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Tiger Teaser #7: Tamil Nadu Cinema

House on Fire explores how recent radical political changes have spawned a new and internationally overlooked wave of politically engaged cinema from one of India’s most progressive states: Tamil Nadu. This hotbed has brought forth a number of angry voices that are taking the nation by storm. House on Fire complements the IFFR 2018 section Perspectives: in previous Tiger Teasers we already announced Curtain Call, Maximum Overdrive, A History of Shadows and Pan-African Cinema Today (PACT).

Guest programmer Olaf Möller, who curated House on Fire, wrote a piece on Tamil Nadu Cinema. Tamil Nadu is the cutting edge of Indian cinema, and the last two films of Ram, last year’s Taramani and the IFFR world premiere Peranbu, bear ample witness to this. If in a decidedly less baroque fashion than many other films from India’s southernmost state that often creat monumental stirs in the rest of the nation: both are highly poetic, tough and complex while ever tender in their look at relationships, unsparing in their portrayal of corruption and crime, daring in their conclusions. But where does this sensibility apart come from?

"Around the turn of the last millennium, something snapped in the socio-political state of Tamil Nadu, if its cinema is anything to go by. And who’d know better what’s going on in the collective mind and heart of India’s southernmost state than the movies, considering that here film and organized politics are to an (overly) large extent intimately intertwined? That said: the cinema of modern masters like Ram (Tamil M.A./Kattradhu Thamizh, 2007), Bala (I Am God/Naan kadavul, 2009), Myshkin (Wage War/Yutham sei, 2011) and Vetrimaaran (Arena/Aadukalam, 2011) is defined by a deep-seated anger and anguish rooted as much in a sense of local politics running on empty and getting more corrupt by the day, as it is in the very slow subversion of the comparatively enlightened modern Tamil way of life by the vitriolic, potentially genocidal brand of Hindu nationalism being enforced by that nation’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi. It doesn’t look as if Modi’s party, the BJP, will get any serious footing in Tamil Nadu any time soon, but as this is India’s ruling party, even the stubborn, Dravidian socialist Tamils can’t completely evade its influence – an idea of politics in stark contrast to the progressive ideals that have defined life in almost all southern states of the Indian federation since independence (to shorten a rather complex and convoluted political hi/story). No wonder paranoia has become the new normal for many – just look at Nalan Kumarasamy’s Evil Engulfs/Soodhu kavvum (2013), R. S. Durai Senthilkumar’s Flag/Kodi (2016) or Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Metropolis/Maanagaram (2017)."

  • Tamil M.A.

    Still: Tamil M.A./Kattradhu Thamizh

  • Metropolis/Maanagaram

    Still: Metropolis/Maanagaram

"The first films of Ram, Bala et al sent shock waves not only through Tamil Nadu, but the whole nation. Speaking with filmmakers from various parts of the country, everybody agrees that Bala’s I Am God/Naan kadavul, for example, was something nobody saw coming, and which left people speechless due to the furies it contained – a film that was pure rage, in content as well as form. Nothing in the rest of India’s various film cultures resembled these powerful concoctions of popular genre cinema and political agenda; nowhere else, it seems, did directors dare to go that far in their aesthetics, dare to be that outspoken. The Tamil New Wave, as it is sometimes called, became a model few had the guts to emulate. It’s a cinema of the lower classes and the lumpen, as well as of a modest middle-class struggling to keep afloat in the face of global economic disaster (e.g. Vetrimaaran’s Ruthless Man/Polladhavan, 2007). A cinema also of the countryside, the rural world too often painted as an idyll, a remnant of the past that in reality is the stark present and dour future of millions and millions of Tamils; a space also whose traditions and values are deeply endangered (Bala’s Tharai Thappattai, 2016). A cinema whose latest, very urban, ironic and iconoclastic, social media-smart and YouTube-savvy wunderkinder, such as Nalan Kumarasamy or Balaji Mohan (Speak with Your Mouth Shut/Vaayai moodi pesavum, 2014), have now revolutionized the way films are made and careers built in Tamil Nadu: by forging their way to prominence through shorts films and talent competitions; which, again, is reflected in some of their works, e.g. Karthik Subbaraj’s Cold Heart/Jigarthanda (2014), as well as in their interest in omnibus projects such as the Subbaraj-spearheaded Aviyal (Alphonse Putharen, Shameer Sultan, Mohit Mehra, Lokesh Kanagaraj, Guru Smaran, 2016)."

  • I Am God/Naan kadavul

    Still: I Am God/Naan kadavul

  • Cold Heart/Jigarthanda

    Still: Cold Heart/Jigarthanda

"Some might wonder: What has all this to do with us? For one thing: Tamil Nadu’s fears and problems are essentially our fears and problems – neoliberal politics do that. Yet, what we lack, and what Tamil Nadu has, is a cinema where formal experimentation, political contemplation – turning perhaps into agitation – and an appeal to mass audiences can be achieved in one and the same work. And isn’t that a worthy ideal/idea in a world that seems to be ever more about communities and groups, clannish entities obsessed with how they’re different from others, when they should really worry about what they all have in common with one another?"

Films in House on Fire

  • Aviyal, Alphonse Putharen/Shameer Sultan/Mohit Mehra/Lokesh Kanagaraj/Guru Smaran, 2016, India
  • Cold Heart/Jigarthanda, Karthik Subbaraj, 2014, India
  • Evil Engulfs/Soodhu kavvum, Nalan Kumarasamy, 2013, India
  • Flag/Kodi, R.S. Durai Senthilkumar, 2016, India
  • I Am God/Naan kadavul, Bala, 2009, India
  • Metropolis/Maanagaram, Lokesh Kanagaraj, 2017, India
  • Resurrection/Peranbu, Ram, 2018, India, world premiere
  • Speak with Your Mouth Shut/Vaayai moodi pesavum, Balaji Mohan, 2014, India
  • Tamil M.A./Kattradhu Thamizh, Ram, 2007, India
  • Taramani, Ram, 2017, India, international première
  • Vagabond/Paradesi, Bala, 2013, India

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Photo in header: Header: I Am God/Naan kadavul