Tamil novelist and co-scriptwriter Jeyamohan describes Mani Ratnam’s latest cinematic venture as a ‘grand spiritual saga’. That seems like a fitting way to sum up Kadal / The Sea. Whenever I want to speak or write about Ratnam my instinct is to position him as an arthouse auteur, which may seem appropriate for a cinephile based outside of India and especially Tamil. Of course, the truth is that Ratnam is a populist mainstream filmmaker and in the past has shown the capacity to transcend his indigenous Tamil roots by crossing over to make Hindi films. He is still one of Indian cinema’s leading filmmakers and although Kadal was met with a mixed response from critics on its release, it is one of the most technically accomplished films of the year with a grand narrative that is both elemental and metaphysically construed. The backdrop is a fishing community and the story weaves together an embittered conflict between two priests and a love story between two orphans. Thematically, the biblical context of Christianity as a source of redemption, is somewhat conventionally played out, climaxing in a cinematically charged case of pathetic fallacy. In terms of genre conventions, Ratnam clearly draws from gangster/crime films, which he has done so in past films such as Nayakan, and one clear recent and ongoing thematic preoccupation seems to be with the accumulation and dissolution of power.
Ratnam has over the years built up a team of regular collaborators and technically speaking his films are very accomplished, perhaps offering some of the finest lessons in camerawork, editing and lighting in Indian cinema. Both of Ratnam’s last two films, Guru and Raavan, were distributed internationally, mainly because of the star presence of Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan. However, Kadal is a different case altogether since it features two debutantes; Gautham Karthik and Thulasi Nair, in the lead roles. It was terrific to see the comeback of much missed actor Arvind Swamy (a natural screen presence) who starred in earlier Ratnam films including Roja and Bombay. In many ways, Ratnam’s retreat to more regional concerns is to be commended since an engagement with Tamil cinema has often led his most popular and best loved works. It is worth pointing out the notable contributions of cinematographer Rajiv Menon and music composer A. R. Rahman.
This is an uneven action comedy from the Manmohan Desai school of filmmaking. Director Rohit Shetty is one of Hindi cinema’s most bankable directors and while it is tempting at first to lump him together with the likes of Sajid Khan, his postmodern sensibilities are much more palatable. While competency may not seem much to embrace, Chennai Express just about works and does so because of two very straightforward reasons: SRK’s star image and the intertexts to Tamil action cinema. Although it harbours the notorious problem of being thirty minutes too long, Chennai Express is an event film that arrived on Eid and has gone on to break numerous box office records. On a cynical level, it is a tentpole blockbuster purely out to make money, but we could say the same about most mainstream Hindi films. SRK has reached that point in a star’s career whereby self reflexivity has become a source of on screen humour and off screen critical commentary. Underneath the contrived situations are a site of postmodern intertexts that riff on the on screen Rahul persona cultivated by SRK and while postmodernity as a mode of address may be more common in mainstream Hindi films, it still demands a level of cultural capital from audiences.
In my opinion, Hindi ‘masala’ cinema operates on a number of levels with audiences and its not as simplistic as the narrative some of these films venerate. Since my knowledge and viewing of Tamil cinema is a cinephile blind spot, I probably missed a lot of these so called regional intertexts. It was only later I discovered the father is played by a famous Tamil actor and political activist Sathyaraj, who incidentally has more screen presence than both SRK and Deepika combined. I don’t object to ‘masala’ cinema since it is the lifeblood of populist Hindi cinema and offers more reliable entertainment than many of the Hollywood blockbusters currently clogging up cinema screens. In terms of thematic trends, Chennai Express could be situated amongst recent films like Singham and Dabaang since they all chart a ‘return to the rural’ by re-presenting the village as not only a symbol of tradition but a reminder to audiences that India has been masked over by a new post liberal shift. In many ways, the reinstatement of the village in the landscape of contemporary postmodern Hindi cinema could also be seen as a reactionary attempt to recall more conventional, if not, regressive iconography.
Pizza is a Tamil film pointed out to me in an article by K Hariharan titled ‘After the Cinema of Disgust’ in which he discusses the ‘renegade New Wave Tamil Cinema’. Hariharan focuses on three films in particular; Pizza, Naduvula Konjam Pakkathu Kannum (Some Pages in the middle are missing), and Sudhu Kavvum (Thou shalt Not Gamble). All three films are marked by the presence of Vijay Sethupathy, a new face in Tamil cinema. It is unlikely any of these films will be distributed in UK cinemas. In fact, all three films are already available on DVD in India, having been hits at the box office. Having seen very little Tamil cinema, director Kartik Subburaj’s Pizza is a genre piece that mixes supernatural idioms with postmodern twists. It is a skillfully crafted narrative in which Michael, a frustrated twenty something who delivers pizzas for a living, conspires with his girlfriend to concoct a genuinely gripping ghost story for personal reasons. Made on a low budget, Pizza was a sleeper hit in Tamil and is already being prepped for a Bollywood style remake. Actor Vijay Sethupathy is superb in the lead role and it is not difficult to see why he is being singled out as an emerging talent in the Chennai film industry. Although Hariharan says none of these films make any explicit connection to the wider reality of Tamil society and exist in a prism of self contained internal narrativity, Pizza is a film that transcends any cultural barriers since it speaks in a voice familiar to us from a shared understanding of genre conventions. In fact, it would be more suitable to position the film as an example of Tamil indie cinema. It’s also a brilliant piece of filmmaking.