Thursday, September 10, 2009
NAAN KADAVUL (Tamil; 2009)
The late Robin Buss, in an introduction to his translation of The Count of Monte Cristo, referred to George Eliot's criticism of French novelists as "tempted to deal with the exception rather than the rule," that is, as exploring the extraordinary rather than the mundane -- presumably, on Eliot's view, freed from distraction by the sensational, only reflection upon the mundane could provide meaningful insight into us, and the world around us.
What Eliot might have made of Bala isn't hard to guess. Ever since this oddest of contemporary Indian directors first burst onto the scene a decade ago with Sethu (1999; poorly remade by Satish Kaushik in Hindi as Tere Naam (2003)), his films have relentlessly plumbed the marginal -- apparently, not due to any ethical compulsion to give voice to those who have been ignored, but in the service of what can seem a purely aesthetic attempt to represent the psychotic. Sethu centered on Vikram's character of the same name, an anti-social ruffian whose love deranges him, leading to madness and a netherworld of sorts; Surya essayed the title-role in Nandha (2001), of a young man wracked by an almost unbearable burden, namely the memory of having killed his father as a boy. Pithamagan (2003) featured both Surya and Vikram, and was in a sense Bala's most joyous film: although it stars Vikram as the wild man Chiththan, raised in a cemetery and a misfit in human society, the film offered us Surya's Sakthi as well, a lovable rogue who becomes Chiththan's only friend. But this is Bala we're talking about, and by film's end Sakthi has been murdered, leaving Chiththan to turn his back on (his) humanity and avenge his friend in a berserker rage. If, through all of this, Bala remains anchored to mainstream Tamil cinematic tradition, it is because of the fascination the mythic mode holds for him. Bala's earlier films do not seek to represent "the human condition" for the most part, and are uninterested in illuminating our world. Stated differently, his heroes are no less exceptional, no less godlike, than the beings who populate Tamil cinema's masala movies (indeed, it is no coincidence that Bala launched the masala career of Vikram as a solo hero, and has ever after sought to cast major stars as his male leads) -- it is just that his films are more sombre and less reassuring than the standard masala movies, too focused for cartoonish detours, and promising no easy catharsis or redemption.
Naan Kadavul ("I Am God") is the logical terminus of Bala's concerns, which include a concern with the history of the Tamil masala hero persona (there can be little doubt Bala has cinematic history on the brain; the descent of a godlike star into the masses' midst is a fleeting motif in Pithamagan, in the person of Simran playing herself in a medley of old film songs; in Naan Kadavul, there is another medley, with people -- all beggars, I might add -- dressed up as MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, and Rajni, not to mention an ultra-lewd man dressed in drag and cavorting to one of Nayanthara's dance numbers; for the original video of that "Yammadi" song from Vallavan (2006), feast your eyes on this) . The film's protagonist Rudra isn't just godlike, he insists that he is god. And not just any deity, but Kaal Bhairava, the Shiva who stands watch over Kashi. Nothing in the movie suggests that Rudra is deluded, or that he is anything other than the Kaal Bhairava who cut off one of Lord Brahma's heads in violent demonstration of the futility of the argument between Brahma and Vishnu as to who was the real lord of creation; the correct answer was neither the Creator (Brahma) nor the Preserver (Vishnu), but the Destroyer (Shiva). (Indeed, one of Bhairava's manifestations is even called Rudra Bhairava; and Rudra is of course also the name of the Vedic storm god, subsequently assimilated into the cult of Shiva.) Bala's creation of an ambience where the viewer simply accepts this claim as normal where Rudra is concerned, and in a context where most other characters in the film are not so sanguine, is his most creditable achievement.
Rudra does have a history, however. As a boy, he was abandoned by his Tamil parents in Varanasi after four astrologers prophesied that he would destroy his family. Fourteen years later, Rudra's father and sister travel to the holy city to track him down and bring him back, only to find that Rudra is now an aghori, the tantric sect (in?)famous in India for their embrace of all acts (on the theory that all dualisms, including the axes clean/unclean and taboo/permitted; are obstacles to true enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth) -- even, or so the stories say, cannibalism, necrophilia, and consumption of human waste. While aghoris are known to symbolize Bhairava in their personal dress and appearance, Rudra, as mentioned above, sees himself as quite literally divine. Nevertheless, when human bonds intrude in the form of his father and sister, Rudra's guru orders him to accompany his kin back to Tamil Nadu. An aghori should be free of all bonds, and Rudra is ordered to dissolve any that remain and return to Kashi.
The scene shifts from north to south, from Lord Shiva's city to a hellish underworld populated by beggars, and ruled by Thandavan (Rajendran), who has to be one of the most loathsome villains ever seen on film. His name is reminiscent of Shiva's tandav dance (one of Thandavan's henchmen is even called Murugan), but his motive is profit, his employees the hapless men, women, and children who are maimed to serve as effective beggars. These unfortunates are introduced to the viewer in a parade of the grotesque, and thereafter serve as the film's principal characters, remaining its most recognizably human ones even as Bala's deliberate concentration of ugliness grates on one's nerves.
There is never any doubt Rudra is going to be the instrument of Thandavan's destruction (I am surely giving no spoilers away when I say that in a memorable action sequence at film's end, he slays the vile man without ever seeming reminiscent of Lord Ram); the only question is, what does it all mean? The beggars are often dressed as Hindu deities (they even address each other in character in a funny scene early on in the film), and the entire community worships the deformed midget Maragettu, housed in a shrine and utterly indifferent to all entreaties to say something or bless his devotees -- his indifference is only shaken when he comes face to face with the real deity, namely Rudra. An early song likens all humans to beggars, with their bodies no better than begging bowls. As if this weren't enough, Bala muddies the waters by his brazen indifference to Rudra's family, who disappear halfway through the film, never to be heard from again.
The only way I can approach Naan Kadavul is as a meditation on the indifference of god. In the world of this film, the divine is not so much inhuman as un-human, lacking any bond or connection with his devotees. The Latin phrase for the divine, totaliter aliter ("totally other"), comes to mind, but the alterity is all the more unthinkable here given that the divine in this film is also the man Rudra. In his divinity, Rudra is totally other to man, i.e. himself, and is thus terrifying to those around him. "Benevolence" has no meaning to Rudra: when he helps those in need, such as the blind beggar Hamsapalli (Pooja), trying to escape being sold to a man so hideous only a blind woman can sleep with him, Rudra does so inadvertently, because his own repose has been disturbed by the goons pursuing Hamsapalli. He is oblivious to all appeals to his sympathy, and it is clear he can only offer one boon: to the wicked as well as to those for whom life cannot be borne, death.
Naan Kadavul, in short, has a fantastic premise. Equally, it cannot be denied that the film is far more interesting conceptually than it is in the execution. The absence of all but the bare rudiments of a plot doesn't hurt the film, but the rapid evocation and burial of characters and motifs, most certainly does. The viewer does not see why so much is made of Rudra's mother only for her to disappear after a couple of scenes; nor why Rudra sticks around in the village after breaking his bonds with his family, rather than returning to Kashi (by film's end, we see that the crucial bond is between Pooja and Rudra, but while it is easy to see why this is important to Pooja -- she hopes Rudra will be her savior -- there is no explanation why the final dissolution of this bond should be crucial from Rudra's perspective). Bala's mysticism has always had more than a touch of obscurantism, and in Naan Kadavul the fog threatens to swallow the movie.
The casting of Aarya as Rudra adds to some of these shortcomings. While one is loath to criticize the young actor's creditable turn, as well as his courage -- he spends much of the film half-naked, and is as careless of his form unclothed as he is when it is clothed, a rare enough trait among actors -- the role patently needed a Vikram (if media reports are to be believed, Bala and Vikram had a falling out, leading to Vikram's exit from the film; even more irritatingly, the two have reportedly patched up, making the missed opportunity of Naan Kadavul all the more tantalizing). Chiyan Vikram might not have been able to make up for the film's muddle, and with him there would always be a risk that Rudra might seem like a cousin of Pithamagan's Chiththan, but to my mind he remains contemporary Tamil cinema's most credible deity. It is hard to believe that the director who launched him on that path would disagree.
On balance, despite the rather serious problems, and despite the film's frequent unpleasantness, this film needs to be seen. For the ambience, always one of Bala's strengths. For the fact that he has thought through the mythic paradigm of masala cinema to its logical (and extreme) end, resulting in an unprecedented ending that, alas, I cannot discuss without giving too much away. And, most importantly, for the fact that Naan Kadavul is simply a film like none other one is likely to see this year, in any language.
[For an interview with Bala, see HERE; also check out Baradwaj Rangan's take on the film, although a spoiler warning accompanies that recommendation.]