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.