Director: Athiyan Athirai
Cast: Dinesh, Anandhi,
Pa Ranjith's Neelam Productions has given us only one film so far — the superb Pariyerum Perumal (2018) — but the filmmaker is, by now, so well-known as an ideologue and as a personality that it isn't difficult to guess what his second production is going to be about. Sure enough, the fabulously titled Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu is about caste. It's about "landless" migrant labourers who are exploited by men dressed in sparkling white. (It's the colour of what these men regard as "purity", perhaps?) It's about unionisation. It's about a crusade. It has a crusader (Riythvika), who fought her way through difficult personal circumstances, earned a prestigious degree, and now continues to crusade for a prestigious television channel.
But where Pariyerum Perumal was all-out drama, Kadaisi Gundu is harder to classify. It's part road-movie, part message-movie, part thriller, part romance, part black comedy (imagine an agent of mass destruction worshipped as a god!), part regular comedy (an uproarious Munishkanth), part surreal social tract — all slapped together in a stream-of-consciousness style by writer-director Athiyan Athirai. This is a very impressive debut. It's a bit all over the place, and there are places you wish for smoother narrative choreography. (Indeed, the rhythms of the editing, by Selva RK, and the screenplay make the proceedings seem like a kind of dance, especially in the stretch centered around a koothu performance.) But the sheer newness of the enterprise makes you brush aside the small things that don't fully work.
Tenma's music feels new. (He teamed up with Ranjith and formed The Casteless Collective.) The unexpected dips in the melody lines of the songs reminded me of Santhosh Narayanan's work, but the metallic techno sounds are fresh — and they work especially well in the action scenes. The stunts feel new, too. They are exactly like how normal people — as opposed to "movie heroes" — would fight, and yet, they aren't too lifelike. It's like how you'd fight without training, driven purely by presence of mind and a survival instinct. The film's very premise is new. It revolves around bombs that are remnants of World War II. They're still dangerous — not just in the actual sense of the devastation they could cause, but also in the metaphorical sense. Rich, poor, dominant caste, oppressed caste — they're all the same to a bomb. If that thought doesn't scare us…
Kadaisi Gundu opens in a scrapyard, which is itself a metaphor. For one, the people working there are, in a sense, "discarded" by society. Plus, everything from a lowly nail to high-tech machine parts ends up here — again, there's no distinction, because once you're useless, once you're "dead", you're dead. It doesn't matter whether you were merely holding together two pieces of wood or enabling encrypted communications between countries. It is in this scrapyard that one of those bombs accidentally ends up. It is soon shipped off in a lorry — and the rest of the film involves various people scrambling to find the bomb (and the various people unwittingly drawn into the circles of those scrambling to find the bomb).
The protagonist is a lorry driver named Selvam, played by Dinesh. I couldn't say if the actor has been bingeing on pizza or protein shakes, but the extra bulk looks terrific on him. He looks… grown-up, and stripped away of his whiny boyishness, we sense more heft in his presence, say in the scene where Selvam says that he is never alone at night because he talks to the clouds, the stars, his father, and Chitra (Anandhi). Does this movie need a romantic track? Yes. Because Chitra is also a symbol. She is a lot like the character Anandhi played in Pariyerum Perumal. She doesn't care that she's from a dominant caste and that her family would rather see her dead than married to someone like Selvam.
Through Chitra, we meet her brother, a man so steeped in caste pride that he'd rather die trying to kill Selvam than unite with Selvam so they both can live. Like in Maanagaram, some viewers may roll their eyes at how conveniently all these characters keep running into each other — but like in that earlier film, this isn't "reality". It's a carefully stylised conceit. (The colours in Kishore Kumar's cinematography alternate between the real and the hyper-real.) It says all people and things are interconnected (jasmine flowers are seen both in a temple and a cemetery), we are all in the same space and we all keep running into each other all the time — so can't we erase our differences?
Had I read these heal-the-world lines as a casual viewer, I would have turned pale and run five miles in the opposite direction — but this "messaging" works because the tonality of the packaging is totally different. In other words, the messaging may be earnest, but Kadaisi Gundu isn't one of those painfully earnest movies that expects a gold medal simply because… it contains all this messaging. It works hard, really hard, to earn the space for its messages. Consider the excellent scene where the Riythvika character (wouldn't it have made sense to travel with a male companion?) begs Selvam for assistance. She says something like this: "Can't we simply help each other because we are all human? If you say you'll help me only if you find yourself in my plight, then what use is that?"
It's a great line, one that's at the heart of everything Pa Ranjith stands for. But it doesn't sound like a "lecture" because the screenplay has worked hard to make us feel this character's desperation. At this point, we have learnt who she is, why she is after the bomb, who is after her — the line becomes a part of her. It transcends mere "advice" and becomes something purer, a kind of existential plea. Even the scene where a Japanese Nobel laureate talks about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is made palatable because it is actually a lecture. It occurs on a stage, during Peace Day celebrations, accompanied by gorgeous animation in the background.
Why should a thriller-type adventure centred on a bomb revisit the horrors of nuclear holocaust? Because death is everywhere in Kadaisi Gundu, beginning with that scrapyard, where things go to die. In a less lofty sense, even Selvam and Chitra keep talking about death — and it has nothing to do with the bomb. It's about him driving during night. It's about his family, where the fathers have died when the sons were boys. Also, because everything is interconnected, a nuclear holocaust anywhere could end up affecting someone like Selvam, who is just trying to make a living. It's a horror-movie version of the butterfly effect. Some country dumps its bombs somewhere, and some man who works in a scrapyard finds himself running for his life. Call it "war". Call it "caste". Call it anything. The after-effects engulf us all.