Thiagarajan Kumararaja – A Lone Traveler in the Filmy Forest

It was a film awards function of a Tamil television channel. The auditorium was brimming with popular Tamil film personalities. There were show hosts speaking without pausing to take a breath. There were singers who were only lending lip movements to the audio CDs being played. Glamorous screen actresses were dancing to catcalls. Some of the award winners went into great details of their achievements as an elaborate post-awards speech. Some award winners were humility personified while thanking and bowing to everyone from god to the gatekeeper. Then comes the announcement of award for screenplay to the writer director of the film Aranya Kaandam, Thiagarajan Kumararaja! He comes to the stage.

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's 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, Bon 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! 

(December 2011)