Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Samantha, Fahadh Faasil, Ramya Krishnan, Mysskin
Director: Thiagarajan Kumararaja
How does one talk about Thiagarajan Kumararaja's second film, Super Deluxe? A logical place to begin is perhaps the director's first film, Aaranya Kaandam. Super Deluxe is certainly something of a companion piece. The monologue-y trailers are similar, as are the multiple storylines revolving around ensemble casts and bound by an overarching philosophy. (Remember "Edhu thevaiyo adhu dharmam" from Aaranya Kaandam?) There's even the sense of a cinematic universe being created, one that contains both films (and maybe future films from this director). The women in these films have similar-sounding (and male-sounding) names: Vaembu/Subbu. From a poster on a wall, we sense that Jackie Shroff's character from Aaranya Kaandam appears to have existed a little before this film's timeline. I could even imagine the father-fixated little boy (a superb Ashwanth Ashokkumar) in Super Deluxe growing up to be the Guru Somasundaram character's son in Aaranya Kaandam. And remember the little plane that the Ravi Krishna character "swallowed" as part of a magic trick? We get big planes here, and they perform their own bits of magic.
And yet, the films are different. Aaranya Kaandam was filled with adrenalin-pumping pleasures: the pulse quickened at the pulp rhythms, the slo-mo stretches. And the film was emotionally direct: you felt for the Guru Somasundaram character and his son, and you laughed at the story about the gangsters named Gajendran and Gajapathy. Super Deluxe is far more ambitious, and moment for moment, far less instantly gratifying. It's a long, slow fuse that keeps you on edge about when it will explode, and when it does, it's a big bang. Or, perhaps, the Big Bang. WTF, right? More on that, later. For now, I'll just say I've never seen anything like this in Tamil cinema, with its mix of the sacred and the profane, the epic and the intimate, the earthly and the otherworldly, the pop-cultural and the philosophical. It's a film you want to view as much with a microscope (zooming in on the details) as a telescope (zooming out to the bigger picture).
The characters, then, are as much microbes as stars in the cosmic scheme of things – as puny as the ants and centipedes we see in frames, and as vast as… Well, let's discuss that after you watch the movie, shall we? But here's a partial list of the people you'll meet. There's Vaembu (Samantha Akkineni), who's married to Mugil (Fahadh Faasil). Another story involves Jothi (a very affecting Gayathrie), whose husband is now a transwoman named Shilpa (Vijay Sethupathi). A third story is about a bunch of hormonal boys, and the parents of one of them: Leela (Ramya Krishnan) and Arputham (Mysskin). Leela is a former porn actress, and Arputham has turned into a religious nut. He's formed his own cult after a near-death experience at sea, which explains the marine-blue walls in his "place of worship". Themes and motifs keep sneaking in and out of the various story threads. So the blue on Arputham's walls bleeds into the shirt that Mugil wears and onto the sari on Shilpa, just like the mole on Leela's back finds a twin in the one above Shilpa's lip. If you like getting off on details like these, Super Deluxe is like Penthouse and Playboy rolled into one.
All of this would be little more than postmodern pranks if not for the film's magnificent design. This is not the first film to tell the story of three couples, but where earlier directors treated these stories like intimate domestic drama, Super Deluxe makes them something almost infinite, spanning the breadth of human (and other) existence
I'm sure alert readers will chip with more of these "patterns", but here's a sampling. A corrupt cop (Bagavathi Perumal) is compared to a public toilet – and a public toilet is where Shilpa gets into trouble. The tears in Vaembu's eyes CUT TO a teenager's tears in another story. Two of the episodes feature an absent father. A man (Mugil) is humiliated by his wife's doing, just like a woman (Jothi) is humiliated by her husband's. The exquisite line that Shilpa uses to explain herself ("just like we sometimes slide the wrong foot into the wrong slipper, I was put into the wrong body") is echoed in a sound thrashing delivered by a gangster. His "weapon"? A pair of slippers. A television programme about aliens is linked, later, to posters of Aliens on a dirty wall. And on the same wall, we see the poster of a film whose subject is life and its mysteries. The same could be said about Super Deluxe.
This is a lip-smacking combination of "high" and "low" art. You could write essays about how this director's vision is deliberate (perhaps even dictatorial, even though the co-writers include Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K Sekar and Mysskin). Note the careful use of deeply saturated colour by cinematographers PS Vinod and Nirav Shah. And note the very specific props, like the kuthuvilakku that acknowledges Arputham's former self, from when he was a Hindu. And yet, at the same time, you could write essays about this film's use of "matter songs", whether 'Vanithamani' from Vikram or 'Paal Vannam', the wedding-night number from Paasam. A moment where Shilpa disrobes is set against 'Maasi maasam aalana ponnu', and the semi-clad images (what we see on screen, and what we recall from that older song) are such contrasts that it's like listening to a bhajan at a disco. Also, recall that this song is from Dharma Durai, which is also the title of a… Vijay Sethupathi movie.
All of this would be little more than postmodern pranks if not for the film's magnificent design. This is not the first film to tell the story of three couples, but where earlier directors treated these stories like intimate domestic drama, Super Deluxe makes them something almost infinite, spanning the breadth of human (and other) existence. (Those ants! That centipede!) Thiagarajan Kumararaja has said he was sparked by the looping story-structure of Jafar Panahi's The Circle, but I was equally reminded of something like Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, which gave the epic treatment to a series of mundane incidents that do not usually get the epic treatment on screen. (There's also an equivalent, here, of Magnolia's "rain of frogs" moment; I almost fell out of my seat.)
But the Magnolia moment was Biblical. Super Deluxe, on the other hand, is casually dismissive of a judgemental being sitting up there in the sky. Everything's just… chaos, as "random" as the design that created life on our planet. Which is why the film's working title, Aneedhi Kadhaigal, would have been just as good a fit. Super Deluxe suggests something plush and expansive, like the priciest room in the kitschiest hotel. And yes, there will be those who say that there's perhaps a little too much room in this narrative, which clocks in at nearly three hours. Perhaps you could take away the track revolving around Arputham — Leela would have still driven that story and brought it to its glorious conclusion. But without Arputham, we wouldn't have had that connect to the oceans, which is, after all, where life apparently began. And we wouldn't have had the connect between Arputham and Shilpa, through a line about forgiveness. Which is why you feel nothing could have been left out, everything has its place in this design. This sprawl, this "messiness" is part of this movie's DNA.
But Aneedhi Kadhaigal, which translates to "amoral tales", would have pointed to one of the most rewarding aspects of Super Deluxe. The wife who cheats on her husband, the porn actress who's unapologetic about her work (and how cheeky to see this character played by an actress known for her "Amman" roles), the man who did ghastly things to children, the teenagers who cheat and steal — they all come close to being punished, but they all get away with happy endings. This is Thiagarajan Kumararaja basically saying "fuck you" to conventional Tamil-cinema morality, where "loose women" and "evil men" end up suffering for their sins. Leela's spectacular retort to Arputham, near the end, questioning his "God", is one of the most thrillingly nihilistic lines uttered in our cinema. It's not a message. It's not a moral. And yet, it strikes at the very core of one's belief systems.
There's a lot of everything in Super Deluxe. There's a lot of entertainment. There's a ton of black humour. (The name of a man who needs money? Wait for it… Dhanasekar.) There are elements from sci-fi. There are elements from noir. (Think of the dubious statue in The Maltese Falcon). There's a farting corpse that functions as some sort of marriage counsellor. There are also gorgeous grace notes, like the child who does not discriminate, yet is very clear about what he wants. In other words, there's a lot to take in during a first viewing. While watching Super Deluxe, I felt what Pauline Kael described in her review of The Godfather: Part II: "the exploding effects keep accumulating. About midway, I began to feel that the film was expanding in my head like a soft bullet." If you recall, The Godfather: Part II is more leisurely paced than Part I, less immediately affecting, but by the end, far more profound. That's how I'd describe the relationship between Aaranya Kaandam and Super Deluxe.
Part of the emotional aloofness we feel comes from the slightly disorienting way the narrative plays around with timelines, and the shot-taking that follows this grammar. We aren't "eased" into scenes. There are very few establishing shots, and we are thrust into interiors from which we view the action. (A lot of scenes, therefore, end up being framed by doorways, or else cramped in the alleys between tightly grouped buildings.) We get the sense of being trapped with these characters, and only when they inch towards liberation do we feel their freedom. The visuals, too, open up. The set pieces are not flashy (like in Aaranya Kaandam), but slow-burn beauties, like the sensational stretch of chaos (Sathyaraj Natarajan is the editor) that ensues when a boy sets out to kill his mother.
Both in the writing and the making, the director is leagues ahead of the form he displayed in Aaranya Kaandam. The more logical (as opposed to the experiential) part of the brain keeps raising questions. Is the best way to wreck a car to park it across railway tracks and pray that a speeding train isn't too far away? Would a man who evidently cares about his wife and son just take off like that, and not even send the odd "don't worry about me" message? What functions do Mugil's anti-Establishment rants serve – are they confined to his personality, or are they, too, part of the Big Design? (Fahadh Faasil seethes marvellously.) But piece by mysterious piece, everything comes together, and the smallest details pay off in the most delightful ways – like how Mugil's acting classes allow him to "perform" (though off stage, and with no audience).
Super Deluxe is produced by the director himself, and it's interesting to note what his company is called: Tyler Durden and Kino Fist. The former is the id character from Fight Club, the ugly-secret part that few of us expose in public. The latter is what Sergei Eisenstein called his technique of intellectual montage, using editing not just to let the story "flow" but to manufacture meaning through violent juxtaposition of images. I'm not saying all of this actually happens all through Super Deluxe — these are, after all, philosophies. But there is the sense of a filmmaker who has unleashed his id, and is refusing to play by the rules (of Tamil society, and of Tamil cinema). There is the sense (though much gentler and subtler than with Eisenstein) of provoking reactions not just through the telling of a story but by slapping its components together and making us live spectators to whatever is taking shape.
This is an utterly unique film, a brave film. We see this bravery in the songlessness, in how Yuvan Shankar Raja calls attention to a situation about infidelity by reusing his father's classic song about infidelity (Ennadi Meenatchi). A less-secure composer might have fought harder to impose himself on the score, which is marvellously minimalistic. We see this bravery in Samantha, who does some of her best acting in the scene set in a warehouse. She unleashes her own Tyler Durden, doing an up-yours to conventional wisdom about what heroines (especially married ones) should and shouldn't do. And we see this bravery in the spectacular Vijay Sethupathi, who makes Shilpa come alive through the tiniest, most offhand gestures – say, the way he gracefully adjusts his sari pallu. I thought that, for a Tamil-film leading man, the transwoman aspect of this character was itself an indication of ballsiness. But there's more. That scene in the police station, with that corrupt cop? Wow. Most of our stars simply want to play-act as heroes, with punch dialogues and "mass" moments. Here's one who emerges heroic even with his "masculinity" completely erased.