Is Selvaraghavan our most under-rated filmmaker?

Arul Mani
Grist Media

Many moons ago, I set for myself the task of picking Tamizh cinema’s most under-rated director, and found rather quickly that this was neither an easy task nor a happy one. The formulaic thrives, but departures from this norm continue to win respect and attention, and this fuels fresh effort, leaving us with an embarrassment of choice. My choice comes not out of an easy handful, but from a multitude of artists seized by idiosyncratic visions, enough in number for me to write an alphabetical aria that might begin with Ameer Sultan and stop for a little trill at Mysskin before coming to a properly rousing finale with the names Sarkunam, Samuthirakani and Vetri Maaran. To set on any one of them the halo of underappreciated auteur is to do some injustice to the conversations and collaborations that each of them is part of, that have shaped a new poetics of film-making over the last decade. There is also the great, sad fact that anyone making films in any language that is classified as merely regional, or ‘vernacular’, is bound not for glory but inevitably for underappreciation.

One could pucker up as if about to blow a raspberry and say ‘oeuvre’ to simplify the task of picking a name. If we choose to look beyond those who have made a decent film or two, the names mentioned above will continue to matter, as will a few other directors who have carefully fashioned a body of work over the last decade. Balaji Sakthivel continues to make films after having caught the eye in 2004 with Kadhal, the story of a garage mechanic who elopes with the girl he loves only to be pursued by caste-fury. There is, inevitably, Prabhu Solomon. And Bala, who has marked territory with films like Sethu, Naan Kadavul and Pithamagan. These directors make films that trouble, in varying degrees, a prevailing consensus on how far cinema can go – in ways that such a consensus might regard as original.

The greater enigma, for me, continues to be another whose talents run not so much towards the well-made film as to an uneasy coexistence with the genres of popular cinema. Commercial cinema works by an unforgiving algebra, by a sphincter-tight set of calculations, by an attitude of minimal effort and maximum adherence once a formula is known to work. It takes either heroism or a tough-minded foolhardiness to insist on messing with the alignments that mark these genres, to invest screenplays with a knock-a-dazzle narrative energy, to make films that open irreverent dialogue, despite being deeply flawed, with their generic forebears and shoot tracers to probe the neat horizons that these genres offer. To do all this is also to risk shit-storms of moral and aesthetic indignation, to volunteer for a crown of thorns. The name I am about to pick is that of Selvaraghavan.

Selvaraghavan sets out in each of his Tamizh films to play Chennai’s geographer with the unequivocal bluntness of purpose one would find reassuring in a rectal probe. The reports he returns are accounts of social anxiety, if not of class war. His heroes arrive swathed in subalternity. In Thulluvadho Ilamai, Dhanush is a fisherman’s son from Royapuram whose aspirations are postponed by the arrival of adolescence. In Kadhal Konden, Vinod is an orphan who comes to study engineering in Chennai unprepared for the social protocols that attend getting either an education or the girl. Kadhir from 7G Rainbow Colony wraps himself within a defensive sneer because the requirements for acceptance in middle-class worlds such as KK Nagar have changed overnight from being ordinary and muddling through somehow, to a smarmy, exam-passing, English-speaking careerism that he is too good for. Kokki Kumar of Pudhupettai documents the city’s unspoken segregations when he sings the words “Enga area ulla varadhey (Don’t enter our area)” and clarifies a moment later with two maps of Chennai: Pudhupettai, Kasimedu, Ennooru, and Vyasarpadi are ‘our’ areas while Anna Nagar, KK Nagar, T Nagar, and Boat Club are ‘your’ areas. A similar sense of class hostility seems to drive the disgruntled porter played by Karthi in Aayirathil Oruvan. Karthik, the protagonist in Mayakkam Enna, is a self-taught wildlife photographer who must breach the walls that class privilege and English-speaking smoothness conspire to build. His chief adversary, when it is not himself, is a sleek, smooth-talking senior in the field who is witheringly dismissive of his ambitions (“Aadu meyikkaravan ella photography-innu vandha…” or “If every goatherd starts wanting to become a photographer…”).
Some of this sense of unerring geography, this fascination with the different strata of the city, seems to come from the many experiences of moving and learning to fit in that were the portion of a family dependent on the varying fortunes of his film-director father Kasthuri Raja. It might also explain the provenance behind the unusually large repertoire of true-to-life verbal tics and mannerisms that make up his brother Dhanush’s approach to getting into the skin of the city boys he has played.

You could say that some of this geography is made visible by miracles of casting. What must a hero look like, after all, if his face cannot itself offer something of a map?  Thulluvadho Ilamai and Kadhal Konden feature a still adolescent Dhanush as bespectacled tremble-chin or social bumbler; Ravi Krishna wanders through 7G Rainbow Colony with his features frozen into a half-sneer, half-leer that adds up to an all-round slappability; Dhanush reappears in Pudhupettai, his half-starved frame carrying some of the burden of the film’s surprises; Karthi occupies the first half of Ayirathil Oruvan with verbal swagger and eyes that telegraph impolite suggestions in nonstop fashion; Dhanush carries himself through much of Mayakkam Enna in sullen, inarticulate rage.

In violating the unwritten requirement that heroes must be hasmukh and inhabit the zone of masculine jauntiness, Selvaraghavan sets them up to be visible initial declarations of the social anxieties that his films offer.  He does not usually stop at simply parroting such declarations. In moving between two or three worlds his characters produce ambushes of precisely those verities that might comfort a middle-class audience. These characters do not fail beautifully, nor are they diminished into satisfyingly picturesque types. They are intractably consistent in the moral danger that they radiate and will not be easily taken out by bolts of cleansing lightning, or other such devices.

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One could travel as far back as the 2002 film Thulluvadho Ilamai for evidence of this ambush of verities.  Only the screenplay is attributed to Selvaraghavan while the film itself is officially credited to his father, but going by the hints he has been dropping and by the defining elements of the film – uneasy awakenings and lacerating encounters with social distinction – it is possible that he did more than just script. The title – helpfully translated in the opening moments as Frolicking Youth – offers hints of the voyeurism and the exploitative approach that mark the coming-of-age idea in soft-core porn and the film may seem to deliver on that promise with its story. A bunch of high-school students, some of them female, get together and run away from their dysfunctional homes (with the aid of a dealer in pavement literature) to teach their parents a lesson but return somewhat chastened by their experiences of the world.

A friend S. who suffers from occasional bursts of enthusiasm for Tamizh cinema once borrowed my subtitled copy of Thulluvadho Ilamai but never got past the first half-hour because her Tamizh-speaking maid got on her case. She began with gentle words to the effect that the film was a ‘somewhat’ – possibly a comment on the normal high-school fumbling and groping that occupies some part of the film, if not on its ideas – before upping the moral temperature in subtle ways every day. The film was returned within the week – a record of some kind – and S. faithfully reported this battle of attrition before quickly adding that there was indeed ‘something gross’ about the film. She never said what.

While there is some stiff moralizing about parental uptightness and the strife this causes, the film offers a sympathetic portrait of sexual curiosity and is rather gung-ho about what it chooses not to do: a refusal to pathologize tentative adolescent exploration, and to hang such explorers by suitably moral nooses such as pregnancy and motherhood, suicide, or death during abortion. The fanciful youth republic that they constitute may fail, but it retains our sympathies as it fails – the characters are morally more whole than the adults they revolt against. What lifts the film clear of the youth-exploitation genre is a readiness to fill the lives of its characters with this narrative to the point where they are saved from having to lapse into types.

Kadhal Konden (2003) joins issue with the Kadhal X genre that flooded screens in the 1990s both by title and by narrative. The fanciful military metaphors that combined with love in titles like Kadhal Desam and Kadhal Kottai are replaced with some sense of love as injury, as being stricken. The college love story of early post-liberalization works by replacing matching horoscopes with a stricter matching of invisible CVs. Fresh-faced boy would meet equally fresh-faced girl; their wardrobes would then match; the language they spoke needed to be a zone where Tamizh splintered and became English; and they simply had to be hip to all the latest moves without seeming to have spent hours practicing some routine cogged from MTV. This film contents itself with setting up an impossible triangle via fresh-faced boy, f-f girl, and dark, address-less outsider. Selvaraghavan’s curiosity about what might happen when you draw social anxiety and isolation into the readymix of the college romance heavies the genre with a burden it wasn’t meant to carry. The results were not pleasant, but this version of the college romance seemed to afford those normally excluded by the genre as non-English-speaking gawkers, eve-teasers and potential rapists some sort of human space while simultaneously exploring the consequences that desire may have in the absence of a vocabulary by which you may speak of it.

7G Rainbow Colony (2004) offers a different rewrite of the youth film – a zone of endless male camaraderie and war that works in a kind of mythic time, outside history. Tamizh cinema has seen any number of these films – we will call this landscape GhilliDhool after the best-known examples, the Vijay-starrer Ghilli and the Vikram-starrer Dhool  – where abide street-champions whose rowdiness is simply the Fort Knox that conceals an impossibly large heart of gold, and reserves of lesser metal such as character, all the known martial arts, and intelligence. These galli-Galahads can take on an English-speaking world and win, can take on armies of goons and win, can romance unattainable women and win, and can set for themselves the impossible task of confronting power greater than theirs and still win. In 7G, Ravi Krishna plays Kadhir, the lord of precisely the same sort of set, but the things that happen to them come from another sort of script.  Selvaraghavan sets up a thought-experiment in this film; what will happen to the lords of GilliDhool if you translate them out of their mythic time into real time, let’s say post-liberalisation Chennai? He lets them win a fist-fight or two, but the other results are not so stirring. They look like idiots more often than not, and are restored to humanity only when they come to awareness of their puerility and begin finding ways of being adult. The most telling such moment is when Kadhir and his friends find that they are anachronisms – they begin, with much aplomb and hissy sound-effects, a rendition of “Rajadhirajan Indha Raja”, that 80s anthem of street overlordship from Agni Natchathiram, only to find their audience collapsing in cackles of evil amusement.

It is at this point that Selvaraghavan’s films begin to change. He goes from being a specialist in the youth film, from an earlier stratagem that relied on empurpling and overloading this genre with varicose vines that would swell and eventually bleed its riches, to exploring a different sort of terrain altogether. In these films, the protagonists continue to flip and change under pressure. The old adherence to closure is replaced by a denial of formal satisfaction, or by a tectonic jostling between more than one familiar genre. Effectively, an unexpected new film comes bursting out of the one you began watching, or one genre to be consumed from within by another. These complex birthings work much like the way in which the Alien in the Ridley Scott film of the same name reproduces.

The film that inaugurated this trend is Pudhupettai (2006). It promises to be another youth film for about ten minutes, running the viewer through streets, classrooms, marketplaces and a peppy song by bright day before thrusting the protagonist suddenly into an underworld that is only partly visible in fevered lighting. We follow thus the crests and troughs in the career of Kokki Kumar, a slumboy who turns gangster and breaks through into politics. He is not invested with the mystique that films like The Godfather or Nayagan surround their heroes with. Dhanush brings to this role a bug-eyed ferocity that is equally exerted in greenlit jailhouse harangues, in street-fights while fending off long knives, and while making his maiden political speech. His fear and his capacity for numbing violence are not separate but conjoined. We are not offered reassurances of even the token, cautionary variety that films about crime-lords must make. Kumar is resolutely amoral, and his successes and his occasional losses are merely an index of the universe that he inhabits.

It is at this point that the Internet began resounding to the noises of disgust offered by critics of various hues in response to the ‘crassness’ of his films, and his execrable taste. Notable among these was a reviewer in The Hindu who shall go unnamed in the interests of kindness. She expressed merely a genteel horror after watching Pudhupettai, but then chose to shudder over the ‘youngsters living in want’ who might be influenced by this tale of a gangster who suffers only minor comeuppance

This is perhaps as good a point as any to offer a conceit. The titles quoted above, Agni Natchathiram and Nayagan, are bells to toll us in Mani Ratnam’s direction. Selvaraghavan’s films offer, now and then, a sort of Antipodes to some of the themes that have occupied the veteran director. Scorsese made Mean Streets in apparent refutation of the stylized depictions of crime that define the Godfather series. Some similar quarrel with Nayagan may animate Pudhupettai. Agni Natchathiram and 7G Rainbow Colony send off interesting sparks in each other’s direction if you set them side-by-side as accounts of youthful anger. One may add to this list the scenes from rather different marriages that Mani Ratnam’s Mouna Ragam and the younger director’s Mayakkam Enna might offer. Or even the engagements with the past that we could derive from the films Iruvar and Aayirathil Oruvan, but that may be terrible overuse of the opposition that I’m offering.

It may, however, be worthwhile to say this much: where Mani Ratnam makes the Madras Talkie, Selvaraghavan seems to put together the Chennai film. This opposition has very limited value – we should acknowledge it quickly and resume our happy lives. I’m saying that the directors are seized by very different notions of auteurship and form, and that their films are representations of significantly different worlds. These lines from an interview with Selvaraghavan by the critic Baradwaj Rangan may illuminate some of this difference:

“[T]he difference between, say, Karthik in Mouna Raagam and the Selvaraghavan antihero is that the former, despite the inherent grey shades of the character, comes off as lovable and charming (in short, an all-white angel) whereas Selvaraghavan’s demonic angels (or angelic demons) make you shrink back in disgust. That, he says, is a reflection of the filmmakers. Mani Ratnam is a lovable, charming man, he says, whereas he is violently unlovable and the last thing from charming.”

Something of this difference in sensibility is suggested by the patterns into which the titles of Selvaraghavan’s films fall: ‘actual’ locations in Chennai’s under-city, or in the imaginary landscape fashioned by cinema, visible in the filmic references that gird titles such as Thulluvatho Ilamai, Mayakkam Enna and Aayirathhil Oruvan. While Maniratnam’s titles are usually consistent with a theme that one must continue watching the film to ‘get’.
We can now return to talking of the ways in which Selvaraghavan’s filmmaking began to change. Aayirathil Oruvan (2010) is perhaps a better example for the shift I’m talking about. It begins in standard comic-book adventure territory, but then begins whipping video-game action movie, local historical, and bullshit mystical blue-light hokum into a frothing confection that brims and runs over. Andrea Jeremiah plays an archaeologist estranged from her father who finds that the man disappeared while chasing after a lost Chola kingdom somewhere in Vietnam. She is invited to join a follow-up mission by the mysteriously efficient government official Reemma Sen, and this expedition is eventually joined by a bunch of hard-drinking, MGR-worshipping coolies led by Karthi. To cut a long story short, the kingdom is found, and what follows is no less than an encounter between real and imagined history, with the mandatory encounter-death. Karthi’s character leads a charmed life through the film, and cheats death several times before it is revealed, in a subaltern rejigging of the Freudian notion of family romance, that he is the messenger from an ancient prophecy who will lead the Cholas home.

None of this impressed the Internet guardians of Tamizh cinema. Some cribbed about the effects, while others complained about the disjointedness of the film. None of this bothered me, but I remember being mildly upset when it struck me that the course they were charting so smartly on some big map would have taken them deep into Myanmar rather than Vietnam.
The 2011 film Mayakkam Enna offers us a possible retelling of the Ekalavya story in Karthik who finds that the photographer he worships has stolen from his work. The film begins in a manner that might remind the viewer of the early youth films. Dhanush plays the orphan whose sense of family is provided by a bunch of close friends.  Karthik is very disturbed when one of the friends brings home a girlfriend, and eventually finds himself falling in love with the girl, Yamini. He gets to marry her but shortly after this event, he finds that the senior photographer has won an award for the photograph he stole. He attempts suicide, survives, and turns into a withdrawn, violent person. At this point, the film abruptly changes modes. The girl he marries stands by him, and it turns into an account of her puzzling struggle to keep the marriage going in the face of financial burden, and continuing violence till she eventually begins to withdraw. This meditation on marital felicity now takes another surprising turn – when she becomes silent as the grave, he is eventually persuaded to begin working at wildlife photography again, and wins an award, and thanks her on television. These lovvers.

Internet clamour about this film was accompanied by criticism from closer home. My friend S. phoned me after watching it and said she was unable to approve of the film. Because the elephant that features on the magazine cover is an African elephant, not an Indian one. How did Dhanush go into what looks like the forests of Kerala and come back with this photograph? Others complained bitterly about the superbly staged spitting scene in the film. I can admit that I cringed through the final Oscar of photography moment in the film. 

In each of these films, Selvaraghavan consistently eschews the safe-tickets of generic or offbeat filmmaking to make something of an ungainly splash, a la Anna Karenina, at the clanking wheels, at the grim, unstoppable engine of genre. It could also be argued that this combinatory splash is entirely paisa vasool – that the viewer is offered two (or three, if you count the convolutions in Aayirathil Oruvan) films for the price of one.

There is more here than meets the eye. These later films are scripted as much around a hero as they are around women characters. In Pudhupettai, Sneha plays the whore whom Kokki Kumar frees to marry, a move fraught with more practical and plot difficulties than that other Tamizh film about another criminal might have suggested, while Sonia Aggarwal plays a respectable educated woman who is forced to marry him and play wife under forms of duress that make a mockery of that prior gesture. The constraints that Kumar authors against these women become the means by which they seek power over him. Despite all the corner-of-the-eye heroics that Karthi offers, the women in Aayirathil Oruvan are driven entirely by private agendas – recovering family honour in the case of Reemma Sen’s character, and finding a lost father in Andrea Jeremiah’s case – and thus take the film within spitting distance of passing the Bechdel Test, and fail, alas, only under the influence of Chola mind control tactics. Yamini in Mayakkam Enna radiates a self-knowledge that is conspicuously denied to its hero.

The opening disclaimer, the reminder that what you’re about to watch is no more than fiction, never takes quite the same form. Pudhupettai is apparently all fiction, and we are not to infer any connections between ‘people, places, buildings and products in the film and real-life’. Aayirathil  Oruvan reminds you quite apologetically, in Tamizh,  that the film has no connection with the actual histories of the Cholas and the Pandiyas before announcing, in English, that the various animals butchered in the film were all ‘computer graphically generated and treated with compassion’. This is followed by a rather specific admonition: ‘Smoking and drinking is injurious to health and wealth’.  This rather odd opening admonition is repeated in Mayakkam Enna, only without any reference to the loss of wealth this time.

These disclaimers are each followed by rather energetic expositions. Pudhupettai begins with a locked-up Dhanush offering a moment of ironic reminiscence, followed by the narrative burst discussed above. Aayirathil Oruvan has a few seconds of gravely read voiceover marred only by the speaker’s inability to keep  the sounds –l and –ll separate from each other, followed by reconstructions of the destruction of the Chola Empire and their flight into Asia, the survival of this legend in village dance-theatre, and an archaeologist in quest of the lost empire finding a bunch of ruins and advancing towards them while a bunch of shadows congregate ominously behind him and follow – all done in a few seconds each. Mayakkam Enna opens with the viewer staring down into the abyss of the camera’s lens before meeting the protagonist, his friends, and their world. A minimally voiced narrative that ends with the Neil-Armstrong-esque statement “Ithu ennoda vazhkai, ithu engaloda kathai (This is my life, this is our story)” just as Selvaraghavan’s name appears on screen – the plural somehow holding in its grasp both film and director and the narrative turn that gives this film to the woman as much as it does to the man. Each time, the disclaimer arrives, and then these opening moments, in an odd but endearing combination of earnest awkwardness and assurance which is perhaps also the emotional signature that defines his films.
These later films are marked by an ability to spin the moving image into layered, hyperkinetic text. When Kokki Kumar sits in the jail cell composing headlines announcing his own demise in an oddly manic manner, the camera plays focus games with the wall behind him, drawing the eye into reading the names scrawled there. When Karthik goes off to meet the photographer Mathesh Krishnaswamy, he is fended off by a bored secretary, and the board above her head reads K9 Films, in a broad bilingual indication of things to come. When Karthi makes his first appearance on screen, he dives out of a car window to dash up to the ship while the soundtrack offers you this teasing line from an MGR song: “Neela niram, vaanukkum kadalukkum neela niram (blue, the sky and the sea are blue)”. These are random moments from a filmmaking that packs significance into image and sound to produce compact, elliptical bursts that move his films forward and achieve exposition and complication. They also require of the viewer an eye that is adapted for action on the periphery. I remember having to watch Aayirathil Oruvan about four or five times because of a constant, niggling sense of having missed something. It was usually more than one thing.

This compactness also means, contrary to what we might assume, that his films are crowded with ideas, not all of them very well worked out, a thematic sprawl rather than a neat, well-ordered progression. Do they need to be otherwise?

Mayakkam Enna holds within its ambit the idea that people must follow their passion rather than a simple collective wisdom, that passion is perhaps what we need to know by the term merit, but counterposes against that enthusiasm the other question – do the opportunities made possible by the supposedly meritocratic concerns of the new economy have anything other than a theoretical life? Is the new meritocracy anything more than the old casteist dispensation in a new disguise?

The fact that Mayakkam Enna ends happily is undercut by how easily it could have gone the other way in an essentially unfair society. One sequence, shot almost wordlessly, establishes that for us. The Kumudam issue bearing Karthik’s photograph of an elephant that eventually rescues his career makes it only by accident into a pile of magazine covers being put together for jury consideration – the attender reading it loses it in the pile as he ferries it across the office. It then gets tossed into the dustbin, gets rescued by a  cleaning woman, gets handed back, almost gets tossed aside again, and makes it back into the original pile only by accident, because two people bump into each other.  The director may have compressed into that sequence some teeth gritting about how the local is always undervalued and dismissed, even in cinema.

The film also asks these other questions: Why do we recognize some passions and fail to acknowledge others? When Karthik encounters desire, he does not have the words for it. He meets Yamini (Richa Gangopadhyay) and all he does between bristling and losing his temper is repeat the sentence “Ennamo thappa irukkey (There’s something wrong here)”. It takes decisive action by the woman for this situation to change.

Selvaraghavan, for all that he aspires to a different form of auteurhood, is equally an artist of incompleteness. Every one of the films he has made in recent years has gone through several rewrites, recastings, and reformulations before finally emerging in a shape vastly different from its announced, inaugural form. The films mentioned do not hang together easily, but live in warring difference within each other, offering us deeply etched moments in constant struggle with embarrassing schmaltz, and missteps with content. These and other less visible flaws balance out, in my opinion, against his legitimate achievements. 

In producing interzones between genres, Selvaraghavan usually gets his films to ask questions, albeit in convoluted form, of current wisdom. These are usually the questions of those who own neither religious nor ideological clarity, of people who are not enfranchised by caste or class position nor by political movements who make this promise. We return to our earlier conceit for one last gesture. Where the Madras Talkie offers a Brahminical genteelness of form and much warm, fuzzy liberalism, the Chennai film, by necessity, offers formal discord and thematic sprawl regularly, and closure or consolation only occasionally. The invitation to assemble your own film from such fragmentation is a form of pleasure that commercial cinema offers but rarely. Why not seize it where we can find it? This is the hope with which I await his forthcoming film Irandaam Ulagam.

Arul Mani is a quizzer, poet and translator. He teaches English at St. Joseph’s College of Arts and Science, Bangalore.