Southern Lights: Baradwaj Rangan, Let’s Talk About Bias!, Film Companion

There may be spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Kaala.

So you’re admitting you have biases.

Why don’t we call it ‘preference’ or ‘taste’! After all, we are all shaped partly by DNA, partly upbringing. In other words, nature plus nurture…

Fuck the philosophy! Do you admit you are biased about Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan, whose films you keep bringing up in your reviews?

I tend to do that, don’t I? But it’s got to do with the way I approach a review. I almost always refer to older films. People ask, “Why do you always have to compare? Why can’t you see a film as a standalone product?” But I believe films are part of a continuum. People build on what came before – and even if they don’t, the earlier films are useful to compare/contrast, to say how this one does things differently.

Which is why my Veere Di Wedding review brings up Arth; my October review brings up Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her; my Meyaadha Maan review brings up Guna and Kadhal; my Joker (the one by Raju Murugan) review brings up Shankar. And even with Mani Ratnam films, my Aaydha Ezhuthu review brings up Amores Perros and Heat. If I were to review Thalapathy today, I’d certainly bring up Benegal’s Kalyug, and if I wrote about Mouna Raagam today, I’d surely include a few lines about Mahendran’s Nenjathai Killadhe. 

But there are many reviews where there are no callbacks to Mani Ratnam or Kamal Haasan – for instance, my review of Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai, or my review of one of last year’s finest films, Oru Kidayin Karunai Manu. Because there’s no intersection point. Anyway, if I talk about Thalapathy in the Kabali review, I also refer to the Malaysian-Tamil film Jagat and MGR’s Naadodi. Why focus only on the Mani Ratnam reference?

Because you bring up Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan more often than others.

How can I not? A lot of films today still draw from the templates or archetypes found in their hugely influential body of work. Besides, when I bring up Sathya in my review of Madras, I also bring up Subramaniyapuram (which, as far as I recall, was directed by Sasikumar). Why focus on just Sathya? I am saying that Ranjith’s “energetic filmmaking dusts the cobwebs off” these templates. Is it possible to write about Kaala without invoking Thalapathy? Of course! I’m just saying this is my style of reviewing.

So you’re saying there is no confirmation bias…

That kind of thing is unconscious, and more for the reader to say. Besides, it’s a question you can ask of many people, not just critics. For instance, if you did not know a song was by Ilayaraja (or Rahman), would you still be finding things to like about it? Is that confirmation bias? Or is it the fact that you’ve studied Ilayaraja enough to know the signatures, and you don’t need the name to recognise his touch.

It’s that way for me, with Mani Ratnam and Kamal Haasan. I’ve written a book about the former. I’ve studied Kamal Haasan’s 1987-2005 work backwards and forwards. I cannot be apologetic about this. The point is this: I don’t like Mani Ratnam’s work simply because it’s by Mani Ratnam, but because of the signatures in them…

(Scoffs) Are you saying no one else matches up?

As far as pure directing goes, today, probably not. So what is directing? To some, a good director is one who sends them home with a sense of having watched a satisfying story – they laughed, they cried, they felt something, or learnt something. But I think that’s more the job of a screenwriter, and frankly, an area where Mani Ratnam has been having problems of late. My interest in Mani Ratnam has to do with my perception of the job of a director, which is to bring a 2D page on the script to 3D life on screen, using the language and tools of cinema (and not mere words).

You’re talking about form. What about content?

Well, for one, form is content. It’s depressing to hear people dismiss Mani Ratnam’s frames as “glossy” or “pretty,” because it’s more about the meaning. Whether it’s a barren Ladakh landscape (in Dil Se), or a crowded air force officers’ bar (in Kaatru Veliyidai, the scene where the hero’s self-absorption is revealed through breathtakingly precise choreography), there is no one in Tamil cinema who has been doing this so consistently, and for so long (35 years and counting, and especially post-Iruvar). And mind you, even if the films are flawed.

This formalist aspect isn’t something I’m bringing up just now, in my Kaala review. Look up my review of Raju Murugan’s Joker and you’ll find these lines: “The film is so crammed with a sense of civic duty that it forgets to breathe… But something magical happens about a half-hour in. The film becomes a film, a piece of cinema.” That is why the directors I keenly track in Tamil cinema are Vetrimaaran, Mysskin, Karthik Subbaraj

Whoa! Now, you’ll say Mercury is a good film.

It is – not a great film (for the content didn’t measure up), but certainly a good film. For me, visual fluency is very important. It’s the difference between a blogger who puts up a series of bullet points and an author who uses language and style to put those points across in a novelistic manner. If I were a book critic, I most certainly would lean towards the latter. 

But boss, that is a bias!

Yes, boss. The point of this chat isn’t to say I am some yogic creature who is completely objective. It’s to say what I look for. So if I bring up reservations about Kaala, it’s about the form he is using to express his content. And that is not an unreasonable expectation to have from the maker of Attakathi. The last thing I want is for him to become another message-driven filmmaker like Pandiraj (Pasanga 2) or Samuthirakani (Appa). 

I think part of it is also the criticism you got for not talking about the Dalit subtext in your Madras review…

I acknowledged the Madras conundrum – where it comes from – in this piece called ‘Impure’ Tamilians?. Read it if you like, but I warn you, the title is from a passage in my Mani Ratnam book.

Meanwhile, I’ll tell you about this Hiphop Thamizha movie called Meesaya Murukku, which I hated. It was a huge hit, and in the theatre I saw it, people were roaring at every second scene, the way they would in a Rajinikanth movie. I found out later that the actors they were cheering on were popular YouTube stars. I didn’t know anyone. So Madras isn’t the first time I missed something, and it won’t be the last. As I get older, I assure you, there will be many more instances of cultural disconnect. And you are welcome to point all of them out.

But Ranjith has not chosen to write a blog post. He has chosen to express himself through cinema. So you have to discuss form too – and I think I did do that in the Madras review. 

So the people praising Kaala are wrong?

No. What they expect from a film, how they evaluate a film may be different. Reviewing is not a science. For me, the most fascinating thing about Kaala is how Ranjith has destroyed/killed the Rajinikanth brand, both as a name (the death of a man named Shivaji Rao Gaekwad) and also as a star (Kaala goes up in flames, even if he returns “in spirit”), or how he has brought thathuva paadalgal (philosophical songs, which used to be a staple of Tamil cinema) back into fashion by rap-ising and gaana-ising and hiphop-ising them. 

But while these individual aspects are important to discuss – and there are many great offhand bits in Kaala – the film as a whole has too many characters that seem to function as a mouthpiece for ideology. (I felt Anjali Patil needed more time than Huma Qureshi.) The film veers off in too many directions… like Uttama Villain, another conceptually terrific film whose execution didn’t measure up. And while the working-class masala setting may be new for non-Tamil audiences whose only exposure to the underprivileged has been through the work of auteurs like Satyajit Ray, Tamil cinema celebrates slum/ghetto life very frequently (heck, half our songs fall into this category) – and Ranjith doesn’t do enough to make his overall narrative arc all that different…

But that’s the movie you want to make, the film you want Kaala to be. Why can’t you take Ranjith’s film for what it is?

Every time someone states an opinion – “this song is nice,” “this screenplay could have been better,” “BR has written a good review,” “BR’s review sucks” – they are essentially making a mental comparison with how they would have done it. This is what separates opinion from fact.

And amidst all this capital A-R-T you’re going on about, doesn’t a film (or filmmaker) have a social responsibility?

Even my readers have asked me this question: “Across the many reviews of yours that I have read, I find you despise movies that want to convey messages. What is wrong with a movie trying to convey messages overtly or implicitly?” This, again, comes back to the what (the message itself) vs. the how (the presentation of this message on screen).

The “what” aspect of Ranjith’s films is rock-solid. He says he wants his ideology to reach the masses, but I’d say he’s doing more – he’s also opening a window into his worldview for people like me. But I am a film critic, not the editor of the opinion page of a newspaper. My concern is: “How is this story told in this medium?” Whether a film makes points about Dalit issues or gender issues or LGBT rights, the cinematic aspects (narrative, characterisation, technical aspects) come under my purview, whereas the ideological aspects would be better served by an academic paper or an essay– like this piece by Sowmya Rajendran on Kaala’s women.

Let’s step outside India. A Fantastic Woman, this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film, opens our eyes to the trans experience with a never-before intensity. Black Panther is a superhero film that the writer/podcaster Carvell Wallace described as “steeped very specifically and purposefully in its blackness.” “Are these important films?” is one question, and the answer is YES. But the film critic also handles the question, “Are these well-made films?” 

The latter is what the New Yorker critic Anthony Lane took into account when he elaborated on a line of dialogue in A Fantastic Woman. “That line exemplifies both the strength and the frailty of the film. What [the protagonist] says is honest and true, but it doesn’t sound much like dialogue; it sounds like something that a lawyer would enunciate, or a columnist write, in her defense. In ethical terms, [the film] is impeccable, corralling us in outrage at an intolerant society… dramatically, though, it has a flattening effect, and we soon realize how few surprises lie in store.” 

A lot of this could be said about Kaala, IMO. It’s not a bad film by any means, but its intentions are more interesting than the rest of it. The star-oriented masala framework does prove a problem when it comes to “issue” films, as Bharathiraja discovered much earlier. Vedham Puthithu and Ennuyir Thozhan are far more accomplished films than Kodi Parakkudhu.

So we have to let you off the hook?

Nope. This isn’t about changing your mind about Kaala or my review. This is about explaining my position. You can take it or leave it. If you think social relevance alone makes a film great, then who am I to argue? That’s your viewpoint. I have to respect it. But because it’s impossible to have a conversation on Twitter (it’s easier to pull out one aspect and make instant judgements; I’ve done it myself), I thought I’d do the honours myself, in this piece.

What about the reverse? If you expect better “cinema” from Ranjith and Pandiraj, don’t you expect better content from your favourites?

Of course. I wish Mani Ratnam had axed the love angle of Kadal and made it just about the tug of war between God and Satan over a boy’s soul. I wish he worked more often with other screenwriters. I wish Karthik Subbaraj would find a way to infuse more emotion into his work – it’s somewhat cold, formalist. I wish Mysskin would curb down his excesses (like the villain’s breakfast-making scene in Thupparivaalan), which sometimes make you laugh. But because their visual fluency gives me a drug-high, I am able to live with these “flaws” to various degrees.  

So there it is, again – a bias!

Again, that’s for you to say. But I’m frankly tired of watching Tamil cinema lag in this department. I could name – but I won’t – some top directors whose movies are horrible to watch. Look at Malayalam cinema. Every month, there’s at least one film that’s both breathtakingly made and with something to say – I’m thinking of the “tree shot” in Poomaram. (In the review, BTW, I reference Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, Nashville, and Kadhal.) 

Then how do you explain your love for stagey Visu films, the visually static Bhimsingh melodramas?

That’s a bit of nostalgia, I guess. Plus, a critic has to have that switch inside that relocates you in the milieu/era of a film, and so I expect less “how” from them – I focus on the “what.” 

Sigh! So you’re saying the best filmmaker in Tamil cinema today is Mani…

Yes, Manikandan. I wrote in my Aandavan Kattalai review: “Entertainment that is about something, that says something – it’s the elusive grail Tamil filmmakers keep chasing. Only Manikandan seems to have found it.” In an interview to Film Companion, he said, “You shouldn’t make the issue too strong. And you shouldn’t have only entertainment, without any message… I am not an activist or documentary filmmaker or journalist. I am a filmmaker. So I have to think of the presentation… If you want to talk about issues strongly, there are many other mediums.”

Ranjith may feel differently, but as a film critic, I wish Ranjith finds a similar median, and that his increasing commitment to ideology doesn’t make him forget that he made some darned good cinema. When Visaranai and Virumandi (sorry, it’s Kamal’s, but hey, it’s a great film!) have proved that it is possible to combine incisive social commentary with great cinema, why should we accept less? 


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