Aayiratthil oruvan is a tamil film that tries to do a “Mummy Returns” or a “Raiders of the Lost Ark ” in the grammar of tamil cinema. While the film does succeed in being a pulp tamil version of the said speilbergian CGI fantasies, it also succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations in demonstrating the cultural superiority of tamil cinema over the more generic supermarket versions of bollywood and hollywood cinema.
In my opinion, the film is the demonstration of an evolution of the auteur theory to adapt to the demands of the changing Industry. Selvaraghavan, the director of AO is a third generation film financier and director. his brother , Dhanush is married to the daughter of one of tamil film’s biggest ever heroes, Rajinikanth, and is himself a huge (if unlikely) star and has become one mostly from films made BY selvarahavan casting Dhanush as hero , in “anti hero” roles. Anti hero roles are tamil cinema’s best star launch vehicles. The biggest stars of tamil cinema have started out being villains. (Kamal, Rajini Sivaji, MGR…all got to play villains first). Im not sure if this defines the nature of the film industry or its audience but the tamils sure like their heroes dark and violent , at least to start.
Which brings us back to the Auteur theory in the times of cholera..er..the Industry theory of filmmaking. You see, like God casting a pestilence on the firstborn of egypt, the world has been sent a blight originating from Hollywood called the Industrial theory of filmmaking(Lucas’ Industrial light and magic is indicative). This combination of neoconservative merchantile capitalism and apology for mediocrity holds that a film is a collective professional industry endavour, because so much money has gone into the production and distribution of it, and so many people are affected by its distribution.The film studio enters into a social contract with his(a filmmaker’s) audience. (and presumably the critic) You watch my output faithfully , in exchange for which I will give you the gloss and timepass you are expecting.
The Audience , thus becomes a homogenized mass consumer , like the buyer of toothpaste and is subject to be studied and massaged into movie theaters. Movie tickets become real estate vouchers to sell ass space in halls, an Indiana Jones no different than a communist film declaring death to capitalism and capitalists (we make the big bucks either way).
Everybody makes out like bandits, especially the robber barons that invest in films…movie theaters….popcorn… filmmaking is suddenly a profitable operation. No one loses(except a discriminating audience, but what’re they going to do? vote with their feet and go to a different screen in the same multiplex theater?)
So when Selvaraghavan directs Aayirathil oruvan, what changed? Only every line of film industry people drinking the “industry theory”cool aid.
The film can be described as a successful response from an Industry insider to the “new” film investor-real estate moghul.
Lets look at the Auteur theory for a bit before we get to AO. The theory credits the director with being the primary voice in the creation of a film. It does not make light of the collaborative aspect of filmmaking, rather, it establishes a creative dogpile with the director on top(and a cinematorapher close at his heels) as the primary visionary responsible for the making of a film. The auteur theory’s unstated thesis is that the Audience communicates with the director of a film while subjecting itsaelf to a film watching experience. Thus a film is a personal statement. All the pleasure and pain the Audience feels draws its coherence from the vision of the Author (the Auteur) of it.
The criticism of the Auteur theory,( which was a french left bank theory from the 1950’s , thus making it the equivalent of Indian socialism (fabian socialism)- a well meaning but thoroughly impractical school of socialist romanticism) comes from people that mean business.Aljean Harmetz encapsulated this by summarizing ” the Auteur theory collapses against the reality of the studio system” This really means that while the MONEY MAKING aspects of the film Industry have an Investible historical memory, the ARTISTIC aspects do not (IOW, while 20th century Fox shares will be bought and sold to eternity, a filmmaker is only as good as his last film.)
There is merit in this argument. there is even more merit in the argument that people forget their losses in the stock market faster than they forget their losses in a film investment. (disintermediation gives a false sense of objectivity. noone knows which executive was responsible for the financing of saawariya, although everyone remembers who the director of the film was).
How does this tie into Ayiratthil oruvan? Why are we discussing an obscure Tamil film in the age of Multi Billion Dollar international film distribution ? why is a small film industry with a captive audience even relevent to the world of cinema?
The film is an action adventure dream that unfolds like a wilbur smith novel. Three post modern indians embark on a journey to discover a lost chola (a pan south east asian empire civilization that ended in the 12th century BC) city in an Indian Ocean Island near vietnam. After much Indiana Jones-ness they stumble upon a cave dweller settlment of cholas that still live like it was the 12th century, with a despotic king with power of life and death over his subjects. The civilization itself seems to be quite advanced(Surgery, Magic, Metals, architecture) in some respects and very stone age(hunting, social organization, paleolithic architecture) in others. At this point, the story takes a turn for the serious from the merely entretaining, when one of the three postmoderns turns out to be from a strain of the ancients and the adventure becomes a clash of civilizations where the present collides with the past and obliterates it . This is the first filmed genocide I have ever seen.
The filmmaker however, pretends that all the killing is in good fun and the “cholas” killed are merely wasps in a nest being eliminated, so that the postmodern three can cling to their post modern world view, thus indicting the source of the Industry thory with a callous wave of his back hand.
After all, if the cholas were merely skeletons, like the mummy’s , why should we feel anything at all when they are AK47’d down in their hundereds, specially when they look so savage and bloodthirsty, and the survival of the “postmodern” people with guns depends on not succumbing to the “savage” with knives?
There is a sequence where the surrounded hoardes of the chola savages is subject to a barrage of machine gun fire from the mercenaries, dressed in camaflauge, indistinguishable from any Army’s (the IPKF/ the Srilankan Army/ the US army…the Indonesian army) standing in a circle around them and your breath catches in a lump in your throat realizing that this is a shared experience in south and south east asia , of all outnumbered and out gunned rebels- the philippino, the Indinesian, the far east Indian, the Srilankan… All the fabled genocides of Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Srilanka…are conjured up in the upended Mummy returns made in an obscure film industry at the heart of the geography in question. This is the nearest thing on film to watching the Aztec civilization being wiped out by cortez’s conquistadores.
And made all the worse because the cholas,have hitherto been seen as tamil …like you in the audience. Imagine what it would feel like if this ..all this happenned to you….to US…The Chola savages are really OUR civilization…
Selvaraghavan’s film, thus is the victory of the Auteur theory over the Borg like Indutry, because it is a human film. while there are drawbacks to a film Industry created and maintained by the star system, the advantages of the feudal tamil film industry is that a film like Ayirathil oruvan is even possible to make , free as it is , of disclaimers and strile objectivity. The rich dude from a well connected film family in tamil film said pretty much what he wanted to say and it turned out to be classic cinema.
The Auteur in the day of billion dollar turkeys(like Avatar) is a rich connected filmaker with a beating human heart. Who’d have thunk!