Director: Raju Murugan
Cast: Jiiva, Natasha Singh
Raju Murugan makes noble-minded films, so it’s really no surprise that Gypsy is filled with noble-minded songs. In ‘Venpuraa’, we get this line: Idhayam thaandi iraivan illai… (There’s no god beyond the human heart, beyond humanity.) ‘Kaathellam Poo Manakka’ says: Vendaamae oorgal / Vendaamae paergal. (Let’s forget geographical boundaries. Let’s forget the names that identify and separate us.) A Hindi song tells us: Jaat-paat aur bhed-bhaav ke chaar deewarein todenge. (We will break down the walls of caste and discrimination.) None of these lines is as elegant as what the Kannadasan-era lyricists used to write in their thathuva paadalgal (philosophical songs) — but at least, these philosophies sit easy in a song, easier than they’d sit in dialogue.
Now consider this line spoken by a Hindutva-espousing politician in the film, during a riot where Muslims are being massacred: Oruthanoda ratham dhaan innoruthanukku vetri thilakam. Idhu dhaan rajaneedhi. (One man’s blood is another man’s tilak.) I doubt this purple-prose philosophy would sit well even in a song, but as dialogue, it’s a disaster. The line belongs in a historical play made in the 1950s, but then, one could argue that Raju Murugan’s sensibilities are equally old-fashioned. His intentions are worthy, but he has no instincts for cinema. He is a prosaic man striving to make poetry on screen, and the effort shows. Oh, it shows.
Take the scene where a nomad named Gypsy (Jiiva) sees Waheeda (a stiff newcomer named Natasha Singh) weeping. He tells her not to worry. “Unga aalunga dhaan jeyipaanga!” (Your people will win.) He’s referring to the Pakistani cricket team, which is playing a match against India. Waheeda is upset at the insulting implication about Muslims. She says she belongs to India. This is the level of writing in the film. What makes it worse is the fact that, just a few minutes earlier, we have seen Gypsy declare that all religions seem the same to him. But then, this scene is not about Gypsy and Waheeda. This scene is really about Raju Murugan, who wants to make this point. The film is full of Raju Murugan making his points.
Within the first few scenes, a manual scavenger is rescued from drowning in a manhole, the Cauvery issue comes up, the Hindu-Muslim divide comes up… The film slowly begins to resemble a newspaper, with each page containing one “socially important” story (or the same page, sometimes, containing several such stories). But screenplays don’t work that way. You need a thread. You need coherence. Even if you are using your story as just a clothesline on which to hang your ideology, you need to spin that story with some amount of dramatic conviction.
What’s the story? I think it’s this: Gypsy wants to live life as free as a bird, roaming the country and singing for his supper. But when he falls for Waheeda, he finds he has to “settle down”. And in settling down, he gets sucked into the manmade world, made of hate and religion and whatnot. This premise gives the director free rein to unleash his Communist ideology. Marx is invoked. Safdar Hashmi’s “Halla Bol” is invoked. Castro’s “Ideas do not need weapons” is invoked. Guevara is invoked… through a white horse named Che. Simple question about this kind of moviemaking: Yay or neigh?
Let’s put this question differently. A message is formless. It’s essentially a thought. This thought can be expressed through several means. You can translate the thought into a poem. You can expand it into an essay. You can make it a song, a staged play, a movie… So what is important? The thought itself, or the medium you are using to convey that thought? Even if you say “both”, shouldn’t the requirements of the chosen medium be fulfilled? Raju Murugan is an excellent journalist. But when we walk into a theatre, wouldn’t we rather have an excellent filmmaker?
I have a related question. Can message-driven cinema really change the world? Or even one person? But I don’t want to get into that now. Gypsy is so straightforward, so earnest, so consumed by the “importance” of the issues it raises that it forgets to be cinema. There are some flashy attempts at “filmmaking”. The riot is shown in black-and-white. When Gypsy goes searching for Waheeda after the riot, the shots are intercut with pop singer Susheela Raman in her neon-lit studio, wailing ‘Aasai Mugam Marandhu Poche’. Yes, the Bharati poem does fit the situation, but the stylisation is so extreme and so distracting that little of the emotion in the words comes through from the images on screen.
Joker was filled with a lot of messaging, too — so why did that film work to an extent? For one, the issues were solidly dramatised, folded into the events that unfold around the protagonist. But more importantly, the man was like a mad prophet. He staged protests against everything he felt was wrong, and this “eccentricity” lent itself beautifully to the issues being spoken about. It grounded the noble-mindedness, made it more human and bearable. But in Gypsy, the director wants to make an epic — with thunderous melodrama. The writing (and the staging, like a school play) reduces all characters to cardboard-cutout mouthpieces for ideology, with barely a human moment to cling on to.
The few human moments, when they come, show what Gypsy could have been had it been about people instead of placards. There’s a small moment, just after meeting Gypsy, where Waheeda sits in front of a mirror and applies lipstick and smiles. She’s been brought up in a very orthodox household, and for a second, you see her transforming from a pliant daughter to a woman. Another human moment: after eloping with Gypsy, she tells him they should get married. He asks why. “We are living together, right?” This lifestyle is normal for Gypsy, but I was wondering what a huge adjustment it must have been for Waheeda. In short, the political becomes more personal when we enter it through well-defined people. But then, Gypsy is only after checking off one political box after another. (It even manages to squeeze in triple talaq.) If good intentions were enough to make good cinema, Gypsy would be a masterpiece.