‘What you make of Kuthiraivaal is what it is’
Kuthiraivaal has convinced many and confounded many more. Here are the directors, Shyam Sundar and Manoj Jason, and the film’s writer, Rajesh, in conversation about this fascinating film
What’s the order of events in Kuthiraivaal? Is there a time-travel element in it? Does the protagonist really grow a tail or is it all in his mind? While you are left to make up your mind about these details, what’s clear is that Kuthiraivaal is a film that’s quite unlike anything you might have experienced in Tamil cinema. The story is almost indecipherable, and yet, this doesn’t come in the way of the film’s sensory, soulful pleasures. The film is rich with inventive imagery and sound complexity, and the material is deep in how it speaks of the nature of dreams without ever spoon-feeding information or intent. The ideas Kuthiraivaal handles aren’t easy to execute for the big screen, and when you consider that the filmmakers—Shyam and Manoj—have made their debut, it makes the effort all the more impressive.
Here are the film’s directors, Shyam and Manoj, and the writer, Rajesh, in a casual, open conversation about the film’s themes and what they believe the audience should support this film:
What is your motivation for straying away from conventional storytelling?
Rajesh: German philosopher Neitzsche famously declared that god is dead. I view god and stories to be the same. So, in a sense, stories are dead too. We don’t need to tell stories anymore. It’s enough if our storytelling contains fragments of stories—that’s all they can be anyway. I realise that people have trouble when the three-act structure gets broken; I get that they are used to a certain pattern in cinema. We wanted to change these perceptions with this film.
Shyam: When Rajesh narrated it for the first time—I think it was a four-hour narration—we immediately liked what we heard. We approached so many producers with this story to no avail.
Manoj: We also liked the commercial idea underneath the whole script: that of a man walking around with a tail. However, it wasn’t until Pa Ranjith came in that the project began to materialise.
Rajesh: Ranjith is an explorer; he has a fine-arts background and so, he loves such experimental cinema. For the purposes of his politics though, he has been unable to direct such scripts, but yes, he encourages such a filmmaking revolution.
Previous films by Pa Ranjith’s Neelam Productions—Pariyerum Perumal, Irandaam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu—were vocal and transparent in standing for the politics he is known for. Do you see Kuthiraivaal being a bit of a departure on that front?
Rajesh: If you really dig into the layers of the film and capture all the references, you will find that this film too speaks about the politics he espouses. However, yes, it’s not as blatant as in those films. This is a different kind of revolution.
The film’s protagonist, played by Kalaiyarasan, calls himself Freud. He’s trying to get to the bottom of a dream, and the film goes on, in its dreamlike state, to discuss the human subconscious and its relation to consciousness… How important is it to be well-read about these concepts to truly understand this film?
Rajesh: I don’t think you will need to have read Interpretation of Dreams (by Freud). I think it’s all right for viewers not to get everything that’s condensed into this film—or any film, for that matter. Even if they process Kuthiraivaal for being about a man with a tail, who unearths a traumatic past from his memory… I think that’s good enough. Look, I have seen films in villages and many people there don’t get many ideas in Gautham Menon films. However, those films turned out to be hits, didn’t they? If that’s not a problem, this isn’t too.
Shyam: People can google once they watch the film anyway, if they want to understand more. In fact, after reading this script for the first time, I engaged in a lot of reading. I think there’s a lot of literature within this script. I read a lot about postmodernist art, for instance.
Rajesh: The idea is to oppose grand narration with micro narration. It’s a form of thinking that opposes authority. You see, it’s not enough to simply look to seize power from the undeserving. Power corrupts ultimately. It’s important to fight for liberation.
The protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis isn’t unlike the one in Kuthiraivaal. Both work frustrating jobs; both get subjected to an animal-related transformation that leaves them bewildered.
Rajesh: Kafka’s Metamorphosis is an influence, sure, but today, people are quick to label derivatives as duplicates. I like to think of this as intertextuality. Another influence is Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Today, sadly, our cinema is rather disassociated from literature, and I hope that we can change this with films like Kuthiraivaal.
Shyam: The reception to Kuthiraivaal might have been even better had similar films come out earlier.
Rajesh: Perhaps some Kamal Haasan films have dared to be experimental in the past. It’s time for us to change how our cinema is created and consumed. Literature, for instance, discusses life and psychology in great depth and detail, apart from telling a story. Our films, however, seem content with just telling the story, and stopping short of providing any useful insights or engaging in a discussion. Even this whole business of using dialogues to further the story is a rather new idea and a bit flawed at that, I think. Dostoyevsky’s books have pages of dialogues that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the plot or story. The idea of such art, like the cinema I am trying to be part of, is to foster deeper thinking. At a time when people are still worried about catching a disease, if they are still coming to theatres, I like to believe that it’s not just in pursuit of entertainment.
What do you think people should know about Kuthiraivaal?
Shyam: That it’s very much like life, in a sense. Our lives aren’t exactly guided by a singular narrative; they don’t go in a way that makes structural sense. The film is rather like that.
Rajesh: You know how sometimes you wake up feeling a certain way and you don’t quite understand why? What people don’t realise is that during their sleep, their subconscious is active and it’s tampering with emotions. Our dreams affect our emotions, as much, if not more, than our wakefulness. Kuthiraivaal embraces both these states and in doing so, I think it becomes more life-like than most films out there.
Do you believe that people don’t take dreams as seriously as they should?
Rajesh: Well, I think people do take dreams seriously, even if they may not realise it. Watch our vocabulary, for instance. When we want something badly, we say, “Adhu ennoda kanavu.” What we cannot identify about ourselves in wakefulness, we can do in sleep. A whole society’s growth can stem from that awareness, including economic prosperity. This is why philosophers have always taken dreams so seriously.
Kalaiyarasan delivers a really invested, physical performance; in fact, each time he squirmed when the tail flails about, it made me uncomfortable.
Shyam: He was part of an acting workshop before shooting began. Rajesh’s script also had plenty of detailing, and we knew that it was important to bring in this physical discomfort through his performance. There’s about an hour of CG work involved, in fact, and we had almost three people assigned to moving the tail throughout shooting. I think it all went into creating an affecting performance from him.
There are those who wonder why they should make time in their already-stressful lives to watch a complex, almost incomprehensible film like Kuthiraivaal. What would you tell them?
Rajesh: Those unable to tolerate complex art, will be unable to deal with complex problems in their life. Come, see films like Kuthiraivaal; they will help you discover new perspectives, unleash new horizons in your mind. Also, it is completely all right for you not to understand everything in the film. Whatever you make of the film is what it is.