Kuthiraivaal; A work of art in the age of OTT productions

Co-produced by Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions, the experimental Tamil movie Kuthiraivaal, a rather enigmatic and poetic take on a moment of crisis in the life of a 38 year old bank employee Saravanan, is now streaming on Netflix, garnering some love, more hate and demanding patience in abundance.

Kuthiraivaal was shelved after post production works due to Covid 19 and later went on to be premiered at 2020 Mumbai Film Festival as well as at the International Film Festival of Kerala (2021). The movie was also selected for screening at the Berlin Critics’ Week (2021), Fantaspoa 2021 at Brazil, JAFFNA International Film Festival 2020 and at the 2021 Cinequest Film Festival (California). However, the theatre release of the movie in March 2022 gathered mixed responses where the audience largely turned their tails at the movie.

In this directorial debut of Manoj Leonel Jahson and Shyam Sunder, Saravanan (Kalaiyarasan), wakes up from a dream and finds himself in a Kafkaesque position when he realizes that he’s grown a kuthiraivaal, a horse tail. But really, the movie plays out as his journey to shake himself free of his dream world, and it is not at any point clear whether he is completely awake. His continuous twitching and squirming makes us wonder if the tail is real, a dream fragment which lingered longer or something metaphorical that affects his behaviour, and the movie aids our confusion with liberal use of Dutch tilt and high angle shots. Kalaiyarasan, with a perpetual anxiety and vulnerability clearly visible in his body language, carries the audience with him as a supremely unreliable, idiosyncratic and entertaining protagonist.

Saravanan/Freud, who refuses to take himself to a psychiatrist, instead enlists the help of a soothsaying paatti, an eccentric former Maths teacher, and an astrologer to make sense of his dreams instead. In his journey the protagonist often finds himself without control over his senses. Apart from the piece of music that he keeps hearing in his head (but which always seems to be on pause on one of the TV screens in his house), his interactions at home, work and in the street, with characters who may or may not be real are intercut and creatively rearranged to reflect his unremitting zoned-out-ness and his fatigue as he attempts to pull himself together through carefully reasoned internal monologues.

The movie complicates any easy division between dreams and reality by implicating memory as a third term to this dyad, and its narrative structure uses repetition to reinforce the persistence and power of what we are all too ready to dismiss as not-real and therefore, not consequential. With the mise-en-scene always chock full of symbolism, I got the feeling that it wasn’t necessary to “get” all of it, and that some of it, especially within the house with its seemingly inexhaustible POVs and the glut of reflecting surfaces, is just clutter which is arguably essential to any exploration of a character’s interior life. In addition to the songs by Pradeep Kumar and Maarten Visser’s background score, snippets of poetry voiced over and sometimes simultaneously also appearing on the screen often provide excellent points of access into the movie.

In one instance, a character repeats a line, which roughly translated, reads: “I search in dreams for the memories now lost to me.” Where overt references to Freud and Lacan early on sometimes left me unconvinced, here was the credo of psychoanalysis spelt out in a beautiful line. And again, towards the end, there is a death scene that could work both as a moving cinematic moment and on another level, as an expression of Lacanian ‘jouissance’. The movie features several other Lacanian flourishes, but the appreciation of theory always remains secondary to the cinematic experience.

The use of a mirroring technique where the present urban characters have their counterparts in the rural memory (with the same actor playing different roles for both the times), too, could be glossed using psychoanalytic terms like transference. But even otherwise, it is impossible not to feel the strong affinity between these two sets of characters. The movie works its charm here in this transition.

While the urban sequences are sometimes weighed down by its excesses which also extend sometimes to the paranoiac dialogues, the rural scenes are dominated by a green palette and vast skies. They are populated more with the stories and local myths that sustain this dynasty of soothsayers. Karthik Muthukumar’s wide angle shots bring out the multifarious rural life. And unlike the urban interior sequences which teem with multiple mirrors, the rural counterpart of the past has just one reflecting surface, the water in the storied village well.

In most of the village sequences there are hand drawn images of MGR on walls of houses and public spaces. Even in Kuthiraivaal movie posters MGR appears as digital illustration. In one of the dream sequences, Saravanan is heard speaking in MGR’s voice where he enquires about the missing tail of the horse. In the movie, the villagers gather around the radio tree and mourns upon hearing the news about his death. As a matter of fact, when MGR died in 1987, several lakhs of people reached Madras for his funeral. Thirty one of his followers died by suicide out of grief. Films and politics have always been inseparable in Tamil Nadu. By constructing the ‘MGR phenomenon’ within a surreal dreamscape and then, after his death, placing his iconic shades and cap in the well, the movie makes a subtle point about MGR being an inextricable part of Tamil identity. It also carefully marks a time and a phenomenon with much precision and humaneness.

The theatre response footage on YouTube showed audiences simultaneously in awe of the ambition behind the movie and apologetic for not being able to fully comprehend it. Although writer G. Rajesh calls it a political movie, the places where the script explicitly tries to address “political” issues sometimes descend into textbook lessons on human greed, environmentalism, and generic anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Hopefully, Pa Ranjith and Netflix backing this project helps more arthouse movies from Tamil Cinema to make it to a global audience, and encourages big OTT platforms to invest in them, and making avante garde filmmaking more accessible to audiences even outside festival circuits. Kuthiraivaal daringly takes a blind leap with its culturally rooted approach and technical proficiency.