Ram on Tamil cinema

Collection programme House on Fire exhibits politically engaged films from one of India's most progressive provinces: Tamil Nadu. Three films can be seen by filmmaker Ram. “Men here feel humiliated.”

If you’ve come to the festival looking for adventure, do not skip the films in our House on Fire programme. Tamil cinema is virtually unknown in the Netherlands, even though in the Indian state (with some 62.5 million inhabitants) more films are made every year than in Great Britain or France. It is a militant, progressive film culture in which at least some of the makers try to rebel against the Hindi culture that is dominant in India.

“From the outset, Tamil cinema has been used to guard our own culture and our own market”, says Ram (1974) from Tamil Nadu's capital, Chennai, formerly known as Madras. “Hindi is predominant in Indian film culture, but we have always been proud of our own language, so we also want to hear it in films. Here, we feel that we have to fight to survive. That we have to defend our rights and protect our nature against right-wing conservative forces that are also emerging in India.”

Tamil cinema is not defined by one recognisable style, says Ram, and that is reflected in House on Fire. “With its constant tendency to innovate, Tamil cinema sets itself apart from films from the rest of India.” According to programmer Olaf Möller, the entire film spectrum is represented. From the maximalism of filmmaker Bala, whom Möller calls 'truly my kind of maker' because of the visual excess, to the much calmer Resurrection, Ram’s latest film, which he brings to the festival this year.

What’s striking about the films in the programme, is that there’s hardly any distinction between arthouse and mainstream in Tamil cinema. Take a film like Taramani (2017), by Ram. At first glance, it’s a romantic drama. But the voice-over, which critically and comically comments on the images, gives the film a postmodernist edge. According to Ram, average moviegoers can easily recognise these stylistic devices.

Perhaps it is my attempt to find an answer to the question of how men can find mercy in life.” – Ram

Too liberal
Tamil Nadu may be progressive in comparison with the rest of India, but there, too, is resistance to the modern ideas expressed in the films. In Ram’s Taramani, a young man and a young woman fall in love with each other. When they start living together, she takes care of the income; she has a good job at an international company in Chennai. Problems arise when the man has a hard time accepting man-woman relations at the office that are, in his eyes, too liberal.

It’s an urgent issue, says Ram, that is hardly paid any attention. “Men here have great difficulty with the changes that globalisation has brought since 2007. If international companies establish themselves here, they bring with them other values, which have an influence on society. This gave women more freedom. Men see that as a threat. What makes it even more difficult is that they are not able to talk about it to women. They feel humiliated and react aggressively.”

The influence of globalisation could be called the leitmotif of Ram's first three films, even though the word is never mentioned. It has had a major influence on the availability of work (Tamil M.A.), on the mutual relationships in families because parents sometimes have to work far away from home (Thanga Meengal, not shown in Rotterdam), and on the nature of romantic relationships (Taramani). Even the fact that investors are pushing up the prices of homes, which in Europe we may think only occurs in the West, is a growing problem for the inhabitants of Tamil Nadu’s capital. Many have now been forced to move to the countryside.

  • Still: Taramani

  • Still: Resurrection

Spiritual and philosophical
Ram calls his most recent film Resurrection ‘more spiritual and philosophical’ than his previous works. It tells the story of man taking care of spastic daughter, who has to overcome a series of obstacles much like an odyssey. “Perhaps it is my attempt to find an answer to the question of how men can find mercy in life.”

In terms of style, the film borders on minimalism. Especially in the first part, which takes place on the countryside. What makes Resurrection exceptional is that Ram plays heavyweight Mammootty, an actor with more than three hundred films to his name, against transgender actress Anjali Ameer – who was incidentally recommended by Mammootty himself.

Ram’s choices are not without consequences. The question he is being asked most frequently, is to what extent the characters resemble him. Does Ram have the same ideas, is he as aggressive as the psychopath in Tamil M.A.? It is not the kind of reaction he is waiting for. “I never have a conversation like this in India about my films. There is no serious film criticism. And the people who do write about films do so from the perspective of the dominant culture. People really like film, but they do not think about it. At least not in the media. The only serious talks I have about film are with other filmmakers.”

Photo in header: Photo: Ram | Interview: Ronald Rovers