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Kuthiraivaal Review: Down the Rabbit Hole

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Director: Manoj Leonel Jahson, Shyam Sunder

Cast: Kalaiyarasan, Anjali Patil, Chetan

You simply cannot slot Kuthiraivaal. The Tamil film directed by Manoj Leonel Jahson and Shyam Sunder and produced by Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions and Yaazhi Films, screened at Berlin Critics’ Week after its premiere at IFFK. Written by G Rajesh and starring Kalaiyarasan, Anjali Patil and Chetan, the film takes us on a journey.

We hear water dripping over the opening credits. We are inside Saravanan’s (or is he Freud?) – Kalaiyarasan is wonderfully stumped throughout – dream. And then there is a splash (someone jumped into a pool?) and he wakes up. He squirms only to find out that he has a horse tail. Saravanan squirms a lot. The tail makes him squirm when he thinks, he claims. Is that what we feel too? Every time we try to guess what the film is about, we fidget in our seats trying to make sense of the film. We reach a dreamland where a soothsaying grandmother tells Saravanan that he needs to get back into the dream to figure out the meaning of the tail.

So, we dive into Kuthiraivaal. This is the most audacious debut in Tamil cinema since Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aaranya Kandam. And like Thiagarajan’s films, Kuthiraivaal too contains vivid colours and imaginative framing.

Manoj and Shyam are similarly ultra-concerned about the spatial detailing in their shots (Karthik Muthukumar’s cinematography evokes the phantasmagoria they go for). Stained glass and wavy figures define Saravanan’s flat and even the world outside the window with trains screeching on the tracks (sound design by Anthony Ruban; background score by Pradeep Kumar and Maarten Visser) and a subway passing look two dimensional, as if they were painted on. This is really a dream-like universe (but it is also only West Mambalam; maybe the joke is you cannot find a more vanilla part of Chennai). A moon shines larger than the sun and a medieval sculpture of a woman in trance sits next to his bed, a spot Vaanavil/van Gogh (Anjali Patil) – or is she Irusaayi – occupies later in the film.

At least you could fit Thiagarajan’s films into a popular genre, while Kuthiraivaal plays fast and loose with its form and structural integrity. It never settles into a coherent narrative, Saravanan’s thoughts literalised can be a bother and this is by design. In many sequences, it recalls a low-key brand of Jodorowsky surrealism. Jodorowsky in a Tamil film? “Get outta here!” is an appropriate reaction.

The camera pans and we move from Mambalam to somewhere deep in the woods. A single take in Saravanan’s home tracks Saravanan and Babu (Chetan) drinking and not conversing. Saravanan is sitting on a stool, turned sideways. Babu is in front of him and talking to Saravanan as if he is looking straight into Babu’s eyes. The mirrors are playful, they show a vast expanse of Saravanan’s flat, disproportionate to its tiny measurements. Dutch angles give us a slanted scene of the world, where reality and illusion intermingle. But that’s how it is beginning to end.

The name drops span the gamut – Jacques Lacan to Barry Fitzgerald. Saravanan’s former professor is so obsessed with mathematics that he refuses to share his name at the bank where Saravanan is a teller. “Isn’t it all numbers now, PAN card to account number, what’s in a name?”, he questions. But Saravanan drops his name. And what names! Stuart Koteeswaran and Kowski Krupakaran. The tellers of this story give us no details, the characters talk in non sequitur. The professor works out of a decrepit basement that contains what looks like Penrose stairs. One moment Saravanan is slowly climbing up to get out of the dungeon and in the very next he is back inside.

All of this doesn’t make Kuthiraivaal inaccessible. The film is replete with the Tamil cinema references that keep you guessing about the time, place and the question – which is the illusion? We hear snatches from Parasakthi court scene, dialogs from Ratha Kanneer, music from Anbe Vaa. MGR’s aura looms over the film like a tsunami about to make landfall – there is even a reference to MR Radha and MGR shooting incident. How is MGR connected to Saravanan? Where is Saravanan from and why is the film full of incomplete treatises on Hinduism, virgin birth, not to mention the prayers from a mosque in one scene. Or the Buddha on the bedside table. Is the film about identity? Gender? Religion?

The film is within reach but the closer we get, farther it moves away from us. Not that all of it comes together neatly but Manoj, Shyam and Rajesh have enough astonishing elements packed. Sometimes, it is not about how good or bad the film is. Kuthiraivaal takes wild swings, gambling with the audience. What’s not to like?

****

The Kuthiraivaal review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreenindia.com and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.

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