I’ve said it before and I will always be pleased to say it again: For a film festival to be relevant it is absolutely essential it presents to its audience a line connecting cinema’s present with cinema’s past. The education is key, the experience thrilling and the open-mindedness engendered are all requisite to keep the art living and enjoyed, especially in an age where an audience might be attracted to the event of a film festival but otherwise rarely, if ever, go to the cinema anymore. With over 250 feature films and a similar amount of shorts in its 2018 selection, it was easy to get lost in the massive schedule of the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam. Which is why I greatly appreciated two particular sections at the festival curated by programmers with acute focus and taste that comparatively left the larger, more vaguely collected sections (such as Bright Future and Voices) confounding in a festival whose singular pleasure is for its audience to take risks and make discoveries among cinema’s bounty.
One such stellar section, “A History of Shadows,” programmed by Gustavo Beck and Gerwin Tamsma, served as a kind of ideal festival-inside-the-festival, creating a theme, admittedly broad—movies that question the past, our position in it and understanding of it—that allowed them to present not only premieres (Giovanni Donfrancesco’s excellent Il resoluto) and strong highlights from 2017’s festival circuit (Robert Schwentke’s wicked The Captain), but, crucially, an eclectic array of revival screenings (Jaime Chávarri’s caustic 1976 El desencanto). But the most enlightening program of films at Rotterdam for this critic was without a doubt “House on Fire,” a small but potent selection of films from Tamil Nadu. Curated by Olaf Möller, whom longtime readers of the Notebook will know helped introduce Rotterdam to revelatory retrospectives over the years of filmmakers Dominik Graf, Nils Malmros and Heinz Emigholz, this section posited a new wave of films from this south Indian state which now bests Bollywood in terms of features produced—a daunting context nearly impossible to reconcile with the necessarily limited number of films that could be shown at the festival. Nevertheless, the selection shown was indeed uniformly youthful, energetic, and fun, frequently angry, delightfully playful, and always deeply politically convicted commercial cinema.
As ever a certain kind of provocateur in film programming—namely, pedagogic, productive and interventionist—Möller’s work at Rotterdam during my off-and-on again attendance always feels pointedly set against what is trendy in the festival world, in art-cinema, and in cinephilia in general. This year, the “House on Fire” section challenged the notion of festival programming which segregates commercial cinema under a few obvious paradigms—as opening or closing night films, as gala / red carpet events, or as local or Hollywood premieres—which ignores the regional and cultural specificity of many different commercial cinemas, and the vibrancy they can emit.
Vibrant indeed well-describes these films, a selection that begins in 2007 with two calling-card productions of masculine vitriol, Vetri Maaran’s Ruthless Man and the auspicious debut of Ram, Tamil M.A. In his introductions, Möller and program advisor Stefan Borsos indicated this year as the moment (though some place it a few years earlier) when a new generation of filmmakers emerged on the scene in Tamil Nadu, coupled with the increasing trends of Indian privatization and globalization, and began to tell stories for the cinema that for all their heightened excesses—often of violence but also of comedy, social drama and romance—remain true to the cultural, economic and political reality on the ground in their state. Across the films, this reality takes the form of easy portrayals of abusive police, corrupt politicians, under-served poor, and a greater need for compassion. These attitudes, seen uniformly across the films, reflect Tamil Nadu’s long history of anti-authoritarian and liberal politics couched in its pride and nationalism associated with the state’s Dravidian heritage, especially in contradistinction to the increasingly conservative Hindu central government of India.
Ruthless Man begins as a portrait of an under-employed and layabout class of lower-middle class men in the capital of Chennai, led by star Dhanush—here perhaps the world’s most handsome bum since Spencer Tracy—as a young man whose only two life goals are to buy a new motorcycle and finally speak to the woman he’s had his eye on for two years (desires listed in order of preference). But once he gets his bike—and therefrom a job and a fiancé and the man begins to stand tall with firm morality—the film morphs into a drama of the insidious social difficulties of maintaining employment and upright behavior within an uncaring economy and the ensnaring reach of local crime. Dhanush’s journey upward in life is cut when his fate crosses the path of the assassination of a local politician and his motorcycle is stolen (shades of Bicycles Thieves as a genre film), which sends his life into a downward spiral that only his moral outrage, increased outspokenness, and brazen physical lashing out can set right. By the end, he’s stripped down topless, a vision of a Tamil Nadu Bruce Lee, fighting a gang boss to the death, all for the sake of honor and a job.
Ram’s tremendous Tamil M.A. (that is, a person who has a Masters in the language of Tamil—a degree repeatedly mocked as one only for failures) is equally angry and reaches even further. It opens with the suicide attempt of a Tamil teacher (Jiiva) and then jumps back in time to tell the saga of a smart boy forced to face repeated random deaths of those close to him, which, mixed with a rapidly changing society, continually derails his desire to be good and upright and sends him to dark places. The suicide attempt and unjust run-ins with the law sour him against the life society can offer him, leading to murder, social regression, and a mixture of insanity and mystic anger against all the wrongs and ills of the world. Like Ruthless Man, Ram’s film adroitly jumps from tone to tone, genre to genre: Tamil M.A. features long stretches of warm-hearted childhood, didactic political diatribes (much of the narrative is framed as the recollections and rants of Jiiva, dirty, bearded and deranged, in a video confession to a frightened filmmaker), an erstwhile romantic hope as a childhood sweetheart (Anjali) grows up, goes away and is found again—and yet even more jostling pleasures. If Ruthless Man hewed closer to genre and convention—with disappointingly conservative portraits of its women characters in particular—Tamil M.A., with its more expansive story sprawl, showcases greater sensitivity to its characters, allowing its hero with a graduate degree to gleefully oscillate from handsome dork to madcap maniac and effectively encompass the promise, disappointment and increasing righteous anger of a new generation of Tamil Nadu.
The third film in the program fueled by indignant anger was Bala’s I Am God, from two years later. The story starts as that of a family recovering a son long ago abandoned to a temple in another state because he was “born under an evil star,” and who is discovered to now be a member of the death-obsessed Aghori sect, divorced from human attachments and considering himself a god. But soon Bala turns the tale over to the darkly perverse drama of an organized gang of disabled beggars, a pathetic, suffering community of young and old, crippled and deformed ruthlessly run by a cruel, able-bodied gang boss. A slow parallel is set up as we watch this gang exploited by its overseers and the godlike prodigal son (the astounding Arja), returning home, strutting with volatile and virile purpose, surrounded by a cloud of ganja. The family melodrama of the lost son is forgotten as Bala hones in on the mistreatment and exploitation of the disabled in a grim and brutal story clearly standing in for society’s general ignoring, mistreatment or abuse of the impaired. Meanwhile, the god of the dead lounges, smoking dope, in an iconic combination of lethargy and imposing fierceness—a blazed superhero that we observe, waiting with increased despair for him to do something about the injustice around him. There is certainly some lightness in the film—two music numbers in particular, one of the god preening, brawling and stomping around, and the other of another band of beggars performing for and mocking local policemen are ridiculous fun—but I Am God, along with Ruthless Man and Tamil M.A., truly paint mid-2000s Tamil Nadu with brilliantly bleak, bitter and volatile hues.
Two later comedies relieve this pressure, Nalan Kumarasamy’s Evil Engulfs, an escapades-of-losers kidnapping comedy from 2013 heavily indebted to the tone and posture of the American film The Hangover (2009), and Balaji Mohan’s impressive mixture of romantic comedy and communal town satire, Speak with Your Mouth Shut (2014). Without knowing more of local Tamil Nadu cinema it is difficult to know why the included films from the 2010s look and feel considerably different—slicker in aesthetics, more influenced by Hollywood, less pissed off—than the three earlier, angrier films, but nevertheless both of these often-funny comedies remain true to the Tamil Nadu spirit of rooting their stories in observational social critique. The ridiculous comic kidnapping the Evil Engulfs miscreants resort to are because of a lack of job prospects, and their small-scale successes get complicated—eventually very violently—when they cross paths with a lone upright politician fighting a sea of corruption in business and government. Laziness, self-serving schemes, blackmail, pay-offs and police brutality are the norm even in this slick and amusing world, with the only real loser turning out to be the clean-cut, anti-corruption politician, who ends the film disgraced. It's not written as funny as it could be, and though sweating under the oppressive dusty heat of the city, Evil Engulfs is not particularly vividly characterized by its ensemble, so the ironic movements of the story become its main selling point rather than the hijinks of its affable criminals.
Speak with Your Mouth Shut is even more ambitious, using the premise of a virus suddenly striking people in a large town silent as a vehicle to satirize the ignorance and corruption of local politicians (again!), the fear-and-controversy mongering of newly emerging Fox News-style television in India, and repressive gender relationships: The point being, if everyone shuts up for a while, they’ll learn to be more considerate to others. Central to this is the romance between an unhappily engaged young female doctor (who hates to talk) and a charismatic door-to-door salesman (who loves it), who each uncomplicatedly represent the community’s best qualities, their postponed but inevitable union suggesting the kind of communication and equilibrium required to create a loving and just world. Shot in the green scenery of an old hill station, this is a cheery and kind-spirited comedy whose general simplicity is more than made up for by its equanimous treatment of both male and woman characters and its continuous undercurrent of political critique inseparable from the story itself and its many pleasures.
The two most recent films I caught in “House on Fire” in a way unified the original impulse for a need for change of the older movies with the newer one’s slick broadness. Kodi (2016), by R.S. Durai Senthilkumar, stars Ruthless Man’s Dhanush as twin brothers, one a college teacher and the other Kodi (“Flag”), a young man devoted to local politics since his youth and galvanized since his father set himself on fire to protest a local factory’s poisonous pollution. Kodi has also been secretly dating a woman who has risen simultaneously through the ranks of local politics since a young age—but of a rival party. What the ideological differences are of the parties is not spelled out, but rather the difference in behavior in politics: Kodi, with a dashing beard and action movie sunglasses, is upright morality incarnate, while his lover/rival is increasingly revealed to be cutthroat in nearly every way possible—and nearly literally. A ground-level look at extremely local political machinations in Tamil Nadu, couched in and made more pleasant through two romances (one for each brother), the film avoids grim cynicism through its focus on melodrama over ideological detail, but cleverly scores its points against corruption, nepotism, and the unscrupulous and fluid ethics of everyone (in both parties) by framing its romantic disappointment as political—and vice versa.
The newest film in “House on Fire” was Ram’s Resurrection, presented in a world premiere. It seems to exist in a completely different world—of reality and of filmmaking—than the director’s brilliant, digression-heavy and often embittered Tamil M.A., yet both films’ call for greater empathy for other people remain the same. It starts almost as a western, with a single father played by Mammootty retreating to an isolated house to raise his teenage daughter (Sadhana), afflicted with cerebral palsy, in the peace of nature. An absent father in the past—prompting his wife to run away with another man and leave their daughter in Mammootty’s care—he uses the retreat as a way to learn how to raise his daughter, familiarize himself with her affliction, and gain her trust and love. Local men lust over the rural piece of property, and the first half of the film is an almost abstract combination of father-daughter bonding and schemes by the locals to take their home. The second half moves back to the city, where we watch the ever-patient and compassionate Mammootty shepherd his daughter through impoverished habitats, general public contempt, and sparse local health services, at the same time realizing she’s maturing into womanhood, making her care-giving increasingly difficult.
Somewhat hampered by a too-perfect character as written for the superstar actor (supposedly bad in the past, in the present he’s never not an impeccably hunky, melancholy and compassionate man), Resurrection nevertheless patiently reveals a sweet-natured and humane story of both the toil and joy involved in caring for one looked down upon by society. Clear-eyed and straightforward storytelling suggest a universal theme, yet Ram’s well-detailed use of local ostracization, practical challenges, and the poor care for the disabled in Chennai hone the focus to Tamil Nadu. By the time Mammootty, who looks like he should be a gruff and conservative old school patriarch, meets and almost immediately befriends a transgender prostitute who gradually becomes more a part of his and his daughter’s lives—in a surprise development that a supposedly liberal Hollywood film would shrink from—the politics of the film’s full-salvo compassion are baldly apparent and should be boldly applauded.
Immensely entertaining amid a festival replete (as most are) with its share of doldrum storytelling, unquestioned conventions, and pretentious ambitions, the films presented in the “House on Fire” were a bracing tonic of entertainment. What I saw in the Tamil Nadu program were films working with small budgets to create unapologetically commercial and politically-engaged cinema fighting against the status quo, advocating for a better tomorrow, and told with a general freedom of storytelling spirit willing to go where they wanted to both incite and win over its audiences. The selection was “only are the tip of the tip of the iceberg” of new Tamil Nadu cinema, curator Olaf Möller noted at the series beginning, and if what I saw was indicative then we all have a lot more thrilling moviegoing ahead of us.