We cinephiles tend to want directors to be auteurs, who have a recognizable style and/or themes. What’s worse is we tend to exalt the filmmakers that can be so identified, and then sometimes tend to think less of those who can’t be, as if they were lesser directors or artists. But what if a filmmaker defies the notion of auteurism from the start?
When I met director Ram at this year’s IFFR, after just having seen three of his films, he asked me if these seemed like films from the same director. While I was struggling to come up with connections between the three films, he explained that he tried to make every film very different from his other work.
Nevertheless there are quite a few similarities between his first and third film, Tamil M.A. (2007) and Taramani (2017), both dealing with Tamil masculinity in the face of a changing society, while his fourth film Resurrection (2018) is a more traditional, topical drama focussing on a social issue. That’s not to say that his previous films didn’t have that focus. On the contrary, if there’s one thing that unites Ram’s work, it’s the sharp social commentary that runs through all his films.
This also unites Ram with a few of his colleagues who all started making films in the middle of the last decade, who all make commercial cinema containing critique of social and political issues. Directors such as Vetrimaaran and Bala, both whose work will be profiled on Frameland at a later time. Some even speak of a Tamil New Wave emanating from this most progressive state of India. Ram proudly proclaims Tamil Nadu to be the only state left in India with a leftist government not (yet?) ruled by Mohdi’s nationalist BDP.
In Tamil M.A. Prabhakar studies to become a Tamil teacher because when he became an orphan, a Tamil teacher took him in and raised him. Once he completes his studies, he manages to get a position but discovers that teaching Tamil is no longer a respected profession. Rather it is deemed a lowly profession for those who couldn’t get good grades, unlike the new professions in IT and service industry that in a short time have upended Tamil (city) society. The successful, respected Tamil male is no longer just a doctor, lawyer or professor, but rather the IT-professional who works for a large company, often based in the United States.
Prabhakar is unable to deal with these changes in Tamil society that have rendered him a poor, disrespected man who is unable to take care of the love of his life, a young woman whose family is in debt. On top of that, he’s harassed and beaten by police for smoking in public. Humiliated and emasculated, he tries to commit suicide. He fails, which lands him in jail again. He snaps, and murders the train ticket seller refusing to sell him a ticket, after which he goes underground to hide from the police, all the while racking up a kill count of 22.
Or so he thinks. It’s quite possibly, very likely in fact, all in his mind. The killings that is, not the humiliation and emasculation that drove him to the insanity that made him image himself a killer. The killings are a way to regain his masculinity and get back at the society that he feels humiliated and passed over by. Whether or not the killings are real, Tamil M.A. shows the toxicity of traditional male expectations of Tamil men of society – despite Prabhakar fancying himself a modern, educated man, society has moved faster and has left him behind. This is also expressed when he gropes the breasts of a girl wearing a t-shirt with a slightly suggestive text, which he can’t handle.
Ram’s third film Taramani is similarly meant to confront the Tamil man with his own shortcomings in the face of a changing society, focusing even more on the changing role of women in society. And how men are unable to deal with this, turning them into ugly monsters who try to oppress their women by being overbearingly jealous, controlling and even violent. Ram spent three years editing Taramani, while already filming Resurrection. During this time he added random bits of social commentary and commentary on the plot and characters of the film itself.
Despite the film starting out as a romantic comedy with a will-they-won’t-they plot, by the end it is clear that Ram has nothing but contempt for his two romantic leads, resulting in rather unpleasant, unsympathetic characters. For Ram wants to undercut dramatic expectations and deliver a shock to the system of the Tamil audience, especially confronting the Tamil male with his own behavior. As direct social commentary it works fine, but as dramatic work it doesn’t. It makes for a draining experience that gets hard to watch at a certain point. Long before the end of the two and a half hour running time, I wanted nothing to do anymore with either lead, just wanting them to go away. They’re not interesting anymore, they’re just assholes, however realistic they may be.
The opposite is true of the man in Resurrection: a single father who tries to raise a mentally and physically handicapped daughter (he himself explains it as ‘spastic’), which turns out to be very hard in present-day India. Especially after she reaches puberty. The father, played by superstar Mammooty, is an entirely sympathetic figure, who learns through his own ordeals not to judge others and embrace others similarly ostracized by the regular society he once belonged to, including transgender prostitutes.
At first, he moves his daughter to the quiet countryside, after his neighbors in the city object to her random howling after his wife and her mother leaves them. But there he’s is also unwanted and ultimately forced to leave too, this time by mobsters. Then he tries to find a home for his daughter, a place where they can take of her while he works day and night, rather than locking her up in a small apartment. But this also proves to be no solution, after he finds out the young teenager is beaten for masturbating in front of others – for she has no real notion of sexuality or its complex role in society, just that it feels good to masturbate.
Ultimately he finds a solution, for this is a feelgood film with a happy ending. But it doesn’t shy away from the desperation he feels before that ending, and how Indian society offers very little in the way of support for or understanding of the plight of the spastic and their relatives. Resurrection has a warmth not present in the other two films by Ram, which is part of what makes it a fine, moving social message picture. His previous work was more complex, but this one is more of a pleasure to watch. It helps that the male protagonist is a good man who was meant to sympathize with rather than shocked by. What makes him different is that he actually listens to the women in his life (after having learned his lesson with his wife), and tries to make their life better rather than just living and thinking selfishly. But can we call this a turning point in Ram’s career, when he himself doesn’t prescribe to such readings of his career at all? Perhaps it is simply too early to make such proclamations at all, but Resurrection does feel like a more emotionally mature film that points in a new direction. We’ll have to wait and see, and hope his next films make it out to the Western Hemisphere at all.