One show host asks him as to how he felt on receiving this valued award. Thiagarajan Kumararaja smiles as if to ask, “What answer do you expect?” He mutters something like, “What shall I say!” He moves to leave the stage saying, “I am happy as ever. That is all.” But the host is persistent. “Many important screenplay writers and directors present here have praised you! What have you got to tell them?” He smiles disarmingly as he says, “What is there to be said! I should thank them!” and walks off the stage. That is Thiagarajan Kumararaja for you! He is a man entirely different from all the film personalities that I have met so far.
He does not have much to tell us about himself. “I am not an intellectual, not a genius nor anybody extraordinary. I have none of the listed good qualities like a deep reading, regular travels, continuous viewing of films or a deep love for the world cinema or art cinema. I am middle class family boy born in Porur area of Chennai, growing up roaming around mostly Chennai. Even today, I do not have at home either an internet connection or DTH TV. I am not particularly interested in them either”.
He says that he is in no way connected to the Face book or Twitter accounts that are operated in his name. It has been many years since he left watching television. He has not seen many Tamil films. And, he says, he has seen none of the recent Tamil movies! This is how Thiagarajan Kumararaja, rated by many as a Director who can take Tamil movies to the next level of excellence, introduces himself to anyone who insists on knowing about him!
His Aranya Kaandam had its maiden screening at the World Film Festival held at New York. But the film had not been completed at that time. It was a raw first print where colour and light balancing had not been done, the background score was yet to be done. Yet Aranya Kaandam won the Jury’s Award for the Best Film!
But Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s simple take on the film is that “It is not a realistic film or an art film, not an experimental film nor a parallel film. I am frightened by its categorization as a ‘Noir’ or ‘Neo Noir’ film. It is just a commercial film with quite a few flaws and compromises. I might say it is a ‘masala’ movie. It has every ingredient of such a film like fight scenes, murders, bedroom scenes and comedy scenes.” That may be true. But we have not seen these things written in this fashion or filmed like this before in Tamil cinema! The raw and very evident fact is that Aranya Kaandam shook all traditions of Tamil commercial films and false dramas of novelty like ‘novel and nothing like anything before’.
Thiagarajan Kumararaja picturises the macho symbol of Hindi films, Jackie Shroff, as a sexually weakened man yet a terrorizing villain. No effort has been made to artificially prop up the character of Jackie Shroff and he has been portrayed as one among many other artistes! Jackie Shroff, as a matter of fact, lacks a ‘Tamil’ face. One could say he has a Gujarati face with some Nepali features. But it does not strain our thoughts to view him as a Tamilian featured parading as the king of crime-ridden lanes of Chennai’s under world! Thiagarajan Kumararaja, thus, smashes the worn-out cliché of reality Tamil cinema that you need faces with characteristic racial features to establish the reality of the screen characters.
The committee of Film Censors in Chennai had decreed that Aranya Kaandam cannot be released without the 52 cuts of portions that offended it. The Appeals Committee of Film Censors in New Delhi overruled the order and passed it for exhibition without any cuts. But the dialogues had to be muted at countless places! The bleep sounds of this muting exercise harass the viewers from following the narration of the story easily. In this age where violent scenes that freeze our minds parade before us on the drawing room television screens and every conceivable kind of sexual perversions are on ‘free’ play through the Internet, it is difficult to see for whose benefit the Censors are exercising with such vengeance on a film meant for adult audience!
Aranya Kaandam was not a commercial success. I think it failed as it was not properly publicised or widely released. There is no doubt in my mind, that Aranya Kaandam was a film that had all the ingredients of a great commercial success. There are production house heads here who had invited this ‘commercially unsuccessful’ director told him condescendingly, “I do not like your film at all. However, as it has something of appeal here and there, I am quite willing to offer you another chance at remaking one of our Hindi films into Tamil.” But I do not blame them. After all their daily dealings are with the kind who are ever ready and willing to compromise on everything for the sake of opportunities, money and fame!
Aranya Kaandam won two National Awards for The Best Debutant Director and The Best Editing. Even at that stage not many in Tamilnadu had seen the film. In a land where the illicit DVDs of even the best guarded films of Top Stars are sold from day one, neither the licit nor the illicit DVD of Aranya Kaandam was available anywhere. It is a miracle that DVDs of Aranya Kaandam of any kind was and is unavailable! It would appear that somebody has taken great care and gone to all kinds of lengths to ensure that the film is not seen by the public! People all over the world have seen and continue to see this film by downloading it from Internet, even though the dim print makes for a dismal viewing experience.
Aranyam refers to forest. That part of Ramayana where Rama and Sita are portrayed living in the forest is called Aranya Kaandam. Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aranya Kaandam is the story of human beasts that prey and play without let or hindrance in the terrible forest that is Chennai metropolis. The central theme of the film is that men are often terrible beasts that roam the forest called life. They live with names indicative of beasts like Singaperumal, Kaalaiyan, Pasupati, Gajendran and Gajapati.
Singaperumal is the king of forests, the Lion. Gajendran and Gajapati are wild elephants. Pasupati is the cow. He is the sacrificial animal. Kaalaiyan who arranges the cockfight is the old bull and a candidate for slaughter! ‘Sappai’ and ‘Subbu’, the characters that play the love theme in the film, are not beasts. They may even be humans! In this film one does not see love scenes that are melodramatic or outbursts of artificial emotions nor do we see the usual display of navels or cleavages.
There are four stories proceeding on different platforms. There are six central characters of equal importance. There are three different climaxes. Thus Aranya Kaandam avoids all clichés of Tamil cinema. In the end we are presented with a woman as the most important character. Here it becomes a film with a feministic view. Thiagarajan Kumararaja says: “It is a totally imaginary world. In all my life, I have not seen the men of the underworld or criminals, not even a petty thief. But I believe that I have succeeded in creating, with a degree of credibility, the world that I wanted to tell everyone about.”
The language used in this film is the local dialect of today’s Chennai, especially the North Chennai. There is a clever use of the new raft of words spawned by the cell phone and cricket culture. Picturisation and the camera angles that broke the grammar of Cinema have taken the film to an entirely different level. Lightings that remind us of 16th Century Renaissance paintings impart a poetic touch to the scenes of the film. It conveys the reality of seeing the events unfold in the dim lights of the real world narrow lanes and sparely illuminated rooms that blush unseen with fluctuations of voltage.
Thiagarajan Kumararaja might have been aided by the influence cast by many films from Godfather to Pulp Fiction that stand to the names of illustrious film makers like Quentin Tarantino, Bryan De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. He might even have borrowed the technique of multiple stories unfolding simultaneously on parallel stages from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in conceiving his screenplay. But no one can call Aranya Kaandam as a film that is based on or mimicking of another film.
The background score in the film is not that of a jaded melodrama. Yuvan Shankar Raja is a composer I have not cared much about. But in Aranya Kaandam the background score is, I must say, impossibly good. And he has won many awards and much fame for his background score in the film.
Thiagarajan Kumararaja has an in-depth knowledge of popular music. Rock is his favourite genre of music. At one stage of his life, he was particularly fond of Heavy Metal, a form of Rock. He had a big repertoire of western songs for listening like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Pink Floyd, Guns and Roses, Ban Jovi and Chemical Brothers. He was an ardent fan of R.D.Burman’s Hindi compositions. In Tamil he likes most of the songs of M.S.Viswanathan but above all, as far as Tamil songs go, he is a great fan of Ilaiyaraja. He has magically woven into the background score of Aranya Kaandam, a movie without any song, many Ilaiyaraja songs as a part of the atmospherics. Thiagarajan Kumararaja says that when he listens to his favourite music, they keep running in his mind as countless visuals.
Though the movie is replete with brilliant portrayals by all the important artistes like Jackie Shroff, Yasmin Ponnappa, Ravi Krishna and Sampat Raj, I have never seen in any film before, anything like the role of Kaalaiyan portrayed by ‘Koothu Pattarai’ Somasundaram! Every thing about the character like its concept, direction and dialogues is absolutely scintillating! Nothing in my memory of any portrayal in any film can hold a candle to Somasundaram’s class act that is quite simply the most brilliant one! Thiagarajan Kumararaja has been able to wring the best out of all his actors, natural yet creative, without the device of anything like novelty for the sake of novelty or a differentiation for the sake of difference.
The film places before us the important question: “Do you like Kamal Haasan or Rajnikant?” The character ‘Sappai’ loves only Kamal. In his films, he is the ‘King of Love’. He kisses the girls, fully on their lips! But, from the point of view of ‘Subbu’, Sappai’s girl friend, Rajini is more important than Kamal. He may look ordinary, but he is the ‘Baasha’, the emperor! She loves another hero of Tamil Vijaykant even more as he keeps saving India from Pakistan!
This is merely Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s way of satirizing the Tamil commercial cinema. He shows up the absurdities of conception and picturisation in our films. The Censor Board was said to have been very adamant that Thiagarajan Kumararaja should bring permission letters from Rajni and Kamal before they allow the dialogues of ‘Sappai’ and ‘Subbu’! Look at the generosity of our Censors towards Directors who are true to their calling!
Thiagarajan Kumararaja left his budding college education within months of starting it to pamper his whim to direct a film. He did not work as an Assistant with any Director. He is very emphatic when he says that he is the creation of Doordarshan, the television channel that is a joke for many in the film world! The little that he reads, he reads carefully. The few films that he watches, he evaluates with utmost attention.
“I was never an assistant to anybody. But many youngsters call on me to become my assistants. I am happy about it. I do not believe in moralizing through my films. I only want to depict natural human instincts. Crime is a natural human instinct! I have not done anything after Aranya Kaandam. But, now I am writing a screenplay. I will shoot it if it turns out to my satisfaction. Writing alone is very important to me. If that comes out fine, I need only a month or two to finish a film! I am a restless person and do not like sitting in one place. I keep wandering at all times. That is when I watch people with great care. That and that alone is my cinema education.”
Thiagarajan Kumararaja, with his dangerous honesty, dominance with a difference, refreshingly novel takes and a unique evaluation of cinema’s place in society, is a lone traveler in our film world. Aranya Kaandam ran for four weeks in just one cinema theatre in Chennai. I saw its last show on the last day of its screening. Thiagarajan Kumararaja was there, as a person who bought his ticket, seated quietly, anonymous to all!
Ninety per cent of Indians are idiots who can easily be taken for a ride in the name of caste and religion.
Just about anyone can set off a caste or religious riot here.
– Markandeya Katju (Former Supreme Court Judge and current Chairman, Press Council of India)
‘Caste comes with birth; it can never be abolished’, ‘Caste is a concept that is accepted by everyone in our society’, ‘Caste is very important, it tells everyone his true place in society and what he should do in this life’ are among quite a few pronouncements on caste in India . More than the caste fanatics, it is the so-called intellectuals who put forward such justifications for caste. It is these people who have no doubt that, particular castes have particular characteristics from which they cannot free themselves even many generations later!
If you suggest that caste fanaticism is a phenomenon only among people of Indian subcontinent and those nations where migrants from Indian subcontinent are dominant, they will tell you that there are castes even among nations of Europe like France and Spain. They will tell you that even among white men there are castes like Anglo-Saxons and Hispanics. None of these can be compared to the caste fanaticism that is prevalent in India.
Here, when a young man and a woman hailing from different castes fall in love, an entire village is set on fire! Some members of both the families are either killed or ‘commit’ suicide or are maimed for life! If the lovers run away to live elsewhere, they are ostracized and banned for life from the community. The community’s consuming goal, abetted by powers that be, is to hunt and haunt the lovers, till their death. Think for a moment. Does love and sexual attraction between a young man and woman happen after verifying their caste or religion? A smile and a wink, and a man falls hopelessly in love with a woman he had not known before. Men and women get attracted to each other by the way a gesture is made and by the way a look beckons them! Even the guardians of caste virtues will go to anyone to fulfill their sexual desires, if they are sure of making it a secret affair! It is the biological instinct that guides here. The caste and religious distinctions created by man entirely for selfish reasons cannot stand in the way of a biological instinct.
Divisive factors like race, language, regionalism and nationalism work virulently and efficiently to divide man from man, to dominate men and to work their ways to achieve nefarious political goals. You can see in them a fanaticism that is in no way less than casteism. My intention is to narrate here how these things confronted me in my forty years of life and how I made the effort to face them. These are all my personal evaluations and opinions. You might even say that these are a kind of personal memoirs.
It is said that castes arose and were then followed from one’s calling or trade. But in my childhood, spent in the hill villages of Idukki district in Kerala, the experience was totally different. There, people of all castes and religions whether Brahmins, Nairs, Muslims, Higher caste Christians or Dalits had agriculture as their calling. Traders in the village markets were people belonging to different castes. Some of them were traders as well as farmers.
Bhaskaran, a barber by caste’s trade, worked on his field till lunch and opened his saloon only in the afternoon. His eldest son ran a provisions shop. Bhaskaran’s wife, Savitri, was the dance teacher to our village children. She taught dancing to the girls of all castes, high or low. No function at our school will be complete without the dance of her younger son, Salim Kumar, who was my childhood friend. Savitri was the only celebrity and fine arts centre of those villages!
Oanachan, who sold both vegetables and dry fish in his shop, was a Dalit. Mynakunjootti, who sold household goods on installment payment basis, was a Dalit, too. The Brahmins and Nairs of our place cooked their food on the vessels bought from him! I have seen daily wage labourers from all castes in our place. Our place was full of people of all castes doing all kinds of jobs. Jose and Thangachan, higher caste Christians climbed coconut trees and betel nut trees. Ramanan Nair, the head load carrier in the village junction or Vasu Namboodiri who watered our paddy fields.
Chenda, the traditional drum of Kerala, is played by a caste called Marar. But in our villages and towns, Karappattu Kutty Asan and his relatives have been playing Chenda for generations. They are from the Dalit caste s called Sambava. There are no temples in our area where their Chenda had not resounded. That tradition still continues. I still remember the grand function to honour Karappattu Kutty Asan organized by the villagers when he returned after winning the Special Award of Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy. He is not alive today. But his relations and children play Chenda not only in Kerala but are also in the temples of Tamilnadu.
I do not recollect Brahmins being either the priests or administrators of temples in our area. A few Nairs knowing the rudiments of rituals and even some Ezhavas, considered low caste, had officiated as Priests! They were called ‘Santhis’ in Malayalam. There was one ‘Santhi’ in our neighbouring village. He officiated as priest in many temples and was known as extremely devoted. But one day when he attempted to rape his teenage daughter, she had cut off his penis with a sickle. He escaped somehow and ran away from the village. He must still be working as a temple priest wherever he is, since he knows no other trade!
As a child and as a teenager, I had close friends across all castes. I used to congregate with friends like Salim Kumar, Kaniappan, Achan Kunju, Priyan and Sunny in our friend Srinivasan Nair’s house to play and pass time. When Srinivasan Nair’s parents were not at home, we used to get into their kitchen to cook and eat whatever caught our fancy. It, then, never occurred to us to regard a Barber, a Muslim, a Dalit, a Christian, an Ezhava or a Nair as persons belonging to different castes. It is only now; when I sit down to write this article, I remember that we were supposedly born into different castes! I do not think that the Nair household came to any harm because of the ‘low caste brats’ entering their house! Today, Srinivasan Nair is a happy man, settled in Dubai as a top executive of a huge corporate.
Religions play a big role in controlling and institutionalizing caste. I have always seen religion as far more complex than caste and quite active in creating confusions. As an example, let us suppose somebody wants to know my religion and I respond to them saying that I am a Muslim, it does not end there. I have to say whether I am a Sunni, Shia, Ahmadiya, Ibadi, Qurani, Sufi or belong to Nation of Islam! Alright, take me as a Sunni. Then am I confessing to Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, Humblee, Tauheed or Wahabi! If I am, on the other hand a Shia, then do I belong to Twelvers or Ismaili or Zaidiyya or Bohra? Let us look at what the Islamic web site ‘Fundamentals of Islam’ has to say: “Muslim world remains divided into countless sects and sub sects. Every sect has its own laws and disciplinary rules.”
It may require many articles like this to write about the divisions, sects and sub sects of Christianity. Christianity has thousands of sects and sub sects in its many important versions like Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Non Trinity, New Thought, Jewish Christianity, Esoteric and Syncretistic. You might have heard of Catholic churches like Roman Catholic, Latin Catholic and Syrian Catholic and Protestant churches like Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, Brethren, Baptist and Pentecost. There are ‘Orthodox’ Christian Churches native only to Kerala like Jacobites, Catholicate and Marthoma. Like this there are endless numbers of churches counting as sub sects in each and every part of the world that follows Christianity!
In Hinduism they say that the four varnas of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras said to have been born from different parts of the creator god Brahma. Chandalas are said to have been born from the dust of Brahma’s feet. But under the sects like Vaishnava, Saiva, Shaktha, Saura, Smartha, etc., there are thousands of divisions and subdivisions in Hinduism. Many know that Iyers are Smartha Brahmins following the line prescribed by Adi Shankara. But how many know of Smartha Brahmin sects like Kanyakubja, Sarayubarene, Saraswat, Utkala, Maithili, Gauda, Garhade, Deshastha, Konkanastha, Devarukke, Gauda Saraswat, Chitrapur, Rajapur, Havyaka, Vaidiki Mulakanadu, Vaidiki Velanadu, Vaidiki Veginadu, Badaganadu, Hoysala Kannada, Koda, Babbur Kamme, Arvel Neogi, Vaishya Vani, etc….etc…
Among Brahmins of Kerala there are many sub sects like Pushpaka, Nambisan, Unni, Brahmani, Daivampati, Pilappalli and so on. There are countless Gotras and Pravaras as well. Brahmins are only a small percentage of Hindus. Just imagine the mind-boggling number of sects and sub sects in the other castes of Hindus. Chettiars, who are another of smaller castes alone are supposed to have 24 sub sects! All these countless divisions among different religions and castes seek to prop up differences, deviations and contradictions. Even among the people of the outwardly same caste there is hierarchy of superiority and inferiority. They prescribe different levels of untouchability among themselves!
Does human life that lasts a short span of 70, 80 years need these countless castes and religions and the contradictions of their separate laws and rules that create most of the social frictions, sorrows and losses? Many still believe that caste is being preserved to maintain racial purity and sacredness! What importance can be accorded to such remnants of superstitions that bedeviled man during his cave dwelling days? Have not we heard that ‘Mother is truth but father is faith’? Is it possible all such faiths of us are true? Do we realize that only a mother knows about the degree of ‘racial purity’ of her children?
What will happen when two persons hailing from different castes inter-marry? Will the sky fall down? I have only one sister. In the gap between her graduation and preparations for her wedding, she temporarily joined an organisation for work. There she happened to fall in love. The boy was a Dalit Christian! He came home and asked for the hand of my sister. My father, who was into social service and was regarded as one who ignored caste and religion, was beside himself with anger. He exploded in rage. When it came home, his social inclusiveness and social responsibility went out of the window! The news reached me in Karnataka where I was working. My father and my maternal uncles were preparing to create a real ruckus. My sister remained silent.
She made one thing plain to me when I talked to her. “If you say no, I will stay away from this love. But I can never break away from it in my heart. I will spend my entire life in this house. But please do not ever run away with the impression that I will change with time and that you can thrust on me a marriage of your choice.” The suggestions that I could have made vanished before her determination. I stood by her in that wedding. I had a tough time getting my father to agree to the wedding which took place braving the opposition of our relatives and family friends. My brothers and I bade our sister a tearful send-off.
Her husband rose from ranks in his job. Till my father’s death, he maintained a very close relation with him. I felt that my father, who had more or less disowned me, accepted him as his own son! My sister is now mother of two children. Her daughter is seventeen and studying well, standing first in the district. She has even won a few state-level prizes for her poems. My 13 years old nephew reads a lot and writing short stories. My sister is happy. And as I write this, the new house she is constructing is taking shape in our home town.
A young boy and a girl from two permanently warring castes fell in love. The girl got pregnant. When she became aware of the pregnancy, it was too late. Frightened of the threat to her life if it became known, she took some potentially harmful medicines to abort her pregnancy. But the foetus refused to abort. The girl child saw the light of the day hurdling over all the death traps set for her. She was born with physical handicaps and many brain deficiencies. My caste is the same caste of that child, condemned to live her entire life in tears.