Sunday, April 14, 2019

Super Deluxe [dir. Thiagarajan Kumararaja]

It would seem these days that making a film with a single plot is no longer good enough. No, if there is one thing that Mr. Tarantino has taught us, it is that multiple stories must must twist around and crash into one another, especially if one wants to build a cult value around it. Perhaps I'm being unnecessarily critical here - Thiagarajan Kumararaja (let's call him TK for convenience) is certainly an ambitious maker. I haven't seen his previous Aaranya Kaandam (Incident in the Forest), but it carried a lot of word for style quotient, and given the significant degree of acclaim for Super Deluxe (SD) - resulting in a far more widespread release than the typical Tamil film, with English subtitles to boot - I was eager to check out the work of the new dog and his new tricks.

In both the good and bad senses of the term, SD is a messy affair, with multiple writers including TK himself (who I assume wrote the overall framework), Myshkin (of Pisaasu fame, who also plays a role here) and Nalan Kumaraswamy (Soodhu Kavvum) and multiple cinematographers. At least some of the messiness appears to be deliberate, as though TK wants us to not just see the finished product, but the individual fingermarks in the material. The story of a precocious young boy (Ashwanth Ashokkumar) waiting for the return of the father that had long abandoned his mother is mixed with the misadventures of three horny teens scheming to watch a porn film ("Mallu Uncut" being the title given to their obscure object du désir) and again with a married woman (Samantha Akkineni)'s sexual tryst with a former flame ending with his death in her home.

Initially the tone in all the episodes is lightly humorous, the sort of deadpan banter Tamil cinema does best. The boy's father turns out a transvestite (Vijay Sethupati, effective and immensely courageous), the porn film features the mother of one of the boys (Ramya Krishnan), unspooling its own set of spiraling consequences, the married woman and her cuckolded husband (Fahadh Faasil) having to work together to get rid of the body. But the seams are already beginning to show: the shifts between narratives are not always organic, and to my mind the film would have done better to snip one of the plot threads (the corpse cover-up episode in my view most of the time seems its own film).

As the film progresses further the differences grow more starkly. The transvestite father episode gets more emotionally intense (Myshkin-like?), the horny teens segment is still trying to generate laughs (Kumaraswamy?), while the neo-noir husband-wife-body part still seems like a forced appendage. It may seem here like I am saying that a film should have the same tone throughout. I can understand that generating a different feel for each thread can be its own special experiment, but I am saying that for me, it seemed like an exercise for the sake of, especially when the joints where they fuse become more unwieldy. The over-the-top sleazy cop who is so apt for the femme infidèle segment is too cartoonish for the transvestite thread. There is a scene where the transvestite confesses a shocking crime, one you imagine will never cease to haunt her, but the script feels obliged to give each of its branches a happy ending and in this one it just feels forced.

I also felt there was a significant element of soap-boxing. Characters give sermons about discrimination, social / religious hypocrisy, universal oneness in an obvious manner, and Fahadh's rants come across as director mouthpieces than something his character's mind would come up with. A great screenplay is not one that has worked out all its flaws, but one whose strengths keep you sufficiently engrossed to gloss over them. The contrivances that occurred in Soodhu Kavvum seemed a natural part of its zany universe. In SD, I was pulled out by logical inconsistencies and deus ex machina because I could not give over my suspension of disbelief to the material. There are some terrific individual scenes here (the transvestite's confession in the subway, the immediate aftermath of the kid learning that his mom was a porn actress, the sleazy cop terrorizing the couple) but I felt that TK should have better respected the material by with less of cramming events, shifting viewpoints and too-clever-by-half twists.

I must confess here that apart from a few references, like the Star Wars theme (on a nadaswaram), and some of the references made to older Tamil films, I did not have the background for a lot of the film's clever homages (a friend had to explain the context for the song Ennadi Meenatchi and that a henchman character's t-shirt said F.U.C.K. in Tamil).