In the episode of The Film Comment podcast dedicated to Godard, Richard Brody mentions how Godard arrived at his leftist politics through his filmmaking, rather than through the conventional route of reading texts. This isn’t hard for me to imagine, as my cinephilia deepened my understanding of such matters, inspiring me to read texts and broaden my horizons. The sheer joy of artistic possibilities (even conservative ones) is always countered by the vagaries of marketing forces and socio-political mores, both conniving to schematize narratives and seize our means of discourse. Artists are reduced to patronizing blurbs and snootily stylized TV presentations, with these marketing notions being perpetuated by many critics themselves who willingly become studio stooges to give art its intellectual heft to aid marketing.
Pa. Ranjith perhaps cannot be compared to Godard in most senses, least of all their contrasting backgrounds – a man from an oppressed community and a bourgeois renegade. However, Pa. Ranjith, like Godard, clearly understands that the aesthetic is not an enshrined entity inoculated from the tyrannical whims of the socio-political, but one that’s constantly in conversation with it, and even shaped by it. This is why I find criticisms of his films being ideological as arrogant, because these critics are willingly in denial that all films are ideological, thereby monopolizing the term to avoid confronting their cocooned spaces.
I have plenty of problems with his films, but them being politically upfront isn’t one of them. The issue lies with his realization of his ideas, as he tries to synthesize a directness of address in the mainstream mode with a subversive aesthetic to varying degrees of success. His sincerity and imagination in bringing marginalized stories and aesthetics to the fore haven’t always found their fullest expression, with his tendencies to hammer his ideas home almost overriding other interesting aspects of his films. This isn’t the same as saying “ he’s a politician first, and then an artist”. The problem lies with the notion of the phantom audience, and the aesthetic producers think is needed to address them. No mainstream filmmaker is free from this notion, even the acclaimed ones, but the discordance is probably more acute in Ranjith’s films because of his simultaneous eschewal and adoption of this aesthetic, a crisis of dissemination/expression.
His latest film, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, tackles this problem head-on through the filming of an inclusive, even utopian space, reacting to the contingencies of the outside world. Natchathiram doesn’t have a conventional story, but a narrative that’s constructed from dialogues and ideas arising from people with disparate backgrounds and identities riffing off each other. Rene, a free-spirited Dalit woman played by Dushara Vijayan, emerges as a loose protagonist in this motley crew, and Ranjith is so invested in her that she almost overshadows the rest of the characters. Though she sometimes appears to be a mouthpiece for Ranjith, her rebelliousness and vivacity set her apart as a person, and Ranjith’s free-floating filmmaking of her balletic motions and emotions is always arresting.
Rene is a part of an experimental theatre group, one that synthesizes a variety of theatrical forms, and this synthesis, for a good part, is duly reflected in the filmmaking itself, combining the artistry and artifice of the theatre with that of the camera. The camera isn’t a mere observer of their artistic sojourns, but an active participant that converses with a form that conventional adherents of the cinema sought to separate it from. But Ranjith knows that this is false, as cinema, from its inception, has always drawn from other art forms even as it emerged as something completely different. When Ranjith turns his focus to this multi-layered interaction of bodies and art forms, his film is at its most dazzling and freewheelingly inventive, without drawing neat borders along personal, artistic and political lines.
The theatre, and the film itself, wishes to not just portray but live and breathe the inclusive love it espouses. All love anathema to society blossoms in this almost hermetically sealed space, breaking free of caste and gender barriers. This inclusivity extends to their artistic practice, as multiple forms and content fold onto one another. Ranjith’s excitement in this utopian exchange of ideas is palpable, and this excitement is contagious even if it sometimes feels repetitive. However, Ranjith is well aware that the existence of such a space doesn’t mean detachment from the external world, as the characters themselves are loaded with baggage and biases. Natchathiram explores the idea of Utopian art amidst the oppressive dictates of the external world, and the more conviction Ranjith has in his material, the more endearing it is.
Our entry to this group is itself through an outsider, Arjun (Kalaiarasan), an aspiring movie actor using the theatre to kick-start his cinema career. This approach allows Ranjith to explore the complex dialectic between the two worlds, where one is clearly a part of the other even if it distances itself from it. Arjun is stunned at the casual ease with which his new colleagues express their “transgressive” identities and the familiarity with which his “heteronormative” colleagues move with them. To an outsider suddenly exposed to this space, caste and gender barriers almost dissolve to give rise to multiplicity of identities. If it only were as simple as that.
The theatre group seeks to explore love through difference in their next play, with a particular emphasis on honour killings – the logical conclusion of the meta-narratives concocted by people to justify the ruling order. The lines between theatre and film are blurred, as Ranjith extends the play’s theme to include the romantic struggles of the crew and their difficulties in translating their theoretical principles to actualities. Natchathiram devotes special attention to the romance of Rene and Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram), while showing brief glimpses into the romances of others. Iniyan is an upper caste man who represents the Nehruvian socialist in contrast to Rene’s Ambedkarite, blind to caste oppression as he reduces their marginalization to class oppression. The film’s opening scene involves him insulting her caste, and this leads to Rene leaving him, though it’s clear they have feelings for each other.
Ranjith’s handling of spatial boundaries is nothing short of remarkable, as his film hovers over the liminal space between the two worlds. The first ugly incident between Rene and Iniyan happens in Iniyan’s room, outside the theatrical space, in contrast to the swelling romantic feelings in the theatre, where they play star-crossed lovers. This dialectic is extended to the other lovers as well, be it when Arjun moves outside the group to talk to his betrothed, or when Sekar, one of the actors, is rejected by a French woman, Madeleine. In one extraordinary song sequence, Ranjith films a flurry of bodies crossing each other, shifting from one lovers’ squabble to the next, as he navigates the muck of their knotty relationships, all taking place near the gate of the theatre, finally culminating in the storming off of a man livid with his transgender wife. Incursions from the outside world, be it literally through the mother of a gay man or metaphorically through societal norms that trouble the more privileged members of the crew, threaten to destabilize this utopian space, emphasizing the need for constant learning and overcoming, a sentiment which would be echoed in a later scene.
Ranjith’s candour in the constant friction between theoretical beliefs and applied reality is refreshing, messing matters in an idealized environment. However, his problems with expression and dissemination resurface, as his frequent belabouring to imprint the idea in his phantom audience’s head is to the detriment of the film’s ideas, forms and characters. This is unfortunately evident during the first appearance of the title itself, where Rene gets excited over a shooting star, and then the stars twinkle together to form the title of the film, only for the title to be repeated again in Rene’s Instagram post. The latter is a fantastic idea, as it plunges you straight into the themes of art and artifice, especially in relation to the various art forms in question. The title was already hinted at through Rene’s singing of En Vaanile, but Ranjith opts for the shooting star sequence to make his philosophy clear through Rene. Unfortunately, he doesn’t stop here, and the film keeps showing shooting stars and the milky way every time Rene refers to it, and even in the play the group put up. Eventually, this transcendental shtick becomes schmaltzy, which is probably the opposite of the intended effect of Ranjith’s Buddhism, where the overcoming of human barriers leads one to cosmic union with the flows of the universe.
Ranjith’s discourse on honour killing also functions as an irruption to these flows, but it also has the unintended impact of reducing the lovers’ struggles to spectacles. As much as honour killing is prevalent and an execrable mark on our society, the manifestation of these other forms of oppression are side-lined by horrible acts of murder. It, unfortunately, detracts from his multi-layered critique of love in a discriminatory society as his portrayals of oppression hitherto are rendered subordinate to this. The film reaches its nadir in the insertion of horrifying footage of caste brutality, which formally, works as an irruption to the serenity of his shooting stars. However, I believe that the stories from the non-theatre people, and the sudden eruption of a dirge from one of them is far more powerful than the blunt bulldozing of footage, as this gives the last word to the people who suffered these atrocities.
The biggest shame is Ranjith’s unwillingness to trust in the brilliance of his conceit, as he tracks back to overused, misinterpreted movie maxims such as “show, don’t tell” and “theatre isn’t a visual medium like film”, especially after his successful approach in Sarpatta Parambarai. Perhaps because the aesthetic ambitions of this film are much larger, Ranjith conflates directness of address with visual clichés, and the presence of a solid narrative in Sarpatta allowed him to hone his focus better. The honour killing footage is unfortunately not the only example; Ranjith does this quite a few times in the film. Despite having a magnetic character in Rene (and actor in Dushara Vijayan), Ranjith tries to visualize her dialogues, be it in the oft-repeated shots of shooting stars whenever Rene waxes lyrical, or in her opinions of love. Ranjith isn’t just content with showing her, believing that visualizing her dialogue is “pure” cinema, and her interiority, expressions, gestures and actions, and the extraordinary mise-en-scene, are somehow inferior to this trite visualization. These cinematic choices also crop up in his lesser films like Kabali and Kaala, where Ranjith opts to pull the camera away from Rajnikanth during his moments of suffering, lessening the impact of the tragedy itself.
The most egregious of these instances occurs during Rene’s monologue about why she needs to project a bold exterior despite being wounded by casteism. It is the closest the film has got to a confessional, a commanding argument against all those who criticize the “outsize” importance Ranjith gives to caste and politics in his films, and the reason his art and politics are so intertwined with his struggle. The film shifts from Rene to a stale animated visualization of her dialogues. One could argue that the animation is also a part of the synthesis of art forms, but Ranjith does nothing imaginative here and undermines his outstanding setup of this sequence. Rene’s response to Arjun’s query is to cobble two theatrical props together to form a defendant’s dock. She stands on top of it and looks upward passionately, as Ranjith films her at a low angle before cutting to the animation. At that moment, the film was in dialogue with another powerful monologue; the famous sequence from Parasakthi that launched Sivaji Ganesan’s career. Except that in this film, Rene does not have any judge to listen to her, and her only audience is a former casteist who changed his ways because of her. She merely addresses the empty seats of the theatre, a powerful critique of the Parasakthi sequence which called for Tamil nationalism, if not for Ranjith egregiously cutting to the animation.
Ranjith doesn’t restrict his criticism of Tamil cinema to Parasakthi alone. His men, to my surprise, are rendered the way women are in mainstream Tamil films, and his women are far more interesting as characters. Iniyan pales in comparison to Rene, and his only defining characteristic is his enduring love for Rene, everything else is a pithy summarization which Ranjith doesn’t even bother developing. His sketchy romantic overtures convinced me more of Rene’s love for him than vice-versa, until Ranjith shows shots of him pining for Rene. I was initially circumspect of his malformed character, especially because of a few misplaced musical sequences of romantic tension between the two, but as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Ranjith’s interest in Iniyan only exists in relation to Rene, the reverse of which happens in mainstream Tamil films.
I could quibble about the loose characterization of Arjun, but I don’t wish to draw attention to more issues, as it seems that I might be unnecessarily harsh. I certainly admire the effort and ideas more than in most Ranjith films.
However, my harping on the aesthetics only seeks to convey my disappointment in the film not being bolder, not willing to confidently tread the path that few films have trodden on, especially after viewing scenes of dazzling virtuosity that are immediately sabotaged by his (and the market’s) pre-conception of the audience’s intelligence. An argument could be made that Ranjith is trying to integrate various filmmaking forms similar to the theatre group, providing a voice for people of all genders, castes, sexual preferences and languages, but his insipid insertion of documentary footage and animation does not amount to organic synthesis. Ranjith is a firm believer in the capacity of art to bring about change, and perhaps he thinks that his experimentation needs to keep returning to the confines of a mainstream aesthetic to bring about that change. This film, flaws and all, is a perfect representation of his filmmaking itself, a career of constant striving filled with flashes of awe-inspiring brilliance, only to be thwarted by his own confusion and external factors. I will keep hoping that he obtains a greater clarity of expression to actualize his bold ideas, combining socially conscious cinema with marginalized aesthetics. Until then, I guess I have to be satisfied with his sweeping Sarpatta Parambarai and the imaginative possibilities lurking in the rest of his work