24 May 2018

Life, Tamil cinema style

My Mirror column:

What does cinema stand for in Tamil fiction? The second of a multi-part column on films and life in Tamil Nadu.

Last week, as an absolute outsider, I took the liberty – and risk – of speculating on the subject of cinema and Tamil Nadu. Not on the state of cinema in Tamil Nadu –about which I know far too little to say anything of value –but Tamil Nadu as a state of cinema. My route into the subject was Tamil fiction, starting with Perumal Murugan’s novel Current Show.

I ended the previous column on the cusp of a tale being told by the old Watchman in Current Show. The story in question was of how old man Poosariappan came to build the Vijaya Theatre that is the novel’s grim, dark locale. 

Poosari was really rich then—had his own weaving mill. Had a car and driver even then. He was planning to build a grain godown. One day, he sees his daughter-in-law, Sadaiyan’s wife, dressing up to go out. Looking at her, you wouldn’t say she’s from his caste. Fair and round, like a ripe tomato. Poosari couldn’t bear to see this red tomato going out like that—powder on her face, nice clothes... . Before he knew what he was doing, his mouth blurted out: ‘What’s all this dressing-up? Like some cheap night-dancer?’ They say she got really angry. So angry she yelled back, forgetting his age, ‘I’m going to see a film. Know what a cinema theatre is? Ever been inside one?’

Poosariappan felt so slighted by his daughter-in-law’s taunt that he decided to convert his intended grain godown into a cinema theatre. In another variant of the tale, it was Poosari’s mistress in Mallasamudram who gave him the idea –to get back at his daughter-in-law – and the theatre was named Vijaya after her. Another version had Poosari building Vijaya Theatre to get back at his Gounder friend, owner of Krishna Talkies, who had made fun of Poosari for thinking that a theatre was a tent with dancing women in it.

The various origin myths which Murugan stitches together here reveals how deeply cinema has become part of warp and weft of Tamil everyday life, embedded into the existing dynamics of caste, class and gender. The theatre represents sophistication, modernity, but is also redolent with the illicit, the sexual. For a man like Poosari, moneyed but not urbane, a cinema theatre is good business, but it isn’t only that. Becoming a cinema owner seems to stand in for control of recalcitrant women, somehow making a claim to masculinity and caste status by owning a hall in which a minute’s worth of soft porn plays every day. Years later, Poosari has never seen a single film fully, says the Watchman – only that minute of porn.

The cinema also makes its presence felt in several short stories in the mammoth collection The Tamil Story: Through the times, through the tides, edited by Dilip Kumar and translated by Subashree Krishnaswamy. In Prapanchan’s crisply narrated ‘In a Town, Two Men’, an urban landscape of new cinema theatres forms the backdrop of a tale about an unpaid loan. There is a faint whiff of sarcasm that attends this geography; a sense that there might be more cinemas than homes in this universe. “The huts were razed and they built a cinema hall there. No one knew where the hutment dwellers had disappeared. Perhaps they were living inside the cinema hall.”

A very different spin on the idea of living in the cinema theatre is provided by another story in the collection, 'The Saga of Sarosadevi' (1981). Shenbagam Ramaswamy’s story begins with a woman called Bhagyam who is watching a film when the baby in her stomach decides it is time to come out into the universe. “It was the time when actor Sarojadevi was mouthing the song sung by playback singer P Susheela: ‘Thangathile Oru Kuraiyirundalam (Even if there is a flaw in the gold...)’. A stern voice ordered from the back, ‘Sit down, di.’ ‘Move your feet. Make way for this akka. She’s got labour pains.’ Ponnamma had to announce this loudly in the dark of the cinema hall.”

The faceless women in the surrounding seats let Bhagyam and Ponnamma out, though not without some sarcastic grumbling: “Look at her coming to watch a film at the time of labour!” “Such a craze for films, is it?” “Perhaps she thought if she delivers in the cinema hall, she’ll get fame.” But there isn’t enough time to get to the hospital. A midwife is rushed in, and “[b]y the time Sarojadevi and Sivaji Ganesan were united with their child in the film, Bhagyam had given birth to a girl.”

The hapless child is named Sarosadevi (that is how Ponnamma pronounces the name of the heroine) but her time on earth is nasty, brutish and short. Life offers her none of the expansiveness and luxury conjured by her name. One wonders if this might be one of the recurring ways in which the trope of cinema appears in modernist Tamil fiction – to show us a population that dreams of cinema, only to then peel back the curtain and reveal the unvarnished grimness of life?

[To be continued]

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 20 May 2018.

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