Mumbai, 27 Feb 2021 7:30 IST
A visually compelling essay, Manoj Leonel Jahson and Shyam Sunder's film captivatingly crosses the boundaries of reason to explore the abstraction and surrealism within our lives.
A man wakes up to find that he has a tail, a horse's tail. The story of Kuthiraivaal is simple in its beginning, and gripping. Like a grandmother's folktale, it weaves its way through conversations that hardly make sense and yet, somewhere deep within, strike a chord. It is difficult to explain something so visually compelling, and so abstract in its content.
When Saravanan (Kalaiyarasan), 38, awakes with a horse's tail attached to him, he is as confused as we are. As he squirms with his new appendage and tries to make sense of it, you join him in a tale of magical realism.
A soothsaying grandmother tells him the tail is a remnant from his dream, and dreams are what one wants from reality. A maths professor connects it to eternity, calling it a sign of sexual want. An astrologer calls it a sign of oncoming impotence.
A girl in a faraway village gives birth after having sex in her dream. A reflection swaps places with a real woman. Each moment a conflict and filled with possibility, surreal and rational at once. This is Gabriel Garcia Marquez trying to tell a story in India.
The focus of the film is not the protagonist but the audience. We are the flies in the constantly mentioned idiom of the story's web. As Saravanan lives his experience, we are left to figure out if he is living a dream, reality or simply the side effects of an alcoholic binge. The ghostly guest of Saravanan's neighbour breaks the fourth wall to address the key point of dissonance. ''You are looking for your reflection in me," he tells the viewer. A timely warning to an audience trying to make sense of it all. Yet, this theme of reflection comes back to haunt us till the end.
The film builds on cues, as each theme ties into another. Memories are connected to your dreams, says the grandmother. I am looking for lost memories in my dreams, says Anjali Patil's mystery woman. In the midst of all this, Saravanan starts calling himself Freud, the interpreter of dreams. Then, Patil's mysterious woman introduces herself as Van Gogh and, later, Irusaayi. Saravanan's troubled maths professor refuses to submit his name: ''What's in a name? Everything you record is in numbers, isn't it?" A little girl in the village names herself Neeli, saying, "We agreed on picking names we liked, didn't we?"
Each theme raises questions on the absurdity of our world. A child questions the reality of film star-turned-politician MGR's death, as she had just seen him on the cinema screen yesterday. Saravanan questions the rationality of the astrologer's interpretation of his horse dream as indicative of his fading sexual prowess, yet he calls himself Freud.
G Rajesh's story and screenplay capture the sense of magical realism and absurdity with wonderful potency. Every turn brings a question, leaving you wondering about the truth of it all.
Subtly combining folktales from the heart of India with Freudian interpretations and philosophical theories, the filmmakers build a confusing but compelling narrative. Saravanan's breakdown in the office is transformed into a wonderful moment as the ceiling above his head becomes a Piet Mondrian classic. The rainbow road in a painting kept in the living room transports him to a faraway village where a grandmother tells him the tale of warring minds. A serene Vivaldi composition plays every time he descends into chaos. This contrast between orderly beauty and mental chaos is also reflected in the structure of Saravanan's house, filled with art and laid out well, in contrast to his broken mind.
Cinematographer Karthik fills every frame with picturesque beauty which highlights the surreal, magical quality of the unfolding events. From the frames of the surreal paintings to the psychedelic colours and ceramics in the house, the film is a visual delight. To view and enjoy this beauty, one has to let go of the understanding of the rational functioning of a world and be willing to enter a drastically different one. The movement of the camera as a hidden observer and the wonderful editing add to the experience.
Searching for a comparative experience, your reviewer found AK Ramanujan's Folktales of India, where the author writes, 'In a book like this, we may say we are now moving indoors, into the expressive culture of a household, to look for our keys. As it often happens, we may not find the keys we are looking for and may have to make new ones, but we may find all sorts of other things we never knew we had lost, or even had.'
Kuthiraivaal is being screened at the Berlin Critics' Week which begins on Saturday 27 February and ends on Sunday 7 March 2021.
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