Onaayum Aatukuttiyum and the classification fix

Once, an inquisitive interviewer decided to probe me a little bit about my taste in books.  What genres did I read, he wanted to know.  I tried to give answers and found myself getting vague. Finally, just to settle the discussion, I agreed to “Drama”.  But truthfully, I don’t know what genre the next book I enjoy reading would be from.  I was reminded of the interview when I watched Onaayum Aatukuttiyum and considered the reviews.

It’s a thriller, but with a difference, it seems.  It’s not a commercial movie, but still a bit mainstream, apparently.  Mysskin is an auteur but  a crude one.  And so it goes.  My question:  does it matter?  I understand the convenience of neatly classifying art into established categories.  But what if it gets to the point that it paralyses the audience from accepting divergence from the norm?

Because Onaayum Aatukuttiyum does diverge from the norm, and at deeper levels than what classification captures.  I associate Tamil culture with dialogue and plenty of it, often delivered at high pitch.  I remember accompanying a cousin from the United States to the Mylapore Tank and she watched in amazement and amusement as two flower vendors quarreled loudly, reeling off words at some insane speed.

Consider then a film which uses limited dialogue.  It is not however a silent film a la Pushpak.   It just relies more on plenty of non verbal communication.   An unspoken question on the face of a woman who has been shot, demanding to know why the boy couldn’t warn her and the boy looking on horrified as he realises he has helped take the life of a harmless person…that is, another lamb like him.

Moral dilemmas also distinguish the film from the run of the mill.   Through psychological interplay evolving through actions, decisions, choices rather than dialogue, Mysskin gradually blurs the line between good and evil.  It is often possible to see a world with a clearly etched out moral compass in mainstream action/thriller flicks…much like the stated worldview of George W Bush, perhaps.   That is not the case in Onaayum Aatukuttiyum.  With only a few but significant words, Mysskin depicts the lamb as being wrapped up in the same confusion that the audience finds itself in.  He tells the police he doesn’t know if he can trust them anymore.   He initially believes the ungrateful wolf has put him through much misery in return for his act of saving his life but he gradually realises there is no escape route.

The crux of it all is finally clear when the wolf lays the cards on the table in the longest single stretch of dialogue in the film.  And here again, the resolution differs significantly from what we are offered and have come to expect in our films.  The wolf does not appeal to morals.  He does not attempt to justify his acts a la “Avana Nidutha Sollu, Naan Nidutharen”.  There is no recrimination, no blame game, no tirades (more the better).  Instead the wolf simply appeals to humanity.  He makes us believe that the supposedly dangerous criminal and sharp shooter is really now a helpless victim of circumstance condemned to remain perpetually on the run to evade the people who would rather he resume the hunt than seek redemption for killing a lamb.

The last respect in which it differs is the role of Ilayaraja’s background score.  Mysskin is possibly the greatest fan of Ilayaraja and certainly the most expressive of his admiration of the maestro’s music.   However, when it comes to the film, he leaves little room for Ilayaraja to lay out his trademark motifs.   Ilayaraja’s themes are, as usual, rich in emotion but the film appears to avoid elevating the emotions to larger than life proportions and searches instead for a silent intensity.   I think it was director Kasturiraja who once said that if you hand over your film to Ilayaraja for re-recording, he will write his own script through the music and take the film to a place altogether different from what you imagined.   But Mysskin constrains Ilayaraja with his focused vision and, for once, makes the background score subordinate to the overall requirements of the film.  So much for the munanni isai styling, then.  Here then is a film that is simply too good, too evolved to require a bail out from the maestro.

In toto, so many aspects where Onaayum Aatukuttiyum simply breaks free.   It remains true to Mysskin’s vision and there is no apparent effort to compromise the narrative to meet Kollywood box office imperatives.  There is no attempt either to make space for Ilayaraja’s genius (there are no songs either)  It seems that in spite of this (and in spite of positioning the film as a thriller which is not quite what it is), the film has grossed over Rs.9 cr at the box office and made money for the producer (Mysskin himself).    That in itself is a landmark event in Tamil cinema.  Maybe the audience has trusted their intuitions a little more than critics and appreciated the film for what it is rather than what it does and does not fit into.

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