Monday, August 03, 2009
PASANGA (Tamil; 2009)
If you're looking for a plot, Pasanga isn't the film for you: it's essentially about the boy Anbukkarasu (Kishore), who shows up at a government (Tamil-medium) school after his none too well-off father decides (over the discontent of his wife) that the family can't afford the English-medium school the children have been attending. On his first day at the new school, Anbukkarasu tangles with the sixth-grade mafia, three thuggish kids led by Jeeva (Sriram), who quickly takes a violent dislike to the nerdy gunner who's joined his domain. Meanwhile, Anbukkarasu's uncle Meenakshi Sundaram (Vimal) and Jeeva's elder sister Suppikanu (Vega) strike up a (to this viewer, annoying) romance. The obligatory inter-family feud follows, as everyone is dragged into the hostilities between Jeeva and Anbukkarasu. By film's end... well, I told you Pasanga wasn't about the plot.
Most Hindi and Tamil films feature the sort of children adults would like to have, models of cuteness more akin to pets than kids. Not Pasanga: far more successfully than any film I can think of since Shekhar Kapoor's Masoom, Pasanga so relentlessly draws the viewer into the world as seen from the vantage point of its nine- or ten-year old protagonists, that despite the manifest absurdity (to the jaded adult eye) of the children's antics, jokes, ambitions about ranking "first" in the class, and eternal concern with being shown up and humiliated before their peers, one cannot help but internalize the children's worldview. So much so that when the film interrupts this arc with the adult romance, one is impatient to get back to the "real" guts of the film. The Meenakshi-Suppikanu love story seems monstrously implausible -- it probably isn't any more so than the ones in most films, but the difference is that we just don't have much patience for it. Not when the child actors offer so much verve and fraught emotion (albeit unevenly so: there is much unwelcome saccharine mixed in too), and ultimately, psychological plausibility. (The adults do not fare as well, especially the two fathers: Anbukkarasu's is insipid, while Jeeva's father manages to lurch from inconsistency to inconsistency without ever threatening to interest one.)
Debutant director Pandiraj is evidently, like his producer Sasikumar (who in turn directed Subramaniapuram (2008)) in the forefront of what Baradwaj Rangan has called the New Tamil Cinema, characterized by generally lower key proceedings (a turning away, in effect, from the high octane bombast that threatened to reduce all Tamil cinema to masala actioners with heros doing all sorts of impersonations of Nandi The Bull), greater sensitivity (potentially, to the point of fetish) to "ordinary" locales and socio-economic environments, and the casting of relative unknowns as leads -- all in the service of thoroughly commercial movies. If films such as Pasanga, Paruthiveeran, Anjaathe, Kaadhal, 7G Rainbow Colony, and Veyil constitute the beginnings of a movement, the jury is still amount on what it will amount to. But for a viewer fed on a steady diet of Hindi films set in Sydney, London, New York, wherever, and with almost cretinous reflexivity, this is exciting: not because of any patronizing promise of vicariously experiencing an (imagined) authentic "other" over the course of a two-and-a-half hour film, an authenticity that one is denied access to; but because these films seem interested in telling stories and representing characters (the two don't necessarily go hand-in-hand: Pasanga is focused on the latter to the exclusion of the former, and the film is not the poorer for it), not in peddling lifestyles or protagonists-as-advertisements.
Moreover, while notions of "authenticity" can hardly be accepted uncritically, a film like Pasanga unquestionably aims to represent a certain specificity -- of place, of class, of condition. None of this is above critique, but when evoked as effectively as in Pasanga, it is most assuredly cinematic. Pandiraj doesn't (for the most part; the film's disappointing opening sequence is an exception) tell you what these kids are up to -- he shows you. Perhaps it is that quality in Pasanga that reminds Rangan of Fellini (I'm assuming it isn't just the unembarrassed scatological references) -- and while I cannot say that I detect here the beguiling sprawl of Fellini (or the sheer mastery over the medium), one sees what Rangan might be getting at. At its best, the directorial eye behind Pasanga aims at creating a world, not in making sense of it. (Witness the scene when the two boys' families -- who live opposite each other -- let a spat between their sons snowball into warfare between the families. That sequence could be from any number of Tamil films -- except for the sound of a vendor yelling out news of Diwali sales on a megaphone, that weaves into the midst of this quarrel, even drowning it out at points -- a sign that the world does not stop for this conflict, that this isn't the Mahabharata, just an unseemly squabble.) Given that so many directors seem to see their job as essentially filming scripts, Pandiraj's entry to the industry, while far from perfect, is welcome indeed.