Klimt and Oppari

Klimt and Oppari

18 Meenakshi d - Klimt and Oppari

Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu (NN, A Star Shoots Across, Tamil), that released on August 31, and is still in some theatres, is a refreshing, romantic musical like you’ve never seen before. Starring Dushara Vijayan, Kalidas Jayaram and Kalaiyarasan, it explores how Indian caste politics strangles love. Placing the film in a theatre setting, the Indianostrum theatre in Pondicherry, allows Ranjith—who studied fine arts—to freely experiment with form, blurring the lines between cinema, theatre, art, real life, gaana songs (Dalit urban folk/street songs), oppari (mourning songs), puppetry and even modern, aerial dance. The film is also self-reflexive; on the challenges of creatively commenting on the horrific caste-based honour killings that continue unabated. Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s documentary Janani’s Juliet had, in 2019, already set a film amid the Indianostrum theatre group in Pondicherry, putting up a play on caste, intercut with victim testimonies of caste atrocities; but NN, a fiction based on facts, goes far beyond it.

This year, Pa Ranjith celebrates 10 years of filmmaking, and is a powerful force in Indian cinema, as an artist and social reformer, questioning the status quo, including caste, Dalit and gender issues. His mostly stellar filmmaking includes over 13 works. As director, his films include Attakathi, Madras, Kabali, Kaala, Sarpatta Parambarai and Natchathiram Nagargiradhu; as producer his films include Pariyerum Perumal, Kuthiraivaal, Writer and Seththumaan. His multiple initiatives addressing caste and gender through the arts include Neelam Productions, Neelam Cultural Centre, Casteless Collective (for music), Neelam Social web channel and the Vaanam art festival.

Natchathiram Nagargiradhu opens with Rene (Dushara Vijayan) and Iniyan (Kalidas Jayaram) in bed, under a painting of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss: he’s been listening to Nina Simone, an African-American singer, but when Rene sings an Ilaiyaraaja song (whose music ruled Tamil Nadu for a decade, despite his caste status), he can’t stand it; they fight. The two lovers in an inter-caste romance, along with the conservative Arjun (Kalaiyarasan), are part of an ensemble theatre group, Indianostrum, putting up a play on love and caste politics, based on their collective views. Ranjith explores what pure love looks like, unfettered by caste, gender, patriarchy or age. The politically correct, inclusive collective includes a gay couple, a couple with a transwoman, Dalits and upper castes, and members slowly learn to respect others, irrespective of labels.

The film revolves around Rene—it is unthinkable for regressive Bollywood to have a multi-starrer revolve around a heroine—and who is Dalit and an Ambedkarite—and she’s a stand-in for Ranjith’s views. She is stylish, confident, intellectual, compassionate, walks the talk, enjoys beef fry, and takes the actor—who apologises for molesting her—to a meal, “because political correctness will not come in a day.” Rene is the bold, constructed persona of a woman who reinvented herself after decades of caste humiliation. She has renamed herself Rene, from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez character. At one point, she leads Iniyan up the stairs—and literally into the light.

Ranjith’s direction replaces the conventional narrative with a refreshing experiment with multiple arts, including a hard-hitting Oppari singer. He also includes testimonies of “victims”, intercut with CCTV footage of caste atrocities. Dushara Vijayan, who was earlier in Ranjith’s Sarpatta Parambarai, is terrific, ably carrying the film on her shoulders. Kalidas Jayaram and Kalaiyarasan are good counterpoints—kudos to them for taking on non-‘hero’ roles—but the large ensemble cast means the rest have underdeveloped character arcs. Ranjith’s screenplay is sharply observant. A Kishor Kumar’s cinematography is intimate, yet exhilarating when it should be. RK Selva’s mostly brisk edit could be even leaner than 2h49mins. Tenma composes some terrific songs, including lyrics by Uma Devi and Arivu, such as Rangarattinam (combining pop and gaana), Paruvame and Kadhalar (based on Sangam poetry).

The film is occasionally overwhelming: if only the director allowed the film to breathe a bit, evoking the regular lives of the protagonists, not only discussing their love lives and caste politics. But it’s a minor carp for a precious truck of TNT against caste. Spoiler alert: In the climax, following some drama involving a conservative villain who threatens the play itself, the film ends on a philosophical note.

The producers are Vignesh Sundaresan, Manoj Leonel Jahson and Pa Ranjith. The women’s crew includes Uma Devi for lyrics and Anitha for costume design. A film bristling with ideas to chew on: Rene’s fierce resistance and compassion are a good way forward.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. 
Reach her at [email protected]