Kuthiraivaal Movie Review: An unusual, important arrival in mainstream Tamil cinema
It is natural to brush off Kuthiraivaal as an esoteric cinema, but that would be unfortunate
When I first watched Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, I knew I had watched something significant but couldn’t grasp what it was. After several revisits and watching similar absurdist and abstract cinema, I still think one can never get the whole Synecdoche, New York and that includes the makers of the movie. In Tamil cinema, Arun Karthick’s Sivapuranam, an abstract indie film, was the only attempt that tried to break away from the conventional narrative storytelling. I remember thinking such an experiment in the Tamil mainstream will take years if not decades. Now, watching Kuthiraivaal, I am happy that I was proven wrong. In an industry, which is still struggling to get the grammar of cinema and uses cinema only as a storytelling medium, Kuthiraivaal is much like the horsetail that the film’s protagonist Saravanan/Freud grows one fine morning. Both his horsetail and Kuthiraivaal are incongruous with their surroundings. That also makes Kuthiraivaal the most profound meta film made here.
Director: Shyam Sundar, Manoj Leonel Jason
Cast: Kalaiyarasan, Chetan, Anjali Patil
Writer: G. Rajesh
Like Gregor Samsa of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who finds himself turned into a cockroach one fine morning, Saravanan of Kuthiraivaal finds he has grown a horsetail. That’s all one can tell about the premise of this Kafkaesque film. Things turn quite bizarre with every passing moment from then on. It is unclear if Saravanan, who now calls himself Freud, has grown a tail, or is it all in his mind. Or is he constructing this delusional world to escape the guilt of murdering his neighbor (Chetan)? Or is he suffering from a mental illness caused by major childhood trauma? The film doesn’t offer any straight answers to the questions. In a way, the film is indifferent to its audience. The absurdity is born out of this confrontation with the viewer, who is seeking meaning out of it all, and the film, which doesn’t bother about him.
There can be many readings of the film, and I think everything can be true. There are symbols of psychedelic drugs being involved and a possibility that it’s all a dream. Kalaiyarasan effortlessly pulls off this perplexed Saravanan/Freud. One can see that the film is both physically and emotionally draining, and Kalai doesn’t miss a beat. It is just tiring to see him jolt every time the involuntary tail wiggles. Anjali Patil is the other actor who takes a predominant amount of screen space, especially in the second half of the movie. She tells Kalai in a dreamy sequence, “Naanae ninaivula tholachatha kanavula theditu irukaen (In dreams, I am trying to find the thing that I lost in reality). That could be a stand-in for the makers searching for things in this film that they couldn’t find in reality.
I could go on about the incredible sound design that captures even the minutest sounds like the breaking of a groundnut candy. However, those are elements that need to be experienced. That explains why the makers went for a theatrical release for such a complex film even when OTT looked like a safer bet. I don’t think the frame of MGR’s sunglasses and white hat floating in the well will create the same impact if seen on a streaming platform.
It is still unknown how the film will fare in a culture where expositions continue to impede the film language. It is also natural to brush off Kuthiraivaal as an esoteric cinema, but that would be unfortunate. It is high time the mainstream is exposed to the enormous possibilities of cinema and to the fact that films aren't just storytelling mediums. There is no binary answer to the question of whether or not Kuthiraivaal is good. In fact, the purpose of the film is to incite you and leave you with unclear emotions. Instead of instructing you how to feel - like most of our mainstream cinema - Kuthiraivaal leaves you inspecting what is it that you are feeling. And that’s why the existence of the film in Tamil cinema is a success in itself.