To understand the brilliance of Jigarthanda in totality, you need to know a little bit about how films are made and distributed in Tamil Nadu. And the kind of films that are usually made and how they are produced. You need to also understand where Karthik Subbaraj comes from. Literally.
Hence this post after the film has been unanimously raved about. The only bit of criticism the film has faced is for changing genres halfway – something the film justifies by the end so much that when you see the film a second time, it seems like the only logical way to finish that story.
Now, the context.
The Tamil film industry produces over 200 films a year. About 30-40 per cent of them don’t even release/ get shelved even after completion. Because very few investors are willing to spend on marketing and distribution. Very rarely do arthouse films without violence ever see the light of day. In other words, in the absence of stars, only violence sells.
Film distribution happens through political clout. If you are in power, you get to push your films wherever you want, you can get as many screens as you want. When you are not in power, you have to fight even to get an entertainment tax exemption. A change in government is enough to turn the powerful into underdogs.
Distribution happens through minimum guarantee where producers make distributors buy the film for a price that minimizes their risk. And films with stars fetch high MGs. Films without stars don’t. Hence, there is a need to arm-twist the distributors to push content without stars. And those in power or those close to the party in power find it easy to do this. You can call it monopoly if you want to use a euphemism.
Organised crime and violence is still prevalent in many pockets of Tamil Nadu and Madurai is considered to be the hub and breeding grounds for the cold at heart (the title is named after a drink – a South Indian variant of the Falooda that literally means Cold Heart), a fact many films have milked for violence and bloodshed.
Post Paruthiveeran and Subramaniapuram and endless rehashes of violent films, young filmmakers have had to pick one of the two feasible option. One, get a star and make a film that glorifies his image. Or Two, make an ultraviolent gangster film where the script is the hero.
Thanks to the reality show Nalaya Iyakkunar (translated to Tomorrow’s Directors), an exciting new bunch of filmmakers came to the limelight with some truly different films. The winner of the show Nalan Kumarasamy made Soodhu Kavvum while Karthik Subbaraj who finished second got a new age producer to back Pizza, a smaller film he wrote AFTER Jigarthanda seemed like an expensive film to make for a debutant director with a new producer.
Jigarthanda hence begins with that finale of the reality show where Karthik (a young filmmaker based on the filmmaker himself) loses the final. Incidentally, Nalan Kumarasamy the guy who beat him puts in a cameo as a finalist in the film to establish the meta-narrative right in the first few minutes during the opening credits.
Jigarthanda is about two guys from two different worlds. They speak two different languages.
The hero is a filmmaker who is in the business of manufacturing emotions that go beyond language – hence, the film employs gibberish to make this point. Characters speak gibberish much before a sequence when an acting coach tells his trainees how the spoken word is not important, only the theatrics of it matter in this art. Because it’s a visual medium. Even a huge part of the key dialogue and score towards the end is in gibberish as the film references itself.
The villain is a gangster who is in the business of manufacturing violence, of course and as he says: Nothing helps more than adi-othai (maar-dhaad). Violence is the language he speaks.
Without any spoilers, suffice to say that Jigarthanda is the film where these two languages meet. As Shilpa Rathnam puts it so eloquently, Jigarthanda is a world where art imitates crime and crime imitates art.
The two worlds have so much in common after all – action, shooting, cutting – one creates and the other destroys. One brings pain and the other is the balm.
To make a film on the state of the art and the nexus between cinema and crime in Tamil Nadu, from the inside and saying it as it is, requires some amount of balls. And Karthik Subbaraj has done it without judgment. At no point does he make the artist good and the gangster bad and many reviews have already pointed out the evil in the hero and the goodness in the villain.
It is never black and white. Both art and crime have great power to influence people and each other. Once you’ve tasted blood, you always want more.
Which is why the world of crime (the gangster film in the first half) needed to meet the world of cinema (the film about filmmaking in the second half). The crime story had already climaxed in the interval (we are yet to see a more riveting first half this year). And nothing could have taken the film higher down that path. Luckily for us and cinema, Karthik chose to change track. Though some may find this frustrating on first viewing, by the time the film reaches its superb climax, you understand the point that Karthik Subbaraj wants to make: What filmmaking has come down to from his part of the world.
I have never seen a smarter use of the meta-narrative in recent times.
Jigarthanda is the most exciting film out of India this year, if not the best. It is racy, it is funny, it is violent, it has superb performances, it has a rocking score by Santhosh Narayanan (that I am buying off iTunes right away) and it celebrates and critiques cinema.
Watch it before someone ruins the ending for you. And if someone tries to do that, it’s totally okay to kill the fucker.
To wait for English subtitles for a film that’s telling you how cinema is all about the emotion behind the “gibberish” is against the idea and the spirit of the film itself. You would be surprised at how much you understand just face-reading this film. Hats off to the actors – each one of them is terrific. Siddharth, full respect to let Simha steal his thunder. What a superb cast this is.
Go watch. And watch it all over again.