An effective rebuttal against a regressive narrative

Director: Papa Ranjith

Cast: Kalidas Jayaram, Dushara Vijayan, Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan, Sindhujaavijii

“Love is the only thing we are able to perceive that transcends the dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust this, even if we can’t understand it,” says Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) in this highly controversial and equally famous line by Christopher Nolan. Interstellar. The urban Indian could grasp and deify this line 8 years ago but has yet to be enlightened that love in our own country has another force to transcend: caste. It is not surprising that it is Pa Ranjith who undertakes this noble task on such a comprehensive level.

Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is a significant departure from Ranjith’s work which generally tends to place itself behind a single protagonist. Rather, it is a “collective” working toward a singular goal. This sense of a collective has always been felt in Ranjith’s films, with its strong focus on community. But here, it’s wanted, since it’s centered around a troupe. The subsequent rule-breaking of the following characters as individuals is so intentional that it’s easy to overlook it and follow the movie for what it’s trying to accomplish. There are attempts to give the supporting characters their own conflicts, but those images don’t register well enough for us to feel them.

We are first introduced to Rene (Dushara Vijayan), a die-hard Ilaiyaraaja fan with strong anti-caste ideals. Her real name is Tamizh, but Rene is the name she wants to use. And that’s all anyone needs to know to answer the next question of “why?” – because she says so. This assertion comes across beautifully in the opening minutes, where Rene argues with his then-partner Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram) whose caste taunt causes an irreversible rift in their relationship. They’re a couple who have already transcended that heavy caste barrier, but the scene shows how it can also come back to manifest as microaggressions at some point. This is also why love is political.

Taking this taunt as the last straw, René leaves the house in the middle of the night and stumbles across a shooting star in the sky while walking down the highway. The film fades, and in this case, she snaps out of her anger and gloomy mood, smiles, looks up in wonder, and then shares the experience on her social media. “Natchathiram Nagargiradhu,” she writes. The stars do indeed move. Rene’s smile here is indicative of the film’s belief that if we are truly able to see that we are just insignificant stardust, so many of our self-inflicted conflicts would cease to exist. So the film’s thesis is already there, like a larger philosophical skyscape that will illuminate and house other human statements in the narrative.

The film then changes its point of view, which it continues to do deftly throughout its runtime. We are now with Arjun played by Kalaiyarasan. A new entry in this collective of a theater troupe. A conservative, deeply regressive, dominant-caste Tamil who is barely aware of his privilege. He warns his fiancé against the “boy bestie” by making a “joke” about the Pollachi affair. He’s clearly a stand-in for the audience Ranjith wants this film to address. The emphasis on his arc and long journey almost makes him look like the film’s protagonist, though Rene is very clearly the personality.

By constantly framing and timing Arjun in such a way that we laugh at the character, Ranjith breaks down his worldview and lays bare the problems that arise from it. He knows he has things to learn, but he wants to leave the responsibility to others to teach him, ending up realizing his follies himself. So Arjun gets the biggest arc out of all the other characters in the movie, and also continues to show how political correctness can be a process, but that’s not to say the movie doesn’t put the character in his place when obligatory. Kalaiyarasan plays Arjun in memorably entertaining terrain, and the scene where his mother (a formidable Geetha Kailasam) tries to manipulate him emotionally, is a riot of an exchange between equally unhinged actors.

Dushara tries Rene with fiery energy, and she’s easy to back up. Her monologue about how she had to fabricate her personality in opposition to caste trauma is a highlight, a moment I wish I had seen her performance rather than the cut of the animation. There are a few instances where she comes across as a little too self-aware or proud to play a force like Rene. But we can be sure that Tamil cinema has a good Tamil speaking actress, and I’m really interested to see where she goes from here.

Rene and Iniyan reunite in an intriguing sequence of events, where she clearly knows he is on a different political plane but is still drawn to him for physical or other unknown reasons. Iniyan’s connection to his feelings for her is well documented throughout, but not the other way around, and that makes their equation a bit too esoteric to consider.

Using the contemporary and highly conversational setting, Ranjith packs in a number of his thoughts and opinions which in themselves become the engaging force of the narrative. These statements drive the plot rather than the other way around, and yet there is nothing to complain about. He even anticipated some arguments and snuck into counters for the same. This personality is thoroughly entertaining and almost makes you anticipate what else would be covered in the film’s range of themes.

The kind of conscious commentary on Ilaiyaraaja’s identity makes it a wholesome celebration of his unique work. In a heated argument, Rene’s rebuttal to Iniyan’s micro-aggression over his identity is to keep singing a Raaja song. Her romantic numbers are shown here to even transcend all sorts of sexuality and gender. It’s kind of a great clawback of his prowess and impact, from forces that could use him to appease the minority. This is Ranjith’s way of saying that we better understand the meaning of the legend. “Othukittu dhaan aaganum.” (You will have to accept it.)

Tenma’s stellar soundtrack also borrows from the legend in creative ways. Take ‘Paruvame’, a sexually charged techno party track – it sounds so Raaja-era thanks to its instrumentation. The song also pops up around many of the man’s other yesteryear bangers, which also gives an appealing sense of inspiration. “Kadhalar” is the highlight of the lot for me, with hard-hitting beats that make the friction and sparks of Rene-Iniyan romance palpable. This is the song I will remember as the face of this album and this movie. “En Janame” is a haunting memory of real-life honor killings and victims of violence resurrected as native gods. It is Ranjith who checks his rebuttal against the narrative of naadaga kaadhal (“staged/false love”, not much different from love-jihad). It’s a shameless use of the medium that feels absolutely justified in this context.

Having had a brief stint in the theater himself, Ranjith uses set design extremely creatively here – René taking Iniyan upstairs to consummate his feelings; René leading Arjun through a door that adorns a painting of Buddha. But my most favorite example is in the play itself, where we see actors peeking through frames that are supposed to be portraits of dead people in a house. “Culture/tradition is nothing but peer pressure from dead people,” read one amusing tweet from a few years ago, and this ingenious framing reminded me of that.

The Perum Poonai, a Diabolus-ex-Machina, (the evil counterpart of the more familiar Deus-ex-Machina) arrives in the final act to wreak havoc on the collective. I could see him as an embodiment of kaalachaara kaavalar (culture guardian), a genre that is really known for coming out of nowhere. But they may have been among us before, just like that guy who was among the tutor’s friends in a previous scene. The way this character is portrayed is another subtle (or overt, as you wish to see) nod to who he’s a stand-in. The explicitly white interiors, the air of “purity” that surrounds it, the abandonment of the name “culture, custom, rituals” and its control over the policing system – these are all telling elements, but open to interpretation. But a most obvious allegorical pointer is his object of terror – a mace, and that he sets fire to a figurative “Lanka” (Kishor Kumar’s cinematography peaks here). The tension and dread of his presence is released in sudden, rapid movement and I think the moment could have been more heroic.

Speaking of tension, Kalaiyarasan’s stretch in his hometown is a very engrossing affair, thanks to a great cast. The tension in the bits where the family tries to coax/manipulate Arjun into endogamy is hilarious and the entire sequence is edited to comedic perfection by Selva RK. It unfolds like a movie within a movie for being the kind of diverse detour it is from the story’s urban setting. This sequence has a story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, giving it an independence almost like that of a short film. It’s also the kind of ideal anti-caste cinema that mainstream caste filmmakers might undertake, a self-reflective piece, rather than the age-old stories of privileged heroes undertaking the emancipation of the oppressed.

The movie also reminded me of last year’s drive my car, only for the similar behavior of marrying literature, theater and film language to become pensive. But it’s a much busier film, for its loaded assertions against the status quo. He shows us the splendid beauty of the tea plantations and asks us to reflect on the history of oppression beneath this soil. It is both – a call to continue to resist in our daily lives and a rumination on which we can reflect while looking at the stars. Queer representation is just the beginning, and once a proper look has been presented, we hope our cinema embraces it with the same responsibility. Eventually, Pa Ranjith’s heart wins out over some of his over-the-top storytelling experiments. This feeling of “heart” is not easy to find in Tamil cinema today, so let’s validate it while we can.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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