Monday, January 12, 2015

Kaththi: A TL;DR on a good film.

This weekend I had the pleasure of watching Kaththi. Unfortunately I did not have the pleasure of having subtitles to go with it, so I had to make do with reading the plot synopsis from wikipedia and using my best filmi detective skills to follow along. Fortunately, the plot was fairly straightforward for an AR Murugadoss film and, even more fortunately, Vijay is just as charming without subtitles as he is with them.

Kaththi is a Tale of Two Cities story--or, rather, a Tale of a City and a Village--with Vijay in the role of both the Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton characters.

Kaththi (Vijay) is a petty criminal who escapes from a Calcutta jail only to be caught up in his own conscience. While plotting to flee India, Kaththi and his buddy Sathish happen to witness an assassination attempt. When they go to check on the victim… he's Kaththi's exact duplicate! Never one to miss an opportunity, Kaththi swaps places with the duplicate. The duplicate--Jeeva--is sent back to the Calcutta jail and Kaththi is plunged into Jeeva's life.

You see, the duplicate is no ordinary man. He's a good-hearted, virtuous, intelligent, kind, sympathetic, hydrologist who is fighting to save his village's water supply from an evil businessman named Chirag (Neil Nitin Mukesh, in perhaps my favoritest role of his of all time). At first Kaththi is all too willing to take Chirag's money and run but his conscience, along with his newfound love for good-hearted Ankitha (Samantha Ruth Prabhu), get the better of his greed and Kaththi takes up Jeeva's fight, leading the villagers in an incredible protest that gets the attention of the whole country.

The film combines entertainment value--in the form of some well-crafted fight sequences and song picturizations--with a strong social message. Even without subtitles, it was a really satisfying film to watch on many levels, which is perhaps why it did so well at the box office.

Kaththi as a film fits into a train of thought I've been having since reading that book on "The Birth of Korean Cool." There is this attitude in the West that the artist is far, far, far more important than the audience. With a few exceptions, such as my beloved Penn & Teller, when we buy a ticket for something from a Western artist, it's like we're buying a ticket to a lecture. It's a one-way monologue, a hologram, we can look but not touch. But a film like Kaththi… this is a film that's talking to us, engaging with us. Not just in the usual way of South films (the pause breaks for audience applause, etc.) but by bringing us into the story.

For example, the villagers protest of the evil corporation has the effect of blocking the water supply for all of Chennai. We see the reactions from a handful of different people when the water suddenly stops--a wealthy woman in a bathtub, the people who pour into a rich guy's backyard to take water from his swimming pool… While real life Kaththi's are hard to come by, the danger to the water supply from corporations like Coca-Cola is far too real. I know that one film isn't going to change the world but that doesn't mean it's not important to make films like this.

In an ever more secular and culturally fragmented age, pop culture--for better or worse--is our common culture. Films are the stories we tell ourselves. In the West the discussion around our pop culture had become far too caught up in things like "internal logic" and "world building" and "origin stories" and "franchises" and "reboots" and all that navel gazing TV Tropes nitpicking. Who gives a fuck whether or not some director's ship in a bottle universe is internally consistent or not? IT'S JUST A SHIP IN A BOTTLE! The only way you could get me to care about Batman is if the next movie had him going full-on 50 Shades of Grey with Robin… just to enjoy watching all the film fanboys' heads explode with rage and confusion.

There's one sequence in Kaththi that strongly reminded me of a quote from Pope Francis: "[T]hat some homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a ten point drop on the stock markets of some cities, is a tragedy. A person dying is not news, but if the stock markets drop ten points it is a tragedy! Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash."

Kaththi takes those people thrown away by the news and gives them center stage. We empathize with their plight--what if that was my village--and the next time a story like this comes up in the news, we have empathy for those villagers, too. A movie isn't going to change the world but it can keep a story or an idea alive in our shared pop culture. That corporations are poisoning our water, that the homeless are dying of cold on the streets, the inane economic fiction of "the market," these are all things I've seen in recent Tamil films, Tamil films meant for mass audiences. With a few exceptions from directors like Rajkumar Hirani, Hindi films are more and more going the way of Hollywood. Ship in a bottle films. Films meant to fill the masses up on junk food, serious "auteur" films only seen by a handful of elites, and navel-gazing middlebrow films that confirm the middle-class's comfortable worldview. Transformers, Frances Ha, Lincoln. Not that a ship in a bottle can't be fun to look at or well made but it's still just a ship in a bottle. We need more from our pop culture than that. We need Kaththi. (And Vijay.)

TL;DR this song picturization was awesome. And plays into my other favorite "trope" of turning mundane space into a magical space:

2 comments:

Divya said...

I am not a fan of this movie. I think Murugadoss over simplifies things to the point that his message becomes meaningless. For instance the scene that you described, cutting off Chennai's water supply results in the rich woman's bath being interrupted.. that is all he shows, not the hundreds of slums in Chennai where the residents are dependent on the single water pump. They would have been impacted far more by Vijay and the villagers little stunt. The rich people likely have their own bore wells. I am not saying that unfettered capitalism is good. I am just saying that there needs to be more nuance.
To offer a counterpoint, the 80's movie Varumaiyin niram sivappu is about a group of poor,educated but unemployed youth and how utterly dehumanizing their situation is. This was the pre-liberalization India, where the license raj crippled both Indian innovation and foreign investment i.e. the evil "Corporates" and India was the land of massive unemployment. Believe me, no one wants to go back to those times. Not even those who cheer on this films message. In other words, I appreciate Murugadoss for bringing attention to farmer suicides but to do so by turning all corporations into cartoon evil mustache twirlers is not helping anyone. Especially those people who depend on these corporations for their jobs and livelihood. Contrary to what Murugadoss thinks about these people, they are not evil.

odadune said...

Rumored to be coming to a Bollywood theater near you...Murgadoss supposedly pitched the lead role and sidekick role jointly to Salman and Govinda.

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