For Example: Tamil Nadu

When, on 31 December 2017, Tamil Nadu superstar Rajinikanth announced he would finally engage actively with politics (including the founding of a new party), the earth shook – or was this just an illusion, considering that few things are more normal in India’s southernmost state than film icons in key positions of power? Making cinema a battleground.

Will Rajinikanth fill the void left about a year earlier by the demise of actress-turned-political animal Jayalalithaa? Will he be able to overcome the standoff between the state’s two main parties, which has essentially defined Tamil Nadu’s politics now for decades – a leaden standstill that is at the heart of so much of the anger that rages through the best and brightest the local film industry has brought forth these last ten, fifteen years? Add that feeling of things falling apart, made worse by the global economic miasma we are all in, as well as the creeping influence of Hindu extremism (heading towards outright fascism) that has defined too much of Northern Indian politics over the last few decades which is now, at the core of national politics, also being felt in the rest of the country, however resistant in principle to the Modi brand of defamation and demagogy vast parts of the South might be. And let’s not even mention the corruption that seems to have hollowed out all public institutions, crippled a generally modestly strong industry, destroyed so many people’s trust in the state.

First Signs of Change
It is in the early years of the new millennium that the first signs of change in the cinema of Tamil Nadu are being noticed – there is a so-far never before felt sense of anguish in several films, as well as a so far unseen violence; something that inside India would soon define the image of the state’s artistically ambitious film production: “I’ve never seen anything like this before” is a sentence often heard from Northerners apropos e.g. Bala’s I Am God (2009). But violence might tip people’s expectations in the wrong direction: the works of Bala, Vetri Maaran, Ram and Mysskin, to name only Tamil Nadu’s current key auteurs (and there are more names to name, many more), have nothing gratuitous – their varieties of political thriller, realist drama, noir or comedy are best described as baroque bordering on surreal, like something primeval and ferocious that inspires awe and invites contemplation, self-inspection, self-reflection; maybe social(ist) realism by way of Kafka, Lovecraft and Lautréamont – they are abysses gazing back, sometimes twinkling cheekily. The Tamil Nadu Now is aptly expressed in a case of mistaken identities, for example in R. S. Durai Senthilkumar’s Kodi(2016); in nameless characters roaming an ever-more anonymous-looking concrete behemoth as in Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Metropolis (2017); or in a crime leading to body pieces strewn over the city, as in Mysskin’s Wage War (2011).

The protagonists of films such as Ram‘s Tamil M.A. (2007), Vetri Maaran’s Ruthless Man (2007), Karthik Subbaraj’s Cold Heart (2014) or Metropolis see the world as a maze with an entrance (quickly closed) and no exit. Criminal entities at all levels of sophistication, from beggar clans (I Am God) to talent show-running gangs (Cold Heart), to toxic waste-burying outfits (Resurrection), claim their turf, sometimes with more than a little help from political parties or organisations. Epidemics, such as in Balaji Mohan’s Speak with Your Mouth Shut (2014) seem above all logical, endemic to the system; the latest batch of Tamil auteurs is especially good at seeing the absurd – through to an end that is often surprisingly bright.

Ideas and Perspectives
All as it should be in a cinema that is genuinely provocative, a cinema of ideas and perspectives in which taboos get tested and sometimes, if necessary, broken. The couple at the heart of Ram’s Taramani(2017) might have many fights to brave, with each other as well as society, but they will prevail. Also the characters in Speak with Your Mouth Shut and Nalan Kumarasamy’s Evil Engulfs(2013) will have learned something from their troubles. And at the end of Mysskin’s horror film Pisasu(2014) there’s something nobody would expect from a work in that genre: grace.

There is much to be learned from these films. Maybe most importantly: how to make something popular and entertaining, engaging that is politically pertinent while artistically daring; how to perceive cinema as an adventure on which the makers and their audiences embark together; how to craft a whole from myriads of different emotions, tones and expressions; how to be playful – with a purpose, and daring – with a goal clear in sight.

Text: Olaf Möller

Thanks to Stefan Borsos, Gerwin Tamsma and Uma da Cunha.