With As I'm Suffering from Kadhal (As I'm Suffering from Love), the web series now on Hotstar, director Balaji Mohan no longer has to follow the dictates of a priggish Censor Board, and his joy is that of a teenager whose parents have left on a long holiday, forgetting to lock the liquor cabinet. He lets the abuses fly. "Shut the fuck up." "Balls." A subtitle that reads "Fucktard." This may not seem like much to the average consumer of the multiplex Hindi movie, where people swear all the time, have sex all the time, but we are talking about Tamil cinema, which plays by different rules, due to the necessity of having to cater to "family audiences" across A, B and C centres.
On screen, swearwords are uttered but we hear beeps. Women can be stalked, leered at, objectified, but they have to remain paragons of virtue, saving themselves for the wedding night. Upscale urban life is frowned upon – the hero has to assert, proudly, that he cannot speak English, and his "taming" of the English-speaking woman is seen as "mass" (as opposed to "class," the pejorative applied to the films of Mani Ratnam and Gautham Vasudev Menon). Even the titles have to be in Tamil, otherwise there's no tax exemption. And no star wants to be caught offending the "thaai kulam" (the female audience, enshrined as Nirupa Roy and Pandari Bai rolled into one).
Young directors seem to be saying that at least on the web, they can be themselves. In many ways, As I'm Suffering from Kadhal is a "class" product. Unapologetically urban. Blithely non-judgmental. Except, of course, when the judging is fun.
With the gradual realisation that it's the youth audiences that are patronising theatres and guaranteeing the all-important opening, the stories may have grown younger, but the general rules still apply. Balaji Mohan himself is a victim of this environment. He made a couple of urban rom-coms – Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Yeppadi (2012) and Vaayai Moodi Pesavum (2014) – but then, he roped in Dhanush for Maari (2015), and it almost seemed like a capitulation to the Establishment. The plot read like a laundry list of must-haves of Tamil cinema. We got the rowdy hero. We got a catchy mantra for this hero: senjiruven (I'll do you in). The title of the film's Telugu version said it all: Mass.
But now, young directors seem to be saying that at least on the web, they can be themselves. In many ways, As I'm Suffering from Kadhal is a "class" product. Unapologetically urban. Blithely non-judgmental. Except, of course, when the judging is fun. At several points in the show, we are invited to "judge" the characters, have fun at their expense. As in the "pre-pre-engagement party" of Raghav (Abishek Joseph George) and Tanvi (Nakshatra), one of those clingy, PDA-embracing, super-couples that even their friends find a tad hard to tolerate. They create a Whatsapp group to post updates about their wedding. Within 10 minutes, some people have left. Tanvi looks at the camera and utters a face-saving lie: "Our friends are very happy for us."
The note rings true, and I laughed harder when Raghav-Tanvi read out a statement to the people gathered: "As we're suffering from kadhal, we would like to grant us leave from our bachelor lives, and get us admitted in the hospital called marriage and never be cured of this illness ever till we both die…" We've all seen these people around us, but never on the big screen. Sometimes, the characters themselves do the judging. Badri (Sannanth Reddy) and Divya (Sanjana), who are in a live-in relationship, mock a man whose profile pic on a matrimonial site has been taken by a professional photographer.
In Prabhuram Vyas's Livin' (streaming on YouTube channel Madras Central) another Tamil web series about a live-in couple (and with an English title), Harish (Kanna Ravi) and Haritha (Amrutha Srinivasan) sneer at someone whose FB profile picture is a poster of En Kanavan En Thozhan, the Tamil version of the soap, Diya Aur Baati Hum. "Sorry," Harish says, laughing, "I judged her a bit." He's so hip, he's judging someone who'd be the target audience for a typical, commercial Tamil film.
And what if we were to judge him back? We might say that both shows set a low bar for comedy. When Harish's landlord makes an unexpected visit, he tries to explain away Haritha (who's in the bathroom) as a male friend speaking in a female voice. In As I'm Suffering from Kadhal, when a warring couple – Meera (Dhanya Balakrishnan) and Santhosh (Balaji Mohan) – ends up with a hot psychiatrist (Andrea Jeremiah), Santhosh forgets about mending his marriage and starts flirting with her. And when Badri realises that Divya's father is the headmaster who terrorised him, he begins to act like a frightened student. This relentless emphasis on the easy laugh affects the heavier storylines.
Which brings me to genre. As I'm Suffering from Kadhal begins like a sit-com, but flirts with heavy drama, especially in the Meera-Santhosh track, which involves infidelity. There's one tricky moment that isn't quite pulled off, but I was surprised it was even there. At the psychiatrist's, Meera begins to thaw when asked what she liked about Santhosh, and instantly regrets letting her guard down. In Livin', we get a feminist subplot. If the result in both cases is a little all over the place, it's still a sign of someone trying for something different: big laughs woven around a high-stakes relationship drama, screaming matches punctuated by a laugh track.
I'm left with mixed feelings. I wish the shows were much better, but there are redeeming factors – like the track in As I'm Suffering from Kadhal with a divorced dad named Balakumar (Sundar Ramu) and his young daughter, Smriti. His attempts to dadsplain adult topics like marriage ("a pinky promise between man and woman") and alcohol ("bad drink") are endearing, the kind of writing Balaji Mohan does so well. Balakumar is a film critic, and when an irate director lands up at his doorstep, the event is used for a small lecture on how tastes differ.
As I'm Suffering from Kadhal begins like a sit-com, but flirts with heavy drama. In Livin', we get a feminist subplot. If the result in both cases is a little all over the place, it's still a sign of someone trying for something different.
And they aren't saving themselves. When Raghav is asked why he hasn't done it yet with Tanvi, he gives the kind of explanation you'd expect from a Tamil film lover, who extends a rose and a slab of Dairy Milk on Valentine's Day. "Yes, we have those thoughts about girls from adolescence, but when you 'sincerely' love a girl, you feel guilty thinking that way." Cut to Tanvi, who simply sighs, "What is he waiting for?"
The men treat them as equals. Balakumar doesn't take off on a "women are like this only" rant when his ex finds someone. Both shows feature exotic occupations, and Haritha's is probably the most unusual. She's a freelance writer and nomenclaturist, who comes up with names for dishes. Her latest christening is for a spicy pizza in a Mexican restaurant: Pablo Escobar. Harish doesn't mock her as a "Peter." This is the freedom the web gives you. You don't have to worry whether the audience will get it. These shows should take advantage of the other freedoms of the medium as well. Yes, you've said "fuck." You've gotten it out of your system. Now it's time to tell Tamil stories that you haven't been allowed to tell on the big screen.