Pa. Ranjith’s latest film, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu, is a blazing cinematic experiment gone sour. For a director who brought the finesse of radical imagery to the gangster genre with Madras (2014)—think of the male protagonist casually reading Theendaadhu Vasantham, a book on Dalit oppression, and his bookshelf stacked with editions of Ambedkar’s memoirs despite the word “Ambedkar” never being used throughout the film—who was pulled into the roster of directors to sculpt and jolt Rajinikanth’s fading stardom into life with Kabali (2016) and Kaala (2018), and who crafted one of the most electric and memorable films of last year, Sarpatta Parambarai (2021), this film was as dull, as sharp, as self-congratulating, and, with a runtime of almost three hours, as long as a manifesto.
‘Good’ art and ‘bad’ art
You can turn around, cock your head, point fingers at me, and ask, what is wrong with a movie being a manifesto? Why is the flat moral urgency of a manifesto considered “bad” art? After all, what do we mean when we say a movie is “good”? If we can agree that taste, like desire, is produced socially, within the framework of market-morphed capitalism, of gendered power and thus gendered mannerisms, of linear progress, of cathartic escapism, of beauty as powdered, of sentimentalised family, of caste and class, of frames as horizontally rectangular, of the image of love as one-man-one-woman-one-wedding, why can we not agree that taste can also be un-produced, shifted, challenged, and thus changed?
A Marxist conception, one that the art critic John Berger had eloquently laid out in his works, was that art is not the vessel but the water that takes the shape of those who commission it, their status, their biases and preferences. On the other hand, critics and consumers should not be stuck within the asphyxiating barometer of “good” and “bad”, for the purpose of experiencing art is to expand one’s sense of self, of power, of privilege. Any work of art that upholds virtues of the market is not worthy of being called art. This was a scathing semantic re-evaluation of the word “art” itself, that there is an “absolute incompatibility between art and private property”.
Pa. Ranjith, with his latest film, shuns this fragile desire for good and bad cinema, instead rallying behind art that is explicitly, politically conscious. That art can be, must be, reactionary, too, is apparent from the very first frame of the film—a painting of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss on a wall.
Klimt, part of the Austrian Secessionists, used gold leaf liberally in his work, a gilded ornamentation that, in the early 20th century, was considered immoral by puritan art critics. An aesthetic choice being given an ethical evaluation. Did that perspective not change as the centuries tumbled? Did the weatherglass of art not shift and expand? Weren’t the Impressionists once considered bad painters, for being unable to replicate life in painting, with artists like Van Gogh and Monet chasing feeling instead, trying to replicate the effect of life in painting? Time brings perspective. Or at least time changes perspective.
So if disgust—meted out towards the lower castes, the queers—is socially produced and inherited, why cannot love also be that, Ranjith argues. Coming from someone whose art and mentorship is so deeply involved with caste, it changes the questions we walk out of a film with. It is not a cinema of feeling, but a cinema of ideas.
But ideas cannot just exist as mere provocation. Like characters, they, too, must be fleshed out, plumped with more than just being one thing. To reduce a human to an identity, an idea, is just as bland—and I would argue, just as worrying—as to ignore that very identity, that very idea. Both produce a kind of moral ennui.
Natchathiram Nagargiradhu’s protagonist is Rene (Dushara Vijayan), a proud, vocal Dalit Ambedkarite who dyes the ends of her hair blue, who sits erect like Buddha, and whose performance of brash indifference, used as both shield and sword, is designed to reform a man—Arjun (Kalaiyarasan), who has lived his life under the blinding comforts of caste, class, gender, and sexuality; he is a well-to-do, heterosexual, dominant caste man. Rene and Arjun, along with an assortment of characters—one transwoman, two gay men, two lesbian women, a Dalit man, a French woman, a Muslim director—put together a play on inter-caste love in Puducherry.
The film argues that merely being gay, being a Dalit, being Muslim, being trans is enough. It is, I concede. There is no need to pad an identity with a story of trauma, of pain, of transforming pain to power. Why sell homosexuality, transness, Dalitness, Muslimness? But merely being is not a persuasive cinematic argument. It is not enough to explain the space they take up in the reel world, even as it might be in the real world.
In a moment of quiet vulnerability when Rene wakes up in the morning, opens her phone, and longingly gazes at photos of her ex—a man she dumped for his casual casteist hurls—she is shaded to lasso my affections. Here is a moment, rare in the film, of one’s moral certitude brushing up against morally agnostic desire. The being is torn between the two, a tension that is human at its core.
Again, I see Ranjith smirking, asking, what is wrong of me as a director to ask you to care for a character whose only characteristic is their marginal identity? Should we not immediately leak sympathy for the marginal without any narrative incitement?
No, I would argue. Then what does it say about me? That an identity is never enough. That it is swimming in the cross-currents of life that makes it alive to the contradictions of living as both oppressor and oppressed. That even as a gay man I groaned at the gay men on screen, for they were just that—gay. How long can we go about celebrating a film for being a pioneer in representation without us being willing to investigate the very limits of that representation? It is, frankly, boring.
The issue is, perhaps, the medium. This is, after all, a film and not a theatrical piece that is being performed. The physicality of a play, sharing space with us, allows for a rousing, doctrinal shrillness of spirit which cinema just cannot translate. It is why so much street theatre will never work if replicated as cinema. Theatre has a grammar unique to itself, neither amenable nor adaptable to another medium. In trying to stage a play within a film and using a play’s tactical swerves to evoke a cinematic response, Ranjith sets himself up to fail.
Cinema of didacticism
Besides, there is this syrupy didacticism in Arjun’s transformation, one that Ranjith idealistically hopes the morally twisted audience will mirror. The problem with didacticism is the same problem I have with logically reckless films—it assumes too much about its audience. That they are willing to lock themselves up in a theatre and that they want to be better people and that cinema is the most effective tool to make that happen.
There is also something remarkably narrow about imagining the audience as one receiving enlightenment, laden as they are with chinks of ignorance waiting to be smoothened out by the film. Or one merely being proud, feeling validated by identities that cinema has rarely showcased on screen. How desperate is this validation, then, that is happy merely seeing itself shown, never mind the dimensions, never mind the soft edged glow, never mind the repetition?
It is an entirely different grouse that even as didactic cinema, Natchathiram Nagargiradhu’s politics is a pale competition of despair. At one point three characters speak of how each of their respective tragedies are worse, more gruesome than the previous one’s—my tragedy is worse than yours. Like cliches, flat pronouncements are not philosophical diktats. They are, by definition, the opposite of radical, so familiar are we with their cut and thrust, their screeching clarity. To make a cinema of ideas, the ideas, too, must be cinematic.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.