Captain's Log

Captain’s log 06112018 – Three-hour Wonderland.

So I just saw experienced Sarkar and I have some thoughts. Not a review, the thoughts aren’t about just this movie rather the state of the average Indian cinemagoer as a whole.

Around 2 months back, Tamil cinema suffered back to back blows from titles like Seema Raja and Saamy “square” and I was ready to call time of death. However, it was soon revived by a parade of movies like Chekka Chevandha Vaanam, Pariyerum Perumal, Ratchasan, Vada Chennai and 96 to the point that I could barely recognise it anymore. However, Sarkar enters theatres today to remind you that you are still very much in Tamil Nadu watching a Kollywood movie.

Don’t mistake me, I’m not saying the movie was bad. In fact, the movie was much better than what my expectations had been from looking at the trailers. Director A.R.Murugadoss is well known for his ability to deliver well thought out stories addressing very real and lesser-known issues. But almost all his movies are very generously slathered in what we call ‘masala’ – the stereotypical characteristics of an Indian ‘commercial’ movie. It is that very packaging that has sparked the thoughts I’d like to record here.

When I say commercial, I don’t mean just the need to add five songs and three fight sequences to the movie no matter what the plot is. The grammar of our cinema is still largely format-based and not essentially about just the art of theatre. Our runtimes are long and to hold an audience in one position for that long, periodic relief is deemed necessary. It’s not just that I call masala but the unnecessary hyperbole involved. Vijay Sethupathi’s movies have songs and fights too but the acting has always felt so casual and grounded. Here, the plot doesn’t draw the hero out of the man, rather Vijay enters already as the hero right from the first scene and stays the exact same till the last frame (character arc what?). There is at least one frame every five minutes that is solely an ‘establishing’ shot of the hero as he’s shown in slo-mo from multiple camera angles. The dialogue, stunt sequences and the reaction to his dialogues are all extremely larger than life. The screenplay felt like it was written for a skit with the hero gesturing wildly for each word he utters and the way the large mob hung on his every move without an ounce of hesitation or…you know, independent thought. But underneath all that hyperbole, the blaring background score and the redundant fan-service, there does lurk a rather intelligent story. Especially in the second half once the characters had all been established, the song and dance routines pushed out of the way and the antagonist who had only been retaliating with sending goons to beat up the hero until then finally gets smarter as well, the movie definitely has its “huh, that’s cool” moments.

A director as seasoned as Murugadoss would’ve definitely been well aware of it and yet had felt the need to throw it into such an overly dramatic packaging — many parts of the story felt forced and out of place, as if they had been added out of compulsion to please the ‘fans’ – almost to the point that the fan-service is all a large portion of the audience will remember once the curtains fall. Removing all those would take away absolutely nothing from the plot. What is the point of making a movie with a ‘social message’ if the message is not its hero? An actor as seasoned as Vijay – his experience in the film industry is more than my experience being alive on Earth – can and has acted very authentically and real once upon a time, but in all his recent movies Vijay’s acting looks more and more like a three-hour long video made by a Vijay fan. There is literally nothing organic or real about any of the dialogue delivery or emotions portrayed. Note that everything I mention here about Sarkar and Vijay applies just as well to a majority of mainstream Indian movies. There are exceptions but not in enough numbers.

How an artist chooses to express themselves is completely up to them. No doubt. You can create awareness about a disease by writing a song and making a smart music video, making a gut-wrenching documentary showing the plight of the patients or using an online challenge encouraging netizens to pour a bucket of ice water onto themselves. Whatever you wish. Whatever works. There is no ‘right’ way to do art. So it was totally up to Murugadoss on how to push his message of awareness regarding Section 49P. He could’ve made a surreal, grounded movie (in this movie, he makes numerous mentions of historical elections where just one vote made the difference. He could’ve made a biopic of sorts recounting one of those stories) or a commercial one sprinkled with shades of real-life incidents. We got the latter. But was his choice really just a matter of art? Or would he have opted for a different approach had the audience been different?

In the movie, Sundar (Vijay) loses his shit over his vote being illegally cast by someone else. Something that, if the movie is right, happens to a massive portion of those who wish to vote. They’ve all been quiet all this while but since Sundar is a multi-millionaire-genius-CEO-smear-campaign-expert, he is privileged enough and has the means to hire an expensive advocate (and then begins to never use him and just advocate for himself because, fuck logic, that’s why) and have a massive paparazzi following his every move and the ability to completely obliterate Newton’s third law during fight sequences (because slo-mo is frickin’ cool). He uses these privileges and means to initially wipe off the dust off his massive ego but because, Tamil cinema, grows social responsibility and decides to help the people selflessly. A common man lacking these means would’ve probably realised he’s lost his vote and gone home. If at all he’s gotten angry, he would’ve been chucked away at court, because, India. So in a way, Sundar’s status and privilege made the rest of the plot possible. Perhaps that’s why Murugadoss did what he did. Maybe he had a message to tell people, to create awareness about what to do when your vote is miscast, to create awareness about how shit politicians are generally and thought that to get the most audience to take this seriously and to make the most money, he needed the status of Vijay as a star celebrity. Just a means to an end. But then he definitely got carried away though. The movie is a shrine to Vijay pretty much through and through, as have most of the movies of these ‘stars’ are. I reiterate – What’s the point of a social message if the message isn’t the hero?

Would Vijay or Ajith or Rajnikanth take on varied roles and act like a normal human being rid of their signature mannerisms should one day all their fans magically disappear and there are no expectations from them? Most movies about filmmaking show a struggling director with a ‘unique’ script that is constantly denied by producers for not being commercial enough or falling outside the current trend. Can’t blame the producers either, can we? Most movies that are a critical success do turn out to be a box office failure. Only ones to blame are the fans who ‘worship’ their idols.

I watched this movie in a theatre of the people and not in a plush multiplex. I haven’t been to one of these since I was a kid. I hadn’t noticed much then. It was the second show on the day of the movie’s release and I’m not sure I watched the entire movie because nearly 90% of the screen was hardcore Vijay fans who had watched this movie just previously in the first show and had returned for another viewing. They knew where every important scene was and their whistles and applause began a good ten minutes before every pivotal point in the movie. Couldn’t hear shit. I saw men take off their shirts and dance in front of the screen (pretty sure one of them kissed the screen), hurl abuses when the villain came on, little kids scream with a volume you wouldn’t believe was kept captive in their little throats and grown-ass men, husbands and fathers act like absolute nutjobs at every (ridiculously cringy) move of the hero and be proud of it. I saw young boys dragged out of the theatre as it looked like they were recording the movie on their phone for too long. Every hoarding of Vijay’s photo outside the theatre was covered in flowers and garlands. People danced on the road in front of long stretches of crackers. Hence I said I didn’t see this movie, I experienced it. It’s been a while.

I’m not being condescending here. I’m no one to judge. I’ve shouted at the top of my lungs when Thor, Rocket and Groot landed in Wakanda mid-battle in Infinity war as well but never will I dance with my shirt off or call Tony Stark, my father or Tom Holland, my son. Being proud of addressing cinema actors ‘like a member of the family’ is a trait very much unique to Indians. Read very carefully, I’m not stating that idol worship is unique to India, just that being so proud of it is. Of course, there are people all over the world with the face of their favourite actor/actresses tattooed on their bodies, people who bid in millions online for a napkin thrown away by their idols and those with secret shrines to their stars. But then these people are always ‘found’ or ‘revealed’, they exist in little, closed-off circles and definitely know that it’s a wee bit weird. Not here. Here we shout it out from rooftops and put our shrines on Instagram highlights.

If you notice, most of these people are from average walks of life. Of course, millionaires like actors too but not stupidly. The ones fighting like its life or death over their stars on social media pages, the ones that obsessively imitate their idols on dubsmash and videos are almost always from struggling middle-class families. Not being elitist, just making an observation. There’ll barely be money at home for basic necessities, they’ll be very frugal when it comes to luxuries and yet you’ll find them spend incessantly to set up flex banners, cut-outs and to buy milk and garlands to pour over said banners and cutouts. Zero guilt or forethought. True love ain’t nothing when compared to the blindness of idol worship.

Primarily, the hardship of that very lifestyle pushes him into this. He is struggling with unemployment or stuck in a job he doesn’t like. He is good at heart and wants to act out against things he doesn’t like but doesn’t have the means to do so. He is stuck in a rut, a passive participant in his own life. Things constantly seem to be done to him, rather than him doing things. All around him, his parents, siblings, friends, friends of friends are all stuck in their own similar ruts. In a sense, they worship these stars because they can only live through them and their movies. When his idol’s movie succeeds, he sees it as his own success. All these movies are very hero-centric one-man shows and portray everything he wished he was. Things just happen in these movies over one night or they don’t. There is no “eventually”. And they always are the actions of the one lone hero. Even the common folk in these movies are beyond ideal. Their morals are swayed over a single speech given by the hero and they rise up to the occasion in a way that is anything but “common”. Everything happens instantly, ideally and sensationally. Things he’d never come across in his static, mundane everyday life. It often gets worse to the point that he no longer cares about his real-life failures anymore and his idol’s image alone is of paramount importance. All he needs to do is put up a status on Whatsapp, like a YouTube video, buy a ticket and sit in a hall for three hours and he feels he too has done something great, something that has actively contributed to his idol’s success. That’s why they often feel like their idols owe them something in return and get very offended if say, they invade the star’s private space but the star treats them badly. It’s akin an addiction. No matter what hell’s burning over in his personal life, for the three hours he’s in the theatre, lost in his idol’s scenes, he’s free. He’s anything he wants to be. For those three hours, he’s in Wonderland.

Also, final opinion, Sarkar wasn’t the shit show I thought it would be but would’ve been loads better if Vijay had acted for the sake of acting and not pleasing his fans or promoting his political dreams. Or you know…cast Vijay Sethupathi, he knows what to do.

Fight me.