Friday, 18 January 2008

Virumaandi: a review by Ayswarya

In over 60 years, mainstream Indian cinema has evolved from the times of phalke through various phases, evolving a unique prototype for itself. The very language is heavily based on theatre and other performing arts, replete with songs and costumes. Simultaneously, it has also tried to imitate the trends of Hollywood, but the internalization of western material culture has happened within Indian fantasies. So, even if the lifestyle and material aspirations maybe western, the outlook and spirit have retained and reflected something uniquely Indian. From the moral journey of the hero to the archaic archetypes of women and honour and sexuality, the desires and dire circumstances of the mass drove the industry.

There were no protagonists but only heroes, who became moral icons. Archetypes and formulae had always laid the unshakeable foundation of mainstream cinema. If a film slightly comments on the system rather than judges, if the fantasies are brought down to realities, if icons are made human, the films have been pushed to the margins of parallel cinema.

This had been unfortunate for the parallel movement, for its standards have been conveniently slackened by popular notions and the whole need for cinema in India still remains undefined. Now, we don’t really know what is meaningful cinema in the Indian context.

While the west has been going through phases of formal experimentations as well as thematic shifts according to changing social situations, we have stayed back in some basic notions of social realism. Even while dealing with social realism, we couldn’t deal properly with our innate melodrama thematically and haven’t dealt with the materiality of the medium formally. Especially in the area of art production, we have remained as minimally representational as affordable.

When it comes to constructing spaces for cinema, we have always been content with the barest theatrical representations. Even when money is thrown into big sets, they are only fantasy contraptions which titillate; Plain show off of money than a meaningful part of the movie. We couldn’t incorporate grandeur as an essential part of our movies. Affluence was always related with unattainable fantasy.

But of late, the boundaries are thinning. The material culture of the west is shaping the aspirations of a new India and the new cinema. The urban romantic comedy and the over simplified formulas executed in fast cuts and slick storytelling is the thing that people seem to have patience for. With the internet generation’s dominance, we have impatient audience who also want to be entertained without reminders of regular life or any remote baggage for thought. Or it is the super-hero with his ready-made judgments and panacea for all social ills.

In this situation, people like kamal hasan who have a come a long way, through decades of toil in such a rigid industry still wanting to give some class and substance to popular cinema have to be lauded, atleast for their spirit. And that’s why virumaandi is an important step in tamil cinema.

Being an iconic super star, funded by worried producers, he is the only one with a personal journey in the industry. Considering the complicated state of our simplemindedness, humanism is one major area for meaning making in our society, which hasn’t been approached without prejudiced moralising or ready-made solutions. In this scenario, to subvert a system as rigid as popular cinema, is quite a confrontation.

Because even the boldest of our social realist films don’t ever touch upon delicate areas like caste or sexuality at their primal ugly real roots. In virumaandi, the basic issue is caste-based violence in our villages. But the protagonist, a vain, na├»ve village hero, a foreign-return, who is ultimately made the scape goat of the village politics, who is heroic by default due to his simplicity and youth, has to be more glorified for popular satiation and has to be kamal haasan himself, beefy pink and middle-aged as he is. This is quite a tragedy for the film naturally, but maybe unavoidable due to financial reasons maybe.

Because, otherwise, the casting is flawless and brings the soil alive in the human flesh, from the sweat to the blood to the talcum powder. Considering most of them are professional actors, also great picks from the theatre, they have internalized every gesture and spirit of the environment. The characterizations have been done with meticulous, amusing detail. The documentary style, cinema verite approach suits the film well, as it is highly provincial and rich with anthropological detailing and also a murder mystery. It is more of an insider’s film rather than the surface issue of death sentence, as proposed. For the caste based hierarchies steeped in the psyche of tamil villages dictates all nuances of their daily life including the very body language of the people; it has become such a subliminal value system of its own, that only a person who lives in proximity to such a system can understand the spontaneity and trigger points of the violence.

But the woman reporter, championing for the cause against death penalty adds another interesting dimension to it, from the way she is treated inside the jail to how she carries herself, is in itself a statement of a side-story. She is a parallel hero from the nooks to the city, also belonging to the second sex. The mock over-courteousness of the assistant jailor, the prejudiced attacks of virumaandi, the protectiveness of her colleague are also part of this social reality, documented well.

The parallel narrative trick worked well, especially because it accentuated the well-crafted characterization of pasupathi and kamal and made them the story-tellers. The folk quality of the story-teller intercepting the story with his witticisms and projections is appealing.

The sound overlaps and transitions have also been well-thought and witty. Especially since in such a split narrative style, it is important to tie the ends in an interesting way. The dialogues are also loaded with allusions and hints.

I have always found kamal hasan’s projections of sexuality on screen uncomfortable for very basic aesthetic reasons. I sincerely believe he should learn the art of suggestion; it would increase his romantic appeal if that’s the aspiration as well as save the audience from unrelated awkwardness. But maybe that’s part of the financial indispensability as with the stunt and heroism.

But the way the sound design has been used to create ambience, add detailing to a situation, for transitions, and how music is cleverly intertwined so as not to disturb the flow of the narration is really well-handled.

As for the multifarious issues from land disputes to agriculture to women’s issues, its an open trip for any alert audience.

To quote from kamal swaroop, film-maker: “shoot a movie like a documentary; shoot a documentary like a movie.”


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