Contemporary Tamil cinema and
its departure from the mainstream:
Manusangada/Cry Humanity
and To Let

by Swarnavel Eswaran

Tamil cinema and its discontents

Tamil-language cinema during the 1970s had little art cinema or a parallel cinema movement as occurred in Malayalam or Kannada. While Telugu-language cinema, the other major film industry in South India, has had occasional art films by famous directors—like Oka Oori Katha (The Marginal Ones, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1977), Anugraham (Grace, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1978), which was simultaneously made in Hindi as Kondura, Maa Bhoomi (Our Land, dir. Goutam Ghose, 1979), Daasi (The Courtesan, dir. B. Narsing Rao, 1988), and Matti Manushulu (Mud People, dir. B. Narsing Rao, 1990)—Tamil cinema still lacks the aura of such art cinema legends. Even though the iconic John Abraham made his film Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village, 1977) in Tamil, it was not enough to deflect criticism regarding the lack of seriousness in Tamil film. There’s also been occasional experimentation within the mainstream, as seen in Tamil films like Andha Naal (That Day, dir. S. Balachandar, 1954), and in that middle-of-the-road cinema between the arthouse and the mainstream, like Uthiripookkal (Strewn Flowers, dir. J. Mahendran, 1979). However, particularly in the last two years, a more consistent effort at challenging the norms of mainstream cinema could be perceived in the films of Amshan Kumar (Manusangada), Ra. Chezhiyan (To Let), and Lenin Bharathi (Merku Thodarchimalai/Western Ghats, 2018). The first two of these films are closely examined here. In spite of a popular Tamil saying, “Thani maram thoppagaathu/A single tree cannot be considered as a grove,” these two films point to a hopeful beginning of a more serious, parallel Tamil cinema.   

Tamil cinema usually incorporates the popular narratives interspersed with song sequences. Some experiments have gone on within this tradition, and certain decades have been distinct. For instance, in the 1970s, Tamil cinema broke the shackles of the studio system and moved outdoors, particularly to actual locales in villages, in order to realistically narrate the predicament of people living away from the capital city of Madras (now known as Chennai). Filmed locales also moved away from artificially constructed village sets in places like Kundrathur in the outskirts of the city, the headquarters of many of the significant studios and the South Indian film industry. Still, serious film critics during the 1970s castigated Tamil cinema for its lack of investment in an alternative cinema. For instance, Chidanand Das Gupta writes,

“In spite of the brief promise held out by the powerful if literary work of writer D. Jayakantan more than a decade ago (Unnaipol Oruvan, Someone Like You, 1966), the Tamil cinema has failed to throw up any major talent or movement outside of the commercial cinema whose mores, if anything, are worse than those of Bombay. With taxes rationalized by a film actor chief minister, the commercial cinema is burgeoning, its success preventing the emergence of any counterforce. In the remaining South Indian language of Telegu, the only notable work, in spite of governmental incentives, has been that of outsiders Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

When Das Gupta wrote this in 1980, he is referring to the state of Tamilnadu’s iconic film star MGR (M.G. Ramachandran) who became its Chief Minister in July 1977. Unlike the neighboring state of Karnataka, which gave subsidies to and helped small budget productions, Tamilnadu’s restructuring of the entertainment tax and other concessions favored commercial cinema, which drew large audiences, rather than small budget productions, which had little entertainment value and ran in smaller theaters. Also, Das Gupta points to the literary nature of supposedly “different” Tamil films like Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal (Some People Sometimes, dir. A. Bhimsingh, 1976), which was an adaptation of the well-known Tamil writer Jayakanthan’s novel of the same name. In that case, Tamil cinema historian Theodore S. Baskaran criticized the verbose nature of the film.[2] And he has repeatedly pointed to Tamil cinema’s failure to develop a visual narrative style, a problem from its very beginnings when it was inspired by Parsi drama.[3]

Similarly, Tamil’s celebrated painter Marudu Trotsky notes how filmmakers’ reliance till the mid-1930s on studios in the state of Maharashtra due to the lack of studios in Tamilnadu’s capital Madras (Chennai) led to the influence of the ornate mythology-inflected painting style of Marathi cinema—for instance, as reflected in the Indian cinema pioneer Dadasaheb Phalke’s films, India’s first film Raja Harischandra (1913) and Kaliya Mardhan (Krishna’s Childhood, 1919), among others. According to Trotsky, this trend in Tamil cinema during its early decades has had a lasting impact and has led to the disavowal of the specificity of Tamil culture. This artificiality went on till the mid-1970s when the film society movement brought more awareness about using an aesthetics of realism and depicting an ethnography of communities of people on the social fringes.[4]

Critics like Das Gupta were also responsible for projecting Indian art cinemas in festival circuits abroad, such as the revered Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1955). Ironically, this international exposure to art cinema rendered Indian popular cinema less visible outside India, at least till the 1980s. Later, when Indian cinema studies flourished in Western academia, many eminent scholars from the late 1990s on were then invested in recovering the centrality of Hindi popular cinema. Only recently do we see India's regional cinemas, like Tamil, Marathi, and Bengali, etc., getting scholarly attention. But if you look at the international film festivals, Tamil cinema was literally absent during the critical period of the 1970s. This became important in terms of subsequent film studies because for scholars like Aruna Vasudev the 70s was the period of a “New Indian Cinema,” that is, the Indian art film that challenged a cliched and stereotypical mainstream product. To many film scholars, New Indian Cinema means the rise of a new, parallel cinema with new aesthetics, as seen in the work of filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, and Adoor Gopalakrishnan.[5]

16 Vayathinile (At Age 16, dir. Bharathiraja, 1977) Aval Appadithan (That’s the The Way She Is, dir. Arumugam Rudraiah, 1978)

However, Tamil cinema is conspicuous in its absence from Aruna Vasudev’s book, even if,

“films such as Aval Appadithan (That’s the Way She Is, dir. Arumugam Rudraiah, 1978), Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1978), 16 Vayathinile (At Age 16, dir. Bharathiraja, 1977) and Uthiripookkal (Strewn Flowers, dir. J. Mahendran, 1979), marked by ambiguous and dark protagonists, avoidance of clichéd and cathartic closures, experiments in cinematography and editing, and shooting on locations and new subjectivity, signaled the transition of Tamil cinema from the classical period of the studio system to the post-classical.”[6]

In fact, there had been Tamil films like Pasi (Hunger, dir. Durai, 1979) which was unique in its portrayal of the extramarital love affair of the truck driver Rangan (Delhi Ganesh) with the ragpicker Kuppamma (Shobha); Pasi juxtaposed melodrama with the realism of shooting on actual locales in the slums in Madras (Chennai). Among recent films, Leena Manimekalai’s Sengadal (The Dead Sea, 2011) is another significant film which addressed the issue of the disappearing fisherman in the backdrop of the displacement of Tamils from Sri Lanka. And in the contemporary period, Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai (Interrogation, 2015) has engaged with police torture through reenactments in a profoundly realistic way. In this trajectory, the iconic cinematographer/director of Tamil cinema, Balu Mahendra’s Veedu (The House, 1988) could be argued to be the inspiration for To Let.[7]

With Nemai Ghosh`s Pathai Theriyuthu Paar (Look at the New Path! 1960) began "parallel" Tamil cinema since the director collected funds from friends so as not to make the compromises that mainstream cinema necessitates. He did not approach regular financiers, so his film was a collaborative effort with many of the investors playing an active role in the production as well. This was the case of the music director, M.B. Srinivasan. The script revolved around workers organizing themselves under oppressive conditions, and in real life, too, the director Nemai Ghosh played an active role in fighting for the reasonable wages of film workers and technicians and organizing and unionizing them in the South. Such a practice of avoiding professional financiers was later followed by Jayakanthan and continues with filmmakers like Amshan Kumar and Chezhiyan. In the films I will analyze here, Manusangada and To Let, the filmmakers’ families were also involved as investors.

Despite some filmmakers’ attempts at working in a parallel cinema so as to create a new aesthetic and subject matter, particularly during the 1970s, the main Tamil film industry has always been perceived as being aligned with mainstream cinema, its popular form evolving over the years by strictly adhering to unwritten rules like dependence on the star system and using tropes of masala, for instance, song and dance and action sequences, and popular genres like melodrama, romance, action and comedy. But in this essay, I wish to challenge such a preconceived notion regarding the “perennial” tendencies of Tamil cinema through a reversal of sorts. Here I draw attention to two very recent films, Manusangada (Cry Humanity! dir. Amshan Kumar, 2017) and To Let (dir. Chezhiyan, 2017). They are now Tamil’s art cinema, appearing during the centennial year of Tamil cinema – the first Tamil film was Keechaka Vadham (The Extermination of Keechaka, dir. R. Nataraja Mudaliar, 1917).

These two films disavow Tamil cinema’s penchant for heightened melodrama even if the content of both is highly emotional. Mainstream Tamil cinema is marked not only by melos/music and drama but also by the pacing dictated by the cause-effect logic used in Hollywood film. Most Tamil films have a lack of silence in the soundtrack that would give time for the audience to internalize the narrative and from a distance reflect on the problems faced by the protagonists. Even supposedly alternative or different films by iconic filmmakers like K. Balachandar or Bharathiraja are no exception since some of their significant works are even louder and more highly theatrical, particularly in their climactic moments, than normative mainstream Tamil movies. Tamil films have a general aversion to long-duration shots or long takes—the primary marker of realism to engage with the lived reality of the quotidian protagonists in most art films—and they abuse close-ups.

Moreover, even experimentation in the 1970s was punctuated by the indiscriminate use of the zoom lens; this served neither a Hollywood-driven seamless identification with characters nor art cinema’s privileging of a Brechtian aesthetics of distanciation. The two films I am discussing challenge such a mechanical approach, found both in mainstream and off-mainstream Tamil cinema, by seeking a form that suits their content and that disavows the stereotypes of Tamil cinema. For instance, Manusangada and To Let use songs but not in the playback style of much Tamil cinema where the characters lip-synch the song and dance; Manusangada uses the eponymous song for its Dalit politics of protest and To Let recycles older Tamil film songs from the 1980s for nostalgia and romance.

Nonetheless, Manusangada and To Let, even as they astutely challenge popular Tamil film conventions, are far removed from each other in terms of their subject matter and style. For instance, if Manusangada recalls Italian neorealism in its aesthetics, it also combines it with the Third Cinema politics of the Latin American films, particularly in presenting the community as an ensemble who seek justice against the state; it attempts to address a contemporary issue with a style that matches its fiery content. In contrast, To Let draws from the languid pace of various art cinema movements across the world that focus on the interiority and alienation of the nuclear family; here, to depict a couple’s struggle and failure to rent an apartment in a global city like Chennai (erstwhile Madras), the film seems to stretch time infinitely.

Barren Lives (dir. Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963) exemplifies Third cinema aesthetics/politics.