Director SP Jananathan is arguably one of the most vocal left-leaning filmmakers in Tamil cinema. Except for, perhaps, in Iyarkai, he wears his ideology on his sleeve and makes films that are intended to educate the masses. He debuted with Iyarkai, a film that’s most unlike his other ideologically charged films. Beginning with E, Jananathan has made films that have gradually become more robustly ideological, and his unreleased Laabam is expected to be a sharp critique of global capitalist structures.
After a brief hospitalization, SP Jananathan passed away on March 14, 2021. It was the same day Karl Marx died in 1883, a coincidence that would have pleased him. We look at four scenes from Jananathan’s films that are a testament to both the director and the comrade.
The ending of Iyarkai
An adaptation of Dostoevsky’s story ‘White Nights’, Jananathan sets a familiar triangle love story in a port town. The background which forms the backdrop of the love story is often more interesting. He shows us the workings of the town of Rameshwaram and the lives of diverse people who throng the port. Against the vastness of the sea is the bustle of the small town in which a quiet story of unrequited love is embedded. The town, with its ships that only anchor briefly before leaving, is a parallel to the unstable love that characters in the film experience.
Unlike his later films, Iyarkai is relatively short on political ideology. It’s a complicated love story that is narrated simply. The ending sequence of the film when the heroine’s lost lover returns might seem brief, abrupt, and unsatisfying, much like the protagonist’s own brief romantic interlude with her. He stands amidst the water, literally at sea, watching her leave, shedding a few tears that are only going to drop into the sea anyway.
The argument scene in E
As the opening titles roll in E, you think you’re watching a documentary. You see news clippings accompanied by a news reader’s voice describing the historical evolution of biological warfare. SP Jananathan rarely deals with themes, he deals with issues. The central issue in E is international medical malpractice, like in Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener which is set in Kenya and talks about how powerful white men use Africans as Guinea pigs to illegally test drugs. E is set in a slum in Chennai and talks about how the privileged classes exploit the unsuspecting oppressed classes for economic gain.
You brace yourself for a docudrama, but twenty minutes into the film you get a kuthu song. You brace yourself for a generic hero-vehicle that pays lip service to social issues. But, Jananathan is more ideologically-committed than that.
The kuthu song is not a regular hero introduction number but instead talks of the oppressed classes living in slums, doing jobs that don’t get enough respect (or pay). The song does not introduce the hero whose name is E; it introduces the people for whom E is a stand-in. A heroine who is a bar dancer is a convenient excuse for an item song, but she is also portrayed with dignity and plays a crucial role in the hero’s journey. Jananathan briefly visits and then subverts several such Tamil cinema tropes.
Near the end of the film, the conversation between E and Nellai Mani (Pasupathy in a fine performance) plays out as a philosophical debate between a cynic and an idealist. It’s a scene that is entirely driven by crackling dialogue. The camera often looks at the two from above, as if their three-dimensional form weren’t as important as what they stood for. Characters in Jananathan’s films often stand in for ideologies, and he explores scenarios where they cross each other. This is one such scene in E and Nellai Mani stands in for SP Jananathan himself in the film.
The film is often expository and literal , but the sense of helplessness and ideological vacuum in our society that’s shown in the film makes you want to sit up and take the film seriously.
The climax of Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai
SP Jananathan’s Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai, starring Arya, Vijay Sethupathi and Shaam, is a two-and-a-half-hour-long question mark on what capital punishment means in a democracy. Designed with thriller-like traits of a heist movie, the film pulls the rug from right under us, taking away the comfort we feel during a successful prison break. As citizens, the tragic ending forces us to sit up and participate in the debate. Balu (Arya) does not get a chance to escape, just like we, the citizens, do not get absolved from the guilt of living in a democracy where capital punishment is still common. Yamalingam (Vijay Sethupathi) plays the government-appointed hangman but in such a case, aren’t we all hangmen?
The mental toll an execution takes on Yamalingam forms the film’s most powerful element. As a ‘junior’ hangman in all of 18, he remembers the chilling moment when the person he is asked to execute turns around quietly and tells Yama that he’s innocent…his last words. It’s something he can never get over, making him drown in both alcohol and religion. So when he gets a chance to help Balu escape from prison, with the help of his comrades, it’s like he’s getting a chance to redeem himself and achieve a form of salvation by keeping Balu alive.
He’s not alone in this. He’s a part of a lineage that includes his forefathers who’ve taken up this profession as a part of their dharmic duty. On Yamalingam’s sacred bedroom wall, the director adds a photo each of Oduvil Unnikrishnan and Om Puri. While the former played an executioner in Adoor Gopalkrishnan’s Nizhalkuthu, Puri played a similar role in The Hangman.
By saving Balu, he wants to escape this chain and the madness that comes with the imprisonment. He even makes a dummy of Balu as a part of a bigger ploy to help him escape. But when he learns that his effort has proved futile (after Macaulay, the dutiful police officer, changes plans last minute) and Balu dies, the mental shock makes it impossible for Yama to see the difference between what’s real and unreal. The guilt makes him a madman and he spends his years talking to the dummy as though it’s real because it’s impossible to accept that he has murdered another innocent man.
Political economy In Peranmai
In Jayam Ravi’s Peranmai, the star played a character that hails from a forest tribe. Dhuruva is a physical education teacher for NCC cadets, and the Rambo-like action adventure film is about how his team happens upon a foreign power’s secret mission to sabotage India’s satellite launch. It’s a film with multiple scenes that we’re unlikely to see in mainstream cinema, including the shot of a big star pulling out a baby buffalo from inside its mother. We also see him reading Marx by a bonfire even as five women seem interested in him.
The issues the film deals with are many. Dhuruva is constantly ill-treated for his tribal heritage. Some of the cadets ask him if his tribesmen are cannibals. His senior officer calls them uncivilised and savage. Dhuruva’s educational qualifications are dismissed because they are lower than that of the cadets, hinting that he must have gotten the admission only because of reservation. The movie also came with a set of speeches that work better as standalone pieces-to-camera rather than scenes in the screenplay. Of these, his speech explaining ‘Political Economy’ is still widely watched.
In it, he explains how the simple barter system ‘evolved’ to the current state where massive amounts of wealth are amassed as a result of surplus money in the economy. The apolitical cadets, reacting to this, wonder why a PE teacher is explaining world economy and politics to them. A scene earlier, the teacher also asks these students to weed out the forest of a particular kind of tree that’s foreign to our habitat. It’s no so much about the filmmaking but there was a simplicity to these explanations that would connect with anyone watching the film. The director wants to directly communicate this ideas with his viewers and he doesn’t want to dilute that with any sophistication. So when years later AR Murugadoss uses idlis and Vijay to explain communism, we felt like it was right out of a SP Jananathan film. There really is no other filmmaker like him today in Tamil cinema.
(with inputs from Vishal Menon)