Wednesday, July 22, 2009
ANJAATHE (Tamil; 2008)
Anjaathe is a good example of Tamil cinema's attempted renovation of the masala movie genre. That is, the introduction of a certain urban grit; and the underplaying of the protagonists' epic traits (aided by the use of relatively new/lesser-known stars); enables the genre to continue almost as before. This is not a criticism: as someone who has watched the decay (through neglect more than anything else) of masala Hindi cinema, in favor of bowdlerized Hollywood and even TV sitcom cinematic modes, with some dismay, I have long watched Tamil cinema's attempts to sustain a popular cinematic idiom (perhaps best captured by that quintessentially Indian English word, "massy") with great interest. That is, while I certainly appreciate the criticisms of "native" Tamil film critics for whom most of Tamil popular cinema just doesn't seem new enough, the response of that film industry to the challenge of continuing relevance (a relevance that, however, ought not to be -- but often is -- the stale comfort of mere repetition) is, at its best, more successful than the derivative vapidities or niche ambitions of its contemporary Hindi cousin. In a nutshell, while "stale" and "jaded" are terms that might be applied to the run-of-the-mill Tamil films; "plastic", "imbecilic", or "crudely empty" mostly cannot (as they can to so many run-of-the-mill Hindi films; conversely, the logic of the Tamil market will not sustain very many niche films).
Anjaathe does not founder on either of the rocks discussed above. Director Mysskin has taken a setting that is hardly new -- the coming of age of a young police officer in a system that is not just corrupt, but reflexively cynical -- and has yet managed to make a film that is well-paced, and unobtrusively fresh (as opposed to, for instance, the sort of gimmickiness -- by way of extreme violence -- that mars films like Vel and even (to an extent) the otherwise commendable Paruthiveeran). The film begins in a middle-class colony in Chennai, where Sathya (Naren) and Kiruba (Ajmal Ameer) are the best of friends -- but with very different attitudes to life. Kiruba is every inch the good/sensible young man, whose ambition is to do well in his police exams and enter the force. [Even early on, he isn't all sweetness and light -- as we see from his rage when he gets a practice question wrong, he Just. Doesn't. Like. Losing.] Sathya is apparently just as good a student, but likes nothing better than to while away his time in brawls and drinking. His reaction to his police officer father's irate query as to why his wastrel son doesn't want to join the force like his friend Kiruba, is quintessentially Sathya: he "doesn't want to be called a maama" -- an "uncle", but also a pimp. [It's the sort of dialogue that this film does well, suggesting a whiff of the street without making a song and dance of "authenticity".]
You might be forgiven for thinking this is going to be a film about friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with virtuous Kiruba pursuing Sathya, who no doubt would end up as some underworld don's henchman; with both uniting by film's end to take the gangster down. Instead, in a surprising turn, Sathya decides to become a police officer, using a political connection to secure a position he shouldn't have been eligible for; Kiruba has no "in", and fails to make the cut, his slot doubtless taken by the many candidates in Sathya's position. By the time Sathya returns to town after completing his training, the former teetotaller Kiruba is a drunken wreck, sinking deeper and deeper into bitterness and rage. Guilt at his friend's fate isn't the only challenge faced by Sathya, however, as Anjaathe -- with effective casualness -- introduces its hero, and with him, its audience, to the venal brutality and corruption that is the very texture of police life. On his first day on the job, Sathya, essentially left by himself at the police station, yells at a meek man sitting on his haunches at the room's far end, demanding to know what he is doing there, and why he's brought a yellow bag to the station. "I saw my wife sleeping with my best friend," the man says, humbly, showing Sathya what he's carrying in his bag "...I've brought her head...." Sathya (whose name means "truth") is felled, and he isn't the only one who's shocked. We, the audience, are shaken too, instantly appreciating that the brawls and fights we've hitherto seen in this film was just play-acting. This is real horror.
Anjaathe isn't an unqualified success, however. The cast is serviceable without ever being spectacular (one could say the same of Sundar C. Babu's music as well). This is only the second Narain film I have seen, and while he doesn't come across as an actor of especial nuance, hewing to the Arya school of acting, he is less jarring than Arya -- although, while both seem to be derived from Vikram, neither's edges are as smoothed over as they would be with a dose of Vikram's affability. Narain does, however, try not to perform out of his skin, and that awareness of boundaries might well stand him in good stead as his career progresses (certainly, the legendary Adoor Gopalakrishnan used him quite effectively in Nizhalkuttu). Ajmal Ameer works far better as the post-fall man who has lost his way; as the "good boy" of the film's initial reels, he is simply insipid (it must be said that he is far more of a presence with a beard and unruly hair than with a mere mustache). As is depressingly common in Tamil films, the female characters have precious little to do but get ordered around by this or that man, or fret, although Vijayalakshmi (who plays Kiruba's sister Utthara, and Sathya's love interest) deserved better. Prasanna (who plays the gangster Daya) deserves an especial mention, because he is simply annoying, coming across as Bizarro to Siddharth (on a bad hair-day) as Superman
Director Mysskin might also have done a bit better. Shortly before the halfway point, the film takes a Kaakha Kaakha-like turn, attempting to layer the slick Tamil policier Gautham Menon is so fond of, onto the emotional core of the sort of Tamil film Menon has little patience for, with its generous dose of friendship friendship and sentimental dialogues. But if that turn makes Anjaathe less seamless than it might have been (indeed Sathya takes quite a back-seat in the film's latter half), the director never falls into the trap of celebrating vigilantism, as long as the "good guys" are doing it. Mysskin might lack the technological finesse of Menon, but he possesses more insight: in this film, police violence (both in the commission and omission) is not, for the most part, costless.
Nor is Mysskin's insight simply metaphorical: I for one was quite taken by his (and cinematographer Mahesh Muthuswamy's) use of long-range and bird's eye shots to capture regulation scenes (e.g. Sathya and Kiruba making up after a fight; a kidnapper on a cellphone speaking about a job). The way these shots are framed, and the fact that they upset our expectations of (relatively) close-range images, renders the action more remote to the audience; the latter is taken out of its comfort zone, and is vaguely discomfited without necessarily being able to pinpoint why, given that everything else about the scene is exactly as one has long known it, from other films (Mysskin and Muthuswamy also have a great eye for ordinary locales -- an oddly clean alley here, a godown there -- and the resulting representation of Chennai is, especially at night, compelling indeed). This sort of touch is characteristic of Mysskin's ambition: he wants to do something different -- but he wants to make not just a good film, but a Tamil one.