A taut screenplay that keeps the audience staying with the characters through their ill-fated journey; unrelenting suspense and plots and sub plots interwoven cleverly. Brilliant visualization and amazing sound design; well etched characters and well written dialogues that reflect the times the film is set in; narrative techniques and filmic treatment that can match the best in filmmaking. Obviously the producer/director of Subramaniapuram, M Sasikumar, has supreme control of the film craft. A huge success at the box office across Tamil Nadu and critical acclaim that is almost eulogizing the film and its maker makes this film worthy of study for anyone interested in the trends in Tamil cinema. Touted as a retro classic in Tamil Nadu, there are many things that strike one as the film unfolds on the screen especially the screenplay, art direction editing and cinematography.
A simple story of friendship and betrayal, love and betrayal and finally the futility of many lives set in a Madurai suburb, Subramaniapuram, the film is riveting and powerful in its imagery. Building up towards the tentative friendship between five young jobless youngsters who listen to AIR bulletins and film songs, dream of a better life, the initial portions draws a true picture of the life of Tamil youth of the late 70s and early 80s. Deftly using introductions of each character to establish the motivations and background within which the story unfolds, the interesting use of the flashback as the camera follows the character played by Ganja Karuppu as if drawing us into the lives of these friends. Using clips of old Ilayaraja tunes as the backdrop for the romance between Azhagar (Jai) and Thulasi (Swathi) is again a clever device in setting the period in the minds of the audience. Borrowing many cliches from the masters of Tamil film nativity, Bharathiraja and Bhagyaraj, to establish the semi rural and semi urban existence of the characters is a master stroke.
The spectacular work on the visual design and the meticulous detailing of the period elements is visible throughout the film starting from the walls being painted with advertisements and film posters paraded on bullock carts. Every frame is authentically set in the late 1970s and early 80s – The men with step cut long locks touching the equally long collars of their colourfully patterned shirts and the huge bell bottoms with tight waists and broad belts; The women wearing the bright graceful pavadai dhavanis to college; The radio programmes and film music blaring from horn speakers and even the Ilayaraja duets that are used effectively for the wooing sequences. The temple festival sequence lends authenticity and uses the rituals and folk forms in a seamless way weaving it into a comic narrative scene. Art director B Rembon and costume designer Nataraj need special mention for their amazing work in this film.
Each character is etched with careful details in costumes, hairstyles, and the Madurai dialect though not as pronounced as in Paruthiveeran (2007) quite clearly clinching the appeal to a general Tamil audience while remaining rooted in the local idiom. The villainous family of the heroine is again constructed with care – the three brothers representing the different generations and their manipulative hunger for power. Convincing the audience that there is a soft side to Jai is the scene where he does not kill the women in the girl’s family and his abrupt shame at his uncouth behaviour when confronted by her fear as he raises his knife. That is probably the only redeeming factor in his characterization. All the characters are made up from a macabre fabric with no features to soften them in the eyes of the audience.
The cinematographer SR Kadhir too shows remarkable understanding and usage of stunning visuals and patterning of shots closely echoing the 70s style while retaining the contemporary touch in terms of camera angles, lighting and camera movements effectively using cranes and unconventional camera positions. He is an adept technician with a keen understanding of the film medium especially with lighting and shooting rain and night sequences. Editor Raja Mohamed has made the film crisp and watchable with masterful transitions and dissolves and helps to move the narrative going at a fast pace while maintaining the intensity of visual information unveiled on the screen to involve the audience in the action.
James Vasanthan in his maiden outing as music director displays a flair for the melodic and underlines the need for a background score that enhances and elevates the films narration. The Kangal Irandaal song is picturised beautifully with charming simplicity through the narrow by lanes of Madurai by the director. The Subramaniapuram theme song is peppy and catchy with the visualisation again matching the beat and capturing the small town obsessions and aspirations of a generation of Tamilians. The background score, at times harsh and at times deafening captures the gory, violent mood and escalates with the action for an audience already attuned to this kind of sound design.
For all its technical excellence, there is not much to the performances by a cast made up of relative newcomers. The heroine Thulasi has just two expressions – a coy shy glance from beneath her eyelashes (supposed to epitomize the ideal Tamil girl?) and a horrified/puzzled look as her eyebrows touch her hairline in times of crisis/stress. The other actors too are mediocre. Sasikumar maintains consistency in one expression throughout the film. Jai so resembles the Ilaya Dhalapthi in his stilted dialogue delivery and expressions, he can make this his living. Samuthirakani as the uncle, who is plays the key role of betrayal, is a better director than an actor. Some of the other characters such as the older uncle are in turns wooden and uninspired and cliched in many scenes. But the story development and character etching takes them to a new level with the audience experiencing a high identification with the setting and characters.
I have no idea how some of the explicit violence escaped the censors and even worse cannot comprehend how such an anti-woman concept finds acceptance not only among censor board members, the film going audience and even more disturbingly, film analysts and critics who seem to be enamoured with some misplaced nostalgia of their own college days. They wax eloquent on the beauty of this film, the lyrical quality, the poetry and the enchanting visuals. The film craft overrides all concern for the negative and objectionable messages that this film gives young people and reinforces time and time again through dialogues and the events that unfold before us on screen the regressive thinking that seems to permeate the whole story. For the women in the audience and the women in the film, the experience is horrific to say the least. And as a woman film scholar, teacher and filmmaker, this film disturbs me at many levels.
The representation of women has always been stereotyped in Tamil films but especially over the past decade the aggression and antipathy shown to women on screen has reached alarming proportions with Rajinikanth’s by now cliched tirades against women in most of his films, Vijay’s advise to women to behave in a becoming manner or face public humiliation to Simbu’s death punishments and the Bala and Ameer school of filming morbid sequences involving unnecessary violence against women either as a corollary to the hero’s frustrations or as a consequence to his actions.
In Subramaniapuram, the woman is not only sickeningly coy and cliched in the way she flutters her big rounded eyes and eyelashes but in the end lures the hero to his death albeit reluctantly. She has to be the villain of the piece to whip up the hatred of the audience that chants “go and kill her” when the director finishes avenging his friend’s death with the hacking of her uncle in the gory auto sequence. As he anoints the spot where his friend was brutally slashed to pieces with the severed head and blood of the villain, the audience exhorts him to go and kill the girl! Such deliberate characterisation instigates the predominantly male audience to live out their frustrations and anger at women for all the perceived slights and inadequacies they face in their own lives.
What is also dangerous in the success of this film is the treatment adopted by the filmmaker. If this film had been made in the popular commercial run of the mill masala format one can dismiss the impact it may have on the psyche of the audience. Its very simplicity and nativity, the realistic treatment of the people, the story and the setting that does not have elaborate artificial sets and garish costumes makes this film more real and true to life to an audience that has grown up on a staple of unrealistic mainstream films. This trend, while a healthy one where one is finally touching upon a truly Tamil aesthetic and idiom to tell stories that are intrinsically Tamil, also skirts the path of filmic realism blurring the edges between reality and the reconstruction of reality.
When a film with so many plusses to its credit from a purely technical point of view manages to capture the collective imagination of the audience, it is fascinating. The fact that this is achieved by arousing the chauvinistic feelings of the Tamil male audience already steeped in regressive patriarchal values is disturbing to say the least. One is left lamenting – Such superb craft control but to what end? And that is why for all its highs, I refuse to rate this film.
Tamil, Action, Drama, Color