Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Jigarthanda: Cold heart, warm blood

Director Karthik Subbaraj is well aware of the double meaning of jigarthanda--ostensibly a sweet, milk-based drink from Madurai but read literally, in Hindi, it also means “cold heart”--and both meanings are important. Watching the film, with all its killing and backstabbing, the “cold heart” angle is obvious. And I spent a good couple of days thinking about who the real “cold hearted” one was in Jigarthanda. Was it the gangster? “Assault” Sethu, who kills without a second thought? Was it the filmmaker within the film? Karthik Subramani, who would exploit his own mother for a chance at success? Or was it us in the audience, watching and judging?

The other meaning is less overt but just as important. If the film had nothing but Karthik Subbaraj’s unmatched ability to create suspense paired with his outsider’s observations on the state of filmmaking, it would have been a cold and academic film. But much of the detail was apparently based in part on Karthik Subbaraj’s own experiences as a student in Madurai. And those academic observations layered on top of the real life scenes playing out are what warms movie’s beating heart, gives Jigarthanda a emotional naturalism that makes the “cold hearted” actions of its characters seem even more brutal.

Jigarthanda opens with a murder, the man’s back kept carefully to camera. We don’t know who was killed or why but we’re immediately put on our guard. The action then flashes back to a television studio where aspiring director Karthik Subramani (a perfectly cast Siddharth) is waiting to hear if he’s getting through to the next level of a reality show. One of the judges, a highbrow director, trashes Karthik’s film saying it’s garbage. The other judge, a producer, is angered by this and tells Karthik not to worry about being dismissed by the critics because he smells something more important--money making potential. Karthik gets booted from the reality show but secures a meeting with the producer.

But the producer isn’t really interested in the script Karthik has to narrate. What he wants is a gangster film, something nice and violent. Like Scarface, he says, throwing some DVDs down on the desk. “It’s fine if you copy these.” Karthik agrees to do the gangster movie but he wants to do an authentic gangster movie. Enter “Assault” Sethu (Bobby Simha), the baddest badass in Madurai.

Karthik heads off to Madurai to try and surreptitiously gather intel on Sethu--with the help of his buddy Orani (Karunakaran)--with the aim of turning it into a film. Except that Karthik and Orani aren’t half as clever as they think they are. Although they manage to befriend a young gang member named Sounder (the phenomenal Senthil Kumaran) and hook the daughter of Sethu’s cook (the equally phenomenal Lakshmi Menon), Sethu catches them in the end. Except that Sethu isn’t as tough as he thinks he is. When Sethu realizes that the two clowns following him around aren’t police or journalists but filmmakers, he takes them under his wing and agrees to help. Under one condition. Sethu is going to play the hero in Karthik’s film. But the balance of power changes when Karthik gets behind the camera. Sethu can’t act. Neither can the rest of the gang, who all get frog marched down to an acting coach (Guru Somasundaram) who runs them through rigorous acting drills like “communicate in gibberish” and “disembowel and laugh” and “cry on command.” Sethu is particularly adept at the last one.

With the help of God, the acting coach, Orani, and all the gangsters, Karthik finishes his film, to be titled: A. Kumar.

Huge placards of Sethu are placed all over Madurai. The gangsters round up hundreds of people and send them into the theaters to watch their boss make his debut. Sethu isn’t just a local thug any more, he’s a hero. Or is he? Turns out the “A” doesn’t stand for “Assault” but for Azhuguni--crybaby. Sethu’s been played, made a fool of on a national scale. A. Kumar is a comedy and people love it. It’s a hit. Sethu is famous.

Sethu’s reaction to this, Bobby Simha’s nuanced portrayal of his acceptance, is one of the finest moments of cinema I’ve seen. A man whose life was built on his reputation to inspire fear, having that all ripped away, but realizing he’d received something in its place. He’s not a hero, exactly, but he’s still been touched by filmi magic. “Assault” Sethu had been furious, had jumped out of his car and stormed into a housefull theater playing A. Kumar, unsure of what he was going to do but needing to do something. We’re in the cinema hall with the film playing and see the doors at the back of the theater open with a brief flash of daylight. “Assault” Sethu strides down the aisle but as he observes the audience’s delighted reaction to his crybaby performance we can see on his face, right there, he becomes “Azhuguni” Sethu.

Director Karthik Subbaraj made a splash in 2012 with the surprise hit Pizza, a small-budget suspense film and the success of Pizza was enough to get him a bigger budget and bigger stars. Jigarthanda was apparently an idea he’d had kicking around for a while but it feels very informed by his experiences working in the industry as an outsider: the conflict between box office and critics, between audience and filmmaker, between producer and author. And the compassion he had for “Azhuguni” Sethu really blew me away. I was touched but also really impressed with the nuance and depth with which Sethu’s reaction to his fame was handled. A. Kumar reminded me very strongly of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, a film that Wiseau had not intended as a comedy but was adopted by audiences as one. Like Wiseau, “Azhuguni” Sethu is ridiculous but he is also human and I certainly read the echoes of Wiseau’s relationship with his “fans,” who are laughing at him, in Sethu’s face.

The interlude with the acting coach was also fascinating from a meta-perspective. The coach has the gangsters run through an exercise designed to help them convey meaning without words, speaking in gibberish. As somebody who is obligated to watch films without subtitles from time to time, I rely on the ability of Indian actors, especially actors in more traditional masala films, to convey meaning without using words. Only an actor trained in this mass style could deliver a convincing performance like Kiccha Sudeep’s in Eega, perfectly believable opposite a CGI fly. To see this brought up in a film was very interesting for me.

But, as I said in the beginning, there was much more going on than meta on filmmaking. Karthik gave all the actors a lot of room to shine, though Bobby Simha and Siddharth were main focus. As somebody who loves character actors with interesting faces, all of the gang members were fun to watch. I was particularly taken with Senthil Kumaran as Sounder, a young guy eager to make his mark on the world. The way Karthik catches him switching from “threatening gangster” to “insecure guy playacting at being a gangster” was wonderful. I’d enjoyed Karunakaran in Pizza and enjoyed him even more in Jigarthanda. He has a warm on screen presence and a quick tongue, perfect to deliver comedy dialogues. Karunakaran as Orani really rooted the scenes in Madurai. Santhanam had better watch out or I’ll have a new favorite comedian. Lakshmi Menon--and Ambika as her mother--were also wonderful. Ambika should have a role as a crass older woman with a dance number in every film, as far as I’m concerned. And I hadn’t seen Lakshmi before but she has a composure on screen that seems both very young and very mature. With her flashing eyes and confident bearing, she may only be 18 but she held her own against the 35-year old Siddharth with no problem.

Speaking of Siddharth, I’ve never been a fan. I’ve certainly enjoyed films that he’s been in but, unlike other Western fans, he’s never caught my interest in particular, perhaps because he doesn’t have that “communicate in gibberish” approach to acting. But I thought he was perfect as “Karthik” because “Karthik” himself plays things close to the chest. Siddharth’s Karthik relies on us projecting our own narratives onto him and it works. We, the audience, as well as the other characters are able to project onto Siddharth exactly what they want to see. Siddharth’s Karthik has one goal--to make a successful film--and that’s all he works towards for the entire film. Siddharth’s Karthik is one cold hearted motherfucker.

I’ve already talked about how great Bobby Simha was so I’ll spare a few words here for Sethu’s “cold hearted” violence. What I thought was really interesting on the part of director Karthik Subbaraj was to deliberately refer to cool, filmi gangster movies but then use gross, uncool blood and violence. Bloody skulls, entrails on the living room floor… and then a scene of a gangster burning a man alive that used in three separate ways. The first as “cool” gangster violence, the second a comedy violence, and the third as genuine horrific violence. The same violent act seen three ways, all depending on context.

Karthik Subbaraj uses violence, suspense, comedy, pathos, and good, old-fashioned storytelling in Jigarthanda. And the result is a film quite unlike anything I’ve seen, a film that confirms my opinion that mainstream Tamil filmmaking is the more innovative and vital than almost any other industry right now.

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