WAY-OUT’ IS an adjective that immediately comes to mind when watching the new Tamil film Kuthiraivaal (Horse Tail). The film, about a banker who wakes up one day, to find himself saddled with a horse’s tail, defies expectations when it comes to both its subject and the telling. Fluorescent colours, MGR songs, Vivaldi, Freud, Van Gogh, Scotch, a cat, a murder and more come together in a heady mix. Combining dreams with reality, mathematical equations with philosophy, mythmaking with psychiatry, Kuthiraivaal takes the audience on a bewildering, beguiling ride. The debut film of Manoj Leonel Jason and Shyam Sunder is a celebration of the absurd, the essential irrationality of the human condition, even as it questions the power dynamics in life as well as cinema and renders them in new paradigms of self-expression that are artistic as well as polemical.
The film recently premiered at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) and is part of the film programme at Berlin Critics’ Week being held this year from February 27th to March 7th.
Kuthiraivaal is not the only Tamil film in the spotlight in the international film festival circuit. Debutante PS Vinothraj’s Koozhangal (Pebbles), about a day in the bleak, impoverished lives of a father and son, resonated with the audience at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR) where it walked away with the prestigious Tiger award earlier in February. Set in Arittapatti, near Madurai, the film parallels the aridity of the place’s landscape with the violence simmering deep within its destitute residents and their fractious relationships. However, at the same time, the film underscores the humanity that can help tide over the endemic sense of despair.
Filmmaker Thamizh’s Seththumaan (Pig) that premiered at IFFK is also about a similarly disadvantaged duo—a grandfather and his grandson forced to live on the margins of a teeming village. It looks at both the repressions and ambitions of its protagonists, their struggles to rise above the position they are chained in by society on the basis of their caste.
The universe of personal relationships gets framed within the caste and food politics of the region in the film that is cheeky, combative, abrasive, dramatic and emotional, all at the same time. Thamizh says that the inspiration for it lies in Perumal Murugan’s short story ‘Varugari’ (Fried Meat) that talked about food and its politics. What is pure, what is not? Who is to be put high up and who is to be pinned down in the hierarchical food chain? Thamizh goes further than the vegetarian-nonvegetarian divide, focussing on the even more contentious politics of beef and pork.
Arun Karthick, the leader of this new pack of independent Tamil filmmakers, is himself at the ongoing IFFK with his critically acclaimed sophomore feature Nasir that premiered at IFFR in 2020 and won the NETPAC award for the best Asian feature film. According to Deepti D’Cunha, India’s leading programmer and the force behind the Viewing Room and Work-in-Progress lab at the NFDC Film Bazaar, Karthick’s 2016 directorial debut feature Sivapuranam (The Strange Case of Shiva), about its protagonist’s obsession with the photograph of a girl, that opened at IFFR could well be seen as heralding the new wave of Tamil indies.
Nasir, an adaptation of Dilip Kumar’s short story, ‘A Clerk’s Story’, is a quiet, intimate yet devastating commentary on the religious fault lines that transform lives of common people—like that of the film’s protagonist, an ordinary Coimbatore salesman. Karthick tells me that it’s an unusual year for Tamil independent cinema at IFFK itself: “There are three varied films whereas most often you won’t even find one.”
According to him, indie Tamil cinema has been growing gradually in the last three-four years. Amshan Kumar’s Manusangada (Cry Humanity) premiered at Mumbai Academy of Moving Image’s festival in 2017 and also played at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa and the Cairo International Film Festival. Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy: An Unfairy Tale had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October 2019 before travelling to several more the world over. Balaji Vembu Chelli’s Nilanadukkam (The Tremor) premiered at the Montreal Festival Du Nouveau Cinema in October 2020. Coming up next is Bengaluru-based Bharat Mirle’s The Road to Kuthriyar. “A body of work is slowly emerging by a new generation of filmmakers who believe in small films,” says Karthick. Which is significant given that Tamil cinema has been regarded as a force to reckon with largely for its mainstream movies.
“Arthouse or auteur cinema has had no visibility because the popular cinema is so imposing. There has been no discourse on it as in Kerala. My film couldn’t go beyond the media to the public. In fact, in one and a half years since it came out, not a single review on it came out in the Tamil media,” says
Manimekalai, who is getting ready to shoot her next film Vaitarani in April. She likens her cinema to activism as much as art; she transitioned into it from writing and documentary filmmaking with cheap cameras and editing software as her aids, and minimal budgets.
“The mainstream cinema is itself so unique, with such a huge talent pool and a committed audience,” says D’Cunha. According to filmmaker Vasan Bala, even the offbeat films happened within the mainstream in the ’80s and the ’90s with directors like K Balachander and Balu Mahendra picking up taboo subjects to work on. “Bala, Ameer Sultan, Vetri Maaran brought in the hinterland and the gritty, realistic, arthouse zone into the commercial zone. Now Tamil cinema is shedding the commercial flab and going offbeat,” says Vasan.
What is apparent in the indie space is a diversity in every which way, be it the background of the filmmakers themselves or the subjects they are dealing with or their craft. On the one hand there are LV Prasad Film & TV Academy-trained Manoj and Shyam. On the other is a self-trained cinephile-turned-filmmaker Karthick. Thamizh, from Erode, the land of Periyar as he proudly asserts, is the son of a retired van driver in the Indian Railways and a homemaker mother. He is the first in his family to take to filmmaking. Though always interested in studying at the Film and Television Institute of India, he enrolled for a BSc in maths. That was not to be. Eventually after college he worked as an assistant director on a few films, notable among them being Rohan Krishna’s Pattalam and Venkat Prabhu’s Biriyani. His first feature comes after having made three shorts.
A school dropout, Vinothraj got attracted to cinema while seeing film shoots around his hometown of Arittapatti. He worked as a labourer in a textile factory for over 10 years, sold DVDs by the roadside in Chennai and was initiated into cinema by watching the likes of Majid Majidi and Stanley Kubrick. He worked as an assistant director in two films by A Sagunam before beginning to make his own shorts.
Almost all of the young filmmakers are aware of the need of the film festival circuit. “The mainstream filmmakers have been secure with their audience and have never sought to be in the film festival circuit,” says D’Cunha. “There’s pressure to release a film commercially, then send it to festivals,” says Vasan.
Indie Tamil films are also catching the critic’s eye because big names are stepping in to back the small efforts. Actor Nayanthara and filmmaker Vignesh Shivan put their might behind Koozhangal, and Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions is behind Kuthiraivaal and has also produced Seththumaan. Last heard, a big Tamil filmmaker will be presenting Nasir on a streaming platform soon.
Vinothraj says that Nayanthara and Shivan have been instrumental in securing wider exposure for his film.
Manimekalai, however, is sceptical of such interventions, calling them “encroaching activity” by the “mainstream patronising saviours”. “It’s all about validating the junk they [otherwise] make in the mainstream space,” she says. According to her, they should stand in solidarity during the production stage, produce the film rather than stepping in to present it. “It hijacks the discussion from the film and filmmaker.”
Pa Ranjith says that he decided to back Kuthiraivaal because he liked the pitch Bible. “I knew that this would be a visually strong, offbeat film. The way they narrated the story and the work that was put into the conceptualisation of the film as well as their passion for the form were decisive factors for me to decide to be a part of the project,” he says.
‘With the stranglehold that mainstream cinema has over normalisations, the avant-garde (as vague as the term is) is always fighting a losing battle,’ write the Kuthiraivaal directors in their statement. Their hope has been to reach the maximum number of people ‘without simplifying the means of expression’. ‘Thus the challenge always lay in making the film for a theatrical experience,’ they write.
Kuthiraivaal is marked by stylistic flourishes and a multiplicity of references both in its content and visual design. As opposed to that, Koozhangal is driven by a sparse but profound style which deploys the landscape as much as its actors’ faces to drive its narrative.
Kuthiraivaal has well-known actors like Kalaiyarasan and Anjali Patil, but Koozhangal boasts of local people to make the film more rooted in its context. Apart from two actors, all others in Seththumaan are newcomers. Thamizh shot the film in villages in Namakkal district for authenticity just as Vinothraj shot his film in Arittapatti.
According to Pa Ranjith, Neelam Productions was set up to encourage the making of those stories that have not been told or have been suppressed in mainstream cinema. For him it’s about a strong cinematic form as well. And above all it’s about breaking the idea of arthouse as against commercial cinema.
Thamizh’s film is an interesting example of that. “A film should make an impact on the society or an individual,” he says. No wonder his film has tart, taunting, crowdpleasing dialogue that voices the pain of the oppressed, which the audience cheers along. Despite its indie nature, the emotional core of mainstream cinema is inescapable. The brushstrokes are broader and more explicatory than subtle, as is the music. It’s what D’Cunha, in another context, describes as “laugh-empathy-cry arc”. “It has to have all the rasas, the emotions have to be pitched higher, there has to be an amazing knack for dialogue, the messaging is important,” D’Cunha says of mainstream Tamil cinema.
It’s this paradox that Vasan Bala finds interesting about Tamil indies. A Thamizh or Vinothraj could well be making a commercial, mainstream film next. “The filmmakers in Tamil Nadu believe in doing everything to ensure visibility. It’s rare to break out with the risk of not being famous locally. There is a confidence of culture. It’s uncool to not be a part of the mainstream, to alienate yourself from it,” says D’Cunha. “It’s ingrained in them, flows in their veins. The filmmaking has drama in it, it’s not organic,” says Vasan.
He likes that a new set of secure young filmmakers believe in collaboration and supporting each other. “It was unheard of earlier. A newer form of collective is emerging,” he says.
The Tamil indie movement, however, still has a long way to go. There are a handful of committed financiers and producers like Mathivanan Rajendran, Samir Sarkar, Vivek Ramanujam but most films have to be self- or crowd-funded. According to Karthick, the system is still private equity based unlike Europe where indie cinema gets supported by grants. His own Nasir was supported by Hubert Bals Fund which allowed it to be made as an Indo-Dutch co-production. “He knows of the infrastructural support and was able to make those connections,” says D’Cunha. Which are as important as your cinematic sensibility and the cinephile’s passion.
Ultimately, it’s not just about the financing and film sensibility alone. What also comes in the way is the uneven audience access and the supposedly diffused or non-existent market.
International film festivals have begun to take note of the need to develop a finer eye and ear for Tamil indies. Vasan feels that the sound design of Tamil films needs to be toned down to reach a wider global audience. “It’s off the roof. They blast it at a certain level and need to bring it down in the mix,” he says.
OTT platforms have raised everyone’s hopes but they too are Bollywood inclined and have only recently started taking cognizance of the rich ‘regional’ fare that too in a mainstream zone. There is fear of piracy when it comes to the smaller, pay-per-view platforms. Also, the share may not be attractive for films that come with the capital and backing of a relatively bigger production house that would much rather go for an outright exclusive sale.
The journey of Tamil indies has only just begun in right earnest. The hope is that there wouldn’t be a looking back but only a forging ahead. Manimekalai has the last word on that: “Having a strong, meaningful cinema culture is a long, protracted process and not a five-minutes-to-fame activity or a fast-food delivery.”