'Representational realism … is treacherous because the realist artwork reflects the fate of things, but does not share it. To share the fate of all things—or the vast majority of things—means to share the perspective of their decay, dissolution and disappearance. Thus for an artwork to be able to reveal the truth of things it must not represent them, but rather share their fate.." In the Flow, Boris Groys (p117-8).
One of the striking characteristics that mark contemporary popular films in Indian languages is the compression of the time frame of/in the narrative. The narrative of most films happen in a single day or two, and is structured as a series of experiences or encounters that are triggered by an accidental event or incident. Breaking away from the confines of the family or the crusade of male hero, the characters look like a random mix of people who happen to be there at that moment when the incidents occur. There is a sense of extreme urgency in the air, and the characters are caught in its swirl. In such situations, the characters confront life/world in its immediacy and flow, and in this encounter between the individual and the world, the nature, entanglements and predicaments of both are revealed through flashes into their insides. The dynamics between time and space is also upset. Only epics and sagas, beginning-middle-end stories of heroism need the canvas of extended time to render them. Here, enacted and elaborated upon space, time turns into pure flow and flux of experiences, or the ebb and tide of events. Here are some recent films with narratives that unfold in a day or a short span of time from different languages: Nandalala, Engeyum Eppothum, Mercury, Thoongavanam, 96, Neram, Chennaiyil oru Nal, Pizza, Ayirathil Oruvan, Aruvi, Sila Samayangalil (Tamil); Neerja, A Wednesday, Trapped, Badla (Hindi), S Durga, Ee Ma Yau, Cocktail, Lukka Chuppi, Traffic, A Sunday, Ozhivudivasathe Kali (Malayalam).
In these narratives there is a relentless flow of things, an overwhelming feeling of things going out of control, and what hitherto appeared as solid and immutable when static or at rest, takes on unpredictable kinetic dimensions. Boiled down to the immediacy of the moment, the individual has nothing to fall back upon and is forced to follow his/her instincts, as he or she is essentially responding and reacting to what the immediacy and contingency of the moment throws up. Most importantly, it is in and through such 'unprepared' and 'casual' encounters that the world/system is stripped of everything, and is revealed in their most elemental state. In this unpredictable series of encounters with the world and confrontations with the Other, we get flashes of understanding into reality in all its nakedness and immediacy.
Liberation from larger time frames also means narrative freedom from the labour of 'establishing' the characters, their lineages, journeys so far, their intentions in the present and hopes about the future. Placed in the visceral present, the characters are left to themselves—they are their bodies, their immediate conditions of life, the twists and turns of things as they happen. Thiagarajan Kumaraja's Super Deluxe is one such movie whose narrative too unfolds in a day and a half, and is centred around chance encounters and accidental incidents.
Though many people describe the narrative of Super Deluxe as 'non-linear', it is more multi-linear, one that follows the events happening in a day and half in the life of four sets of character-trios: Vembu-Mugil–Boyfriend/Berlin; Manickam alias Shilpa-Jyothi-Rasukutty; and Leela-Dhanasekharan alias Arputham-Soori.
Broken Families & Desperate Trios
At the centre of all these is broken family and sexual disquiet of various kinds, and the narrative progresses with character-trios of different combinations. In the Vembu-Mugil family episode there are two trios: two men enter the lives of the couple to complete the trio: the first is her ex-boyfriend who dies while having sex with her and the next is Berlin, the policeman, who blackmails the couple and seeks sexual favours from Vembu in return for burying their crime. In the next family, it is Jyothi, Manickam/Shilpa and their son Rasukkutty. In the third family it is Leela, an erstwhile porn actress, her husband Dhanasekharan alias Arputham and their son Soori who form the trio. The last trio are the kids, friends of Soori, who desperately run around pillar to post to find money to replace the broken television set.
The dead body that they carry around is not only a physical one but also a metaphorical one as far as their relationship is concerned.
The reasons for the breakup of families are also different: Vembu sleeps with her boyfriend without any qualms, and even when the truth is revealed by the presence of his dead body, her husband Mugil is more worried about his self image and as to how to dispose the body. The dead body that they carry around is not only a physical one but also a metaphorical one as far as their relationship is concerned. In the case of Leela, she is estranged from her husband Dhanasekharan who believes himself to be the representative of god on earth and is busy running a chapel. It is the accident that their son Soori meets with that forces them to come together to rescue him in their own ways. In the case of Jyothi and Rasu, it is the missing head of household, husband and father they are eagerly waiting for. But Manickam, the absconding husband who returns home after seven years, is not the man they expect; he is now a she, Shilpa, the transwoman. If it is infidelity that unsettles the first family, in the second, it is a struggle between fight for survival and irresponsible spiritualism, between commitment to this world and the other world. In the case of the third family, the very foundation of a heterosexual family is at stake.
Also important is the mixing of identities even within individual characters: Leela is a housewife and a porn actress, her husband Dhanasekharan, once a Hindu, is an evangelist crusader Arputham now. Jyothi's husband Manickam is now a woman. Above all, there is an alien girl who comes to the rescue of the children. Berlin, the cop, like the oppressive system that envelops them all, is omnipresent, and appears in different forms and locations. It is a world where everything is in a flux, within and without. So it is not 'a story about' someone or any one of these characters, but a virtual tour as it were through certain real life situations and moments in certain lives, that throw up vital issues relating to sexuality and power, fidelity and love, innocence and reality.
The Void at the Centre
There are certain key moments in the film where the very idea of heroism that we are used to is mercilessly defeated, decimated and subverted. For instance, any film viewer would expect that when Shilpa is subjected to extreme humiliation at the police station, the manly heroic Manickam will emerge to teach the perpetrator a lesson. But defying all our expectations and hope, nothing happens: Shilpa undergoes the humiliation meekly and silently walks out of the police station; she is more worried about her son and in going with him to the school. It is as if such violence and humiliation is part of her everyday life, something that one cannot resist but can only live with, or maybe forget.
Likewise, one finds Mugil in a similar situation in the desolate factory space, when the cop demands sexual favours from Vembu to cover up their crime. He in fact seems to enjoy the humiliation that the couple are forced to undergo, and doesn't even look for a place away from Mugil's line of vision. He wants to violate her in front of the handcuffed husband. Here too, one will hope for Mugil to break free, like any other film hero, and teach the cop a lesson he deserves. But throughout their encounter with the cop, Mugil never resists the cop's suggestion, and even tries to convince Vembu that they have no other option but to yield to the humiliation. And it is not his heroism or resistance that comes to their rescue, but the accidental event of the television set suddenly landing upon the cop's head. In the case of Arputham and Leela too there is a reversal of roles; while Leela desperately runs from one hospital to another with her injured son, seeking medical help and money to pay the bills, Arputham has only prayers of healing to offer. In the end, it is Leela who demolishes his spiritual escapism and brings him down to reality and its responsibilities.
Here and Now, and Elsewhere
These are stories of here and now, that do not begin with 'once upon a time..' and end with 'they lived happily thereafter..'. They begin as if in the middle of some action and take us with it for a brief time leaving us after a while. The closures are partial and fragmented; certain problems are solved and families are reunited here too,but they are not the same family all over again or the ideal, happy ones anymore. For instance, Jyothi's family will have two mothers and a son; for Vembu and Mugil, the bitter experiences of infidelity, shame and humiliation they underwent have changed them once and for all. They know mistakes can be fatal but that lifecontinues. For the young Soori, he will have to live with the knowledge that his mother has acted in porn films, but he now also knows that he too is part of that 'sin' if at all it is one. For Dhanasekharan, if it was a return from death to life during tsunami earlier, now it is yet a more profound return – one from dream to reality; he is forced to be an iconoclast, literally.
Finally, where does the alien figure in the desolate, surreal house that comes to the rescue of the kids, fits in, in this film which is all about the here and now, and the all too real and worldly predicaments that all its characters are caught in. In a way, she constitutes the unreal – the embodiment of alien kindness – that lies at the core of reality, at the centre of this world with all its cruelty, infidelity, and violence, and also hopes, dreams and expectations. And it is this unexpected trace of the surreal and the divine that also makes the reality of the world around all too visceral and real. She represents the happy and kind duplicate self that inhabits us all, and in a way, she is also the double of the icon that blesses Arputham in the end by breaking itself open. Maybe it needs such divine, other-worldly angelic presences like the alien or the tsunami god to counter the inhuman brutality of the world.