The OTT media space (I'm including web series, here) in Tamil is still evolving, so everything from Balaji Mohan's As I'm Suffering From Kadhal (on Hotstar) to the new Karthik Subbaraj offering Kallachirippu (written and directed by Roju; available on Zee5) is better seen as a work in progress – something like what we saw in the early days of MTV. We laugh (affectionately) at those music videos today, but they were important steps in the evolution of the form. Is this sounding defensive? Perhaps. There are going to be those who say they have access to the best of, say, HBO shows, so why bother with these baby steps? Fair enough. But for those who seek interesting Tamil content (as opposed to those who also seek Tamil content), something like Kallachirippu is a genuinely interesting change of pace.
The title is an indication of things to come. "Kalla" refers to something sly, deceitful – and this is the closest the Tamil entertainment space has gotten to those noir films about a nest of vipers, with everyone out to get everyone else. Only, this isn't about a bunch of criminals but a family – so even the equivalent of the femme fatale (24-year old Mahati, played by Amrutha Srinivasan) isn't so much a hard-bitten vamp as a creation of her circumstances. Take the terms of the moment – "toxic masculinity," "male privilege…" Mahati's father is all that. A part of me kept wondering why Amrutha was playing Mahati as such an angry, frustrated woman all the time. Aren't there any vulnerable shades to this character? But you look at her father and realise she's at the end of her tether, a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
Some of the most interesting moments in the series are the ones between Mahati and her mother, ranging from a quarrel about a blouse to quieter stretches of "girl talk" – but there's a TV-serial air in the staccato rhythms of the performances. The scenes don't flow as much as you'd like, and some of this is surely due to the direction. The writing, too. What makes these first-time criminals so icy-cool, even when they consider slicing up bodies? Where's the sweaty tension that drives noir? Instead, we get melodrama. I burst out laughing when a character's mother begins to whip him with a belt. Now, we are seriously in TV-serial land. Then again, maybe the brief was to target that audience, but with a more sophisticated narrative?
There are eight episodes in all (ranging in duration from roughly 12 to 25 minutes), and Episode 1 gets right to the point. During a heated argument, Mahati accidentally kills her husband, Ram (Vikas). It's "181 days after marriage," we are told, and the plot keeps going back and forth in time ("67 days before the wedding," "1097 days before marriage") – but the story is not about whether Mahati will get away with the crime. That is a part of it, of course, but Kallachirippu is more interested in exploring what brought Mahati to this point when all she wanted to do was pursue a law degree in some foreign university. Each episode ends with something of a cliff-hanger, and the most effective one appears in Episode 6, when Mahati learns yet another unpleasant truth about her father.
There are secrets within secrets, and no one is what they seem to be. Even the most innocent character – Mahati's mother – reveals that she harboured a crush on Rajinikanth. But what appears to be a "cute" moment U-turns horribly into – you guessed it! –yet another nauseating truth about Mahati's father. The other central character is Indrajith (Rohit), Mahati's lover. Again, we are in the realm of noir, but not exactly. I'd like to talk about the revelation around Indrajith's mother, but it took me by surprise and I don't want to spoil it for you. Let's just say it softens the character and reveals an inner life at odds with his outward swagger.
Some of this swagger is hard to take, like when Indrajith tries to fart in Mahati's presence. While I am all for reminders that our heroes are human too – seriously, why don't more people fart on screen? – the way this particular scene is staged made me wince at its trying-to-be-too-cool-ness. It's perhaps inevitable that the relaxation of censorship is going to make filmmakers a bit heady, at first – Kallachirippu features condoms, masturbation, men talking about push-up bras, and an entire song whose first line would translate as "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckety fuck!" But the characters are a strange mix of "local" and "Peter" – they refer to sex as "matter," but also say "I don't give a fuck." It feels odd. It's odder to listen to. The web series, Livin' (which came out on YouTube), did a much better balancing act. (It had Amrutha Srinivasan, too.)
But Kallachirippu is so jam-packed with stuff – gay issues, women's issues, parent-child issues – that even when something doesn't work, something else quickly comes along that does. It's reasonably well-made. You can sense that there was a decent budget, and it doesn't look (as TV serials do) like it was shot by a wedding videographer. There are camera moves: an entire argument plays out as reflections on a wall filled with framed photographs. Despite the shrieky TV-serial air, the narrative respects the audience: a shirt bought for Ram in Episode 1 turns up on someone else in Episode 8. It isn't a huge deal, but at least, no one puts this into words – we are left to recognise the shirt ourselves.
The biggest takeaway from Kallachirippu is that it exists, that it's been allowed to exist the way it is, that it's possible to find actors not afraid to play gay characters and actresses not afraid to play shades-of-grey characters. Another show (which I haven't seen) on Zee5 is titled America Mappillai, and it's about a commitment-phobic straight man who "pretends to be gay in order to avoid getting married. Ganesh seeks out his gay friend Karthik for help while struggling to come to terms with his own sexuality." And most recently, Viu, a leading OTT player in South East Asia, has gotten into Tamil content. They feature shorts by big-gun directors like Venkat Prabhu (Masha Allah… Ganesha) and Manikandan (The Wind, with Vijay Sethupathi), plus series with equally big names. (A show titled Kalyanamum Kadhandhu Pogum is co-produced by Nalan Kumarasamy.)
This is problem of excess – just how many premium platforms do we subscribe to? But this could also be a major game-changer for talented filmmakers like Nalan Kumarasamy, or even actors who are better suited to smaller screens. The audience has made it clear that they are only interested in watching the really big stars on the big screen. The films with less popular actors become, at best, mid-size hits. It's as if the theatre-goer is saying, "I will see big actors even in bad films, but if you are a smaller star, then your film needs to be really good if I am to even consider watching it." These OTT platforms are a way to dispense this other kind of content, which need not have "mass appeal." It's a way of telling the traditional cinema food chain (theatre owners, distributors, and so forth) : "Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckety fuck!"