PerumaL Thunai” on a piece of paper acquires meaning later on.  Note the way he requests the police to not use a rusty pin to open his son’s eye drops.  In a move that betrays his yearning for a more ideal marital life, he urges the policeman to not take his wife’s affection for granted.  Above all, the vivid imagery evoked by the sounds is matched by his lines.  Take the vaazhapoo vadai scene, for instance.  The description of his romance with his wife in the kitchen is as tasteful as the aroma and flavor of the vadai that he evokes – incidentally, we don’t see these lentil cakes at all!  He just trusts the audience to complete the audiovisual experience in their minds. (Even the two scenes in Kandukonden… that featured these vadais didn’t have such an impact on our taste buds!)

Did I mention earlier that the picture of Mahatma Gandhi gets a moving closure?  That is quite a bit of an understatement if you have watched the climax.  No sooner had Parthiban uttered, “Gandhi ode siripula arthame maariruku” than I felt a lump in my throat.  It takes a supremely thoughtful filmmaker to resist the temptation to milk sadness and instead, project goodness.  In doing so, Parthiban commands our attention, drives our emotion for two hours all by himself.  In essence, he does not just stand alone.  He stands apart.