For reasons, known only to the realms of popular/political culture, we have witnessed an epic tragedy like the Ramayana become a holy tribute to the brave and virtuous King Rama of Ayodhya. A frail king, swayed by all kinds of ‘public opinions’, incapable of doing anything on his own and who ends up warring with his own children has been coronated as the ‘ideal’ Indian male. Furious with this eulogy, several Indian writers and artists have critiqued this reverence and even written alternative versions of the Ramayana. From Kamban to the Jaina monks and from Tulsidas to Kuvemputhe, the list is long. I begin with the premise that filmmaker Kumararaja Thiagrajan is one such critique in the long line when he made Aranya Kandam (AK) (The Forest Chapters) in 2012 and I strongly believe that Super Deluxe, (SD) now released is a perfect sequel to AK, his first film. The narration in AK alludes to the sequence in the Ramayana when the crown prince Rama and his brother are sent out into the forest for 14 years to fulfil a promise that their polygamous father, the king of Ayodhya had made to his third wife. At the end of this exile segment is a fierce war which ends with righteous Mafia don/druglord Sampath Raj emerging victorious. If AK was about the state of exile, then SD is about homecoming, a return of the two princes to their Ayodhya, where the filmmaker tries to inquire and investigate if anything has changed in the patriarchal world they had walked out of.
If AK was about the state of exile, then SD is about homecoming, a return of the two princes to their Ayodhya, where the filmmaker tries to inquire and investigate if anything has changed in the patriarchal world they had walked out of.
I remember meeting Kumararaja a few years ago to discuss this project when he told me that he wanted to explore more into the other aspects of ‘Ramayana’, especially from its moral perspectives. There is no doubt that Kumararaja’s mind was deeply disturbed by the male-domination in this revered myth. And worse, our modern democratic times seem to legitimise this oppression repeatedly, be it in big corporate houses or in the slums of the lower middle classes. The latter section of the populace, the underdogs, obviously become interesting subjects as they try to mimic the patriarchy of the higher echelons but with none of their finesse and bullshitting decorum. Super Deluxe, the film is about the epic’s multiple characters who eke out their identities in such cesspools of indignity and where each character/chapter’s domain witnesses a ‘homecoming’. Coming back home to Ayodhya and what a dystopic world Kumararaja opens for us!
A husband (Fahadh) comes back home to see that his wife (Samantha) is sleeping with her ex-lover and who has suddenly died in her bed. What will they do to his dead body? In another location, a whole family is getting ready to receive the father/husband who had deserted the family seven years ago. The father (Vijay Sethupathi) comes home but he has transformed himself into a transwoman, draped in a shocking blue sari, a lush wig and thick red lipstick. How will the large family, especially the little son, react to his/her arrival? Elsewhere three hormone-high young men go into the home of another youth to see a porn video only to discover that the lead porn star (Ramya Krishnan) in the film is the mother of one of them. What will this young son do now? Finally, in another home a group of poor denizens have assembled, waiting to witness the arrival of their god who shall bless and cure a sick child. Curiously the shaman (Mysskin) who heads this evangelical worship centre is also the husband of the porn actor with whom he is now estranged.
These four ‘arrival into Ayodhya’ storylines seemingly run parallel and move through several quirky twists and turns which keeps the viewers busy trying to fix each locale and their respective characters’ arcs. SD follows AK yet again with another character area. Jackie Shroff who plays the primary antagonist in AK is now replaced by two shady gangsters. One of them is a fixer who pays tip money to our good-for-nothing youth characters to eliminate another gangster who presumably does nothing but make love to an alien woman. This young woman has a unique capacity to press the face of another person and magically clone him into another duplicate. This resourceful woman resonates with Subbu in AK, (a delightful performance by Yasmin Ponappa) as the woman who walks away with Jackie Shroff’s wealth at the end. In SD, the young woman too, lives happily ever after the scene when she gets her dream ‘duplicate’ boy.
I will not delve anymore into comparative story-lines but enter more into the stylistic and philosophical enquiries that dominate this very densely layered film. For a start, it refers to the original epic of the Ramayana as not the heroic story of Rama, the noble king (Sethupathi), the wife Sita (Ramya Krishnan), brother Lakshman (Fahadh) and devotee Hanuman (Mysskin), but one of the most powerful tragedies narrated around the frailties of human behaviour and urban citizenship. And ironically, for all practical purposes, Super Deluxe is only the brand name of a cheap local ice-cream, further devalued by positioning the lone vendor in an extreme long shot, just once in the entire film. Every character from the myth in the film, comes through, packed with all the deficiencies that 21st century citizens can ever contain. Kumararaja is today’s angry Valmiki trying to imagine ‘What would happen if Rama comes back home, after his years of exile, transformed as a transwoman? What would happen when brother Lakshman realises that Urmila was sleeping with another man who collapsed dead while making love to her? What would happen if we see the young children of Ayodhya, loitering around, itching to see porn movies etc.? And what would happen if Hanuman, the extreme devotee has gotten fed up with this noble god-king he had self-anointed and now asking for the almighty to come and bail him out?
Does this not read more like a recipe for a ‘horror’ movie? After disconnecting the links between the original characters in the epic, Kumararaja decides to get a little help from his friends: super caper writer/director Nalan Kumaraswamy (I guess he wrote the section about the kids and their encounters with gangsters), Neelan Sekar (He probably wrote the Fahadh/ Samantha portions and their bizarre escapade with a dead body), and finally Myskkin, who has admitted to have written his own ‘Hanuman’ episode. Having got such fine collaborators, Kumararaja decides now to focus on, according to me, the most important contributor to this film behind the camera, the production designer Vijay Adinathan. Every location in north Chennai and its settings are meticulously crafted, from the grimy ceramic tiles to the deep blue/orange colour palette delightfully sprayed in a variety of ways—walls, dresses, props etc. There is one brief yet unforgettable scene inside a dirty public toilet—the dirty old ceramic tiles, the urine-stained walls, the moss bristling in the corners from the humidity of north Chennai and the dirt spread all over the floor from hundreds of soiled footwear worn by the pissing underdogs. Here we see the young son has finished taking a pee and his father bends down to help him zip up his short pants, when suddenly a cop walks in. The cop of the 21st century cannot infer anything else from this activity, other than as a pervert paedophile at work. He canes the poor father and the trauma that ensues at the even more insensitive police station is Kumararaja at the most original, blasting his guns away at the dystopia that Chennai stands for. Yet again in another scene, you can see the amazing definition of dystopic space. Sethupathi brings his son to a surreally crowded market to buy betel leaf in order to neutralize the odour of a blow job he had to provide for the police officer. Chewing the ‘paan’ he turns around to see the boy is missing. In a single dizzying scene the search takes us through a slice of representations that could epitomise North Chennai. The details, the sound mix, the dreamy characters who stare unemotionally at the peripatetic movement dragging us through the ‘magic event’ will remain unforgettable.
This film will be mostly remembered for the horrendous treatment that the Indian legal system and its shameless citizens mete out to the transgender population. The scenes inside the police station walk a tightrope between becoming a disgusting representation of reality and a stylised deconstruction of misogyny and parental sentiment. Sethupathi, as Shilpa, has to maintain her dignity in front of her son while the senior police officer wants a blow job done with the utmost perfection. The sequence finally ends with a ferocious drawing up of all her energy, wig thrown down, challenging all the cops there and almost smashing the police officer’s head. Wallowing in the perpetuation of their humiliated image, Indian society seems to have found the perfect formula to keep these ‘unfortunate eunuchs’ conducting their dumb charade as soothsayers in such ignominy. Their hand-clap which draws money out of cash counters of small traders, sounds more like a slap on their souls. Nobody else than Sethupathi could pull off a scene where she magically collects twenty rupees from a shopkeeper with just a few claps and shows it off to her son who watches it, all ecstatic and wide-eyed.
The character of Mukil, on another parallel is exquisitely played by the talented Fahadh. Kumararaja makes him play an out-of-work film actor who is still going through an actor’s training classes. His character plays another fine balance between expressing his real despondency and checking out the action graph of his ‘own’ motivations which drives the role. The sequences reveal him feeling his feelings; tasting his wounds and in the process alienating his character and Mukil, the role-player. His wife Vembu wants him to go through his catharsis and help himself out of the guilt of having neglected her so badly in his actorly exiles. Like a tribute to Antonioni’s ‘Red Desert’, Kumararaja locates their argumentative performance in the background of a polluting industry, an abandoned railway track and derelict factory which must have employed hundreds of working-class members once upon a good time.
Mysskin plays Arputham the soothsaying evangelist, virtually trying to see whether his lord Rama is truly as wondrous as he imagined him to be. Accompanying him back to Ayodhya, Rama’s presidential palace, he realises that his god is just a piece of mortal stone whose only job is to give ‘darshan’ and bestow wishful blessings on the citizenry. He cannot save his own son from the clutches of a corrupt hospital system where patients are mere mortals until they cough up wads of money. In yet another brilliant single take, Sita (Ramya Krishnan) shouts at him for being such a stupid wimp, incapable of helping her at her moment of distress. I could not but imagine Sita’s distress when back in Ayodhya, she watches Rama conducts his own crowning ceremony (Pattabishekam) with Sita by his side, when just sometime ago he had asked her to go on a trial by fire to prove her chastity. Was the porn film, Kumararaja’s way of interpreting the ‘trial-by-fire’?
Back to the ceremony, Hanuman watches his lord merely translate his thanks for his devoted citizens into gifts and other investitures like Padma Shri/Bhushan/Vibhushan awards of modern times. His lord does all this with no feelings or passion. In a long single take Mysskin breaks down invoking the spirits of his own lord to reveal the human/purusha inside him. Like Hanuman, in the Ramayana, he realizes that the body needs to be ripped apart and deemed worthless and in the process opens his bloody heart to reveal the lord with his consort, seated in his heart. On a similar note, in SD, the giant stone statue comes crashing down, decapitated and out flows out a consignment of diamonds, capable of generating enough money to last him a lifetime. But was it all worth it?
There is no doubt that Super Deluxe should put Kumararaja on the international map of maverick filmmakers who work on the edges.
Why did Kumararaja not make this critical look of the Ramayana even, slightly apparent? Are great filmmaking artists supposed to hide their anger in a giant exhibition of formal and tonal cinematic metaphors? Other so-called international giants like Wong Kar Wai, Kim Ki Duk or Haneke also couch their vitriolic comments in beautiful caskets to be inaugurated in fashionista capitals such as Cannes, Venice and Berlin alongside models displaying Swaroski crystals. Is it necessary for ‘good’ cinema to be so dominated by form? Or if they do want to blast out, should it have to be like Anand Patwardhan’s tirades in his mega documentaries? In a country like India where right-wing religious forces seem to have taken such an upper hand, should ‘Super Deluxe’ be like a blazing hot samurai’s sword which needs to be viewed in super-cool air-conditioned comfort? How do we explain this paradox? Yet, on the other hand, I must admit that while watching the film, I was constantly thanking my stars that I live a democratic ecosystem, of a nation where under the label of an ‘A’ certificate Kumararaja could get away with scores of ‘fucks’, police brutality, transgender politics and criminal operations of excise/tax officials insider the corridors of a highly regressive censorship system which has traumatized many other Indian film projects.
There is no doubt that Super Deluxe should put Kumararaja on the international map of maverick filmmakers who work on the edges. But, in the process of breaking all existing rules and conventions, the filmmakers inadvertently set up their own formal principles. In this case, the structure is built around interpretations of anarchy, disloyalty and holding a certain distance between the narrator and the narration. In short, the form chooses to give up and escape from the principles of melodrama which has had a strong hold on most of our films so far. Yet, for some unknown reasons Kumararaja puts his characters into long scenes of some serious lamentation. Shilpa laments the fact that she has neglected her son, weeping away at the locked door inside the house; Arputham laments interminably at the plight that he has been left in looking at the camera, playing his god; Vembu too weeps inside the abandoned factory at her predicament, while the camera just gazes at her uncontrolled; in another long take Ramya lashes away in the most melodramatic manner inside the hospital corridor. Does lamentation have any space inside the form of the absurd that Kumararaja has chosen to work in? Does appealing to sentiments about father and motherhood have any space here, I wonder? Could the film then become a bit trimmer too, to accommodate the diverse tastes of an international audience?
Probably, the music track of the film seems to offer a sort of counterpoint, attempting to neutralize these emotional moments. There is indeed a marvellous concrete music score by Yuvan Shankar inside the abandoned factory blended with some playful East European melodic traits elsewhere. But what could be the reason for a few Hindi film songs to be placed randomly? As we were walking away on the scrolling titles, I heard the iconic ‘I am a disco dancer’ blasting away. I wondered why.
In conclusion, I can only say that ‘Super Deluxe’ – the film matches its title appropriately. A formidable work which is far removed from anything that is being dished out on the Indian or world screen today. I hope this film gathers all the accolades it deserves rightfully across the world and more importantly gets Kumararaja to get working on his next film as early as possible.