In Luis Bunuel’s final film That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), a sophisticated French man falls obsessively in love with a young woman named Conchita. Through these two primary characters, Bunuel explores the sexual politics of the man and the lust he has for the woman. Although it is incorrect of me to say the woman, for That Obscure Object of Desire is one of the earliest and peculiar examples of one character being played by two different actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. In the film’s most (in)famous bathroom scene, Bouquet walks in and Molina comes out. This surrealist ploy that Bunuel played around with, could be jarring or fascinating depending on how you see it. It was jarring for me when I first saw it.
I bring the example of That Obscure Object of Desire because debutant filmmakers Manoj Leonel Jahson and Shyam Sunder must be a fan of Luis Bunuel, often considered the father of surrealism. Even if they are not fans, they must have at least seen this film. If my memory serves me right, in Kuthiraivaal, there is a character named Babu who dies of suicide. His wife and daughter seem to be played by the same actor, although that is not the only parallel you can draw from Bunuel’s film.
The governing consciousness of Kuthiraivaal is surrealism too. But it is closer to a David Lynchian’s universe than, say, a Bunuel’s. When I say Lynchian, I assume you are thinking of his modern masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. Kuthiraivaal can be argued as Tamil cinema’s first attempt in mimicking the artistic merits of David Lynch — whether in terms of the imagery you see, the manner in which certain scenes (Karthik Muthukumar’s shots are formal and stunning) are conceived to jar the viewers, or in terms of the background score (by Pradeep Kumar. ‘Parandhu Pogindren’ is soulful) that has a trippy, drowsy effect to it.
But before we get into the craft side of Kuthiraivaal, let me draw one more parallel to Mulholland Drive. When the film came out, one of the popular interpretations that floated around was, how the first half was entirely built as a figment of imagination played by Naomi Watts’ character. In other words, it was just a dream. Likewise, in Kuthiraivaal, the intention of the first half is to give us the impression that it is just like a dream, a story told in fragments. But unlike a Mulholland Drive, where there is clarity and coherence to the way things are constructed, Kuthiraivaal is purely frustrating and jarring throughout. It gets mildly better and somewhat coherent in the second half.
A horse without a tail, a man without an identity.
Kuthiraivaal is about everything. It is about a man’s search for meaning. But it is also about the man’s search inwards and coming to terms with a traumatic childhood episode. It is about the abuse of Nature but it is also about the psychological abuse of society. It is about dreams but also reality; life and lifelessness. It is about sexuality too. A character tells us that a horse is a symbol of sex.
There cannot be one single reading of Kuthiraivaal. But its essence seems to be what a character tells the protagonist Saravanan aka Freud (Kalaiarasan who is really good): “Nenavula tholaichatha kanavula thedittu iruka.” Which essentially means, it is of a man who has lost his grip on reality. Saravanan tries to comprehend his reality in the ‘dreams’ he has. Is he schizophrenic or actually suffering, we never know. That is never explicitly outlined by the filmmakers. But they use him as a narrative device to walk a tightrope between reality and dream. In that sense, the film is a thought train that jumps from one station to another; one plot point to another. There are only theories and questions. The idea appears to illustrate that dreams are an extension of reality and as a narrative experiment, Kuthiravaal is fascinating for sure. But does that translate into a thrilling piece of cinema? No.
The main issue with an experiment such as this is that it relies heavily on the lyrical exposition than on the literal. There is a difference between how Thiagarajan Kumararaja handled the elements of surrealism in Super Deluxe than how it is done here. And we tend to distance ourselves from the film after a point, especially in the first half where you wonder if there is a point to it at all. Dialogues are flavourless, scenes hang in the air, as characters hop from one universe to another.
The most annoying thing about Kuthiraivaal is the self-obsession that the writer (G Manoj Kumar) and directors seem to have. There are tons of references to Darwin Theory, The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan’s mirror theory, illusion theory among other things. All of these are written into the film only to display the intellectual arrogance of the creators and not to respect the intelligence of the audience. If you’re essentially making a film to impress your literary circle, why should it come at my cost?
Kuthiraivaal is currently playing in theatres.