A young woman in a village wonders about the man she will marry, and in the manner of a classical heroine from a myth, she turns to Nature for an answer, calling out to the crimson flower and the cool wind. This is the brief the director hands you, a composer on the cusp of legend. And this is what you do: conceive a pastoral waltz around this pastoral scenario, opening with a rippling guitar under the singer's free-flowing vocal line. (Introspections about great unknowns, after all, cannot be incarcerated behind bars of metrical symmetry).
Then, in the second interlude, you dispatch two crews of violins on a sweeping contrapuntal voyage, and rein them in when it's time for the wind section's excursion. The strings ebb into gentle accompaniment, underscoring a duet between a reed instrument (an oboe, perhaps) and a flute that sharply – and surprisingly – marks the song with a mood that might be termed melancholic, the suggestion of a future tragedy. A hint of the guitar harks back to the opening riff – a musical flashback of sorts – and segues into an arc traversed by the flute, whose function, at this juncture, is that of the cross on the t, the dot on the i. The song resumes.
What might have Bharathiraja thought, in 1977, when his instructions to Ilayaraja were thus interpreted? What did audiences make of “Sendhoorapoove”, the song from “Pathinaru Vayathinile” that framed the feelings of an undistinguished girl in an undistinguished village in Tamil Nadu with musical tropes imported from Vienna? (The waltz. The a cappella contours of the opening vocals. The counterpoint. The flick-of-the-switch diminishment, mid-course, of the feel of the scale from major to minor. The reassuring return of the rippling guitar riffs.) We don't have to turn to Nature for an answer, because no one – not Bharathiraja, not the audience – experienced anything but the emotion. They felt what they were meant to feel, what the girl was feeling.
But it's different with movies. Unlike music, whose truck is with the mind's eye, a movie unfurls as literal images in front of the eye, and we balk at perceived dissonances. If the girl in the song weren't simply described by music from Vienna but clothed like a Viennese, in a ruffled gown over a corseted waist, the illusion would have shattered, the film transformed into dire comedy. The mind that can so easily reconcile western aural cues and south-Indian scenery is stumped when faced with visual incongruity. We take the easy way out and laugh.
And laugh is what I did when I saw, in the recently released “Mankatha”, a two-bit crook pulling off an elaborate heist, double-crossing his mates, and now fleeing with the loot along a scenic stretch of road. As scenarios go, this is entirely plausible – until you see that this man is attired in a Superman costume. A hasty connect-the-dots exercise results in a narrative where this thief, having amassed the fortune of kings, decided that his first stop, his first purchase, would be at a store selling Halloween apparel. The illusion is shattered.
But is it possible that this chain of events is ridiculous, surreal even, only to those weaned on the heist genre as it has evolved in Hollywood? We anticipate moral worlds being realigned by the tectonic tensions of greed and betrayal, and instead we are left staring at a slick operator in a superhero suit. I looked around and saw people enjoying the movie, and this made me wonder if I was missing some larger point, and if my loyalty to a preconceived notion was restraining me from responding to what might be a spanking new genre: the Dadaist heist comedy.
A Venkat Prabhu movie, which typically gives the sense of being conceived not on screenwriting software but on the backside of labels of recently drained bottles of beer, is probably not the best example to bolster these thoughts – but learning not to trust our first instincts when faced with visual incongruity is an art we still have to master. After all, we haven't lived with movies as long as we've lived with music.