IFFI National Jury Review, Diary, Outlook Magazine, 18 Oct 2004
South Of Sodom
It was hard to decide if it was an embarras de richesses or a punishment posting. As members of the national jury selecting films for the Indian panorama of the International Film Festival of India 2004, we saw 117 films in 12 languages. Five a day, back-to-back, for weeks at a stretch. By the end, our brains had almost entirely leaked out.
While we have squandered years whining about its appalling crudity, sex and violence, Bollywood is puréed babyfood compared to South Indian mainstream cinema. Down there, it does not count unless it's third degree. The Tamilians win the Olympics for Horrific Crudity, Sexism and Violence. Take Subramaniam Siva's Thiruda Thirudi, offered for the Panorama. It features Dhanush, a pigeon-chested paavam who looks like a paanwala on probation, but gets the bombshell girl in the end. The lyrics of its hit song, Manmadan Raja (O Cupid Prince!), go something like this: "O Cupid princess, I've tasted you...I flooded you/ Engulfed you/I peeled you off in bits and pieces/Why are you so hasty?/I hit you, I hit you/You tanked me, torpedoed me/I've kept it for you tight at night/I've reserved my steam for you/ Don't tell me you're a virgin/Like a spicy guy, I came, I came.... The song ends with the girl telling the boy, "I'll settle your account!"
How interesting then that the Chennai censors enthusiastically passed this film, while holding up Manu Rewal's Chai Pani for a scene in which a woman smokes, and another where someone says bastard or f****** bastard. The Tamilians have a telling phrase, "Ni loosa (Are you loose/crazy)?" That's what we'd like to ask the censors. Or were they, in fact, tighta?
In M.R. Ranjith's Bheeshmar, an inspector twists a corrupt cop's head "like an idli-grinding machine", then sets him afire, then jams him in a lift door, then hacks him with a sickle 11 times, then bashes his head against a jagged windscreen. Still, he looks unsure he's achieved the desired effect.
Yin Your Face
Same goes for treatment of women. Virumaandi, a violent paean to the desperately macho director-actor Kamalahaasan, has a man ripping off a girl’s mangalsutra, thrusting his foot down on her breast and kicking her brutally. In the Kannada film Swati Muthu, a character says, "A woman’s problems end only when a man ties a mangalsutra around her neck." In the Telugu film Ammulu, a man kicks his pregnant wife till she aborts, then stabs her, shouting, "It’s a female foetus, therefore you must have been unfaithful." Much of South Indian mainstream cinema is seriously Aargh territory.
But then, in Bollywood’s Baghban, Amitabh Bachchan eloquently describes women’s status in India: "My sons are my four fixed deposits." So when lunch is served, only the men eat; their non-FD wives stand behind like dutiful dwarpalaks.
So, Malay Bhattacharya’s Teen Ekke Teen (Three Girls Three), a sort of Bong Charlie’s Angels, is a splendid attempt in a sea of sexist primitivism. It has three spunky women who, unable to raise a bank loan for a pickle business, decide to rob the bank. The end careens into mawkish bhashans about women’s empowerment. Still, it is most refreshing, since we almost never see women just letting themselves go in Indian cinema.
The Way Of Amour
Fortunately, our cinema still tackles political subjects intelligently. Rajiv Vijay Raghavan’s Maargam explored the relationship between a Communist who is out of sync with the times (a magnificent Nedumudi Venu) and his daughter, via a brilliant screenplay. Sudhir Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi daringly set a love triangle in the politically charged ’60s and ’70s, when ideological commitment dictated choices in relationships. Sashi Kumar’s Kaya Taran (Chrysalis) is a tender exploration of a political subject: the bonding between Sikh and Christian minorities in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Dramatic choreography by Chandralekha relieves the tedium of images overexposed on TV.
As for the maddening dilemmas of women in love, there was Anjan Das’ deeply affecting Iti Srikanta. It examined contrasting philosophies of love: one, a possessive love, and another that believes that if you really love him, let him go. And Ligy Pullappaly’s Sancharam (The Journey) in Malayalam, on a lesbian relationship between two girls in a middle-class Kerala family. The characters are entirely credible, and there is an immense dignity with which the director handles the subject.
The embers of parallel cinema continue to burn. Lenin Rajendran’s Annyar is a daring film that examines communal violence in Kerala, through the relationship between a liberated Muslim girl, a TV journalist, much more daring than her Hindu adfilmmaker boyfriend. In Gajendra Ahire’s Not Only Mrs Raut, a woman kills her daughter’s rapist, while his Pandhar is a convincing anti-Enron activist film.
Outtake # 1: Character of the Year is Zeenat Aman, as the wildly improbable, Mallu-speaking Dr Babylona Menon, in Rajeev Nath’s Moksham. She’s descended from a Malayali grandfather and Spanish grandmother, and lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan, if you please. She asks someone in chaste Malayalish, "What is your belief about after death?" We aren’t certain if menace was intended, but it’s a pity she didn’t direct the question to the director himself.
Outtake # 2: My favourite credits include Bank Janardhan and Mico Sitaram in the Kannada film Teenagers. But the prize goes to the assistant director in the Kannada film Chandra Chakori—Tension Nagaraj.
(Meenakshi Shedde, who was on the national jury for the Indian Panorama/IFFI 2004, is a freelance critic and consultant on Indian cinema to the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals.)