Friday, September 23, 2011

Lights, Camera, Conversation — Tamil-cinema blues

I hadn't seen a Tamil movie in a while. I convinced myself that wild horses couldn't drag me to the Vikram-starring “Deiva Thirumagal,” which a number of people said was adapted from “I Am Sam.” The problem wasn't the adaptation (if you look at it charitably; “theft” if you want to be brutal) – it's that I do not, anymore, have the stomach for the spectacle of big-name actors brandishing their talents like fireworks in a night sky, playing (I'm looking for the politically correct word here) people with special needs.
I could barely endure Sean Penn doing it (in “I Am Sam”) and Ajay Devgan doing it (in the Hindi adaptation, “Main Aisa Hi Hoon”), and I couldn't bring myself to see Vikram doing it – and it's not because he isn't a good performer. He is. It's just that suspension of disbelief becomes difficult with a long-established actor. We don't lose ourselves in the character because it's the actor who looms before our eyes and we say “look how well this actor is playing that character,” which is not the case when an unknown plays the part.
“Mankatha” I could not see because life took over the weekend it was released, and once you miss something in its first week it becomes increasingly difficult to catch up because other films, newer films, keep getting released and the older ones get elbowed into the background. But this is a film I intend to see for a number of reasons.
One, it's a blockbuster (from what I hear), and as a critic you have to watch the big hits because they tell you what the popular pulse is (and how far from it you usually are). Two, it has Ajith in a negative role (again, from what I hear; I keep away from reviews and interviews until I watch the film so that the mind can remain as much a blank slate as possible). And three, Venkat Prabhu has become a front-line director, and though he's never really lived up to the utterly charming promise he showed in “Chennai-600028” – his subsequent films, “Saroja” and “Goa” were the very definition of diminishing returns – his has become a career worth following.
So when Friday arrived and brought with it two new Tamil releases, I opted for “Vandhan Vendraan” (directed by R Kannan and starring the numerologically empowered Jiiva) over “Engeyum Eppodhum” (directed by M Saravanan, and with Jai and Anjali in the lead). The first ten minutes, pivoting on the casual cruelties of children, are gripping, and then, like a train that's gathered speed only to discover that the tracks have disappeared, the film nosedives into an abyss.
Just about everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Santhanam saunters in with his comedy track – very funny at times, I admit – but his clowning lets the air out of a plot that should have ballooned with pressure. In this mutilation of the film's mood, he is aided by a clutch of badly placed songs and a screenplay that lumbers clumsily between the present and the past and characters who happen upon each other so conveniently it's as if they closed their eyes and thought of who they wanted to meet and were there when they opened their eyes.
And then there's the heroine. Am I the only one disheartened by fair-skinned women who look great frozen on magazine covers but, when thawed on screen, perform like they've arrived from an alien planet? In close-ups, their eyes bulge and their nostrils flare up like infant dragons preparing to spew smoke, and their fingers slash through the air in feral gesticulations even as their lips assume positions that could never form the words we hear in the dialogue on the soundtrack.
Tamil film heroes routinely demonstrate their bravery not by battling burly villains but by facing these actresses mid-performance and not running for their lives. Forget the suspension-of-disbelief issue with Vikram in “Deiva Thirumagal – these girls don't just break the fourth wall, they lunge through the gaping hole and land on our laps as we cower in terror. I am baffled that the female populace of Tamil Nadu hasn't taken to processions of protest at being so offensively misrepresented. This isn't a plea for the banishment of beauty, but isn't anyone alarmed that the Tamil woman on screen has mutated into an alabaster automaton?


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