Kuthiraivaal, Directed By Manoj Jahson And Shyam Sunder: A Surreal Experience About The Multiple Selves We Inhabit, With Kalaiyarasan And Anjali Patil

This Pa Ranjith production, being screened at the Berlin Critics’ Week, is too literal. It’s also a fascinating attempt to put psychoanalytic theory on film.
Kuthiraivaal, Directed By Manoj Jahson And Shyam Sunder: A Surreal Experience About The Multiple Selves We Inhabit, With Kalaiyarasan And Anjali Patil

Director: Manoj Jahson And Shyam Sunder

Cast: Kalaiyarasan, Anjali Patil

In Kafka's Metamorphosis, a man wakes up to find that he's transformed into a giant bug. There are echoes of this classic story in Kuthiraivaal, a Pa Ranjith production directed by Manoj Jahson and Shyam Sunder. Here, too, a man wakes up to find that he's transformed: he's still human, fortunately, but now he has a horse's tail. Like Kafka's protagonist, our hero (Kalaiyarasan) leads a mindless, drone-like existence, which we see in his job at a bank. So what does the transformation indicate? Alienation from humankind? Has he become the proverbial beast of burden? Or is it something more… sexual? The tail, after all, does resemble the cascading hair of a woman. Kalaiyarasan gives an intensely physical performance. Every time the tail twitches, he flinches as though electrocuted. Something is prodding him in some strange direction, and he needs to know what. And he needs to know why.

He tries his luck with an old woman who interprets dreams. (I just discovered there's a cool word for this: oneirocriticism!) She speaks of a dream from the times of The Bible. Much later in the movie, we will see what appears to be an Immaculate Conception. He tries his luck with his one-time college professor, who says the answer may lie in maths. Or memories. Kuthiraivaal, written by  Rajesh G, is a thoroughly thought-out film. And this thoroughness is evident in every frame. It's there in the careful "disorganisation", the carefully curated "chaos" in Ramu Thangaraj's  production design. It's there in cinematographer Karthik Muthukumar's acid-trip colours and tilted frames. And it's there in the surrealism that rises from the multiple parallels in the narrative. Our protagonist had a dream that involved water; the font of the opening credits ripples like liquid. The geometric pattern on a stained-glass window is replicated on a woman's dress.

The multiplicities are everywhere. In the bank, a customer points out that his account number is as valid an ID as his name. A dog bears the name of another animal: Frog. Is our protagonist named Saravanan or Freud? And what do we call the mysterious woman found by his bedside (and played by Anjali Patil)? Irusayi or van Gogh? Could he (and she) be both? After all, we may see ourselves as one thing. Others may see us as something else. As Saravanan/Freud's neighbour says, every time we look into a mirror, we see ourselves in reverse: left is right, right is left. In a timeframe that exists in the past, a woman eats with her right hand but people see her left hand move. And in this magical world, we see image and reflection switch places. It's the best scene in the movie, conceptually and also aesthetically.

You can tease out several "narratives" from all these clues. Here's one: some people (like Saravanan/Freud) are mystified by these multiple selves, while others thrive on them. Take MGR. He is both a flesh-and-blood man in life and a two-dimensional image on screen. These two selves inhabit two worlds: one real, one of dreams. And our inability to tell one from the other may sometimes result in questions that border on absurdist philosophy: Can MGR be dead if you just saw him on a screen in a local theatre? The screenplay name-drops Jacques Lacan, aka the French Freud. His most well-known theory? The Mirror Stage. Many actors in this movie, accordingly, play multiple roles. They inhabit multiple selves across multiple places and timelines and multiple states of consciousness.

Kuthiraivaal is the rare Tamil film built on psychoanalytic theory, and you could say – jokingly – that the narrative itself straddles two selves: the perfectly realised, and the clunky. An instance of the latter would be the endless scenes of Saravanan/Freud at work, battling with his boss. The dialogues are clunky, too. It's inevitable in a film of this nature that some amount of "explanation" is (retro)fitted in. But when our protagonist keeps dropping mind-voice lines (about the tail) like "Idhu eppidi enakku molachirukku?" or "Idha vechu naan eppidi veliya poga poren?", the dream state is literalised. It comes crashing down. You cannot rationalise a dream. You cannot question its logic. You cannot attempt to mimic a Mani Kaul mood, but also explain things with a blackboard and a piece of chalk — and also take on a host of "issues", like global warming and capitalist predation.

Kuthiraivaal works best when it relies on the sound (Anthony Ruban) and score (Maarten Visser and Pradeep Kumar), which distort and amplify these strange happenings. And the other audio clips do their bit, too: snatches from Vivaldi's Four Seasons, a bit from the courtroom dialogue in Parasakthi, and especially songs like Adho andha paravai pola… There, that MGR connect again. There's another connect in a dream sequence (given that the film is itself dreamlike, would this be a dream within a dream?) where Saravanan/Freud speaks in MGR's voice. These are the times you may wish this had been a near-silent movie, with only these sounds and this score and these oddball snatches of audio. Then again, you have to respect a film that tries to capture that most elusive of states between sleep and wakefulness, between myth and reality, between the real and the reflected. Whatever its merits as a movie, Kuthiraivaal is a fascinating experiment.

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