|Director M. Manikandan
Indian movie-goers are generally trained to categorize films into ‘mass entertainers’ and ‘message movies’. The former category’s bad films are worshiped by stars’ fans, endlessly engaged in conflict about blockbuster figures, while the later category’s bad cinema is just accepted by people for turning theater into a classroom. The mass entertainers also boast little dose of message for the society, but it often gets lost in the grandeur of foreign location songs and blood-spattering action sequences. Samuthrakani’s “Appa” is one of the recent examples for a ‘message’ movie category. Although families loved the film (especially middle-aged people), the director just passed off a long sermon on parenting as a cinema. There’s nothing revelatory in terms of making that justifies existence of “Appa”. Why didn’t Mr. Samuthrakani gather up bunch of intellectuals and activists who are trying their best to change the educational policies and tap their views? But why can’t film-maker deal with vital social issues without ever sermonizing? Such an effort demands the presence of a true film-maker, who doesn’t equate entertainment with the word ‘songs’ and message with ‘oral communication’. Tamil film-maker Mr. Manikandan is one of those rare film-makers who can get across the socially relevant issues in a most entertaining manner. With just three movies under his belt, director, screenwriter and cinematographer Manikandan has carved out a distinct style that’s cinematically and thematically robust.
His three films -- “Kaaka Muttai” (aka ‘Crow’s Egg', 2015), “Kuttrame Thandanai” (aka ‘Crime Is Punishment, 2016), and “Aandavan Kattalai” (aka ‘Deity’s Order’, 2016) – provokes questions on social issues to the audience without providing vigilantism as the only solution possible. He does write some powerful dialogue, but uttered by characters developed organically, so that those words become an effective jibe rather than a dull thud. Manikandan’s three films, all set in Chennai city, are about people occupying the lower rungs of social strata. In “Kaaka Muttai”, thanks to the globalized product – a pizza -- that knocks at the door of impoverished children, a desire is created. In “Kuttrame Thandanai”, the protagonists’ tunnel vision forces him to adopt narrow, non-ethical path to survive. In “Aandavan Kattalai”, the hero chooses an alleged short cut in search of a British visa takes him down the longest route. Although the genre, story and performers are totally different, in these three movies we can track down a beautiful narrative thread that tells us about our desires and dreams in this globalized world.
The kid brothers in ‘Kaaka Muttai’, the collection boy Ravichandran in “Kuttrame Thandanai”, and debt-ridden Gandhi are obsessed over or possess wrong desires to reach their alleged happiness. For ‘Kaaka Muttais’ it is a pizza; for Ravichandran, money for eye operation by whatever means possible; for Gandhi, a British Tourist visa. From a strict socioeconomic perspective, these are desires they can’t afford. It sets them off on a narrow path, where they come across different social institutions or different people who pelt figurative stones from above. Just when they are about to receive what they have desired, it dawns upon them on how wrong they were to have boasted such a desire and to have followed it up on a messy path. It is in the spirit of the saying: “Beware of your dreams, for they may come true”. In the pursuit of a wrong desire or an obsession, the protagonists do come to terms with what matters for them most in their life.
The plots do sound like heavy-handed morality plays, but on-screen, director Manikandan translates it into meaningful entertainers, conveying everything through his acute cinematic craft. The bureaucratic, societal, and self-inflicted blockades the protagonists faces in each movies were so organically portrayed. It’s truly a cinema of ‘how’ as opposed to the usual cinema of ‘what’. Hence, the narrative path provides clear insights on the nook and corners of social institutions, and how a human with a clear conscience processes it. Two slum-dwelling kids’ simple quest to eat a pizza at a nearby pizza shop, endorsed by their favorite actor, provokes the kids to process & question their place in this whole-wide world. While the director evokes the sensibilities of the lower middle-class and societal outcasts, he doesn’t try to install them as noble individuals. “Kaaka Muttai” comes so close, but doesn’t fall into the trap of glorifying the impoverished people and there is no bland villainization of the wealthy.
The beautiful aspect of his films is that he leaves it to audience to make up their mind. They may ruminated upon the globalization angle in “Kaaka Muttai”; would engage in debate about the nature of punishing conscience after watching “Kuttrame Thandanai”; or they may think about the exploitation of internal as well as external immigrants of our nation when perceiving the core of “Aandavan Kattalai”. But, at the same time an audience member can just see Manikandan’s films as feel-good comedy & crime/drama. Even if he/she doesn’t read too much of the relevant social issues addressed in the film, it would still come across as a thoroughly enjoyable movie experience. Manikandan isn’t shouting at the top of his lungs on TV interviews, decrying at viewers who failed to get his references and messages. He doesn’t comment that his film is a ‘higher art’ just because it talks about a social issue. He makes elegant cinema and it is up to us to take the meaning with entertainment or just the entertainment, based on whatever we seek out from a cinema. I don’t think Manikandan has made three subsequent masterpieces. There are little flaws and narrative threads that didn’t work out, but his sensibilities in crafting a great cinema is evolving from each work (his scripts should be lesson for young Tamil film-makers on how to instill refined layers without taking cinematic liberties and employing moralistic rebukes). Here’s to a good Indian film-maker, who doesn’t treat cinema theater as a podium for preaching!