So here’s a little backstory before we get down to the main act.
Some years back, I happened to be in Chennai, hoping to luck into fresh young voices in Tamil cinema, when I heard about Aaranya Kaandam, from its beleaguered producer SPB Charan, who was having a torrid time getting it past the CBFC.
I asked to see it; he had a subtitled DVD copy readied overnight and passed it on to me. Wait, that’s a much too bland recounting of what transpired. I was headed to the airport, and as planned, Charan intercepted my car, rolled down his window just as I rolled down mine, handed the DVD over, and we whizzed off in different directions.
Thinking back on it — that little exchange which would have appeared to a bystander like a furtive transfer of some secret files — always makes me smile. It felt like a fitting prelude to discovering the rumbustious, raucous cinematic universe of Thiagarajan Kumararaja which thrummed, as I soon discovered, with subplots and parallel threads and tangled skeins, to come together for a rousing finale.
Aaranya Kaandam, starring an unlikely cast of Jackie Shroff, Sampath Raj, Ravi Krishna and Yasmin Ponnappa, is a blow-your-socks-off twisty, trippy, ferociously funny tale about impotent crime bosses, hoods who gab like they are in a Tarantino flick, a father and son lost in a maze of greed and stolen cash, a moll with oodles of moxie, and a bunch of colourful characters who cuss and chase each other non-stop, leading towards a jaw-dropping climax.
Super Deluxe, Kumararaja’s sophomore act, which comes eight years after, is a fitting follow-up. It is both similar and different. It has the same disparate threads-plotting pattern; the characters are as messed up and messy. But while it feels as pulsatingly lived-in, Super Deluxe’s mayhem has more heft, more depth. It is less interested in calling attention to its showiness. It is much more engaged in charting a growing-up process, more willing to grapple with complexity, and meaning. It’s a 2.0 step up from the debut, in both concept and craft.
More than anything else, and this is what makes it so remarkable for a mainstream film, Super Deluxe is dazzlingly, unapologetically feminist. It takes graven-in-stone notions of male and female roles and flips them comprehensively on their head. It dissects, with a cleaver’s edge, hidebound binaries with characters who are gender-and-space fluid.
Super Deluxe shows that you can be more than just one or the other. It opens up possibilities. It is sometimes a bit too talky while doing so, but I will take it, thank you very much.
There are several provocative fronts that the film opens up, including one which questions, somewhat patchily, religion and beliefs. But the most affecting one belongs to a broken family unit which heals through the wisdom of a young child named Raasukutty. The actor playing this little boy is minus all affection, and is, therefore, affecting: as he waits for his long-gone father to return, along with his near-silent mother and other family members and nosy neighbours, he is faced with a figure he did not expect. How Raasukutty (and the boy’s mother) comes to reconcile to this old-new parent is a thing of beauty: just for this, the film deserves your time.
Vijay Sethupathi, who has been taking giant career strides in the last decade, gobbling up all kinds of roles as he goes along, is terrific as a woman-who-was-a-man. Watch him wear a sari — pleat it, fling it over a shoulder while carving out a pallu, and settle it around his expansive waist — like he owns the garment. It is a scene full of knowing, a controlled release of camp, to create the right impact.
Not all the plot lines work as well, the rockiest being the one which features an alien: that ET-not-go-home-schtick needed to have been sharper. But even when the film is meandering, it never loses sight of its women, who are being judged for doing what they do, for being sexually alive, for knowing the difference between need and want, and acting upon it.
One is a married woman (Samantha Akkineni, playing it with the right amount of sexy guile) who has a tryst with a former lover, leaving her husband (Fahad Faasil, making a delightful cuckold) foxed. The other is a middle-aged mother to a teenaged fellow, and she works in the porn industry. That is her profession, and she is not ashamed. Ramya Krishnan, who plays this mum, says, and to me it is the most powerful line in the film: ‘If it’s okay for you (the son) to watch porn, why is it not okay for me to work in those movies? And no, the producer (of the films) did not lie to me. I knew exactly what I was getting into’.