Where To Begin With Mysskin

Here is your guide to a film-maker’s body of work, and his fixation with the absurd, the philosophical, and the yellow sari
Where To Begin With Mysskin

Before I begin, a confession is in order. 

Mysskin's movies tend to leave me with an underwhelmed aftertaste. But what I, and even his most vociferous critics, cannot disagree with is that his films have a certain cinematic value that deserves to be studied. They are what film critics dream of, with recurring tropes, subtexts, camera angles, and hints of philosophical discourse and social commentary. They almost beg to be dissected and discussed. However, much of it can feel tacked on, a pretense. But, then again, anyone who does not value pretension has in some sense dismissed cinema. 

This piece is in service of that pretension, those subtexts, and a body of work that is consistently cinematic, however, you want to interpret that word. It is your guide to a director who rechristened himself Mysskin after a literary character from a Dostoevsky novel, a character who has this unkempt amount of sympathy and love in a destructive and violent universe.  

Where to Start: Pisaasu (2014)

There is Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, and there is Plato, a character in a Mysskin film. Where does one end and the other begin?

Plato is a wastrel, and philosophy is the disguise, a pretense under which people like Plato make a living. Philosophy isn't self-sustaining, so you must beg, borrow, and steal for a meal and a smoke. (Because of course, Plato smokes) I am talking about the character, but of course in a Mysskin film, it's never just about the character.

This is just one of many entry points to try and understand his film, Pisaasu. The main protagonist, Siddharth (Naga), is seen foregrounded by what looks like portraits of Hume and Locke. He even spares Plato, the wastrel in his building, and his acolytes 100 Rupees for a smoke. He is sympathetic to their delusions, because he himself is leading a rather strained and disorienting life. The story is fairly simple. Siddharth tries to save a woman who is lying on the road in the aftermath of a hit and run. She doesn't survive, but her ghost, her pisaasu, ends up in his apartment. He wonders what he did to deserve this haunt. The film is about that journey.

He plays the violin for Ilayaraja, the music composer. He either earns enough money, or takes financial help from his parents, since he owns a Scoda and a sprawling, empty apartment in a newly built complex. He exchanges his shoes for chappals before descending into the subway, playing with the beggars, helping them earn, and fighting to make sure they have kept their earnings. He isn't afflicted by the saviour complex: all the beggars are blind, save for the girl child who guides them from the subway to the street to beg, all in one line, hand on shoulder, like kindergarten children. When the child asks him to help walk them to the street, he simply reminds her that she has been doing the same exercise all the while. Why does she need him now? Surely, a man with a saviour complex would have jumped on this request, fulfilling it, hearts and smiles erect. Here, too, he is sympathetic to their poverty, as he is to philosophy, trying not to invest himself more than is morally needed. 

This is a homecoming film of sorts for Mysskin. Those who have reveled in his art know of his habit of using disorienting top shots and low shots alternatively. This time, he gives this disorientation a character. He makes it a ghost. 

Mysskin's stories though rooted in a world that exists, are elevated slightly. Think of how in his 2013 film Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum (streaming on Disney+ Hotstar), Chennai looks like it is under curfew, with only the roving police vehicles, and the rasping 'villain'. Another conventional trope, is that he never makes the audience cringe. The violence, as in all his previous films, does not evoke disgust. You know the act happened, enough information is given. Cut-to, aftermath. There isn't much space for gore in Mysskin's universe. In that sense, his films are commercial.

If you are looking for unsolved puzzles too, this film does not disappoint. What is the function of the abusive man and his wife? What did that earthworm shot, with worms all muddled up, going their separate ways mean? Why does a lonely man have a two bedroom apartment? Why Plato? I think I have made peace with the last one, but with Mysskin, you never know. Writing and thinking about his films is always more of a joy than actually watching them. That isn't particularly a bad thing, is it? 

Pisaasu is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. 

What Next: Anjathe (2008)

While reading the following paragraph, I urge you to try and imagine it as a scene in a movie.

Through the entire scene, the camera is placed just a few notches above the ground. It is set inside a house; some of the bad guys need refuge. There is a good-guy-turned-bad, Sathya, who offers his house to them for the night. Sathya's family is at the hospital, his father admitted. Out of the blue, his sister knocks on the door, she needs to change and get back to the hospital, and get a sari for their mother who is staying back. The bad guys need to hide and so are kept locked inside a room, the door of which has a rather wide gap between where it ends and the floor begins. The sister is changing in front of that door, the main bad guy, Deena, goes on all fours, like a cat, and uses a mirror to get a glimpse of her changing. 

Now, the point of writing this out, is for you to imagine as a reader, how this scene would have been conceived on paper. There is an audacity here that is commendable. There is also, a pointlessness. (What is the need for this, you might ask) If the latter is what persuades your reflection on movies, you might want to sit out the Mysskin marathon.

Because for him, god truly is in the details. In a moment in this film, a flower seller helps mount a wounded body lying on the road onto a bike of a man, helping him take the body to the hospital. The man dies. Cut-to, her hands are shown sprinkling flowers on the road, on the blood of the man which has now dried crimson.

He also seems to flirt with a philosophical idea of the origin of evil: No one is born evil, circumstances make people evil. The same thing can be said about goodness, perhaps. 

In an interview post the success of this film Mysskin said that he truly believed the film was successful "when people come and tell [him] about how they felt about seeing the grandmother sprinkling flowers." He was talking about the small things. The story is almost secondary, and therefore, I don't feel the need to dwell on it too much. It is about two friends, one is driven and wants to become part of the police, the other is wayward. Through crook connections the latter finds himself in the police and the former, disillusioned with the system becomes an alcoholic. Mysskin's buzz word here is transformation.

In an interview with Vishal Menon (when he was at The Hindu) he mused "How does a worthless man get transformed into a police officer when wearing khaki? Why does a man become a criminal when he fails to become a police officer? These motivations interest me."

He also seems to flirt with a philosophical idea of the origin of evil: No one is born evil, circumstances make people evil. The same thing can be said about goodness, perhaps. 

This film can be found on YouTube.

Where Not To Start: Yuddham Sei (2011)

  1. A bald man saws off the arms of men tied to chairs, alive, placing the hands in cardboard boxes across the city, sparking alarm and fear.
  2. An honest officer working in the Crime Branch of CID, the man working this case, has a sister who has been kidnapped, missing for a few months. 
  3. A family — the husband is a doctor, the wife is a professor at a university, there is a son, and a daughter. The daughter went missing the same day the sister of the honest officer went missing. The husband, wife, and son have immolated themselves.
  4. There's a jeweled pervert who has watched the doctor's daughter change in the changing room through a hole in the wall. (Voyeurism similar to Deena in Anjathe) He is brought into a police station, beaten up by the men who caught him in the act. A police officer sticks up for him, against the violence of the mob, placing faith in a legal system that is largely absent from the screen.
  5. A severed head of a man is placed amidst watermelons. The head is facing the police station. The eyelids have been chopped off so the eyes don't close. The investigating officer has an interpretation: that the severed head is forced to look at something evil brewing within the brick and mortar walls of the police station. A police officer from this station (the same one from the previous point) is cagey, a probable defector. 
  6. There is a man working in the mortuary named Judas. In a crucial scene he proclaims  "Life is not heaven, it is hell."

Are you exhausted? This is a mere sampling of the plot points that drive the film. There is more, and each one bemuse, then befuddle you as a viewer. It's exhausting.

These stories all are supposed to connect. And though by the end they do, you are left in the aftermath, clueless, having gotten the "gist" of it. Cruising through overplotted stories is not a fault per-se. Virus did it very well. Characters came in and walked out but there was one solid spine through the film, a heartache that you too, as a viewer, felt implicated in. It also helped that the acting in Virus felt like lives were being lived, not acted out. Mysskin's actors are known to 'act'. There is an obvious staging, you could almost hear Mysskin directing them to scream or weep, or just… act.

If you want to sample the chaos, this film is available on YouTube.

The Film That No One Got: Mugamoodi (2012)

If nothing else, this film for me had one of the best "bar-songs" with bartenders who drink, Socrates and sweat stains, vertically challenged men and women clad in saris, (yellow saris, a Mysskin trope) and an old man playing the violin. 

It is a superhero origin film. There is an obvious homage angle to it, with the comic book like rustling of pages for the credits sequence (which then transitions into something more dramatic, almost as a prelude to what is coming ahead, an origin story that devolves into something else) and ceiling lights reminiscent of The Dark Knight

This film was panned, critically and commercially. People thought that Mysskin's choice of Jiva symbolized the complete commercial vanquishing of his uniquely cinematic soul. I think there is value in watching this film. You see the conscious attempt at blending genres, inserting commercial elements (the love angle, which works as a light breeze) into a unique visual grammar. The sprawling camera too here is justified we are talking about a superhero after all, even if he, too, is rooted in human weaknesses like love and a throbbing bladder that needs relieving in the midst of a heist.  

The film is available on Disney+ Hotstar and Netflix. 

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