In the canto of the Ramayan known as the Aaranya Kaandam, things have just hit the fan. Dasharath has died of heartbreak. Ram, Lakshman and Sita have been expelled to the forest, leaving behind two brothers, an assortment of mothers, and a kingdom ruled by a regent. Their exile from Ayodhya is soon compounded by their exile from each other; Ravana kidnaps Sita, and Ram, sinking into grief “like an elephant into mud”, Valmiki tells us, withdraws even from his brother. Of all the epic’s cantos, this is the bleakest, the fates tossing around even a god in human form.
Bleakness is also the stock in trade for Aaranya Kaandam, the Tamil film that is the revelatory debut of a young director named Thiagarajan Kumararaja. Even its trailer—titillating us on YouTube ever since the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the South Asian International Film Festival last October—features, beneath chirpy narration, recurrent images of personal anguish. Brows frown, faces crumple, beatings are administered;?at least once, every lead character is shown engulfed by loneliness, exiled unto themselves.
These characters are plucked from what W.H. Auden, writing about Raymond Chandler’s noir, once called the Great Wrong Place: the underworld. A jowly Jackie Shroff plays Singaperumal, a grizzled don whose authority is waning; when he can’t muster the courage to buy some stolen cocaine, a lieutenant offers to take the risks. Meanwhile, the bag of “white man’s snuff” falls into the hands of a knife-tongued boy and his drunken father. Elsewhere, Singaperumal’s moll Subbu (Yasmin Ponnappa) and his youngest foot soldier Sappa, having fallen into giddy infatuation, decide to pilfer their master’s money and decamp to Mumbai. “It’s a big city,” Sappa assures Subbu. “Nobody knows Singaperumal. It’s all Dawood out there.”
Dark and racy: Jackie Shroff (in white kurta) ; and (below) Yasmin Ponappa in stills from Aaranya Kaandam
Aaranya Kaandam is the latest—and arguably the best—of a short chain of films that have buttoned the clothes of classic noir on to Tamil cinema. When these films began to be made, it was easy to have misgivings. Noir seemed to be a convenient excuse to give movies over entirely to depictions of gangsters, to create characters so laconic and hard-boiled that they lost all nuance, to shoot in a palette alternating between black and neon, and to gussy up in stylistic devices the vicious violence that can often stain Tamil movies. Pudhupettai, in 2006, understood the visual grammar of noir marvellously—sometimes too marvellously, when one had to squint to pick out the less dark elements in a wholly dark frame. But it was otherwise tedious, a familiar story told in familiar fashion, emptied of humour, and unremitting in its violence.
Thankfully, film-makers learnt to stick their tongues into their cheeks, to inject irony and wryness into their noir. Vaa Quarter Cutting, a 2010 movie for which Kumararaja wrote one song, applies some of the tropes of noir—its eclectic characters; its mysterious dangers; its chiaroscuro look—to an enjoyably ludicrous plot. On a dry day, two ditherers hurtle through the night to procure a quarter-bottle of Old Monk rum, an alcoholic reprisal of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. Roughly halfway through, the directors offer us a broad wink; during one misadventure, our heroes pass a wall plastered with the most iconic pulp image in recent memory: the jasmine-bedecked, lavishly proportioned, gun-wielding amma from the cover of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction.
Aaranya Kaandam belongs to this strain of playful noir, and it’s a better movie for it. The gloom of moral ambiguity is cut by the banter between the father and his exasperated son (“Are you really an idiot or do you just act like one?” the son hollers in despair; the line sounds so much better in Tamil and in context that it gets the film’s biggest laugh). Hectic chase sequences are set to curious music: an Irish jig melody once, Vivaldi another time, plinking piano notes on yet another occasion. Like Quentin Tarantino, Kumararaja constructs elaborate conversational riffs that go nowhere; in Kill Bill 2, Bill and the Bride discuss Superman, and in Aaranya Kaandam, gangsters swap pick-up lines that work on women. “Ask her if she likes Kamal Haasan or Rajinikanth,” one hoodlum says. “That’ll tell you the kind of aunty she is.” This sweet advisory is dispensed even as, in an adjacent room, Singaperumal is handing Subbu a ferocious thrashing—levity and cruelty, close neighbours in a crowded world.
Aaranya Kaandam released in select theatres on 10 June.
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