Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Mouli, Ramya Nambeesan
Director: Balaji Tharaneetharan
A character in Balaji Tharaneetharan's moving tragicomedy Seethakaathi calls theater the 'father of cinema' . Given Tamil theater's contributions to Tamil cinema, the film is a long overdue tribute to the art form and its many passionate proponents. But what makes Seethakaathi doubly special is not its story, which traces the twilight years of a man who lived (and died) on stage. It's the ingenious manner in which the film uses techniques of 'pure' cinema to take us closer to the stage.
The film opens with a 'long take' as Ayya Aadhimoolam performs the role of Aurangzeb in a play. Vijay Sethupathi, in his 25th film, is most 'dramatic' in this performance, as the play tracks the fall of the Mughal ruler. As the take, around 10 minutes long, finally settles on a spot where the audience sits in the auditorium, the camera pans to show us how empty it is. Like Aurangzeb, Ayya too remains one of the last emperors of his kind.
I looked to my left, disturbed by the sound of my neighbour snoring. He didn't seem to agree with the film's 'play-like' long take. Call it cruel irony, but it's the exact point Seethakaathi trying to make. We've forgotten to appreciate theater, even if it is within the four walls of cinema.
Ayya and his team try to fill the auditorium, to bring back the glory days. His manager suggests placing an ad in a newspaper. And when the ad appears (in black and white), it is surrounded by film ads in shades of every colour one can imagine.
Ayya's passion to his craft hasn't really translated to wealth. When his daughter comes home with her son in dire need of a surgery, Ayya is all but helpless. He cannot raise the money he needs through his play and the great actor falls, defeated by the same stage that gave birth to him.
The true artiste, though, never dies. His soul (or "aura" as Shankar would call it) lives on, still hungry from his need to continue acting. But it is cinema that feeds him now. Ayya transfers both his talent and passion to the big screen, becoming a part of just 'good cinema'. He lives vicariously through other film actors but that's until they rob the art forms of the ethics he brings to them.
Now, it cannot be accidental that Seethakaathi's director has chosen to show us the shoot of two 'close ups' to reveal the difference between cinema and the stage. This most cinematic of shots is also one of the farthest from stage acting. The shoot of a close-up also looks the most manipulative and artless. Close ups separate the actor's face from his surroundings to leave him most vulnerable and that's the case we witness when two actors choose to rebel against Ayya's ethics. These scenes are hilarious, not just because of the slapstick nature in which they've been written. They also show how these actors struggle to perform this most basic piece of acting, even when every stage actor is trained to speak for hours without ever having the luxury of a 'one more' re-take.
Seethakathi also draws several other parallels between theater and cinema. Ayya's green room is a reflection of past theatrical glory in dark dingy colours and blinking lights. In cinema, though, actors use fancy novelty vans filled with mirrors, lights and many other luxuries. For Ayya and his group, acting is limited to when they're on stage; they remain simple and grounded when they're off the spot lights.
The film actors, though struggling on camera, remain great actors off it being able to remember long accusations and lies without any trouble. Even the crowds of the two art forms have been critiqued.
And when the film culminates to become a (Miracle on 32nd Street – like) courtroom drama (is there another genre in theater that's as popular?) the dialogue-heavy course that follows seems very much intentional. The medium maybe cinema, but Seethakaathi is a film that 'stages' scenes in the way the word was originally used.
One wishes the tone had remained more subtle even as Seethakaathi moves from its theater setting to that of cinema. Certain scenes "too" seem to repeat themselves far too many times just to drive home the point. But these are tiny glitches in a film that uses the soul of a stage play to paint a moving tribute to a dying art form. Aided well by Govind Vasantha's non-intrusive music and a team of great actors, Seethakaathi doesn't just question the state of the business of our cinema, but also the state of its art.
*Baradwaj Rangan, the editor of Film Companion South, has acted in this movie.