In Tamil cinema, a band of directors has been quietly making films grounded in local realities and away from big-star formulas but working within the commercial paradigm. By SASHI KUMAR

IT is perhaps truer today than ever before that there is Tamil cinema and Tamil cinema. There is, at the very top, the rarefied realm of super-stardom, where Rajinikanth is firmly ensconced as the reigning deity and where Kamal Haasan, in spite of, or maybe because of, his multitasking with the medium, finds himself often on slippery ground. M.G. Ramachandran and, like Kamal Haasan to a less acute extent, Shivaji Ganesan form the other two of the quartet to ever occupy this hallowed ground. Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, unlike contemporary stars in Hindi or other Indian language films including Tamil, do not ever endorse, or model for, commercial products in the market. They and their fans take their image far too seriously for any commercialisation other than that of the box office. Films—their plots, scripts, situations and dialogues—are custom-made for them; their remuneration accounts for a good portion of the lavish budgets which go into their films. And the films literally ride on their shoulders in the race at the theatrical circuit.

When age begins to work against the superstar in meeting the extraordinary expectations placed on him, especially in action sequences, modern, digital 3-D effects and animation can come to his rescue in creating his spitting proxy image in a computer rather than through live shot footage; a virtual doppelganger put together as pixels that can outperform him and his conventional human stunt double. The audience does not care as long as the verisimilitude is maintained. If his latest film and description of future films are any indication, this seems to be the shape of Rajinikanths to come on the screen. This embrace of technology to perpetuate the mythico-physical persona of the star would be different from its application in Hollywood to create science-fictional humanoids or creatures. Here, it meets a peculiarly Indian hankering after youthfulness for stardom and reluctance to accept that stars can age and fade. Rajinikanth himself has made it manifest that he has no use for such delusion or pretence in his real life. He is one of the few stars who do not hide or disguise greying beard or balding head off-screen. But then, stardom and its attributes are not as much a state of mind of the star himself as of those that make and see him as one.

In the more stretchable “star” band just below this figure are younger actors such as Ajit, Vikram, Vijay, Surya, Dhanush, Karti, Jeeva and a few others whose filmic images, again, are caught in their fan club expectation trap. The directors may perhaps have better leeway in pushing character and plot in new directions here, but the films cannot escape being formulaic enough to protect the respective star brands. It is such a market of multiple niches and slotted appetites that, roughly over the last decade, a wave of new films and film directors has washed over, many of them with impressive runs at the box office. Among them are Radha Mohan with his Mozhi (2007), Vasantha Balan with his Veyil (2006) and Angadi Theru (2010), Bala’s Naan Kadavul (2009) and now Paradesi (2013), Ameer’s Paruthiveeran (2007), Sasikumar’s Subramaniapuram (2008), M. Anbazhagan’s Sattai (2012), and Mysskin’s Chithiram Pesuthadi (2006).

Their themes are, for the most part, sui generis. These are films that firmly belong to their milieus (not the hybrid variety of Bollywood catering more to the non-resident Indian sensibility) and articulate the colloquial tongue with assurance. They do not shy away from the device of song or dance, but use it befittingly to nuance or further the narrative. They are not self-consciously distanced or cosmopolitan, but redolent of the local idiom and custom. They do not pretend to be an alternative to the mainstream or to combat the star syndrome; and, in fact, often demonstrably defer, in their work, to the legacy and influence of the stars who exercise such a hold on the public mind. An extended scene in a police station in Naan Kadavul, for instance, has the enslaved and abused group of stunted, maimed or otherwise debilitated beggars doing a blissfully liberative mimicry routine, with MGR, Shivaji and Rajinikanth as their stock-in-trade subjects, to entertain the exploitative policemen. The protagonist in Veyil, a projectionist in a rundown cinema theatre, is as much a reveller as the spectators in the exultant fan ritual that accompanies every screening of each film featuring their favourite stars.

The approach of these directors to their “craft” and “technique” enunciates the difference between these two concepts as flagged by the Irish Nobel laureate and poet Seamus Heaney (in Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978) in the context of verse. For a poet, he says, “craft is the skill of making…. It can be deployed without reference to the feelings or the self.” Craft in the films of this clutch of directors too is uniformly external and competent; there is no great identifiable difference or personal stamp in their framing, lensing or editing. None of them is setting out to be an auteur in the sense of the European new wave film-maker. There is no attempt at camera stylo—using the camera like a pen—personalisation here.

They are not, even within the Tamil filmic canon, clear-cut departures into the experimental or the artistic like, say, Jayabharathi’s Kudisai (1979) or Nasser’s Avataram (1995). They may not achieve the subtle amoral boldness of the sterling, one-of-its-kind, J. Mahendran’s Uthiripookkal (1979), although they can be strident against traditional mores. At the same time, they steer clear of the sophisticated stylistics of Maniratnam or Gautam Menon, or the mannered commonness of Cheran. They combine, syncretise and improve on the breakaway languages of K. Balachander and Bharathiraja, avoiding their irritant angularities—the stilted situations and verbose punning in dialogues of the one and the cloyingly exotic ruralness of the other.

What Seamus Heaney describes as the technique, as against the craft, of the poet is as applicable to these directors. Their technique is the watermark that identifies and unifies their films without, however, making them uniform—technique which, as Heaney puts it, “involves also a definition of his stance towards life, a definition of his own reality. It involves the discovery of ways to go out of his normal cognitive bounds and raid the inarticulate: a dynamic alertness that mediates between the origins of feeling in memory and experience and the formal ploys that express these in a work of art… it is that whole creative effort of the mind’s and body’s resources to bring the meaning of experience within the jurisdiction of form.” To pursue that quality and comparison further with Heaney, it is like the technique of the water diviner, “a gift for being in touch with what is there, hidden and real, a gift for mediating between the latent resource and the community that wants it current and released”. They, therefore, meet a felt need in the interstices of a saturated and star-dominated market.

Bala’s Naan Kadavul combines outlandishness and dismalness in a volatile mix that makes for a very uncommon and chastising viewing experience. Even as we recoil at the sight of the mangled physiques and bruised and bleeding spirits of the forced conscripts—infants in arms, young boys and girls, old men and women—in the ruthless, organised trade of beggary, we cannot look away as we would when we run into them in any city or pilgrim centre. Their screen presence is compelling, and humiliating. The director does not use the afflicted, assorted group of distorted human forms as bait for our sympathy.

Their coarse, self-deprecatory humour, their beggary act to elicit attention and the mockery of those who won’t drop coins into their bowls in response, their emotional give-and-take in their rudimentary, fragile community, threatened every once in a while by one traumatic intervention or the other and, above all, their stoic fatalism are worked in such behavioural detail as to make it look like documentation woven into fiction. In parallel, the narrative thread of the fierce Aghori, who is brought back to his home after long rigorous years of tantric self-mortification in Kasi and cannot naturally reconcile to this domestication, leads to a sublimated realm of a different moral order. It is a film that jolts any preconception we might have of Tamil cinema, even if less charitable viewers may resent being force-fed on slices of the raw underbelly of society and having aham brahmasmin (the Naan Kadavul, or, I am God, credo) dinned into their ears.

Bala’s Paradesi pushes despondency further, in fact all the way, with no silver lining whatsoever. It is, again, an uncommon and uncertain, not to mention uncomfortable, feeling to be stuck on the threshold of suffering through the entire stretch of the film. Set in the pre-Independence period, it is about a poor but free village community in the old Madras Presidency being inveigled into working as bonded labour on the tea estates run by the British; their anomie and deprivation in their new circumstances are compounded by ordeal after ordeal visited on them by their British master, his Tamil Kangani (overseer) and a coterie of henchmen.

The film has the effect of one sustained, relentless ululation. This is how it was, the director seems to defiantly tell us, and there is no escaping it. It is in fact the songs in between (scored, with the rest of the music, by G.V. Prakash Kumar) which provide some breathing space and emollient relief as they philosophise the irredeemable plight of the protagonist and his co-victims and, by transmuting it from sense perception into something to ponder about, make it to that extent bearable.

Bonded labour of the market is the theme of Vasantha Balan’s Angadi Theru. We find ourselves amidst the exploited workforce, and its subhuman communal living conditions, of a busy textile shop complex in Ranganathan Street in Chennai. The workers, including the protagonist couple who turn lovers and struggle in vain to cope with this barely subsistence mode of existence, are gullible or helpless migrants from the countryside, drawn to the city in organised hordes in search of livelihood. We are forced to readjust our sights beyond that of the shopper or customer and discover what goes on behind the showroom, the showcased fabric and the consumerist buzz. The subculture, including its seamy aspects, of the retail textile trade in an all-too-familiar street and context looks more captured than recreated and gives the film the sense of a rare docu-feature.

Vasantha Balan’s earlier work Veyil is as specific in its setting of a town in Virudhunagar with match boxes arranged in rows in front of the houses on some streets and cotton-processing activity on others providing the locational index. It is the tale of two sons of an occupation-coarsened butcher, one of whom incurs the wrath of his father for his truant ways and flees home even as a young teenager to find work in another town as an assistant to the projectionist in a cinema theatre. As he grows into a young man, steeped in the rigmarole of celluloid cans unspooling to the frenzy of fans, and takes over as the projectionist himself, digital technology is already rendering Kanniappa Theatre, his workplace and home, obsolete and unviable, and eventually forcing him to return home.

Meanwhile, back in his hometown, his younger brother has taken to entrepreneurship in advertising, starting off with radio spots and moving on to outdoor hoardings before tragedy strikes in the form of business rivalry and pulls both brothers into it. A subfield of the provincial manifestation of the media engages our attention alongside the main plotline.

The state-run public school, its teaching system and the difference an idealistic and committed teacher can make hardly constitute a theme that can be expected to be popular at the box office. But Anbazhagan pulls off a coup of sorts with his debut offering, Sattai, which pursues, so to speak, the straight and narrow path and yet strikes home with impact. The dynamics, politics, tensions and experiments that animate a typical semi-urban government school, its students and teachers and, beyond its precincts, the parents and the local community, unfold as a situational drama with a very real- life resonance. Anbazhagan seems the kind of director who can make a full-length movie about the noon meal scheme and make it stick in the popular mind. Seriously. He doesn’t need much of a story line to get going.

These random samplings do not, of course, capture the complexity or variety of this decade-old phenomenon where, in the spaces between the turfs occupied by the stars, a different idiom of Tamil cinema is quietly sprouting. Common to all of them is the reassertion, in a non-fussy and non-adversarial manner, that it is a medium of the director, that stars are not indispensable to (although they may help if one can afford them) its success.

That may yet be a marginal presence and force; but it is a restless margin with the resourcefulness, robustness and drive to expand towards the centre.