“I am a driver. I’m happy being a driver. If you don’t want to marry a driver, go marry somebody else.” If a character is a journalist trying to uncover the truth or a wildlife photographer struggling to make a break, it’s natural to find the profession being portrayed as one’s passion on-screen. But a passionate truck driver? Selvam in Irandaam Ulaga Porin Kadaisi Gundu managed to pull off this coup with conviction.
Even though every mass hero’s entry song in Tamil cinema is replete with lines about equality and the sanctity of all professions, you can bet that the hero is not going to be a bricklayer or a car mechanic. Not an ordinary one at least. Like a millionaire saying “Money isn’t everything,” these heroes dispense their wisdom bytes from a pedestal. If you’re not in an elite profession or the son of the big man in the village, you can always question injustice and your job doesn’t define you any more. So what if you’re a fisherman? You can beat up the goons who are threatening to evict your colony and you are now a leader of the people. Driving an auto is good as a cover story, but a history of violence in Mumbai has to precede.
There’s this subtle idea that a hero cannot have an ordinary life. He has to do extraordinary things or be the “chosen one” to have a story that matters. And magically, the hero is the only person recognised for who he is and what he does in a society that judges everyone else by caste, profession and religion. This is where Gundu scores, by not washing over the difficulty of being a truck driver. It’s a difficult job, yes, and you get treated like trash by your entitled boss, yes, but it’s still a job worth doing. There’s even a hierarchy in a job that looks so unappealing, with “Puncture” waiting years for his turn to become a driver.
Compare Selvam to another truck driver who hit the screens recently — Frank Sheeran from “The Irishman”, and you see that Selvam’s job is harder. Frank is treated gently at court and the bosses who filed a case on him are rebuked for accusing “an honest working man”. Jimmy Hoffa makes and breaks the mob’s fortunes by channelling the Teamsters, thousands of drivers who make a massive impact when united. This is in sharp contrast to Selvam in Gundu, who is threatened at even the mention of unionising and treated badly at the hospital just because he’s a truck driver. Consider Blue Valentine. Ryan Gosling gets to date a medical student and meet her parents even though he’s a packer and mover. His profession is not what they worry about. What about Selvam? He can’t even get his girl’s brother to stop trying to kill him. Things are different here in India, there are problems associated with caste and, sometimes, they’re attached to the kind of work you do — Gundu did a good job of showing this honestly. The hero was human even as he was a symbol for social problems.
Malayalam cinema does this kind of slice-of-life storytelling really well. The story could revolve around a farmer or a butcher, but you still relate to the characters. Even the stars don’t shy away from these roles. Nivin Pauly could have become a politician at the end of Premam to give it a glorious finish, but he becomes a baker and a content one at that. Fahadh Faasil has played at various points the roles of a studio photographer, a male nurse and a barber. One of the best scenes in recent times was the tense confrontation between Soubin Shahir and Fahadh in Kumbalangi Nights. The scene showed that status differences need not be painted with colourful strokes every time. A barber and fisherman could have a wider gap than a businessman and his butler. Jallikattu was another brilliant example of throwing light on the animal inside the human mind.
We could take a page from Malayalam cinema. With all the clever dialogue and rousing action scenes, the illusion is cast on us that we have it all figured out and the only problems worth solving are the ones outside us. But don’t these problems stem from our internal psychology and our emotions? Any story with depth rings true even if its about a very simple character. The focus should be on exploring this nature of the human condition. We need to explore betrayal through the lens of Aadukalam. Caste through the lens of Pariyerum Perumal. Nostalgia through 96. Shame through Super Deluxe. Dignity of labour through Irandaam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu.
Larger than life works well on the big screen. True to life sticks much longer though.