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Friday, March 9, 2012

A golden shawl for the dead

Are we justified in celebrating the recognition of films we never bothered to see when they came knocking at the doors of theatres near us, asks Baradwaj Rangan

Each time the National Awards are announced and Tamil cinema is singled out, I experience a slight sense of unease. Am I the only one who feels that there is something ethically — perhaps even morally wrong — about the celebrations that ensue? Does anyone else feel that the FM radio stations should not be calling the directors of these films and hailing their achievements, and that local magazines should not be making a beeline to their doorsteps seeking to photograph them and interview them for bringing great glories to “our Thamizhagam”? Surely someone else catches a whiff of posthumous praise here, in this re-estimation of films that crawled, with great difficulties, to the marketplace and died ignoble deaths at the ticket counters. Where, I wonder, was our “Tamil pride” then, during the time of release, when nothing — not good reviews, not social-media exhortations, not word of mouth — could make us buy tickets for these brave little films that died with their boots on?

I call it the “Thenmerku Paruvakaatru” syndrome. The film garnered, at last year's National Awards, three honours — for Best Tamil Film, Best Actress and Best Lyricist. It sounds all goosefleshy and wonderful —until we realise that till the awards were announced, very few knew that such a film was made and released. Celebrating these wins, then, is like dressing up the dead. Of course, the people involved have genuine cause for joy. They worked towards something and it was recognised. They have earned the right to celebrate, as also those who stood by them, encouraged them, gave them the monies to set off on these odd little pathways branching off from mainstream cinema. Even I, this year, have earned the right to celebrate the winning films, for I went to the theatres to see “Vaagai Sooda Vaa” (Best Tamil Film), “Azhagarsamiyin Kuthirai” (Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment, and Best Supporting Actor) and “Aaranya Kaandam” (Best Debut Film of a Director).

But I have no right to bask in the borrowed glory of “Thenmerku Paruvakaatru”, because I haven't seen it (and no, catching it on TV, when the narrative is splintered into a thousand ad-connected shards, does not count). These aren't art films, made only with awards in mind. These are fairly commercial features, with entertaining aspects, and yet we stayed away. We can, now, begin to make excuses. Oh, there are so many films being released every week, and it's so difficult to keep track of them. Oh, I kept meaning to see this film, but it was released in just one show in the theatre nearby and that wasn't a convenient time. Oh, I was out of town the week this film came out and when I returned, a week later, it was gone. Oh, I only go to see Shankar films in the theatre because they justify the big-screen experience and I feel I have gotten value for my money.

These are all, in varying degrees, valid reasons for not encouraging films that needed encouragement. But if we shrug our shoulders and accept these valid reasons, aren't we saying that these films are doomed from the beginning, and that the only pat on the back is going to arrive belatedly from the Central Government? How can this be a happy situation? How can we celebrate this state of affairs, when these directors aren't going to find it easy to make their next films? (Ever heard of a producer who said, “Hey, I hear you won a National Award; let me hand you the keys to my vault for your next venture?”) I am not sure what the solution is. Ensure better visibility for these smaller features? Make sure that they stick around till they find an audience? Regulate release schedules so that films aren't swept away in floods of new arrivals? While we scrounge about for answers, perhaps we should hold off the fireworks.


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