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Thamizh’s Seththumaan is strange and disturbing in a raw and straightforward quasi-documentary way, it tackles the theme of caste oppression that seems to haunt many Southern filmmakers.
The movie experience doesn’t always have to be positive and enjoyable for everyone involved. I wonder how much fun Shyam Benegal had doing Nishant. Ou Shekhar Kapur during the filming of bandit queen: did he have as much fun doing this as Mr India?
Thamizh’s first movie Seththumaan in Tamil is a very strange movie. Strange and disturbing in a raw and direct quasi-documentary way, it tackles the theme of caste oppression that seems to haunt many filmmakers from the South.
Unlike that of Vetrimaan Visaaranai where helpless men are arrested by cops and tortured for days to confess to a crime they did not commit, Seththumaan does not address the “them” and “us” logistics of class segregation. The film is set in a poor village where caste lines are blurred; the difference between the upper caste and the lower caste is that one is poor and the other very poor.
Meat politics defines this raw and, if I may say so, undercooked movie. I found the treatment and execution of caste politics in Seththumaan far too direct. The aesthetic here is almost nil. Director Thamizh used no filters, no graceful storytelling guidelines when we first met Poochiyappa (Manickam) and his grandson Kumaresan (Ashwin Shiva). Instantly the bond between the old man and the child is established. It is a primitive pleasure to cherish to see the couple so happy together.
Alien warmth seeps into the fundamental relationship between grandfather and boy from the start when we are told that the boy’s parents were killed in a food dispute. In the graphics that accompany the opening titles, we see all the carnage where Kumaresan’s parents lose their lives.
This illustrative preamble looks more like a budget compromise than a creative decision. Quite often, watching this parable about the politics of pork, I felt the director was using poverty as a living character and a breathing catalyst rather than a notion. As a sense of irremediable despair runs through the story of two Dada outcasts and grandsons who are bound by their love for each other, the director seems to use economical cinematic techniques such as the handheld camera (wobbling its way through a mound of crisis-ridden caste) more by budgetary constraints than by creative compulsion.
Like many low-budget neo-realist films Seththumaan insists on assaulting our senses with the most primitive sounds and visuals. Much of the narrative dynamic is tied to the slaughter of a pig, as two factions of pig eaters engage in a battle that seems to echo the bloody cries of the pig’s agony at the slaughter.
As I watched this grotesque sequence, I thought to myself, what price is realism? Not much I guess. Getting a pig and slaughtering it on camera and being applauded for being so realistic is part of a certain faction of cinema that focuses so intently on fractured dreams that it forgets how hard it is for audiences to stay connected to a movie that insists on showing the functions of bodily fluids and appetites so intensely.
You never know when our admiration turns into repulsion, and vice versa. I can’t say that I enjoyed Seththumaan. It’s like expecting pleasure from watching an execution or a massacre. It’s a film that you can embrace with all its excesses of realism or reject for the same reason. But the basic condition of scrounging for a living that underdogs face won’t go away. Take it or leave it.
Emergencyan Amazon original feature film adapted from a short story of the same name, tackles race relations in America with a candor that the makers of the Tamil film Seththumaan would approve. It’s a film that simmers with an inner rage against white attempts to create the impression of racial fairness when in truth there is prejudice and insults to inequality everywhere.
We hear you. We get the point. There’s a disarmingly natural charm to the film’s partially consistent efforts to show how racism is not just a thought but a way of life in America. The fear of two black college students getting caught by (white) cops after agreeing to help an overdosed young white woman is handled in the film with wicked humor and startling irony.
While I liked the movie’s mix of pukey and puckish, I found the narrative simmering in its own disconnect, wallowing in vomit, so to speak. There’s that nauseating plot point where one of the protagonists drops his phone into the unconscious girl’s vomit. We are then forced to witness the rescue of the phone from the vomit. Eeeew.
If we neglect this assimilation of bodily fluids to realism, Emergency is quite an adventurous ride, with the three black-brown protagonists determined to do the right thing with the white girl in the back. RJ Cyler as Sean, Donald Elise Watkins as Kunle, Sebastian Chacon as Carlos are a prized trio of natural performers. I particularly like Chacon’s sleepy-eyed dogooder act. And yes, the rest of the cast is pretty fresh and efficient too.
But I don’t think director Carey Williams was sure how to end the bumpy night ride. The narrative just groans to stop. Everyone goes home and racism is defeated for the moment.
Emergency fails to be a vital statement about race relations in America. It has the potential to be as bombastic as a Spike Lee movie, but the director chooses to tone down the political dynamics of skin pigmentation to make the theme palatable to younger audiences, which one doesn’t mind. film that deals with racism but prefers not to go too deep into it.
At the beginning of the film, I was surprised by a teacher discussing the genesis of the taboo word ‘N’ in the black lexicon. I couldn’t figure out if the episode poked fun at the professor’s lack of irony in understanding the black presence in American history.
There are many problem areas in Emergency where the immersive politics in racial debate seem to dominate the director’s thought processes. Director Carey Williams could have been Spike Lee. He chooses to be Sidney Pottier.
In the truly heartwarming Malayalam film Aviyal, the ever-reliable Joju George plays the current version of the protagonist Krishnan’s character, while in the rest of the excursive narrative, new cast member Sirajudeen Nazar goes through four stages in Krishnan’s life, from school crush (which crushes his self-esteem) to a young adult in a Kannur housing colony who attempts to establish an illicit relationship with a wife and mother. This episode most tellingly shows Krishnan’s moral bankruptcy.
Writer-director Shanil doesn’t hesitate to overwhelm his protagonist. In this he is one with Krishnan who is not afraid to open up about his troubled and misogynistic attitude towards his daughter, although he is shown doing almost nothing most of the time except playing the guitar and trying to get intimate with various women.
In the Goan episode, reminiscent of the Telugu hit Arjun Reddy with the hero’s hair and beard bigger than his sexual arrogance, Krishnan befriends a footless pansy, not a frenzied woman who tells Krishnan to go away after serious sex. This episode struck me as a commentary on pretentious whatasapp-pure gangs who spend their parents’ money to live a dream, smoke weed, and have sex with anyone who cares.
I don’t know if such people really exist or do they illustrate a new-age dislocation in pop art? There is a sequence in a pub where Krishnan is shown playing a gentle carpenters ballad. No one pays him any attention until he breaks into a Jimi Hendrix track.
That’s what the writer-director does. He knows that the normal way will lead him nowhere. So he presses the accelerator, lets his protagonist fly straight through the mud. Newcomer Sirajuddin Nazir puts a surprising amount of transformative energy into his character, especially in the physical sense.
We literally see Krishnan transform before us, from an awkward teenager to an arrogant 20-year-old to a zoned 30-year-old singing hard rock in Goa (how can anyone be more pretentious!) to finally an ill-married man, whose wife is a charming and patient woman who quietly observes her husband’s plummeting fortunes and morals.
The impunity with which Krishnan steals his wife’s handbag would leave many numb with shame and rage. Not Krishnan. Aviyal allows him to dig his own grave and lie in it. Admirably, the movie doesn’t pass judgment on Krishnan’s creepy character, but waits for him to redeem himself.
When it finally happens, it’s not too late. The script gives Krishnan a second chance and towards the end he articulates the film’s best line about his failed marriage: “All my life I’ve been chasing a woman who didn’t love me. When I finally found a woman who loved me, I didn’t love her back.
Rather than live in the world of regret and shame, Aviyal speaks of hope and redemption. This is its greatest asset. We forgive its uneven texture and its erratic passages from one phase to another because, well, life is like that. Nothing comes in a straight line.
Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has written about Bollywood long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.
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