Director: Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan
Cast: Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan, Anand Sami, Misha Ghoshal
For a while, Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan's Lens makes you think it's one of those Se7en-like thrillers featuring a bald villain with a God complex. This one (Anand Sami) keeps speaking of Satan, but he possesses godlike omnipotence – he sees everything, knows everything, controls everything. His name is Yohan, which may be a dry joke. The name means "God is merciful" – this Yohan seems anything but. (And God certainly hasn't been merciful to him.) A few scenes into the film, we discover he's drugged a woman into a deep sleep. He says, "Ellaarukkum indha thookam kedacha indha ulagame amaidhiya irukkum." If everyone slept this soundly, the world would be a peaceful place.
The line has to do with Yohan's yearning. He's troubled – he could use some sound sleep himself. The line also hints at Arvind's (Jayaprakash Radhakrishnan) sleepless nights, which end up shattering his peace. His wife Swati (Misha Ghoshal) thinks he's on calls with clients in the US. But the first time we see him, he's wearing a Salman Khan mask and video-chatting with someone named Julie. What are they talking about? Let's just say his boxers are by his feet.
So when Yohan catches Arvind, um, red-handed, the stage is set for a tale of blackmail. Lens does happen to be one – but with a difference. It isn't just that Yohan isn't doing this for personal gain – say, for bagfuls of money. It's also that the film gradually blurs the lines between predator and prey. So while we do get that Se7en-like thriller – with the traditional race-against-time elements (Arvind's friend tries to fetch the cops, and so forth) jostling for screen space with existential questions – Lens slowly morphs into a meditation on good and evil.
Lens makes the strong case that there's a difference between consensually created porn and a video obtained through a hidden camera
Consider this. You may be a good man at heart. You may not steal or kill. You probably live in a nice apartment complex, surrounded by "good" people, neighbours who know your name and smile at you, as children play cricket below. It's a good life, a "normal" life. So what if you watch a little porn every now and then? You're not harming anyone, right? Being a good man doesn't mean you have to be a saint, right?
Yes. But Lens makes the strong case that there's a difference between consensually created porn and a video obtained through a hidden camera. It says that everyone who watched one of those SuchiLeaks uploads, for instance, is a rapist. Yes, a rapist. In a stunningly Daliesque scene, a woman whose privacy has been thus violated sees eyes on her ceiling, and feels like she's being groped by disembodied arms. Sexual trauma has rarely been more vividly depicted. The viewer is as guilty as the uploader.
From a conceptual viewpoint, Lens is fascinating. (It won the Gollapudi Srinivas National Award, given to the best first-time director.) The names of cast and crew appear like the results of a Google search for a porn site – everyone is made complicit. And why not? The title refers not just to a part of the human eye but also a part of the camera. What is the art form we know as cinema if not consensual voyeurism, with actors "performing" so the audience can, in a sense, get off, get their money's worth?
Despite these layers, Lens is, at heart, a Shankar movie turned on its head. It's all there – the vigilantism, the sympathy-creating (and motive-revealing) flashback. But with welcome shades of grey. Plus, in Shankar's world, the bad guy simply dies. He's just meted out punishment. Here, he faces a worse fate. He lives with the knowledge of what he did.
The faults are minor. I wish a character whose purity is desecrated hadn't been named Angel – it's too on-the-nose. There's a bit of dissonance from a largely English/Malayalam film being dubbed into Tamil, and I wish the way someone chances upon a video had been better written. The performances top out at the "adequate" level, which holds some scenes back from really exploding. But the look-and-feel is just right. Lens resembles a YouTube video. It's probably the result of the budget, but given this subject, given the quality of uploads on the web, the lack of "polish" adds to the sense that we are watching something that's happening (as opposed to something being carefully filmed).
Lens is, at heart, a Shankar movie turned on its head. It's all there – the vigilantism, the sympathy-creating (and motive-revealing) flashback. But with welcome shades of grey
We need more films like Lens. For it's important to tell stories about people that are human, imperfect. It's important to acknowledge that we don't really know (to borrow a quote from the crime-fighting vigilante, The Shadow) what evil lurks in the heart of men. Most amazingly, Lens isn't out to preach that porn is bad. It just says know what you're watching. It even upends the "akka-thangachi" sentiment in our films, where, typically, an eve-teasing cad is asked if he doesn't have sisters (and would he do the same thing to them?). Here, an inveterate porn-watcher averts his eyes when a woman he knows is being disrobed on camera. It's important to acknowledge this hypocrisy that other women are fair game.
There was a time sex was an unapologetic part of the Tamil mainstream. In Sarada, Vijayakumari burned with unfulfilled longing because her husband was impotent. In Sigappu Rojakkal, the protagonist was a psychopath who was scarred by sex. In Thappu Thalangal, the heroine was a prostitute. Now, everyone wants a U certificate, and sex has been reduced to wink-nudge item numbers and double-meaning dialogues. Here's a film that shows the hero getting his jollies on his laptop with a woman not his wife, in a room that has a framed portrait of his little daughter – it feels like a kick in the balls to what Tamil cinema usually lionises as "Tamil tradition."