In Jigarthanda , we got a meta movie that was about moviemaking itself, and the meta-ness was underlined by the protagonist being named after the director. Kallappadam tries to go one-up – or maybe we should say four-up. The film features a quartet of protagonists, and they’re all named after the behind-the-scenes people. Actually, they are the behind-the-scenes people. They’re playing themselves.
The director, J. Vadivel, portrays a struggling director. The film’s editor (Gaugin), music director (K) and cinematographer (Srirama Santhosh), too, play struggling versions of themselves. They’re friends, and they’re trying to make a movie together – and after they make that movie (which we see in flashes, as a film within the film), we get the surreal visual of a film’s behind-the-scenes crew becoming actors inside that film and staring at their names in a poster of the film-inside-that-film. I’ll give you a minute so your head can stop spinning.
The subtext in Jigarthanda was the sly “message” that the only way to make the movie you really want to make in the present Tamil-cinema scenario is to become a gangster and begin to call the shots. Kallappadam seems to say that the only way for strugglers to make a film is by literally looting a producer (Naren), the maker of C-grade (or should we say C-centre?) hits like — wait for it! — Aruvaa . He has little interest in quality A-centre projects like the one Vadivel proposes, about koothu artists. How, then, to get the film made? Kallappadam , thus, equates filmmaking to a heist — the pre-production stage corresponds to the planning stage, the shooting is like pulling off the heist, and so forth.
Suddenly the title makes sense. It’s practically a homophone for kallappanam , counterfeit money. Filmmakers, too, are swindlers. And along with money, they steal ideas too. During the heist, we are told that the safecracking move is the same one Robert De Niro executed in The Score . “There are people who steal entire movies. We’re just stealing a scene.” Now no one can accuse Vadivel of stealing from The Score . You see, he’s only using this scene to make a comment on how other people steal from Hollywood. Nice. This is called having your cake, eating it, and giving everyone an icing-topped middle finger.
Vadivel is nothing if not ambitious, but his ideas are easier to applaud than his filmmaking skills. The pace is sluggish, and the film comes to life only in the heist portions. Even here, things aren’t thought out too well. The character played by K never notices that a pen drive that he wears like a locket is missing – for days . And then they return to the scene of the crime to retrieve it. Talk about looking for a pen drive in a haystack. The low budget shows. There’s an interestingly conceived scene with two characters in conversation — the lights fade out on the listener, leaving only the speaker in sharp focus. But this sort of conceit is probably better left to the theatre.
There are interesting character quirks — K has sticky fingers; Srirama Santhosh dispenses corny philosophies; the producer is a fan of M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar — but these traits don’t add up to much and aren’t used very well. But more fatally for the film, the leads just don’t measure up. It may be nice in a meta-ish sense to cast behind-the-scenes people, but there’s a reason actors make a living. There are things like charisma, timing, dialogue delivery, reaction shots — none of these is in evidence. Unless you want to be extremely charitable and say that this, too, is some kind of comment, on the state of actors in current Tamil cinema. I wasn’t willing to go that far.
Along the way, we get plenty of asides about the movies. My favourite was when a girl who agrees to marry the editor backs out because she thought he was an actor and she doesn’t want to marry someone whose job is to “wield a pair of scissors and trim films,” something even a tailor can do. She’s right, in a way – that’s really what most people think editors do. Hence the mind-bogglingly stupid comment we frequently run into in reviews: “The editor could have shortened the film, made it crisper.” And then we have the wannabe assistant director (Singampuli) — he’s been wanting to be an assistant director from the days of Bharathiraja. A funny montage shows him pleading for a chance with Bhagyaraj, Pandiyarajan… all the way to Bala.
The most fascinating, refreshing character is the actress Leena (Lakshmi Priya), who has no qualms about sleeping around if it gets the job done. In a scene, she’s propositioned by a leering detective, and she doesn’t flinch, she doesn’t plead — she coolly agrees. And no, the film doesn’t judge her. She is who she is. That’s why the dreadful moralistic streak at the end is surprising. It’s as if the director got cold feet about portraying producers as uncouth hoarders of black money who deserve to be looted — and we wind up with a dedication to… producers. Survival, I suppose. Who wants to antagonize the people who run the business? This cop-out is its own little meta-commentary.
A version of this review can be read at >https://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com