The responses for my review of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam were interesting, to say the least. My reaction to the film was that of bewilderment, but so many people jumped to its defence and began to argue about it the way I argued about Kaatru Veliyidai. A reader from my blog even made a meme to this effect (see below). And in a Film Companion interview, Santosh Sivan wondered aloud about my star rating. But here’s the important thing: 35 years after Mani Ratnam made his first film, we are still talking about him. He still makes us love him, hate him. He makes us want to respond to his work – even if it is a negative response. In my case, given my profession, it’s my job to respond to his work – but I am talking about the general public, who want to weigh in either way (love/hate), the way they don’t feel compelled to do with many filmmakers who came after Mani Ratnam.
This, to me, is real success, where the individual films don’t matter as much as the body of work, what this oeuvre stands for. The worst reaction to a filmmaker is indifference – and to steer clear of it for three-and-a-half decades is something else. So many people in the industry (trackers, producers, actors, directors) have told me how happy they are that Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a big hit, regardless of what they felt about the film itself. Because here’s a man who works in the mainstream, who keeps making very personal films, which big stars are still drawn to… It’s a rare thing, and I guess it’s reassuring for the industry folks who want to do something personal that still reaches the public in a broad way. A big-name director marvelled at the money Chekka Chivantha Vaanam has made in a particular circuit, and he wondered if the way forward is to produce his own films, the way Mani Ratnam does (under the Madras Talkies banner).
But that wasn’t all. The same week, we got the terrific Pariyerum Perumal, which picked up steam through ecstatic word of mouth. I don’t know the exact numbers this film did, but it did well enough to indicate a trend that started this year with Oru Kuppai Kadhai and continued with Merku Thodarchi Malai. These are slightly offbeat films, their subject matter is slightly “difficult”, and yet they hung around in theatres for a while – at least in the A centres. (Is this proof of what Vetrimaarn said in his interviews, while promoting Vada Chennai? That Tamil mainstream audiences are among the best in the country, the ones most receptive to new ideas? Or is it too soon to tell?)
But the very next week – with the release of 96, NOTA and Raatsasan – we realised there was a big problem: there just weren’t enough theatres to accommodate all these films. These new films cut into the business of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam and Pariyerum Perumal. As much as I love this run of quality films, it’s madness to release one Vijay Sethupathi movie (96) a week after his earlier one (Chekka Chivantha Vaanam). Again, it doesn’t matter to me. My job is to keep watching films and keep writing about them. But the average audience member sees maybe one or two films a month. And between the last week of September and the first week of October, there were already five films with different “pull” factors for different sections of the audience: “a Mani Ratnam film (he’s back in form!)”, “a hard-hitting Pa Ranjith production”, “a Vijay Deverakonda starrer (man, is he easy on the eye!)”, “a nostalgic Vijay Sethupathi-Trisha romance”, and “a serial-killer thriller I didn’t know I wanted to watch but the word of mouth on it is great”.
But a Pariyerum Perumal needs time. A 96 needs time. We need people to watch them and talk about them and make a case (with their money) that these are the kind of films we want more of
The following week was light on releases, but now we have Vada Chennai and Sandakozhi 2, with their own “pull” factors: “a Vetrimaaran film with Dhanush”, and “screw all this heavy-duty stuff; I just want a brainless entertainer.” Instead of nurturing films that succeed (and given how few films become hits, this is absolutely necessary), Kollywood is cutting off the oxygen. And as Carnatic musician Sanjay Subrahmanyan tweeted: “What happens to films that are thookkified from theatres? How to watch them again? I see several films from the last few years not available on Netflix or Amazon Prime. These multiplexes should have that second round Kamadhenu/Kapali noon show theatres for that.” We don’t have many of these “second round” theatres anymore, with all the single screens having upgraded themselves to “first-round” theatres, or having disappeared into the ether. Had it not been for theatres like Eros and Kamadhenu and Kapali, I would have never watched many of the older films (not just a few weeks old, but also a few months or decades old).
Some of the box-office analysts I spoke to said this is not a cause for worry anymore. “Chekka Chivantha Vaanam got a week to itself, and it did very well, and that’s all one can expect these days.” So, too, for Pariyerum Perumal. I asked if 96 might have become a bigger hit had it been a solo release, or if it hadn’t been released a week after other must-see movies, and again the answer was: “It did well in the time it got, and that’s all one can expect these days.” It’s strange and it’s sad. Instead of allowing these smaller films to achieve maximum potential, the logic seems to be “just grab the money and run”. (As long as there’s overflow, it’s all good, and if there’s profit, it’s even better.) But what about getting the non-FDFS audience to watch these movies in theatres, at a time they find convenient? Apparently, that’s not much of a priority, any longer.
This isn’t important for, say, Sarkar or Viswasam. A Vijay or Ajith release will draw people regardless of the week they open in, and most of the time, other releases are too scared to open opposite them, in any case. But a Pariyerum Perumal needs time. A 96 needs time. We need people to watch them and talk about them and make a case (with their money) that these are the kind of films we want more of. Because films are like elections, where people vote with their ticket money – but the booths have to stay open long enough for that to happen.
But personally, these last few weeks have been most satisfying. Major films lead to major conversations, major arguments. I’ve read scholarly analyses of Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, intense memory pieces triggered by 96, a rant about the use of songs in “modern” films like Vada Chennai, and even this sigh from a senior actor: “[Vada Chennai] is not the cinema I love… or a cinema I wish to showcase the creative pedigree of our filmmakers, some of whom are almost geniuses… Films like these seem a sad waste of time and resources… Chaplin said, at the end of the day, cinema should entertain… that is its purpose… Maybe I’m old fashioned… Maybe I’m out of sync… Maybe I’ve fallen behind… But I felt violated, and the cinema hall abused… Maybe it’s time I stopped watching Tamil cinema… My creative palette is used to the emotions of Sivaji and the cleverness of KB… So my taste buds rebel… Time I moved away??”
I was immensely touched by this message, even though I disagreed with its content. (My response to this actor was: “Sorry, sir. But I loved the film.”) But it shows how things are changing, how things have changed. The audience used to K Balachander may not be able to digest the rawness of a Vada Chennai, but this is how times roll. And it is important that a Vada Chennai is allowed its time in the theatres to maximise its potential. Some people may rush out to watch it at once. Others may want to wait a week. The biggie looming on the horizon is Sarkar, and I look forward to it – but there’s an artistic bigness to Vada Chennai that I’m fairly certain we won’t find in Sarkar. And an industry should find it possible to make hits – through publicity, through careful planning of releases – of both kinds of films.