Making the case that a certain kind of “good cinema” can be made without adhering to the aesthetic traditions of what’s traditionally accepted as “good cinema”
A few days ago, at a dinner conversation, I was asked: “How come there’s been no ‘world cinema’ from the Tamil film industry?” The person asking this question — let’s call him M — wasn’t exactly a long-time follower of Tamil cinema (he said he’d watched only two really great films in Tamil, Pushpak and Michael Madana Kama Rajan), so he couldn’t place when I mentioned names such as Mahendran and Rudraiah, along with films such as Aval Appadithaan and Udhiri Pookkal. Or for that matter, more recently, films such as Virumaandi (with its shades of Rashomon) and Aaranya Kaandam (with its cheeky blending of noir and pop culture).
M said, “But why hasn’t anyone heard of them.” And I said, “Of course, people have heard of them. Ask any regular Tamil-movie watcher.” And M said, “I’m talking about outside Tamil Nadu. Why aren’t these filmmakers known the way Adoor is, or Kasaravalli is?”
For a minute I was stumped, because what M said was true. Film lovers all over India — at least those who take cinema seriously — have heard of Adoor and Kasaravalli (and other great art-film makers), whereas the path-breaking filmmakers from Tamil Nadu remain at best local treasures, unknown outside the boundaries of their home state.
I offered a reason for this, that directors such as Adoor and Kasaravalli follow a style of filmmaking that’s closer to what’s generally accepted as Art Cinema in the west, even though their subjects are local, whereas Balachander and Bharathiraja and many others worked within the Tamil mainstream, which is far removed from the generally accepted notion of “world cinema”. Or maybe a different way to put this is to say that directors such as Adoor and Kasaravalli make movies for world audiences, while Balachander and Bharathiraja made movies for local audiences who would not sit through the austere kind of cinema that plays in art-house theatres around the world.
The discussion reiterated, for me, the fact that to some eyes films made in a particular style are automatically greater than the rest — and, generally speaking, I think this happens in two sequential steps. First, local and international critics follow films made in the World Cinema style; they study these films, analyse and deconstruct them, write about them in international publications, and make these films known to a large audience.
And secondly, the art-film audience takes its cue from these critics and treats these films more seriously, with more respect, and they get indoctrinated with the idea that serious cinema (i.e. cinema that needs to be taken seriously) is more or less cinema that’s made in this internationally accepted art-house style. Hence, even within Ang Lee’s films, a Brokeback Mountain is “greater” than a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (though I personally feel his best film is Sense And Sensibility, not just one of the great Austen adaptations, but one of the great book adaptations, period).
And as most Tamil movies are in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon format — namely, playing infinite variations on genre principles, and sometimes transcending them — they don’t get seen much, discussed much, recognised much. That’s why I’m happy that, today, Tamil filmmakers take their films to international film festivals, and that influential filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap keep talking about Tamil cinema. Perhaps this exposure will trigger a change in the way these films are received and written about.
As for the older films, my fond hope is that — much like how the works of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder have come to be looked at, over the years, through the lens of stylised melodrama — one day critics will wake up and see what older Tamil filmmakers tried to do. I guess the first thing you’ll say is this: “But those filmmakers were making living, breathing movies. They were making cinema. Whereas a lot of the older Tamil films are just photographed stage plays.”
And here I’m echoing the words of my other dinner companion that evening, V. When I said that Tamil films were made a certain way because they catered to a local — as opposed to a global — audience, she said, “But we cannot make excuses like that, no?” And I said that it was making excuses only if you say, “For a Tamil film, this is okay.” And I was not saying that.
I was saying, instead, that there are a lot of types of cinema, and we should judge a film on what it’s trying to do and whether it does that well, rather than whether it fits into some imagined idea of World Cinema.
Even within the “photographed stage play” aesthetic, there’s so much stylisation — in the rhetoric, in the symbolism. V then said that she couldn’t get Tamil cinema because audiences rated Sivaji Ganesan a great actor. “How can someone so loud and theatrical...?” And I said, “Watch Uyarndha Manidhan and Motor Sundaram Pillai, and let’s continue this conversation.”