Best Indian Film, 2007 Cinefan Film Festival, New Delhi.
Screened at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.
One would think there could be no new way to capture the Tamil village festival/fair on celluloid. You know the drill: teeming masses of people, heavy percussion, and a brawl just waiting to erupt. Even when done well (such as in Saravana, the only redeeming feature of that wretched film), the audience's enjoyment is in part a function of the fact that one knows almost exactly what is going to happen, a cinematic old shoe that -- to a masala fan at least -- gets more and more comfortable with use.
One would be wrong: director/writer Ameer Sultan begins Paruthiveeran with a festival scene that does not focus on a teeming whole, or glimpses thereof, so much as upon solitary fragments: the bustling fair seems paradoxically desolate as cinematographer Ramji's camera restlessly moves past the crowd, apparently uninterested in the revelers as it focuses, sporadically on black-clad Sevvazhai (Saravanan) hovering at the margins and apparently on the lookout for someone; repeatedly on a stageshow in progress, the singer's mournful voice suffusing the screen with a curious melange of high spirits and lament; and finally on white-clad Paruthiveeran (Karthi), who appears to be an innocent man harrassed by the cops and all but strip-searched for weapons. We feel Paruthiveeran's anger and humiliation, and a split second later realize we've been had: while Paruthiveeran was carrying no weapon, the same cannot be said for his boy companion, who pulls out a long knife and hands it to the older figure. Sevvazhai re-appears, and the prey is in our sights, sandwiched between the white of Paruthiveeran and the black of Sevvazhai. The former lunges, but we don't see the actual stabbing, courtesy of a marvelous cut that reveals a coconut split open.
The opening of Paruthiveeran is symptomatic of the rest of the film, and of Ameer's ability to take the cinematic familiar and imbue it with enough of the strange, both by way of Raja Mohammad's editing and the unsettling violence that is the very ground of this script, the very air its characters breathe. Perhaps one might think of other films with more gore, more "action", but one would be hard-pressed to think of a Hindi or Tamil film where violence leaves a greater impact, not just in the by-now (in)famous conclusion (which I find forced, and an unsatisfactory resolution) but over the entire course of the film, most memorably when Paruthiveeran's lover (and the daughter of a feuding relative) Muthalagu (Priyamani) is viciously punched and slapped by her father for her romantic interest in his kinsman and enemy. One catches one's breath, so visceral is the violence, and testimony to the ability of those closest to us to hurt us. But this is no damsel-in-distress scene: Muthalagu's spirit is unbowed, her defiance and rage more impressive than her father's blows. Instinctively, one knows there can be no happy ending for spirits as (self?) destructive as these, that is to say not just Muthalagu but the man she aggressively pursues -- and acts as if she owns -- the thuggish, whoring, drunk Paruthiveeran. And while it was never clear to me just why she is so smitten (the childhood flashback sequence explaining that Paruthiveeran had once saved Muththazhagu's life seemed to me to posit a necessary but not a sufficient condition), perhaps that is as it should be: the eventual relationship between the two is not romantic or obsessive so much as it is a force of nature, a brute fact that -- when confronted with other equally brute facts, above all the intractable family caste-based feud that makes the prospect of a marriage between Paruthiveeran and Muththazagu daunting -- leads to terrible consequences.
At bottom, Paruthiveeran is a love story, although it is like no film evoked by that term -- for this is love at its most terrible, naturally at home in the struggle, covetousness, rage, and hunger depicted in Ameer's village. Love, that is to say, does not elevate anything in this film: it is part of what makes everything terrible. Violence and cruelty run through the film, for the most part not of the mindless hackathon variety, but deeply portentous -- but this also highlights a significant failing of the film, namely that one is never sure what (if anything) it all adds up to. Ameer, it seems, has mastered a certain representation of violence without necessarily exploring the meaning of such a representation. The result nevertheless is a memorable film, but one that borders on obscurity.
It is difficult to over-esteem Priyamani's performance in this film, one of the most impressive female lead performances in a long time, combining spitfire aggression and nuanced expression in a charismatic performance. It brings to mind Abhirami's impressive turn in Kamal Haasan's Virumaandi (destined for classic status), but Priyamani's performance (and her role) is edgier, her impact in the final analysis original. I don't know who her competitors were, but she cannot have been an unworthy winner of the "Best Actress" award at the 2007 Cinefan film festival. Karthi is impressive in the title role as well, and while his isn't the most nuanced performance it is effective enough; the newcomer is a solid screen presence, and plays the role of the anti-social Paruthiveeran with great conviction, unfettered by the inhibitions of the novice.
Ameer does a fabulous job at creating the dusty rural milieu of Paruthiveeran, aided in no small measure by his impressive cinematographer and even more so his editor, in a filmmaking style best described as Olympian: the violence is over the top, and yet Ameer suspends judgment (whether on the bloodshed or on the raw casteism), in a stance reminiscent of the best of Mani Rathnam (though not much else is, barring a visual aesthetic that in the black-and-white flashback sequences of Parthiveeran's and Muthalagu's childhood seems informed by the opening sequence of Thalapathi). The ultimate progenitors of Paruthiveeran appear to be Sethu and Virumaandi, and as in those works the audience here is not only drawn in but very soon begins to accept the violence as natural -- in the sense of life, as Hobbes put it, being nasty, brutish, and short. For all that, the ending didn't work for me, and seemed to evoke the sort of moralism (without giving too much away, it may be read as the consequences of Paruthiveeran's past actions catching up with him) that had little place in the rest of the film, while doing a great and senseless injustice to Muthalagu. In another sense, though, the cruelties of the film's end drive home the sheer senselessness, the all-pervading corruption, of violence, and while it jars with the rest of the film, it is a point that cries out to be stressed.
[Coda: I do have reservations about the recent trend in Tamil cinema toward violent films set in a rural mileu. While this "genre" has led to some fantastic films (Virumaandi for one; Paruthiveeran is another such, albeit lesser, achievement), it does run the risk of enabling an urban audience to turn an "anthropological" gaze onto the films' characters. That is, it is possible to read these films -- more accurately the reception of such films -- as enabling a kind of projection: violence as proper to the rural backwaters depicted on screen, and very far from the (imagined) urban reality. None of this appears to be Ameer's intention -- his world is too vivid, the impact of the on-screen violence too wrenching to enable an easy distancing, as is possible with the far more compromised Hindi films of this ilk -- but the problem nevertheless remains, and potentially exceeds any question of intentionality.]
In the final analysis, Paruthiveeran is not for the faint of heart; it is, however, for the strong in spirit. And for cinephiles who wonder about the direction of Tamil cinema, the film's box-office success combined with the critical acclaim it has garnered is a welcome sign indeed, an indication -- the onslaught of globalization and Hindi multiplex cinema notwithstanding -- that blood, guts, and the smell of earth, all in the service of a meaningful story, continue to have a place in contemporary Tamil cinema. A handful of films cannot be seen as the rule -- but directorial voices as distinctive as Bala, Kamal Haasan, and Ameer are certainly enough to inspire us to keep the faith.