It’s only natural that the trailer of a film starring Vijay Sethupathi gets a lot of attention. As I write this, the Sindhubath teaser has just dropped, and it’s big news. So it’s not especially surprising that the Super Deluxe promos were greeted ecstatically. For it isn’t just Vijay Sethupathi. It’s Vijay Sethupathi playing a transgender character. Sindhubath is basically Vijay Sethupathi saying “Look, I can do all this action stuff that the really big stars do.” But Super Deluxe is him saying “I’d like you to show me another actor with the balls (and the prowess) to pull this off.” That’s surely exciting. But reactions to the trailer have gone beyond “this looks exciting” to “I’m going to light a couple of agarbattis and kneel and perform a pooja to these 2.03 minutes”. This must have taken even Thiagarajan Kumararaja by surprise.
2.5 million views in the 24 hours from its launch on February 22. Close to 7 million views now. If that many people had watched the terrific Aaranya Kaandam, upon its release in 2011, the film would have been a sizeable hit. I did the math. Even at the average ticket price of Rs. 50, 7 million tickets works out to Rs. 35 crore. For a Vijay/Ajith movie, this would probably amount to FDFS popcorn sales, but we’re talking about a film starring… Jackie Shroff! Ravi Krishna! Yasmin Ponnappa! Sampath Raj! Guru Somasundaram! Even if you stood outside the theatre handing out free popcorn, you might have had trouble getting viewers into an FDFS show. This was a word-of-mouth movie. But few people mouthed the word, and it bombed.
And the first “un film de Thiagarajan Kumararaja” instantly joined the ranks of movies that cinephiles like to tut-tut about. If only it had worked, it would have changed Tamil cinema… If only it had been allowed to stick around in theatres a little longer… If only more people had heard about it while it was still in theatres… This is the sad state of our cinema, when something this amazing is being ignored and the latest crap fest of <insert name of big star> is running to packed houses… Had you asked me then, I’d have written off Thiagarajan Kumararaja. Not because this fantastic filmmaker couldn’t bounce back, but because he showed little interest in bouncing back. He was seen little. He spoke littler. He vanished.
Can you name one other film from an unsuccessful filmmaker that’s caused this kind of buzz?
Those of us who were fans of Aaranya Kaandam kept waiting for the announcement of a second film. But for four-odd years, nothing. Then, his name popped up in the writing departments of Yennai Arindhaal and X: Past is Present, both in 2015. But away from the public eye, something was brewing. We couldn’t feel it, but Aaranya Kaandam was still making its presence felt. Maybe people were torrenting it. Maybe it became cool to say you belonged to the Aaranya Kaandam cult, even if you hadn’t seen it. However you choose to explain it, in the intervening years, Aaranya Kaandam has acquired the mystical-reverential have-you-seen-it? status usually accorded to the Abominable Snowman or the lost city of Atlantis. I’m not exaggerating. Can you name one other film from an unsuccessful filmmaker that’s caused this kind of buzz?
Of course, the buzz isn’t only due to Thiagarajan Kumararaja. There is, as earlier mentioned, Vijay Sethupathi. Super Deluxe also has Fahadh Faasil, Samantha, Ramya Krishnan. Then, there’s the battery of writers: Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K Sekar and Thiagarajan Kumararaja himself. (When was the last time you had a non-anthology film written by four filmmakers?) So yes, all of this has definitely amped up the hype, along with on-the-sets nuggets like Thiagarajan Kumararaja going for 100+ takes. The number of takes a filmmaker took to achieve an effect is of no concern to the audience, as we don’t know which take was finally used or even the exact reason so many takes were needed. But it makes a hell of a story. It makes the director a hell of a legend.
But is he one? There is no question that Thiagarajan Kumararaja made one of the most exciting, audacious, and – most important from the cinematic POV – formally dazzling debuts in Tamil cinema. But Aaranya Kaandam is still just one movie. I hope Super Deluxe is super awesome, but I also hope that these elephantine expectations from the audience don’t come in the way of seeing what it really is. If it lives up to the buzz, great. But if it doesn’t, it should not be the end of the world. Remember what happened to Balaji Tharaneetharan (Seethakaathi) and Nalan Kumarasamy (Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum). Instead of saying “let’s see what these guys come up with in their second films”, the word on the street was “let’s go and see the unimpeachable mega-masterpiece from the makers of Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom and Soodhu Kavvum.” How could the films have possibly lived up?
In other words, let’s wait before erecting that building-high cut-out for Thiagarajan Kumararaja and crowning him a legend. A first movie is a sign, a promise, a “this is me, look out” announcement. It’s not a membership to the pantheon. Because it’s wrong to make instant gods of filmmakers (or cricketers, for that matter, but that’s a different article). Because if, heaven forbid, a god-level movie doesn’t happen the second time around, today’s ruthless, social media-aided commentators will dethrone the filmmaker as quickly as they made him king. What’s more important than a great first film is a long, productive, significant career. Let’s first give Thiagarajan Kumararaja (and others like him) the chance to have such a career. Let’s give him the room to breathe, to find his voice, to make mistakes, to make more movies, and more often. I’d rather have a great body of work than one great movie. Also, I don’t want to wait another eight years.