Thursday, July 28, 2011

Movies, Cinema Posters and Cut-outs

Vaasanthi writes in her "Cut-outs, Caste and Cine stars".

The old lady opened her eyes and looked out from the window of her air-conditioned car. "What are all those dear?", she inquired about the figures that dominated the skyline. 
'Oh, those are cut-outs, Mother', said the official lightly.'Cut-outs of our chief minister.' 
Mother Teresa craned her neck and looked up at the sky. Jayalalitha's head was hidden among the clouds. 
'Good heavens,' said a shocked Mother Teresa, "it's so huge!" 
Her escort was amused by her reaction. 'Have you never seen such cut-outs ?' she asked. Still watching the passing parade of cut-outs, Mother Teresa replied, 'No, nowhere in the world.'

Cinema wall posters and cut-outs can arguably be regarded as "unique" cultural symbols of South India, more particularly in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh. These should probably be the only states (in the world) wherein cine-stars contested elections after starting a political party on their own and went on to become chief ministers of their states. In that sense, Cinema assumes an important part of the social lives in these societies and hence Cinema posters will have an all pervasive presence. Cinema posters in movies provide a curious reminder of this ubiquitous presence of cinema posters in tamilnadu. 

A few observations on this ..

A "shot" of the cinema posters in movies, many a times, convey or summarise the mood or course of the film. 
In period films, cinema posters are an "essential" prop to re-create the social atmosphere of the yesteryears. 
M.G.Ramachandran and Rajinikanth are probably the most represented stars on the cinema posters (in movies).

Over to the Photo essay.

Iruvar (1997), Mani Ratnam

Thavamaai Thavamirunthu (2005), Cheran

Veyil (2006), Vasanthabalan

Thotta Chinungi (1995), K.S.Adhiyaman

Subramaniapuram (2008), Sasikumar

Mouna Raagam (1986), Mani Ratnam

Phantom India (1969), Louis Malle 

Mannan (1992), P.Vasu

Aan Paavam (1985), Pandiyarajan

Suvar Illadha chithirangal (1979), K.Bhagyaraj

Vaaranam Aayiram (2008), Gautham Menon

Boss Engira Baskaran (2010), Rajesh

Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya (2010), Gautham Menon

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Vijayashanthi and Bhavani

The cult of Vijayashanthi is one of the lasting movie-going memories that I carry from my childhood. I have vague remembrances of watching several Vijayashanthi flicks with my mom and Vyjayanthi IPS [1990] is one of them. It was dubbed from the telugu movie Kartavyam [1990], for which she had won the National Award and this was supposedly the earliest movie in which the "Action heroine" tag was associated with her. 

Vijayashanthi's on-screen persona (which she successfully extrapolated towards her political career later) should have been constructed with a detailed strategy, taking into account, the existent social norms and gender dynamics in the late 1980s. In an outright patriarchal society where all authority is vested in men, a powerful woman on-screen (who can thrash men aside) naturally enthralls the female audience. Further, in the Police officer roles she enacted in Vyjayanthi IPS et al, her characters were packed with double the power-quotient, in a sense. At one level, it puts her across as a brave and physically sound woman who is not intimidated (or controlled) by the males. Secondly, the "power" that is inherently associated with the police - with which she audaciously "controls" the proceedings. 

Additionally, in the film promotions, Vijayashanthi was referred to as the "Lady Super Star", which again has some hidden sense. In the tamil cultural context, Super Star refers to Rajinikanth who can be seen as the macho symbol and on those lines, she is thus glorified as the lady with masculine traits. The Rajini-Vijayashanthi starrer Mannan [1992], exploited this association quite successfully.

Was watching (fast-forwarding) the Sneha starrer Bhavani [2011], which fails miserably because of one simple reason - it's not contemporary. A remake of Vyjayanthi IPS after 20 years won't work.

The film had an interesting catch though - instead of suggesting the "power" of the female protagonist symbolically or with her police attire, the film explicitly apotheoses Bhavani, thus combining two different genres of tamil cinema - the "Amman" cinema and the "female cop" cinema.

Image1: Bhavani's image is juxtaposed with that of big-mustached Karuppa Saamy (male deity).
Image2: Bhavani calls herself the Parasurama (One of Vishnu's avatars - male deity) with the axe.
Image3: Bhavani as the female goddess.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

On Keezhvenmani, Thirumangalam and Banganapalle

On one of those random scans through Kamal Haasan’s Virumaandi (2004), I was curiously captivated by the following short conversation that takes place between Sub-jailor Peikaaman (played by Shanmugharajan) and Dr.Angela Kathamuthu (Rohini), just before Virumaandi (Kamal Haasan) is brought for the interview, approximately 58 minutes into the movie.

Virumaandi (2004)
 (the conversation in tamil)

பேய்க்காமன்: மேடத்துக்கு தஞ்சாவூர்னு கேள்விப்பட்டேன் .. ப்ராப்பர் டேன்ஜூர்ங்கலா ? 

(Angela puts her pen down and with an assured look towards Peikaaman says Keezhvenmani) 

ஏஞ்சலா: ப்ராப்பர் இல்ல ... கீழ்வெண்மணி  

(As Peikaaman is noticeably jolted by Angela’s reply, there is a noise of opening of the door and Virumaandi enters)

With respect to Keezhvenmani, the film’s context doesn’t offer anything beyond this conversation, but the term per se, holds a lot of socio-cultural implications.

Keezhvenmani, a village in Nagapattinam district in Tamilnadu, shot to the national limelight (25th December, 1968), when about 44 dalits were burnt alive locked in a hut, in a wage dispute between the landlords and peasants. Keezhvenmani massacre, one of the most horrendous genocides in the post-independent India and a national shame, was not covered in all diligence in the mainstream media and the then Annadurai government is accused of blacking the issue out. The representation of Keezhvenmani massacre in popular culture – cinema, novels etc is also considered inadequate and dishonest. A couple of important novels (Kuruthipunal and Sennel) were written on the subject and Indira Parthasarathy’s Kuruthipunal won the Sahitya Academy too.

Keezhvenmani massacre (25th December, 1968)

If someone has to look through the annals of tamil cinema on representations of the Keezhvenmani massacre, we might end up with Aravindan (1997) and Nellu (2010). Both the above movies were not even quoting the name of the village and hence end up as dummy portrayals. Aravindan made a joke out of it, depicting the whole thing in the first 15 minutes and went ahead with Sarath kumar heroisms. As I see it, only Kamal Haasan was bold enough to atleast quote the name of the village – Keezhvenmani, in Virumaandi (2004).

Disregarding the representations in cinema and novels, the Keezhvenmani uprising is a social churning representing dalit assertion towards social justice. It’s a symbol of the struggle against social, cultural, economic and all possible forms of oppression and exploitation and that is what is being constructed as a part of Angela’s character in Virumaandi (in the form of an intelligent and independent woman). Angela later recounts how she became Angela James and then Angela Kathamuthu again, to Virumaandi and this will suggest that she was exploited as a woman (domestic violence probably) in her marriage. Or, it can all be too simple ... Angela wields her dalit identity with pride and a self-assured aggression.

Likewise, Thirumangalam (Madurai district) made it to the political glossary after the assembly by-elections in 2009. Infamously referred to as the “Thirumangalam formula” patented by DMK’s M.K.Azhagiri, Thirumangalam henceforth might be used as the symbol of money-power in “buying” out votes. I think the mainstream media, including Jaya TV has already used the phrase “Thirumangalam formula” (the whole Jananayagam and Pananayagam discourse) during the 2011 assembly polls propaganda.

We can probably come up with various other expressions like the above – the name of a place being suggestive of something else in the popular culture - like Auschwitz (holocaust, concentration camps etc), the former USSR (Communism), the Tajmahal (love), Tihar, Mecca etc. The USSR-Tajmahal reference is obviously from Kamal’s Anbe Sivam.

On a lighter note, the bubbly Hansika Motwani is addressed as Palli-ye, Banganapalli-ye in the “Nangai” song from the movie “Engeyum Kadhal” and Banganapalle is the home of a famous variety of fleshy and tasty mangoes. :)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

National Awards - 2010

Aadukalam, when it bagged about six National awards including the "Best Director" at the National Film awards last week, reinforced the legacy and value of Director Balu Mahendra in the Tamil filmdom. Balu Mahendra, for all his genius was one of the most uncelebrated and unappreciated figures ever to grace tamil cinema, in his days. His Cinematographic legacy - the beauty with which he caught those empty living rooms in natural lights - would live on those reels forever. More than that, his proteges - Ameer, Bala, Vetrimaaran, Ram - who now form an eclectic band of celebrated directors of today's tamil cinema (with three of the above four having won National Awards for their films), articulate his name aloud. They are giving him frequent "ஈன்ற பொழுதில் பெரிதுவக்கும்" moments. For the sheer efforts which Balu Mahendra has put in transferring his cinema and artistry to his proteges, he is right at the top as an all-time great - ahead of even Mani Ratnam or K.Balachander.

Aadukalam, doubtlessly was a mainstream product packed with more commercial interests than auteuristic sensibilities. Roosters are outright Phallic symbols in any possible cultural discourse and Aadukalam, exhibiting several ethnographic detailing on those lines, would have been one of the reasons why the film is given so much critical attention at the National Awards. Dhanush, winning the "Best Actor" only surprised a lot of people, keeping in mind that Aadukalam was not even Dhanush's best performance. In a retrospective scan through his career, Dhanush has packed his powerful performances in may be, "Kadhal konden" and "Pudhuppettai" and this award should hopefully foster the capable actor in him. 

For me, the biggest surprise was Saranya bringing home the Urvasi award for the sixth time. For an actress, who is well past her prime, doing character-centric mother roles - this is definitely an achievement. Saranya, for me, is one of those very natural performers with almost zero stage consciousness, acting out her parts with a stunning ease. Her Kongu origins is probably making me feel that she can very easily connect and emote with the audience. Saranya was not a very successful actress in the first half of her career - she always appeared deglamourised and in a masala-cinema era dominated by her male counterparts, she was permanently sidelined like any other actress those days. Her best performances undoubtedly came in her second innings - "Thavamai Thavamirindhu", "Raam" and "Kalavaani" stand out. These days, her amma roles are over-stuffed with a serial-like melodrama but the finesse she brings to her histrionics is evident - she is a standout performer.

And, finally the Dada Saheb Phalke arrived to grace the grand old man of Tamil Cinema - K.Balachander. KB emerged in the mid-sixties and was very much productive throughout his career in terms of the film outputs - he directed over 100 films which will probably stay as a record forever. The Gender dynamics that K.B dealt in his films in the late sixties till Mid-seventies with an unprecedented boldness should have literally shook the existent norms and taboos of the society (atleast what is being portrayed in cinema). But, he looked like he was caught in that time warp - the obsession that KB had in those relationship complexities and the middle class working women plots - he could never come out of it. That way, he never looked contemporary in say, the late eighties and thereafter. He would also be remembered as the man who sculpted two stalwarts of their era - Rajinikanth and Kamalhaasan.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Myshkin's Yudham Sei

Myshkin is consciously working towards positioning himself as an auteur (atleast semi-auteur) in the tamil filmdom. All his films so far, were able to garner a decent commercial as well as critical acclaim. His films, though are flawed in several aspects, are constructed with a conscious rationale. His storytelling with "symbols" and innovative (read as abstract) shots only resound his potential. Even with flawed cinema, the relevance of his works is very much justified in the present day tamil cinema.

Tamil Cinema's confrontations with issues related to love and lust are here to stay. Myshkin however supplies a novel theme to this filmdom to exploit & abuse the already-pounded-to-death female sexuality - the peepshow. We are not exactly sure if this so-called "peepshow" is so much rampant in a normal Indian society but, when people (film directors) are on a search to bring in a new act of sexual perversion/ sexual deviance to garner that ever-important exploitative value to their films, days are not far, for Necrophilia to be treated in a tamil cinema. With so many films on gender, sexuality, exploitation, rape, karpu - so much of opportunity has been lost in communicating any kind of mature feminist perspective and again & again, it boils down to adultery - justification-for-revenge - lectures-for-audience dramas.

Yudham Sei is a crazily convoluted movie (probably with an intention). For about three-fourths of the runtime, you are anxiously trying to assimilate the big-list of names, facts and details that are thrown at you - Rajamanickam, Thirisangu, Isakimuthu, Moorthy, policemen, commissioner office, auto-driver, dance-class etc. Is everyone in the audience a CID officer ?. Cinema works with the audience as they identify - the character, his/ her name (if neccessary), the actor who play the character - all the three. When you get introduced to a character via a dialogue only, that "association" goes missing and hence, instead of getting involved with the narrative, you keep thinking who-is-who ?. There is a difference between "gripping" and "confusing", In both the cases, the audience will follow the narrative closely. There is simply so much of action going on - A couple of crime investigations are on, several pairs of amputated hands were displayed in public places on carton boxes, girls go missing, Cheran is roaming around like a loser, his sister is also missing, film is shot in the night time, auto drivers, several oldmen discussing "show" etc etc. "Yudham Sei" is confusing (before everything will be clarified in a flashback and you have to correlate all the facts in a jiffy).

Cheran who started out as a very reluctant actor in his "Autograph" has grown comfortable in front of camera these days. The characterization of J.Krishnamoorthy (with an obvious reference to philosopher Jiddu Krishnamoorthy) as a CID officer tries to break every possible aspect with which such characters will be stereotyped in our cinema. He is not athletic, he doesn't walk with a robotic precision, he doesn't deliver lectures on his commitment to the "department" and more importantly he is not thrashing the baddies in air. Infact, in the only opportunity that J.K is provided with to "fight", he uses a small nail-cutter to outsmart about eight people who were armed with daggers and jacksaws. That was one wonderful action sequence, one to remember definitely. The build of J.K's character with so much of emotions has come out spectacular - J.K is an ordinary man, he walks and feels like a loser, he is crestfallen in most of his screen-space, he speaks little, he runs instinctively, he is so much attached to his sister - so many dimensions - Cheran just performs with a definiteness.

Dipa Shah (Thamizh) who plays an assistant to J.K., looks more like Andrea Jeremiah (in the movie). Thank God, she hasn't fallen in love with J.K in the movie. Infact, there is a dialogue in the movie which will state that J.K is still a bachelor and so you will naturally expect her to "fall" in love ... luckily, she didn't. Jayaprakash, who is identified as the nextgen Radharavi/ Nasser/ Rajesh overacts and spoils the broth in many a places. As he (Judas) harangues at you with an artificial aggression (in a close-up), "What would you do, had your sister or your girl been sexually assaulted like this ?, will you not chop him into pieces ?", you only want the credits to roll on and the curtains to fall down. 

YG.Mahendran and Lakshmi Ramakrishnan are unbearable with exaggerated emotions and according to me, are terrible miscasts. Shaved heads, black uniforms, open-wide eyes, machine-like walks after getting stabbed and shot - irritation all the way - violence is something that these two people (YGM and LR) can't communicate. Simple.

A few more things I would want to mention:

- The victims are tortured in a Saw-esque fashion
- The victims are "selectively" tortured - either eyes or hands or xyz - Garuda Puranam ?
- Judas (Jayaprakash) call "them" Devadhaigal .. why ?
- All Myshkin's item-song sirens are dressed in a yellow saree .. why ?
- the peepshow - Waterbed, Rose petals, BDSM, Grape pool, bondage - so much creativity !