Director: Pa. Ranjith
Cast: Kalidas Jayaram, Dushara Vijayan, Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan, Sindhujaavijii
"Love is the one thing we're capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can't understand it," says Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) in that much-debated and equally celebrated line from Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. The urban Indian could grasp and deify this line 8 years ago but still has to be enlightened on the fact that love in our own country has another force to transcend – caste. It doesn't come as a surprise that it's Pa Ranjith who is undertaking this noble task at such a comprehensive level.
Natchathiram Nagargiradhu is a prominent departure from Ranjith's oeuvre which usually tends to get behind a single protagonist. It's more about a "collective" that's working toward a singular goal. This sense of a collective has always been felt in Ranjith's films, with his strong focus on community. But here, it's by design, since it's centered around a troupe. The subsequent rule-breaking of following characters as individuals comes with so much intent, that it's easy to overlook this and get behind the film for what it's trying to accomplish. There are attempts at giving the secondary characters their own conflicts, but those images don't register well enough for us to feel for them.
We are first introduced to Rene (Dushara Vijayan), a diehard Ilaiyaraaja fan with strong anti-caste ideals. Her actual name is Tamizh, but Rene is the name she wants to go by. And that's all anyone needs to know to answer the subsequent question of "why?" – because she says so. This assertion comes across beautifully in the first few minutes, where Rene argues with her then partner Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram) whose casteist taunt causes an irreversible crack in their relationship. This is a couple that has already transcended that heavy barrier of caste, but the scene represents how it can also come back to manifest itself in the form of microaggressions at any given point in time. This is also why love is political.
Taking that taunt as the last straw, Rene leaves the house in the middle of the night and happens to chance upon a shooting star in the sky while walking on the highway. The film fades in, and in that instance, she snaps out of her anger and sombre mood, smiling, looking up in wonder, and then shares the experience on her social media. "Natchathiram Nagargiradhu," she writes. The stars are indeed moving. Rene's smile here is indicative of the film's belief that if we're truly able to see that we're just insignificant stardust, so many of our self-inflicted conflicts would cease to exist. Thus, the film's thesis is already out there, as a larger philosophical skyscape that will luminate and house other human statements in the narrative.
The film then shifts its point-of-view, something it continues to deftly pull off through the course of its runtime. We're now with Arjun played by Kalaiyarasan. A new entry into this collective of a theatre troupe. A conservative, deeply regressive, dominant-caste Tamil man who is barely aware of his privilege. He warns his fiancé of the "boy bestie" by cracking a "joke" about the Pollachi case. He's a clear stand-in for the audience that Ranjith wants to address this film to. The focus on his arc, and his extensive journey, almost makes him look like the protagonist of the film, though Rene is very clearly the personality of it.
By consistently framing and timing Arjun in such a way that we laugh at the character, Ranjith breaks down his view of the world and lays bare the problems with it. He knows he has stuff to learn about, but he wants to put the onus on others to teach him, eventually coming around to realise his follies himself. Thus, Arjun gets the most prominent arc among all other characters in the film, and also goes on to show how political correctness can be a process, but that isn't to say that the film doesn't put the character in his place when required. Kalaiyarasan plays Arjun at a memorably entertaining pitch, and the scene where his mother (a terrific Geetha Kailasam) tries to emotionally manipulate him, is a riot of an exchange between equally unhinged actors.
Dushara essays Rene with spirited energy, and she's easy to root for. Her monologue of how she has had to manufacture her personality as an opposition to caste-based trauma, is a strong moment, one where I would've liked to see her performance rather than the cutaway to animation. There are a couple of instances where she comes across as a little too aware or proud of playing a force like Rene. But one can be assured that Tamil cinema has gotten a good Tamil-speaking actress, and I'm truly interested to see where she goes from here.
Rene and Iniyan get together in an intriguing sequence of events, where she clearly knows he is on a different political plane but is still drawn to him for physical, or other unknown reasons. Iniyan's hang-up with his feelings for her is documented well throughout, but not the other way around, and this makes their equation a little too esoteric to get behind.
By using the contemporary and very conversational setting, Ranjith packs in a number of his thoughts and opinions which in themselves become the engaging force of the narrative. These statements drive the plot rather than the other way around, and yet there's nothing to complain about. He has even pre-empted certain arguments and sneaked in counters for the same. This personality is wholly entertaining and almost makes one anticipate what else would be covered in the gamut of themes undertaken by the film.
The kind of identity-aware commentary on Ilaiyaraaja makes this a wholesome celebration of his body of work, one like none other. In a heated argument, Rene's rebuttal to Iniyan's microaggression on her identity is to continue singing a Raaja song. His romantic numbers are shown here to have even transcended all kinds of sexuality and gender. It's sort of a grand reclamation of his prowess and impact, from forces that may be using him for minority appeasement. It's Ranjith's way of saying that we understand the legend's significance better. "Othukittu dhaan aaganum." (You'll have to accept it.)
Tenma's stellar soundtrack borrows from the legend in creative ways too. Take 'Paruvame', a sexually charged, techno party track – it sounds so much from Raaja's era thanks to its instrumentation. The song also appears around a lot of other yesteryear bangers from the man, which also lends to an appealing feeling of inspiration. 'Kadhalar' is the highlight of the lot for me, with thumping beats that make the friction and sparks in the Rene-Iniyan romance, palpable. It's the song that I'll remember as the face of this album and film. 'En Janame' is a haunting recollection of real-life honour killings and victims of violence resurrected as indigenous gods. This is Ranjith fool-proofing his rebuttal against the naadaga kaadhal ("staged/fake love", not very different from love-jihad) narrative. It's an unabashed use of the medium that feels absolutely justified in this context.
Having had a brief stint directing for theatre himself, Ranjith uses set design in wildly creative ways here — Rene taking Iniyan upstairs to consummate their feelings; Rene taking Arjun out through a door that adorns a Buddha painting. But my most favourite instance is in the stage-play itself, where we see actors peeking through frames that are meant to be portraits of dead people in a household. "Culture/tradition is just peer pressure from dead people," reads a funny tweet from a few years ago, and this ingenious framing reminded me of it.
The Perum Poonai, a Diabolus-ex-Machina, (the evil counterpart of the more familiar Deus-ex-Machina) arrives in the final act to wreak havoc in the collective. I could see him as an embodiment of the kaalachaara kaavalar (Guardian of Culture), a kind who truly is known to come out of nowhere. But they may previously have been one among us, just as this guy who was among the tutor's friends in an earlier scene. The way this character is represented is another subtle (or overt, as you wish to see it) nod to who he's a stand-in for. The explicitly white interiors, the air of "purity" around him, name-dropping of "culture, custom, rituals", and his control over the police system – these are all telling elements, but open to interpretation. But a most obvious allegorical pointer is his object of terror – a mace, and that he sets a figurative "Lanka" on fire (Kishor Kumar's cinematography peaks here). The tension and terror of his presence are diffused in a sudden, quick move and I believe the moment could've done with more heroic sustenance.
Speaking of tension, Kalaiyarasan's stretch at his hometown is a thoroughly engrossing affair, thanks to a great ensemble of actors. The tension in the bits where the family is trying to convince/manipulate Arjun into endogamy is hilarious and the whole sequence is edited to comic perfection by Selva RK. It plays out like a film within the film for being the sort of diverse detour it is from the story's urban setting. This sequence has a story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end, lending an almost short-film-like independence to it. It's also the sort of ideal anti-caste cinema that dominant caste filmmakers could undertake, a self-reflective piece, rather than the age-old stories of privileged heroes undertaking emancipation of the downtrodden.
The film also reminded me of last year's Drive My Car, only for the similar behaviour of marrying literature, theatre and film language to get pensive. But this is a far more charged film, for its loaded assertions against the status quo. It shows us the splendid beauty of tea estates and asks us to think about the history of oppression beneath that soil. It's both – a call to keep resisting in our day-to-day, and a rumination one can ponder about while star-gazing. The queer representation is only a start, and that an appropriate gaze has been presented, we hope our cinema adopts it with the same responsibility. Eventually, Pa Ranjith's heart trumps some of his overreaching narrative experiments. This feeling of a "heart" is not easy to come across in the Tamil cinema of today, so let's validate it while we can.