Over the last 6-7 years Tamizh cinema was witness to the advent of what was later termed as the Madurai films. They were all not set in Madurai but were ushered in by a set of marquee films set in the city. There were even debates that the genre is too vast and the name given – Madurai – is wrong and inaccurate. But Karthik Subbaraj wants to shake this up. He was clearly fascinated by some of these films. He wants to make a Madurai film that he could call his own. At first glance and looking at his first film – the impressive Pizza – you’d rather slot him under the city or to narrow it down further, Chennai crop of filmmakers. Would he really be able to do justice to a Madurai film where he is more of an outsider? So what can Subbaraj do? He tracks the story of an aspiring city based director who goes to Madurai to write a story. And of course the director’s name is Karthik.
That’s just the beginning. It’s the beginning of a morbidly funny fantasy adventure gangster satire. How many genres can you count? Madurai isn’t even included in that. It’s the story of a gangster, an ambitious filmmaker, of redemption, a spoof/parody (he even makes fun of the Raaja influence in the Madurai films) and of a woman scorned. That’s Subbaraj’s modest mission statement. He wants to mix genres and see what comes out. Much like the rollicking sequence involving sambar mixed with blood, a policeman and a dead body propped in front of the television. If it wasn’t so funny, you’d twitch at the horror of it all. And Subbaraj accomplishes it sequence after sequence. His major achievement is making us buy into the ridiculousness. For the most part. There are no nice guys in the film. Subbaraj’s writing is so infectious that we aren’t nice guys either. We laugh at blood oozing out of a blade attack. And this is just so that a character asks as a matter of fact after listening to a gangster’s anecdote, how can blood burst out like that, as if he’s watching a Tarantino film for the first time and is baffled by the gratuitous violence. We laugh at the hilarious reworking of a Sholay sequence gone wrong. We laugh as they take a break from torturing a man to recharge the camera battery. What has he turned us into! The other such superlative stretch of events marks one of the greatest usage of that uniquely Indian device – pre-intermission scene. There is a planted microphone, an ambulance, a titanic sexual fantasy and a trap for a mole as everyone gets their rug pulled from under them (I wonder if a character here is named Sekar because of the now famous cult line – from a much loved quasi-Madurai film – that can be applied here too – “sethan da sekaru!” And trust me I haven’t spoiled it for you. That’s how layered this is). The whole sequence establishes why Jigarthanda is a director’s film and Subbaraj is one of the best we’ve got at the moment.
Talking of moles, there was a recent New Yorker article by David Denby about John le Carré’s best novel. It talks about the espionage master’s A Perfect Spy which while being le Carré’s perfect novel was also autobiographical. Quoting from the article,
At the beginning of “A Perfect Spy,” Magnus suddenly and silently disappears, retreating from Vienna to a tiny English boarding house near the sea. He wants to write—about his life, his career as a spy, his loyalties and betrayals. He wants to make an accounting for himself and for his splendid teen-age son, Tom. Now, as far as I know, le Carré has never been called an experimental or modernist writer. (It’s very unlikely that Susan Sontag would have been interested in him.) But “A Perfect Spy” is actually a meta-fiction. It’s about a man writing his life—in effect, writing a novel—and the text that Magnus produces is frequently coy and unreliable, which makes the complexities of the book staggering. There are overlapping tales, stories within stories, ricocheting versions of Magnus’s career. Le Carré doesn’t just stick to Magnus Pym’s discourse; he offers the point of view of Jack Brotherhood and of Pym’s staunch and frightened wife, Mary, both of them trying to find the missing man while worrying through their memories of him. Jaunty and comprehensive, le Carré jumps around in time, recounting Magnus’s life as son, lover, husband, embassy social lion, and spy.
Most of all, as son. Magnus wants to finally unload his obsession with his father Richard (Rick) Pym, a swindler, liar, scoundrel, and enchanting son of a bitch; a Falstaff who does genuine harm. Rick screws people, and they almost always come back to him. He’s where the action is, right up to the end of his life, and Magnus adored and imitated him, becoming not a criminal but a professional con man and teller of tales, an agent. Like Rick, he betrays everyone, which is why he’s “perfect.”
There is something on those lines at work in Jigarthanda. It is so obviously autobiographical but in a very speculative manner. What’s filmmaking if not spying, that honorable form of voyeurism. It is observing and reporting on lives of others. Karthik wants to go through with his objective at all costs. He will betray anybody to achieve that goal and who has he learned that from? His subject. The perfect gangster feeds the perfect filmmaker. There is a lot of meditation on filmmaking and the process behind it and arty vs commercial considerations. There is a lot of loud thinking going on in the film that may not be audible in first listen (the aforementioned bafflement at gratuitous violence is one such example). Karthik goes for audacious white elephant art and ends up making an equally audacious termite art. That’s probably Subbaraj’s point really, a realization that they are two sides of the same coin and you cannot toss it and make it stand on its edge. You have to make a choice. So where does Jigarthanda stand?
Aaranya Kandam was a far superior feature mainly thanks to Thiaagarajan Kumararaja’s tight grip on the medium, storytelling and his choice. There was neatness from start to finish in AK. There is a jadedness to the final parts of Jigarthanda when we get only vignettes and a hastiness in tying things together. There are unconvincing transformations and out of character reactions. Yet, Jigarthanda seems to have received universal applause while AK remains only a cult favorite within a closed circle. So is the problem with us? Is that the choice that Subbaraj has made? Singeetam Srinvasa Rao once during a public talk said and I paraphrase, “The masses will enjoy a movie that will be appreciated by the classes 20 years later.” You can find a lot of flaws in that statement but there could be some truth in the corner. Even the final scene of Jigarthanda, while making sense doesn’t sit well with the larger picture. There is evidence for it early in the film. Karthik calls the gang kaatumarandinga like the outsider he is but ends up joining them or actually becoming them (A hat tip to another major Tamizh film in a film full of hat tips to Tamizh films). But it is not seamless when we finally see it happening. We leave thoroughly entertained but with more questions than answers. But maybe that’s by design and part of the charm.