Dark Comedy

After the Cinema of Disgust

K Hariharan is professor, Film Studies and Broadcast Journalism at Ashoka University, Sonepat
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A close reading of the renegade New Wave of Tamil Cinema

If there is an Indian cinema celebrating the coming of an ominous nightfall, it should be the dark Tamil comedies that enthrall millions of viewers across this state. One does not know whether to call it an aberration, anarchy or a result of political dysfunctionality. Eight years ago, I called the cinema of Tamil film directors M Sasikumar and Bala ‘the celebration of disgust’, a sort of carnival enacting the slaughter of anything that connected the South Indian even remotely with Tamil chauvinism. They belonged to a generation that cheered a Bollywood singer called Udit Narayan, who ruined every possible Tamil lyric that was written for him. Tamil audiences, in turn, danced with scores of Hindi film actresses who could never get a word of Tamil onscreen even edgeways. ‘Gaana songs’ nurtured by lumpen underdogs for funerals and communions became the melodic anthem even at discos in Chennai.

Such was their way of condemning the strangleholds of Dravidian puritanical images of Sivaji, MGR and others wallowing in the syrupy rhetoric written by Karunanidhi, Kannadasan and their ilk to protect their autocratic fiefdom for over 50 years. But today’s young new Tamil filmmakers and their melodramatic audiences are not alone waging these countercultural battles on the silver screen.

Studying this onscreen battle as a source of inspiration for quite some time is Anurag Kashyap. He declared that the finest Indian cinema is undoubtedly emerging from Chennai. Oddly, he added a crazy but significant footnote by saying that they were all products of the informal film school run by the DVD pirates of Burma Bazaar. It may sound condescending to some, but it is almost the truth and here lies the twist to the new mannered assertion in these films.

Elsewhere, this could be compared to the same terse way in which the Coen Brothers sniped at the Hollywood system of making and marketing their typical ‘heroic’ feel-big movies or the way Bosnian Kusturica blasted the mindless Yugoslavian wars in the early 90s through his eccentric comedies. Quite aptly, in the book Cinema of Outsiders, writer Emmanuel Levy says that ‘the Coen Brothers are clever directors who know too much about movies and too little about real life’. Most readers may be familiar with works of the Coen Brothers, but can they place the renegade New Tamil Wave on par with their kind of irreverence?

Of the debutant directors of dark comedy, three works deserve special mention: Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Naduvula Konjam Pakkathu Kannum (NKPK: ‘Some pages in the middle are missing’), Nalan Kumarasami’s Sudhu Kavvum (‘Thou shalt not gamble’) and Kartik Subburaj’s Pizza. All of them share one amazing lead actor, Vijay Sethupathy.

The difference between the stylised works of the Coens and these filmmakers is the legacy that they have inherited through the critical concerns surrounding the betrayal of a Tamil Dravidian Utopia by corrupt political leaders in films such as Paruthiveeran by Ameer, Pithamagan by Bala, Anjathey by Mysskin, Subramaniapuram by Sasikuma, and others. These films in turn resonated with the dysfunctional portrayals of society in the works of Kim Ki Duk (Coast Guard), Almodovar (All About My Mother), Rodriguez (Sin City), Katia Lund (City of God), etcetera. The new anarchic Tamil cinema had gone far too global for the rest of the nation even to imagine. And ‘anarchy’ is often a symbol of healthy organic progress. Many critics dismissed these violent films at the time as ‘rural slash-knife’ films from Madurai. And despite their condemnation, more such films emerged. Some of them went on to win national awards and international acclaim. But the power of these films was not only vested in their unique portrayals of urban Tamil Nadu but also in some of their cinematic self-reflexivity. They were artists in love with cinema first and their subjects later; artists who studied society through the films they loved and not the experience of real life. Did they perhaps believe life was just too unreal for comprehension?

Continuing with Levy’s earlier assertion that these films reflect other movies rather than real life, there is no doubt that films like Pizza and Soodhu Kavvum have very little connection with so-called real ‘worldly issues’ such as dowry deaths, farmers committing suicide or adulterated food. Though NKPK claims to be based on a true incident, its film language works around pure cinematic concerns. These films virtually labour with concepts that have been nurtured by their unquenchable thirst for ‘world cinema’ and the inspirational ‘bazaars’ of their predecessors. They articulate their scripts like self-taught software nerds in the process of gorging scores of films downloaded from the net. Pizza is about a cunning delivery boy who uses the text of a ghost story written by his girlfriend, the femme fatale, to deceive his employer and friends; Soodhu Kavvum deals with self-styled gangsters who ‘choose’ to practise ethical ways of kidnapping by writing down their five commandments; and NKPK walks us through a narrow time zone of a character trapped in a temporary loss of memory.

What does all this imply? In a documentary titled The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Zizek states that “cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It does not give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire”. According to him, cinema works more on the intimate synergies that exist between viewers and the screen rather than the purported intentions in the screenplay as devised by the filmmaker. It is the terms of such relationships between Tamil viewers and their cinema over the past five decades that actually become the contexts that provide Balaji, Nalan and Kartik the precise resources they need to connect with their own ideation and later even seduce themselves into the very same narrative as ‘spectators’.

The story in Pizza is narrated by the delivery boy to his gullible boss and co-workers. Through them, he seduces the audience to believe a concocted falsehood as the real story in the same way a soothsayer convinces aggrieved believers to perform ridiculous acts such as tonsuring heads or sacrificing goats in order to redeem themselves of their predicaments.

Soodhu Kavvum seduces its viewers to challenge a traditional moral that states that ‘speculation will always fail’ by deconstructing the horrific world of kidnapping in the most hilarious ways. The film asks us to ask, ‘Are we fools in this age to believe that ‘gambling’ is a bad activity when stock markets and treasury bonds are stacked up like playing cards in casinos?’

NKPK weaves its tale with the primary character trying to revive a sudden lapse in his memory after a minor fall playing cricket. Compounding the problem is the fact that he is supposed to get married the next day and his three close friends want to hide his amnesiac condition. However, what drives the film is a kind of Bunuelian obsession with time as a memory jog. The constant reiteration of a few set dialogues, while serving the purpose of evoking humour, is actually an exercise in crossing the thresholds of what constitutes memory and the ‘unforgettable’ for the viewing audience. It is truly a film which generates itself in the way its calculated shots are structured. For practical purposes, all rules in scriptwriting and direction have been violated.

I would like to see the aesthetic here born in the irreverent tone of disgust or Bibhatsa as enunciated in the Natya Shastra. ‘Disgust’ is a reaction that we feel when we are actually pushed into a corner after encountering the feeling of complete frustration. In the European and Hollywood scenario, we witness this aesthetic in the mass production of ‘horror’ films that hit theatres every year. Such an emotional basis is the starting point for the ‘horror’ film genre in most international cinema. Indian films, however, have desisted from entering this realm simply because the antagonistic forces or ‘villains’ have never had an identity of their own. They were just the bad wall dividing the hero from his heroine that had to be brought down with sheer pleasure.

In a journal entitled Senses of Cinema, Thierry Jutel remarks ‘Cinema is a philosophical machine before it is social body. While cinema emerges out of a history of modes of representation, it mobilizes a unique combination of sensory perceptions and narrative. Cinema’s relation with technology is therefore not so much about what means of production are used by filmmakers, but rather what forms of perception, what modalities of creative and spectatorial involvement are facilitated by the operations of cinema’s visual regime and what they tell us and teach us about the world in which we live.’

Watching Pizza makes one realise how Indian cinema has neglected this tone of ‘disgust’ that has been the driving force of many powerful visionaries from Kubrick, Hitchcock and Ridley Scott to the modern day Coen Brothers. In Soodhu Kavvum, the filmmaker explores the macabre in the world of the urban subaltern committed to drinking, smoking and crime as if it’s a credo. Their relentless pursuit of speculative wealth and conflict with law enforcement agencies are taken to the level of the absurd, climaxing with the most fearsome cop shooting himself in his ass. The film even goes one step further with an irreverent and surreal song that features characters with no connection to the main story at all, an item number in the truest sense of the term. And in NKPK, the screenplay challenges the viewer to negotiate the repetitive motions of an eccentric character who keeps doing the same things much to the dismay of his three friends who in turn represent the audience. The absurdity of this drama, which is the central focus virtually driving the audience insane like the primary character on the screen, could actually make the audience undergo that sense of disgust.

Due to several factors of moral, economic and political engagement, Indian filmmakers can only hate ‘today’s’ system deeply, and yet depicting one’s anguish as a ‘horror’ film has never been seen as an option. Indian Cinema’s self-sustaining systems of production and distribution have not allowed it to spread its wings like Koreans and Iranians to become internationally significant. And there is always the fear of the Censor Board and dozens of outfits waiting for the least provocation to pounce on the film and maul it. To compound it further, Tamil Cinema is isolated even further within South India. Sadly, our self sufficiency has also been our bane. Filmmakers here can only envy the courage and guts of Fritz Lang’s Nosferatu, Bunuel’s surrealistic films and the stylised horror in the works of Tarantino, David Lynch or Paul Anderson. We seem to be chained to the nostalgia of a long lost ‘peaceful’ past, but in these new Tamil films we discover redemption coming through not in the acceptance of a ‘formulaic’ authority but in the comic enactment of an emotion called ‘disgust’. Strangely, this mutated variety of emotion can only happen in the weird and almost unclassifiable realm of Indian dramaturgy.

Another redeeming quality of these films is their ability to achieve high-quality images. New generation techies have practised their craft making dozens of short films uploaded on YouTube. They come armed with storyboards, ultra-comfortable with small DSLR cameras and limited lights, edit scenes on location on their laptops, complete their VFX works in tiny home studios, and even mix their 5.1 soundtracks in their backyard. And all this happens for less than Rs 1 crore a film, which would be the cost of making a low-budget documentary in the US. Interestingly, these films have buyers despite the fact that there is none of those songs or endlessly choreographed fights. But the fact that every film has to open in over 250 screens (of the 850 in Tamil Nadu) on a Friday creates a huge jam. Several films have to stand in queue and vital monetary resources are blocked. Compared to their predecessors in the 80s like Bharatiraja and K Balachander who churned out a film every nine months, the new lot has to wait untiringly for the next opportunity to show up. What needs to be commended is the fact that these films are possible only with the vigorous support of hundreds of ‘jobless’ youngsters in the cities and small towns of Tamil Nadu. And if they are still searching for some kind of utopia like the characters in these films, it is a pointer that the young Tamilian is still alive and kicking.

In Tamil Nadu, these films are a commemoration of the shame that the liberal young generation of the 21st century feel about their thoughtless grandparents who had soaked themselves in the fantasy of Tamil nationalism. The disconnected new Tamilian wonders what must have gone wrong with their elders who gave them ‘authentic’ Tamil names and even Russian names like Stalin and Trotsky. They wonder what must have motivated them to scream ‘Down with Hindi’ while their elected politicians continued to go about spreading caste hatred, amassing wealth and currying favour with their ‘Hindi’ speaking Delhi allies.

The paradoxes of being Tamilian today are so inexplicably complex, with the Dravidian identity still ingrained in their DNA, that there is no other way for the new generation but to embrace Bibhatsa in wholehearted ways. For all practical purposes, Tamil politics and its socio-political negotiations are almost caught in a fascist rut. And for the moment the new Tamil Wave has swept into an amicable zone of black comedy. These films are unparalleled success stories, raking in several times more money than regular run-of-the-mill entertainers.

Will these films create a new sensitivity that can possibly empower citizens to better comprehend their situation? Will the deep discontent embedded in these films rub off on their viewers to overthrow a decadent political system in which Tamil Nadu is trapped? Will it all depend on how long these black comedies last before they enter the dark genre of ‘horror’ cinema?