Thursday, March 15, 2012

Scripting a neo-noir success in Indian cinema

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An analysis into the success – and failure – of the national award winning Tamil movie Aranya Kandam  

The slick, pulp fiction-like poster of Aaranya Kaandam, perhaps the first Tamil neo-noir movie

by Rajagopalan Venkataraman

Think noir in Indian cinema and it is but natural to think of movies based on gangsters and internecine wars for supremacy. Notable examples in this genre include the Amitabh Bacchan-starrer Zanjeer, Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan and Ram Gopal Varma’s repertoire of mafia sagas, ranging from Satya to Company and D. Save for a few, a majority of such movies, in their bid to dish out “masala” entertainers – a euphemism for a film that has something for all sections of audiences – have traditionally offered the backseat to factors like story and screenplay. Ergo, when Aaranya Kandam (the jungle chapter) – perhaps the first Tamil neo-noir movie – recently bagged a slew of awards, including two national awards, Indian cinema aficionados had a genuine cause for celebration.

Aaranya... can very well be the syces’ dark horse: with plenty of newbies in its cast and a debutant director, few would have expected it to garner as much attention as it eventually did. Far from the traditional ‘macho’ Tamil movie – parodied to different levels of hilarity in movies such as Om Shanti Om or Quick Gun MuruganAaranya...’s USP was its readiness to discard such stereotypes. With a theme that would make a Quentin Tarantino or a Francis Ford Coppola proud – how a henchman betrayed by his gang goes about reclaiming his space – it was also aided by taut editing; in fact, one of the national awards that the movie bagged was for its editing.

Every character was etched in a novel yet realistic manner and accorded almost equal importance in the plot. The villager’s son who would not hesitate to abuse his bumbling, drunkard father; the don – Jackie Shroff in his first Tamil movie – learning English from a ‘learn in 30-days’ book and using it at the unlikeliest of the moments; or the sexually-abused gangster’s concubine who wouldn’t bat an eyelid before ‘using’ her close friend ensure that viewers have jaw-dropping moments aplenty.

Prior to its release, Aaranya... was in the crosshairs of the censor board, and it isn’t difficult to see why. With profanities abound in its dialogues, most of which have been bleeped out, the movie could have offered stiff competition to Hollywood’s Scarface or The Departed or Bollywood’s Delhi Belly. Violence, too, was integral to the movie, offered in generous doses in the form of slo-mo sequences of men being slit and hacked to death (after all, what’s a gangster movie without violence?) but this, along with its somewhat predictable ending, can be papered over for a super-fast narrative, and witty, sharp dialogues.

Not your typical gangster movie...
If ever viewing Aaranya... makes for a gripping experience, mention must be made of its music composer, Yuvan Shankar Raja, as well, who has effectively employed two elements – silence and the yesteryear hits of his father Ilayaraja, which can be likened to a leitmotif – to create the atmosphere of the gangster-ridden north Chennai. The director, Thyagarajan Kumararaja – who bagged the national award for best directorial debut – had earlier scripted the dialogues for the Arya-Pooja starrer Oram Po, a laughter riot.

However, despite collecting awards that may fill a mantelpiece, its makers had reason for worry: Aaranya... was reportedly a dud at the box-office.