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Monday, May 15, 2000

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Chennai's new cinematic idiom

Film makers in Kodambakkam have set a trend - spinning tales in a suave visual language, to which the verbal is subservient. GOWRI RAMNARAYAN takes a look at the refreshing cosmo-gloss fare generated by the local dream factory.

Gone are the days when India's rabid film-goers looked to Bollywood for ideas and icons. Now it is Kodambakkam which sets the trend with the new kind of cinema that Chennai has evolved. The latest celluloid fantasy "Kandukondain Kandukondain" shows just how this change has taken place.

KKKK is mainstream all the way, a mandatory musical as dictated by the box office. Needless to say, the cinematographer is kingpin in scenes lush and breathless, many of them targetting directly the B and C centres.

And yet, the extravaganza has the visual and aural sophistication of the noveau blockbuster which the cineaste cannot dismiss. With the parallel stream drought stricken, we have the paradox of the Indian potboiler scoring high in creative experimentation.

And since structure without content is boring, virtual reality zooms into a narrative style cutting across the class divide. In this cinema fantastique, magic realism drowns you in song and spectacle, taking up issues relevant, urgent and explosive, sometimes even literary. Slick editing swings them into sharp focus.

Kamal Hassan's role in taking Tamil cinema to the national scene won more critical acclaim than box office success. Anyway, it was too individualistic to start a trend.

The trail blazer for this pan-Indian Tamil brand is the maker of "Mauna Ragam", "Roja" "Bombay" and now "Alaipayuthey", though auteurship was known to the Tamil screen. Not so long ago, K. Balachander, Bharatiraja and Bhagyaraj had left their stamp on the films they made. But KB was often wordy, self conscious, with a cleverness drawing attention to surprises, visual and situational. The other two could not transcend regional appeal.

No need to remind ourselves that A.R.Rahman's sorcery made Mani Ratnam's spell irresistible, anymore than that his predecessor Ilayaraja had, for the first time, amplified Tamil scores for all India audiences. Tamil cinema was assured of national attention with the toetapping, hipswinging, breakdancing rhythms of the new music it brought. Film music had always been hybrid, but Ilayaraja and Rahman made global fusions where the diverse ingredients could be identified from a thousand sources, but once mixed, assumed a new identity, and made hallucinogen, no less. But the new music could not by itself guarantee success for the film, despite convictions to the contrary. It worked best with a director with a contemporary sensibility.

Just what are the components of the catchy, classy blend we find abundantly in Mani Ratnam and Rajiv Menon, sporadically in Shankar, and striven for by Durai?

The first is that the Dalapatis and Minsara Kanavus reveal the ability to be inspired by world cinema old and new, without needing to copy. The tale is spun in a suave, visual language, to which the verbal is subservient. On this new track, the film maker does not have to discount intelligence in his viewer, lettered or unlettered. In fact he can afford to be subtle. Such nuancing brings conviction. That is why ``Mugavaree'' and KKKK can afford to dispense with a separate comedy track, incorporating a spontaneous, real life humour in unravelling the tangle. (See also how Menon uses the stock comedian Senthil in situational humour, and brings comic relief with Manivannan).

There's no need to overstress the sentiments either with verbosity or other obvious tricks. The songs and settings, colours and costumes, are enough to shade and underscore the emotions. And Tamil lyricists can still come up with meaningful verse under right directional stimulant. Though poet Vairamuthu has voiced discontent with the cavalier treatment of poetry in music Rahman style, KKKK proves that this is not always true. Certainly Vairamuthu's own refrain "Sandana...." draws poignancy from the sighing strains, while Subramania Bharati's stanzas throb with passion and romance.

Tamil films have also introduced stars from Bollywood in meaty roles, many of them like Manisha Koirala or Aishwarya Rai, happy to show they are not mere matinee idols as the North has branded them. More, they are eager to be accepted as the genuine Tamil article, in look and gesture. (You can see that Rai has come a long way from "Iruvar" to KKKK). Tabu and Shah Rukh Khan may have proved their mettle in Mumbai but they are still ready for the challenging roles in Chennai.

Moreover, woman as the intellectual equal of man is difficult to come by in Bollywood, determined to wrest the husband from terrorists (Roja), or winning a fierce argument over poetry with her boyfriend (KKKK). Menon does not let Tabu choose Ajith as her life partner before she achieves success in her career, saving her family from financial and emotional disaster.

Finally, with the new directors, the indispensable fight sequences are sought to be minimised unless they are part of the story. Rajiv Menon orchestrates the dances to a glossy finish sans obscenity.

The movement does not begin and end with a Mani Ratnam, infecting a Rajiv Menon or two in the bargain. Watch the newer entrants like Saran (Amarkkalam), Surya (Vaali) and Sethu (Bala), all trying to chart new routes on currents deceptive, hazardous, unpredictable and exciting.

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