A RECENT poster of Cheran's latest movie, Thavamai Thavamirinthu screams out that he is the Satayit Ray of Tamil cinema. The comparison is unreasonable, of course, but a viewer of Tamil films who only knows Ray by reputation (there are many who have seen his films and more who havent) may be deluded into thinking this is true.
This is especially the case because Thavamai has ambitions to become a realitistic movie. Almost everybody who has seen the movie marvels at its ability to be interesting and real even as it does away with current commerical trends. The movie is undoubtedly gripping. This is the classic coming of age tale of a boy as he grapples with a paternal relationship, laced with guilt and unbridled respect.
Cheran does bring a kind of realism to Tamil cinema. It's refreshing and for most part authentic even at the cost of being simplistic. Balaji Sakthivel and Chelvaraghavan, too, have attempted this with widespread success and acclaim.
Raj Kiran's role as Cheran's dad has justly been praised by viewers. Method acting in Tamil cinema has had only a flickering existence, I suppose, largely due to overwhelming presence of Sivaji Ganeshan even years after his death. But Kiran is nuanced and confident of expressing himself just in body language without resorting to verbiose dialogue.
The scene in which he visits his eloped son and his daugher-in-law in the city is marked with the gravity with which Kiran performs his part. But unfortunately for Kiran, the role is too straitjacketed. He is almost the male equivalent of the perfect mother we have seen for so many years, especially in MGR's movies. Take one of MGR's mothers and give her a sex change operation and you get Raj Kiran.
But Kiran has got this face, the face of a non-actor. A rustic. Somebody who doesnt need to act when the camera rolls and lights come on. He appears as if he as slipped into the persona of the father effortlessly and it seems just like he is being himself. This is a delusion that helps add to the success of the performance.
Kiran's character, however, doesn't have a single negative trait. The guy doesn't even get angry. To conceive a role as perfect as this is really unrealistic and a father who dies when his son accuses him of unfair treatment (`enakkumattum enpa koravachenga') is really plumped for its commercial potential. This isn't really exploitative filmmaking but it does seems so the way Cheran shoots the climax.
I counted some of the other commercial traits and there are quite a few. some of them are avoidable. Like the song in the rain shot in soft focus after which Cheran's character has sex with his girlfriend.Other scenes are just badly written. Cheran's dialogues in college with his girlfriend are really cardboardspeak.
Then there is this contrived village sensibilility and aesthetics that Cheran imposes on himself. The father who teaches his kids Thirukkural and talks of Bharathi and other great freedom fighters.; the way he constantly hugs them; the kids who can't celebrate Deepavali due to crippling poverty; the family that places dignity and self respect above all else; the mother, who is the protector of culture and virtue. May be some of these are cliches because they are so enduring.
But there some are very jarring. The eloped couple who don't find any job in the city are strangely crying for just over 10 months because of they feel guilty, instead of worrying about achieving success which mysteriously arrives after they have been embraced by their families.
Admittedly the film is also about Kiran's sacrifices for his sons, but is it neccassary to underline this so much?
On the other side, the technical aspects of the film are brilliant. The art work of the printing press and its single low watt bulb. The unfailing frequency with which the camera always finds itself in the right spot to capture the action - this needs some explaining. For example, Cheran is always framed in a triangle with his mom and dad. He is mostly in line with Kiran in the scenes they do together. There was a time when a moving camera was so much in vogue. Now it's irritating. Cheran's camera is still and remains so for as long as it can capture the action aptly. The scenes are carefully staged making maximum use of the set and using as few camera set-ups as possible. Each cut done at the editing table seems to have reason. This delibration in the editing sequence is to be admired.
Cheran has often referred to the influence of Bharathiraja in his movies. Bharathiraja had attempted a home-grown variety of neorealism in his movies which he later altogether abandoned for crass commercialism. Then he reinvented himself as an arthouse director whose movies won all the awards and but none in the audience. Because some movies - Kadalpookal comes to mind - weren't even distributed widely.
A couple of questions need to be pondered over. Has Cheran really imbibed the idea of making realistic movies. Are the compromises that he makes for them to commericially successful consious. There is nothing in the movie to indicate that Cheran is a brilliant film-maker crippled by the need in Tamil cinema to deliver commericial success repeatedly. Even this level of realism in Tamil movie, it is widely belived, is a sure recipe for failure. When was a movie last made like this? Uthuri Pookal? 16 Vayathinile? Were they better than this or have they acquired vintage status?
This movie became possible because only because of the unparalled success among recent Tamil movies of Autograph. A script of this nature usually never finds funding. But Cheran has managed this, and deserves appreciation for the effort.