I saw Selvaraghavan’s NGK yesterday. It was not an easy film to review. It’s never easy to review a problematic film made by a filmmaker you respect and like and have great hopes from. I wrote my review and have since been watching the arguments build around it. Some say the film is outright bad. (It’s most definitely not.) Others say it’s a good film, and that it’s all about reading between the lines. I’d say the film lies somewhere in between. But first, a word about reading between the lines, or “reading” a film in general. It’s okay if one scene or one twist or one characterisation or one character’s motivation is not satisfactorily explained. We can extrapolate and say, “Okay, maybe this is WHY this happened.” We can fill in that one blank. We can make up our own reason, so that the rest of the film holds up, even with this one issue.
But when—like in NGK—there are several places where you have to fill up the blanks, then you are essentially “writing” the film on your own, as it goes along. Instead of interpreting a director’s vision, you are creating your own version of a film. And that’s never a good thing. Now, some of you are going to argue: But if you can accept storytelling gaps in art films, why can’t you accept them in mainstream films? It’s a valid question, and there’s an answer. The storytelling “grammar” decides how you view a film, and this is not even a conscious process. If the film is elliptical from the beginning (say, Mulholland Drive), we view it differently. We get into that mode from the moment the film opens. But NGK, at the start, “explains” so much—step by step—about WHY Kumaran (Suriya) gets into politics in the first place. (1) Kumaran is an organic farmer. (2) He has convinced others to leave cushy jobs and take up organic farming. (3) So when a threat comes (not just to his livelihood but those of the others), he wants to fix things. (4) So he goes to the MLA. (5) And when the MLA says, “What do I get in return?” Kumaran is forced to commit himself (and his men) to politics.
Now within these broad “reasons”, you may still have smaller questions. For example, you may ask: How can Kumaran make this decision without consulting the other men? Or, for that matter, WHO are these other men? But the film (so far) “works” even if these issues aren’t addressed. Yes, it may have worked better if these gaps had been filled. But still, we can extrapolate and let the matter rest. (Maybe Kumaran is close enough to these men that he doesn’t need to consult with them.) And so, after about twenty minutes, NGK’s “rules” have been laid out. Its “grammar” has been set as follows: “Okay, so this film is going to lead us through every major motivation and decision.”
So when such a film gets to the point where Kumaran’s wife, Geetha (Sai Pallavi), suspects him of having an affair, you want to see the reasons, the explanations. It’s clear WHY she thinks he is sleeping around. (Because of the new scent on him, from Vanathi, played by Rakul Preet Singh.) But when he stands there like a stone, we need a WHY that answers things from his point of view. When the question “WHY did he enter politics?” has been answered with a fair amount of detail, this WHY should be answered, too — either at this point, or at a later stage. Now, suddenly, you decide you are not going to answer these questions. Suddenly, you say, “I am leaving it all as subtext.” That means, suddenly, you are changing your film’s grammar, after making people expect one kind of narrative engagement, the mainstream kind.
WHY is the most important question in a mainstream film (as opposed to an art film). If NGK were a book, we might be reading this passage: As Geetha’s accusations fell on his ears, Kumaran stood there silently, guiltily. He was ashamed of what he had done, ashamed that he had polluted this house with the dirt of politics. He couldn’t bring himself to meet her eyes. But film, as a medium, doesn’t allow for interior monologues, so the WHY has to come from the screenplay. Geetha might never know the answer, but we, the audience, need to know. Because we have chosen to invest in Kumaran, and we want to travel with him, and we can’t travel with him if major aspects of his character (his feelings about Geetha, his feelings about Vanathi) are hidden from us, or we are made to extrapolate about them. So when we get to the later scene, when Kumaran goes to Vanathi’s hotel room, we are left wondering: WHY is he acting as though theirs is a professional relationship? Does Vanathi understand she is being used, and is she still dreaming of duets? And so forth. Now, a duet is a very “mainstream” way of depicting love, so again, the “grammar” question comes into place. Are you making this kind of movie or that kind?
Let me take the example of Mani Ratnam, another mainstream filmmaker who has gradually decided to take the course of “no more spoon-feeding the audience”. During the Mouna Raagam phase, he felt he needed a WHY to show Revathy’s initial rejection of Mohan. (The Karthik character was the WHY.) Mani Ratnam said, “[Karthik] was not there in the earlier screenplay… It was just the story of how a girl settles into an arranged marriage. But by the time I’d done a few films, I realized that this was not enough to make the story reach across to a larger audience. There are still a lot of women who walk around trees in prayer to get married, who don’t eat on certain days of the week so that they’ll get married — and here, there’s a girl who’s refusing to get married. So I decided that if I needed to make this accessible, I had to give the audience something that wouldn’t make them question the character…”
But slowly, Mani Ratnam’s films have begun to omit these explicit WHYs. For instance: WHY is Veeriyan, in Raavanan, drawn to Ragini? We can easily do the extrapolation from the scene where she jumps off the cliff. He is stunned by her attitude that says “Who are you to take my life? I will do it myself?” And that’s enough for us to continue with the protagonist on his journey. Now, let’s talk about the “extrapolations” needed in Kaatru Veliyidai versus Chekka Chivantha Vaanam. I know that, unlike me, a lot of you preferred the latter to the former — but I am just using these films as an example, not saying which one is better or worse. For me, the WHYs in Kaatru Veliyidai were plugged easily enough with a little extrapolation. WHY does Leela keep going back to VC? Because she has worshipped him from when she was in school (thanks to her brother’s letters), and now she’s star-struck with this stud. So it takes her a long time to accept the fact that they are not a good fit. WHY is VC this way? Because his father is a toxic male, and this toxicity has seeped into him. And so on and so forth.
Would I have preferred that the film itself had answered these WHYs — and in a more convincing fashion? Most certainly. But the fact that I had to do the extrapolations did not become a deal-breaker. Because this is a love story, and this is the genre where most WHYs can be answered with a bit of extrapolation. We’ve all lived through love stories. We all know matters of the heart aren’t exactly logical. So while we may get frustrated with Leela and say things like, “For God’s sake woman, ditch this guy, already!”, at least we can see WHY she takes such a long time to make up her mind. A bit of personal experience also helps. I have seen women like Leela in toxic relationships. You’d think they would “do the right thing”. But it’s easier to comment on a relationship situation from the outside than from the inside, where the same clarity and practicality may not be there.
Now, take CCV. In this film, I had a major issue with the WHYs — because suddenly, you’re showing me brothers who want to kill each other. Unlike love, this is not an age-old situation that we have personal experience about. It’s a new situation, and we (or at least, I) need to be eased into the psychologies of these brothers. WHY are they such enemies, and to such bitter extents? Killing a father is a huge thing, and nothing in Varadarajan’s character hints that he is such a person. Take Macbeth, which is also written in the “mainstream” tradition. Why does Macbeth kill King Duncan, who’s a father figure? (1) Because the witches prophesied that he would become the king, and this took root in his mind. (2) Because his wife egged him on. These “because”s immediately help us lock into Macbeth’s psyche. Now, imagine if Shakespeare had taken us to the murder without taking us through steps (1) and (2). Then we’d be scratching our heads about the WHY, which is what I was doing in CCV. (Yes, getting your hands on a major criminal empire is a big WHY, but it would have helped me if at least Senapathi had said he was not giving his empire to Varadarajan and then the latter’s wife had made him consider killing his father. Or some such thing.)
The situations in NGK are also “new”. Take the part where Kumaran’s parents are killed. One of the theories that has emerged is that this is something Kumaran himself has orchestrated. Now, this is a massive development, and it requires huge amounts of extrapolation. The extrapolation is twofold: (1) to connect Kumaran with these murders, and (2) the WHY (i.e. WHY did Kumaran descend to these depths? That is, at what point did he become so evil?). If all this is not laid out carefully (either through dialogue or through visuals), we end up not being in Kumaran’s headspace, and we end up not following this course of action. It becomes a cold exercise of connecting the dots instead of actually feeling these emotions. And that’s what mainstream cinema is about. Art cinema can afford to be distant and speak to the intellect, but mainstream cinema should speak to the heart as well as the head—if you don’t say WHY, most people will just switch off. I understand that creators like Mani Ratnam and Karthik Subbaraj and Selvaraghavan have grown restless with conventional formats and they want to keep experimenting within the mainstream. But answering the WHY question when it comes to unconventional characters or arcs is not the same as spoon-feeding. It just means we are on the same page as the protagonist.