(Here is a piece I wrote on Nalan Kumarasamy’s Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum, one of my favorite films in recent times. This was written in late 2016.)
Talking of mainstream – always Tamil cinema’s strength – there have been different problems of late. Recently, a Change.org petition calling out stalking as depicted in Tamil potboilers gained traction. The story of an alcoholic wastrel stalking a fair-skinned woman (and God help you in Tamil cinema if the heroine isn’t fair-skinned, or if she speaks Tamil) in the name of true love has become a sub-genre of sorts. Director M. Rajesh is a repeat offender. Dhanush’s name repeatedly crop up when this topic is discussed. His heir apparent is Siva Karthikeyan, who gave an interview defending these depictions in his recent film Remo, claiming it was all about a man being sincere in his dogged pursuit of true love.
The way the female lead is written – or done disservice to – in such films is a major cause for them turning out the way they do. An honestly written female role in these films is rare. There was Durai Senthilkumar’s Kodi, starring Dhanush and Trisha, a film as mainstream and hero-centric as it gets, and yet showing some interest in delineating a solid female lead in Trisha’s “Theepori” Rudra, the antagonist. The problem, however, is that this is still cardboard. The strong woman is an evil woman. There is no complexity added to an everyday character.
The traditional romance, especially the sub-genre of inter-class romance, has known no complexity. Until this year. Two directors (Nalan Kumarasamy and M Manikandan), having announced themselves with stellar debuts (Soodhu Kavvum and Kaaka Muttai), gave us films where they reshaped the mainstream Tamil cinema hero and heroine – more so the women – and did so from within the established genre tropes that many people had come to hate by the time of Remo. The impressive of the two, in terms of character detailing, was Kumarasamy’s Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum, which released earlier this year. It is a remake of South Korean film My Dear Desperado, by no means a landmark foreign film. Yet, something about it switched on a light bulb in Kumarasamy’s head; he figured that that the original could be shape-shifted to suit the Tamil audience that seems to lap up anything – even stalking – in the name of romance.
Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum is the story of Yazhini (Madonna Sebastian), an engineering graduate from a small town, who loses her job in the recession and is forced to look for cheaper accommodation. She finds one next to Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi), who is a self-confessed “rowdy”, working as a ruffian under a local politician doing odd jobs.
The film, whose title roughly translates to “love, too, shall pass”, is hardly a love story. Kumarasamy keeps everything at a fantasy level, which is a straight up satirical comment on the aforementioned sub-genre. What is it, if not fantastical, that all these films (including the actors in interviews) justify their culpable behaviour by pointing out misplaced sincerity and happy ending – all forms of wooing is apparently justified because the hero’s love is sincere and leads to marriage? Kumarasamy is shrewd enough to realize that there is a possibility of misconstruing this fantasy. In all honesty, there is also a problem with the critiques of this sub-genre and its portrayal of the hero, leading to us exposing our own class bias. Kathir’s background is repeatedly reinforced by Kumarasamy – at a local grocery store, at his workplace or when he nonchalantly offers Yazhini a pep talk about jobs.
All this might lead to a misconception of Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum being just another inter-class love story, like the ones we get week in and week out. But Kathir rises above that. Yazhini rises higher. She may come from a better place than Kathir but she is still a small town girl from a second-tier engineering college with enough wisdom to lecture him about the bane of the exponential increase in the number of such colleges in TN. There is nobility, a quiet dignity in their relationship that is never given a name but which instantly separates Kumarasamy’s film from any other inter-class non-romance in recent times. The fantasy part, the part where the hero thinks the heroine owes him her love and has a sense of accomplishment about the girl is reduced to Kathir’s Freudian unconscious. It is structured as a dream song the day after Kathir and Yazhini spend a night together – as a lonely television plays Kadhalikka Neramillai (No Time for Love, 1964), no less!
It is Kumarasamy’s recognition of this space to create a man like Kathir and a woman like Yazhini that deserves to be celebrated. Yazhini is liberated in ways almost unimaginable in Tamil cinema today. There is the usual multiplex definition of the woman standing on her own, with intense ambition, losing and switching jobs, boozing and not falling into her parents’ archetypes of their daughter. But Yazhini is more. She doesn’t bat an eyelid when she finds out Kathir’s job (or lack of it). She befriends him in no time and is selfish enough to use him for his helping nature and even doubt his credentials as a “rowdy”. She minces no words when she refers to him as the cuddly dog she needed at a time of distress. And the film’s treatment of workplace harassment – a potential employer seeks sexual favours from Yazhini by saying a lot of women like her are willing to do it. Her response – and the film’s – is non-judgemental. She says those women may have had their reasons, but she is not willing. Neither is Kathir one to mope around singing dirges about evil women when Yazhini is honest about her feelings nor is Yazhini one to brand all Kathirs of the world to be cut of the same cloth. The gender stereotypes – especially as abused in Tamil cinema – are subverted at every step in Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum. Nalan Kumarasamy pins a new identity for a disposable sub-genre that for all purposes should have been the talking point of the year.
Talking of identities, M. Manikandan does something similar on the subject, with another unemployed desperate protagonist and the women he comes across in the wholly original Aandavan Kattalai. The Tamil mainstream is looking towards a progressive era thanks to the writings of people like Nalan Kumarasamy, M. Manikandan and Pa. Ranjith. Maybe it is time to underplay the Remos of the world and overemphasize the contributions from this lot.