When Pauline Kael, a noted New Yorker film critic, was asked about the lack of good American films about the Vietnam War, (movies about its violence and meaninglessness) she calmly replied that she was waiting for the war to get over. Good political films always have a calm, collected retrospective gaze.
Nuance be damned, I want to vicariously experience justice.
But the rotten political times we live in, where propaganda films are being churned out recklessly, (A film on the Balakot Airstrike has just been announced, Bhushan Kumar, who is producing the movie, in his Twitter announcement tagged the Prime Minister himself.) I wonder if "good" political films need to be more fiery, more reactionary. Nuance be damned, I want to vicariously experience justice. Queen, the Tamil web-series on MX Player (11 episodes, about 50 minutes each) sits oddly with this expectation.
I have a lot of issues with this series, but don't mistake my discussion of its flaws as my dislike for the show. It is my intense admiration for what the show is trying to do (depict a life without deifying it) that makes me angry about the things they could have (quite easily) done to make it a more effective, sumptuous, and moving experience.
Based on Anita Sivakumaran's book "The Queen", which itself springs from the life of late Tamil Nadu politician Jayalalithaa, the web-series has the cool retrospective gaze that Kael alluded to in her interview. Look at the structure itself, of Lillete Dubey interviewing Shakthi Seshadri (Ramya Krishnan in a questionably passive, philosophical, and arresting performance). Dubey asks her questions about her life, and the whole series plays out as visuals born out of this catechism. Imagine you being deeply angry in a moment, and then thinking about this moment of anger years later. The fiery pulse died when you got over your anger, all you have is a memory which you can only articulate with the knowledge you have gained since.
For me, and for this story, this calmness didn't work. (Even when Shakthi is giving campaign speeches, it is too muted. There is heist movie music in the background which doesn't work. This is perhaps how Jayalalithaa spoke in election rallies, but when you have taken so many creative liberties, why not this one too?) Shakthi has lived a life of great drama, great affairs, and great grief, all of which lend themselves to the medium of cinema effortlessly. But instead, the writer and directors decide to make her philosophical about it, with long passages about the internal anguishes, and the structural impediments to success and happiness- the vice of over-articulation, something Gautham Menon, the co-director, has been accused of on many occasions. (Oddly, moments where she wasn't even present are narrated by her later; alluding to her omnipresence or a plothole – it's up to you.)
The line of Dubey's questioning starts with her youth (young Shakthi played with endearing heft by Anikha), her fixation with the world of academics, and the inability of her circumstances to let her pursue it. Instead, she finds herself in front of the catatonic magnesium white flashes of the camera- cinema has called out to her. She grows into this regret, within this regret even, to become a star. She comes face to face with GMR (MGR was the iconic actor and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu who mentored Jayalalithaa from her time as an actress into the world of politics. It was also widely rumoured that they pursued a grand affair. GMR is played with toxic possessiveness and crude clarity by Indrajith Sukumaran.)
[I]t feels like you are watching three different characters instead of one character grow through time.
Shakthi in her twenties is played by Anjana. In her late thirties by Ramya Krishnan herself. So you have three actresses playing Shakthi, each with a different lilt. As a result it feels like you are watching three different characters instead of one character grow through time. This choppiness is further made worse by the decision to focus on one issue at a time. So when you see Shakthi dealing with the opioid crisis of her brother, she is only doing that. Later, this issue doesn't come up. When she is dealing with her love life, she is only in love. When she is acting, that is all she is doing.
Shakthi Seshadri- One Character, Three Actors
For example, when Shakthi meets GMR for the first time, there is a voiceover telling us that as a child she used to love watching his movies, and would throng in crowds hoping for a glimpse. This is never shown when she is a child. Instead, now that she is finally meeting GMR, we have flashbacks of young Shakthi watching his movies in admiration. Imagine a moment of a devout fan finally being asked by the object of her admiration to act opposite him- it is sheer euphoria. I felt nothing. This inability of the screenplay to negotiate the various things Shakthi is going through in one moment is its own undoing.
[Shakthi] lives life without an agenda, and makes sense of it in retrospect, like most people do. But indecision is not cinematic.
Perhaps it is my fault in expecting a rousing, and thumping feel to truly dramatic moments. The last episode is a hard nod to the funeral of MGR in 1987. It is a moment I have heard about since my birth and was excited to see it be given a renewed birth on screen. It played out listlessly. But that does not mean it was boring. It was just ineffective.
I wanted to become a pound of goose-flesh every time she answers back to misogynistic pigs. I wanted my whistle moment. But this film, either by design or ineptitude, refuses to make Shakthi decisive, but neither does it make her a pulp puppy to circumstances. She openly tells Lilette that she wasn't sure what she was thinking in that moment. She lives life without an agenda, and makes sense of it in retrospect, like most people do. But indecision is not cinematic. And the length of the series too feels like a bit of a drag.
But of course the magic of life comes through. That feeling of being under the sway of someone – a lover, sibling, parent- that you are willing to fall at the altar of their validation, comes out beautifully. Shakthi's allure with GMR stinks of this; you submit yourself to them, your dignity a mere forgotten afterthought. (I look back at videos of MGR and Jayalalithaa dancing and wonder what became of such chaste chemistry?)
The rudderless ideologies of the party workers who come across as white-clad obsequious pit-stains feels oddly reflective of our times. The AIADMK Party that housed both the populism and collective progressive conscience of Jayalalithaa and MGR has now fallen into a moment of crisis, having just voted for the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill whose passage has led to a breakdown of law and order, with the Northeast and Delhi burning.
In this context, a political film that is a reflection of a turmoiled life feels like calm in the midst of a shitstorm. But do we want calm or do we want justice?
Note: MX Player plays the series in three versions. A Hindi, A Tamil, and a Tamil-English. In my opinion, the last version is best as it does not dub over the English dialogues with Tamil.