In conversation with R. Abilash

Athiyan interviews Tamil writer and film enthusiast R. Abilash. This conversation touches on politics, caste, love, and more; rooted in the sociocultural context of Tamil Nadu today.

24 min read

R. Abilash has published 10 books so far: these include three novels, one short story collection, one poetry collection, one translated work, three essay collections and a biography. His Tamil novel Kaalgal [Legs] won the Sahitya Academy Yuva Puraskar award in 2014. He authored the series Cricketography in Kumudam magazine in 2017. He’s been writing a series titled Vaanga English Pesalam [Let’s speak English] in Dinamani’s Ilaignar Mani supplement for the past three years. He continues to publish essays and short stories in Tamil magazines like Uyirmmai and Theeranathi. He currently works as an English lecturer in Bangalore.

His book 90களின் தமிழ் சினிமா [Tamil cinema of the 90s][1], a collection of essays about Tamil cinema, was published in January 2018. This book analyses the themes of Tamil films that were released during the 90s and their impact on cinema and society.

Athiyan asked us if he could interview Abilash regarding this book. Here is a translation of the interview that was conducted in Tamil, over email.

Athiyan: As a writer of fiction, what does writing about cinema give you? How does it inform your sensibilities?

R. Abilash: I am not a full-time cinema critic. Cinema is just one of my many interests. I believe, as a writer, I bring different perspectives, a different awareness, and a new kind of language to film criticism. For instance, in Tamil cinema that came out of the nineties, until early 2000s, there is a repressed masculinity that is repeatedly portrayed—be it the Bromance, or the agony of unrequited love. I analysed these themes in my essays. I mean to say, when I write about films I am able to talk some issues that I am otherwise unable to discuss in my social or cultural commentaries and fiction.

Athiyan: A specific art form is popular during a specific period of time. Cinema is the most widely discussed art form today. What is your take on this?

R. Abilash: This is the age of cinema. Sometime in the beginning of the year 2000, I had met director Ram, and he had said: “Moving forward, creative works will take the form of visual media. Writing will take a backseat.” To an extent, what he said then seems to be happening now. In the college where I teach, I see many young aspiring filmmakers or photographers, and not as many writers. Thinking visually comes naturally to this generation.

On the other hand, Tamil Nadu has always been a state that celebrates its films. We still have politicians and leaders who have crossed over from cinema. We continue to have people like Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Vijay, Bharathiraja, Ameer, Ram who are vocal about what they think of the administration and Dravidian politics. Every word they utter has significant consequences. The political opinions of an actor like Kasthuri, who does not have a strong presence in the Tamil film industry, are also dissected by thousands of people on Facebook.

Why are our people so obsessed with cinema? To this I have no answer. One of the positive effects of this is the emergence of technically sound artists and creations in the past 10 years. We cannot find a P.C. Sreeram or Mani Ratnam or Ram or Mysskin in the Malayalam film industry. Santosh Sivan, who is from Kerala, typically works on films in other states. Even Padmarajan, who possessed a unique cinematic language, did not have many directors following his lineage in terms of film language in Malayalam cinema. Malayalam cinema is simply a restructuring of stage plays. We can find a detailing of the characters’ psyches, and perspectives on life in their films, but not a cinematic language. Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016) is a movie with depth of story, but even that is not really ‘cinema’. Malayalam cinema still tries to tell its stories through dialogues and drama.

Athiyan: Tamil cinema receives inordinate amounts of attention from its audience. Do you think the Tamil film world carries with it an appropriate sense of social responsibility?

R. Abilash: I think that ‘mass’ media like film or ‘serious’ media like literature don’t need to have this sense of social responsibility. An artist leads the society, creates change in the society, therefore he needs to oppose and destroy social evils—all of this stems from early Marxist beliefs. In 1922, Lenin released an official statement that dictated how Soviet films must be made. He had demanded that directors only make movies in support of the government’s ideologies, and he had mentioned that his party would monitor the films that get made. He maintained that his nation was built on an ideology, and cinema is one of the tools through which the state can disseminate this ideology. Marxists in Tamil Nadu continue to subscribe to this sentiment, at least from a socio-cultural point of view.

For a long time now, Marxists have been the ones providing fertile ground for literary pursuits and ideological discussions in our state (Tamil Nadu). Therefore, even today, we find readers, philosophers, thinkers, writers with the opinion that all art is propaganda. I do not subscribe to this.

In every society, varied cultures, feelings, and ideas interact with each other constantly. An artist finds ways to express this. If we have a movie that speaks to caste pride (Thevar Magan), we also have movies that exhort us to move beyond caste (Madras, Kabali). Both types of movies are two sides of the same coin. Films made by Bharathiraja and Kamal in the 90s, and Sasikumar in the 2000s—glorifying caste—paved the way for someone like Ranjith to raise a voice in opposition, sensitively portraying Dalit lives on film. I don’t believe that Ranjith’s films will change people’s attitudes but they spark dialogue. His films lend a fresh cinematic language, visuals and sounds to our political and cultural landscape. The audience watches, applauds, and moves on. The ordinary man does not introspect or interrogate. Circumstances, feelings, everyday dilemmas—these determine the course of lives. Not thoughts and ideas.

If a filmmaker could simply change society with a bunch of political films that talked about social justice, the world would be heaven! Unfortunately, life isn’t that easy.

We wish for it to be true. We want society to be cleaned up the way we sweep our homes clean. This isn’t really possible. Ideas and counter-ideas roam within the cultural space. Our lives are not touched by this discourse.

For example, at the peak of Dravidian politics, ‘Kalaignar’ M Karunanidhi, M.G. Ramachandran, M.R. Radha made and starred in many films that showcased a progressive rationalism, a relatively modern thought process. These films were lapped up by the audience. They spurred a powerful discourse on rationalism at the cultural level. These ideas went on to shape the political discourse of the people and a state’s future, helping Anna, Kalaignar, MGR become chief ministers. But Tamil Nadu has always been a land of temples. There is no dearth of religious people here. Many DMK and AIADMK cadres aren’t just religious believers, they also observe many traditional rituals and practices. You still see a Pillaiyar temple in every street corner. Why couldn’t Periyar get rid of all these temples?

I don’t see this as a failure of a state or party’s ideology. I am saying this is how it will be. This is the way it is, all over the world.

However, BJP could not find a foothold in this state of believers. This is because communalism isn’t a way of life, it is a political tool. Secular and rational discourse of Dravidian ideology is still strong in Tamil Nadu. It is difficult for a Hindutva discourse to supercede it. One forest, one lion. The hordes thronging temples cannot be won over by BJP. Everyday life maintains a safe distance from ideological narratives.

Athiyan: Love used to be an aspirational goal in Tamil cinema, whereas now, love has become a celebration. Do you think this change is reflected in society as well?

R. Abilash: Yes. Such films have met with success because of the corresponding change in society’s attitudes towards love. On the one hand, we have films that portray love as something sensational, the protagonist pines and writhes in agony (Gautham Menon’s films). On the other hand, we have the Venkat Prabhu genre of films. The struggles of being in love are presented in a playful manner, with a light touch that celebrates life. Both are two sides of the same coin.

What kind of lovers exist today? In my observation, there is one group that drowns in love as though jumping into a waterfall. Such relationships are passionate and intense. But this love doesn’t take up the entire day. They see love as a temporary bridge to get over the problems and stress in their personal lives (they may be just 18 years old, but they have numerous pressures). They mutually aim to spend time together in a happy and relaxed fashion, they do not bombard each other with prickly questions. When they are not with their lovers, they return to their regular lives. There was a time when the Tamil cinema lover would pine for his love every waking moment, epitomized by the actor Murali. That time has gone by.

Passionate romance and an unceasing loneliness crouched side by side—this is the love story of today. Films that bring to us these love stories are overwrought with emotions and an excessive zest for life. This doesn’t surprise me.

Athiyan: Speaking of love stories, we also have movies like Sivakarthikeyan’s, in which he sings songs bashing the woman for not accepting his love. These songs are wildly popular too. Do you think songs like these encourage young men to think of women as their possessions?

R. Abilash: I don’t think the problem here is young men thinking of women as their possessions. Women these days do not allow themselves to be treated that way so easily; at the same time, they don’t reject this sentiment outright either. This puts men in a crisis. Sivakarthikeyan’s songs are an outlet for the frustrations of men who do not understand these women.

The problem is that we have not yet fully freed ourselves from our feudal roots. We have one foot there, and one foot in the fast-moving, urbanised corporate world of today. This leads to a tension in man-woman relationships. If women had the opportunity to criticize men in film songs, I think worse songs would be made. Truth be told, our plight is precarious.

Is it acceptable to treat women as objects that can be owned? Definitely not. When in love, man and woman are the same. There is no acceptance or rejection. There is no invasion or ownership. There is only a mutual blurring of boundaries and bliss. We see this in Gautham Menon’s movies and in Mani Ratnam’s movies from the 90s until now.

Athiyan: I would like you, as a professor, to clarify something for students here. Is it a Love Failure when two lovers are not able to make a life together? Or is it a Love Failure when one of them does not accept another’s proposal?

Abilash: When lovers are unable to be together in spite of their desire to be so, it cannot be considered a Love Failure. It is society that fails them. This is why films like Balaji Sakthivel’s Kaadhal indict the caste system. Ram’s films (Kattradhu Thamizh, Taramani) show us how obstacles and misconceptions created by economic inequalities in our society cause lovers to separate. Mani Ratnam and Gautham Menon look at Love Failure through an emotional lens—how circumstances affect the people in a relationship, their pain and despair, their understanding morphing into frustrations—this is truly a Love Failure. But even this isn’t a failure of love. It is simply the lovers who fail each other. Love never fails.

Athiyan: While we’re on the subject of Love, I’d like you to talk about Kadhalukku Mariyadhai (1997), a film that was adored by audiences when it released.

R. Abilash: I was not much taken with Kadhalukku Mariyadhai. I have watched the Malayalam original as well, Aniyathipraavu.

This is a film that supports traditional marriages, in the guise of a love story. There is a selfishness in all love marriages, which couples realise once they are married. They carry with them a guilt for the suffering they caused their parents. The couple may be happy in their union, but there is a loneliness that follows them, caused by their separation from the parents. This is the contradictory space within which love marriages evolve.

In Kadhalukku Mariyadhai, the couple is shown to go through these emotions before their wedding, and they return to their respective families. Many young people in love could relate to these sentiments, and felt as though their inner turmoil was captured on screen; the movie went on to do well at the box office. Eventually, as though in deference of Love, the families agree to get the young lovers married. This way, director Fazil provides a rather simplistic solution to the struggles of those in love. If the film had shown how life unfolds—easy solution notwithstanding—the film might have held more appeal for me. Alaipayuthey tackles these issues in a much more impressive manner.

One of Fazil’s earlier movies, Varusham Padhinaaru, takes a similar context and handles it differently. The Malayalam original, Ennennum Kannettante, is even better.

Athiyan: In one of your essays in this book, you had written about the femininity you observed in male characters, as opposed to female characters, in films made by women. In another book of yours, Penkal Ippadithan Ninaikkirarkala? [Is This How Women Think?], you had written, “A courageous and confident woman, and a fluid, poetic man will be ideals of a future society.” Could you elaborate?

R. Abilash: Earlier, the nature of each gender and their roles were clearly established. This has changed now. Relationships with sensitivity and fluidity alone succeed. For this to happen, it seems necessary that men take the place of women, and vice versa (these roles are imaginary to begin with though). This in turn paints the love stories of today with a different hue—they are softer, more sensitive.

Unfortunately, we are unable to completely become this way. The attitudes of men are partially frozen in time; the same goes for women too. This leads to problems and confusions in relationships. The line you have quoted above is how I wish to see man and woman in the future.

R Abilash
“A courageous and confident woman, and a fluid, poetic man will be ideals of a future society.” – R.Abilash

Athiyan: In his movies, Gautham Menon managed to give his leading men a different dimension, not seen until then. Do you think the directors who came after him have failed to carry this forward?

R. Abilash: Yes, that is true. There is a reason for that. As we keep getting urbanised, there will be more directors who make films in the Gautham Menon mould. As of now, he is a director who reflects the viewpoints of a minority audience. But the men in his movies, who easily surrender to women, and who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable—these men are noteworthy.

Athiyan: You have written about the male bonding and friendship as seen in Tamil cinema, a Bromance that is taken to great heights. What about the friendship between women, which is often reduced to jealousy and negativity in our films?

R. Abilash: The demographic that buys tickets and fills up the seats in a theatre is still predominantly male. This is why the Tamil film industry continues to make numerous movies for men. It is very very difficult to make films that show the friendship and affection between women. There is a Malayalam film Desatanakkili Karayarilla, by Padmarajan, that shows this bond beautifully.

If we start making Tamil content exclusively for apps like Hotstar and Netflix, there is a possibility we will get to see stories of female friendship. This might happen in the near future.

Athiyan: In one of your essays, you said, “Love and loyalty are like a double-ended sword—betrayal being the other sharp end.” In Tamil society, we observe many untoward incidents that point to betrayal as their root cause. Have we as a people failed to recognize betrayal as a human foible?

R. Abilash: That betrayal is the other side of love and loyalty is simply a philosophical observation. We often grow to despise those we love the most. There is no explanation for this. The human mind is filled with such riddles. When betrayed by someone close to us, we are blinded by a need for revenge. Our infinite love instantaneously morphs into an infinite hostility.

How does true love become bloodthirsty desire for revenge?

But this happens frequently in our society. When one experiences a betrayal, it is not easy to let it go thinking of it as an all-too human weakness. We may be able to forgive a few trespasses this way, but you and me, we will both be reduced to wanting to kill the betrayer. As a writer, I can make this observation in a detached way. But society as a whole does not react so patiently.

Athiyan: Films like Thevar Magan and Gentleman are excellent on many technical fronts—be it their screenplay or cinematography. Yet they plant many incorrect ideas in the minds of audiences. What do you think about this?

R. Abilash: I do not believe in the idea that a work of art “plants incorrect ideas in the minds of audiences.” Cinema is dialogue between two parties, that is all. It is like sparring, or like tango. A broken nose in a fight or a bruised lip during a dance cannot be blamed on just one of the participants. Since I have spoken about this at length in a previous answer, I’ll stop here.

Athiyan: What is your take on the dominance of the Ajith-Vijay duo, who have followed in the footsteps of their predecessors like MGR-Sivaji and Rajini-Kamal?

R. Abilash: I don’t see it as a problem. Commercial cinema requires this lineup of stars. They make films easier to sell.

Thousands of people contribute to the field of cinema. Someone like Thiagarajan Kumararaja can only make films once in a while. We could watch his film, dissect it and praise it to the skies. Someone like Nalan Kumarasamy can make an experimental film commercially viable too. But these offbeat films cannot be manufactured with regularity, like an assembly line.

Our film industry is a factory. It needed the MGR-Sivaji duo yesterday and it needs the Ajith-Vijay duo today. Thousands of families depend on cinema for survival, and low-risk films that are produced regularly to offer consolation to the masses are needed for this industry to survive.

Films without big stars are not the need of the hour. We need an alternate cinema movement that goes hand-in-hand with our huge blockbusters. Alternate cinema cannot depend on regular cinema halls alone for survival. New avenues like the internet and television are opening up, to distribute and sell small-budget films. During the 1980s, the golden age of Malayalam cinema, popular stars like Mammootty and Mohanlal acted in offbeat films too. This kept the alternate cinema movement alive and made it successful. I want this to happen with Tamil cinema too.

Athiyan: Kerala is known as one of the progressive states in India, yet you mention many films being made there that promote caste pride. The practice of having caste surnames still exists in Kerala. It becomes unavoidable then to name film heroes with specific caste connotations. How should we view this scenario?

R. Abilash: This is the situation in Kerala because the caste system is generally accepted and is considered quite normal there. Calling someone by his or her caste surname isn’t considered derogatory. But the political uprising of the Ezhavas has created awareness about the problems of caste. Rajeev Ravi’s Kammattipaadam is a great example.

All said and done, avoiding caste surnames does not mean you have abolished caste. Indian society depends on caste for day-to-day survival. Our families, land ownership, restrictions imposed on women, self-identity and political clout—we depend on caste for many such (regressive) stuff. Can you get married if you pull yourself out of the caste system? You may have a revolutionary marriage but eventually you’ll be sucked back into the caste system—life will keep bombarding you with such circumstances and situations.

So I want our films to openly discuss caste rather than hushing it up. For example, we need to create an environment for films like Kaadhal to dissect and comment upon issues like caste riots, violence and oppression, even more boldly. When you don’t discuss an issue that exists, then the pent up frustration explodes in the form of violence and other social problems. Through discussions, we can reach a point of mutual understanding. Pethavan [The Begetter], a story written by Imayam is the perfect example. The censor board should be more progressive in this regard.

Athiyan: What is the trend you see in the Malayalam films being made after the New Wave of recent years?

R. Abilash: Yes, there are many offbeat, rooted, subtle Malayalam films. Stars like Fahad Fazil and Nivin Pauly, who are also terrific actors, are at the centre of this movement. Malayalam filmmakers have proved to themselves that good cinema can be made without Mohanlal and Mammootty.

This new wave of Malayalam films has surprised me. The release of a succession of shoddy films, the box office failure of films with stars like Mohanlal, the rollicking success of Tamil films in Kerala—this was the state of Malayalam cinema until a few years ago. It was on the brink of a complete collapse. But Malayalam cinema has undergone an unexpected resurrection. On one hand, Mohanlal’s Pulimurugan became a blockbuster. On the other hand, small-scale, offbeat filmmakers like Rajeev Ravi, Dileesh Pothan, Aashiq Abu, Samir Thahir and Rathish Ambat have been successful. A healthy filmmaking culture has returned to the shores of Kerala.

I want to make two observations here.

  1. There have been some exceptional alternate films made in Malayalam, but a unique cinematic language is yet to evolve. Films by directors like Rajeev Ravi are the only exception. Tamil cinema is far ahead of Malayalam cinema in terms of technology.
  2. Malayalam film industry’s strength has always been its ability to produce small-budget films. They are able to make experimental films more easily.

Athiyan: What do you think makes it easier for the Malayalam film industry to produce small-budget films?

R. Abilash: The unstable economic situation in Kerala is the reason. It is a problem for the state’s development but their cinema has benefited from this situation. Small budget isn’t the only factor contributing to good cinema. Directors who make powerful films that actively engage with societal problems and cultural, philosophical and psychological conflicts, actors who support them, a discerning audience who have provided continued support to good cinema for many years—many such factors have enabled them to make wonderful films despite an unstable economy.

If we have dedicated, enthusiastic artists and an audience with wholesome cultural awareness and social responsibility in Tamil Nadu, then we can definitely produce serious, small-budget films with depth, despite the merciless numbers game. The state of Tamil cinema is like that of a wealthy family with 100-crore assets begging for a living! We have everything and yet we have nothing!

Athiyan: I can understand when you say that Tamil cinema is more advanced than Malayalam cinema on the technical front. But Malayalam cinema is far ahead in terms of storytelling, and the way it so subtly represents life on cinema. Films like Maheshinte Prathikaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum don’t have much dialogue, they use visuals to take the story forward. Could you elaborate on what you meant when you said “Malayalam cinema still tries to tell its stories through dialogues and drama”?

R. Abilash: Yes, filmmakers of Malayalam are yet to develop a unique cinematic language. Tamil cinema has had a solid film language over the past 30 years. The Malayalam filmmakers don’t use cinematography with as much subtlety and artistry as we do.

The dominance of stage plays in Kerala is one of the reasons why their films feel like plays. Tamil films have been strongly influenced by folk traditions and songs. Tamil films don’t rely on the storytelling format of plays any longer.

Maheshinte Prathikaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum might have splendid visuals. But they lack a cinematic language. Let me clarify what I mean by cinematic language.

For example, let us consider the silent film Pesum Padam that was released during the latter half of 1980s. It has a straightforward storyline—a poor, unemployed graduate uses a lucky coincidence to hijack the status of a rich man. He temporarily enjoys the comforts, prosperity and perks of being rich. In the end he realises the emptiness of such a life and returns to his poor surroundings.

We comprehend this plot through incidents in the film; we admire it, we laugh, we cry. But the story has many more layers to it. There is a scene in which Kamal Haasan, who plays the poor graduate, meets Amala, who plays a rich, young girl, at a shop selling objects of art. Kamal ogles Amala without her knowledge. There is a statue of a woman in the foreground—an erotic idol. Amala is framed in the background. In earlier shots, Kamal is established as staring at objects for sale with desire in his eyes. That is how he enters this shop and the scene begins. The subtle point that Amala and the statue are the same from Kamal’s perspective is emphasised through this framing.

Kamal is a customer who aspires to buy something that is beyond his financial means. He is going to desire Amala in the same way. Just as he can’t buy the statue, he can’t attain Amala either. He enters the shop mimicking the mannerisms of a reputable man. Likewise, he is going to enter an upper class world and live there. He is going to meet Amala in this new world and fall in love with her. He gets kicked out of this shop just as he will eventually exit from this rich world and lose his lover. All of this is conveyed beforehand through that single shot. This is cinematic language. Malayalam cinema lacks this.

When you use cinematography for straightforward storytelling, you are making an ordinary film. When you use cinematography, blocking, framing, lighting and editing to add another dimension to the story, to make a subtle point about the human mind, to create and bury multiple layers of meaning within a scene, then you’re making a good film with cinematic language. The former is Malayalam cinema and the latter is Tamil cinema.

Athiyan: Writers make a significant contribution to Malayalam cinema; many novels have been adapted into films. As a writer, does it upset you that such a trend is non-existent in Tamil cinema?

R. Abilash: Is there anyone who won’t feel jealous of the Malayalam cultural scene? Even moderately good literary artists (in Kerala) get a lot of attention and recognition. You can live with wealth and fame if you are a screenwriter in the Malayalam film industry. We from the Tamil film industry can only sigh about it.

Athiyan: Many serious Tamil literary writers have begun to write dialogues for cinema. Does this contribute to the growth of cinema as an art? Or do writers lose their essence when they write for cinema?

R. Abilash: A writer never loses essence. A writer might be sentenced to prison for murder but he or she never becomes a sell-out. How can cinema weaken a writer? This is a myth.

Screenwriters have never had a space for themselves in Tamil cinema. Even good Malayalam film directors like Bharathan handed over the responsibility of screenwriting to other writers. A director’s role is to bring a screenplay to life using imagination. But in the Tamil film industry, there is a widely held notion that a director must write the story and screenplay in order to be respected. It doesn’t end there. Our film directors wish to act as heroes too! The heroine is probably the only role they will never play. Our directors are all-rounders— they can be hero, comedian, producer or supporting actor. As a result, there has been no space for screenwriters to grow; we don’t have writers who are trained and well-equipped to write for the screen.

We have only had screenwriting consultants like Kalaignanam and Ananthu. Tamil literary stalwarts like S Ramakrishnan and Jeyamohan are given meagre duties in cinema like screenplay consultation and dialogue writing. In Malayalam cinema, you can make out M.T. Vasudevan Nair‘s signature in the films he worked as a screenwriter. But directors of Tamil cinema refuse to let go of the reins. We saw how Jeyamohan’s novel Ezham Ulagam underwent a complete transformation when it was made into a film by Bala (Naan Kadavul).

I won’t blame our writers for it. We don’t have an environment in which we can make full use of their abilities. Also, our creators must learn the subtle art of writing screenplays keeping in mind that cinema is a visual medium.

Athiyan: You mention in your book at various points about the social and political changes reflected in cinema. Are these changes reflected in literature too?

R. Abilash: No, unlike the medium of cinema, literature doesn’t instantly reflect socio-political changes. In fact, cinema is the medium that instantly reflects many subtle and fierce cultural shifts. Literature transforms socio-cultural rises and falls into images and metaphors. It takes a couple of decades for this to happen. The rise of Sri Lankan civil war literature happened after the mass murders of common people and human rights violation in the battlefield, after the soil had absorbed the blood, after the laments dissolved in air and vanished. These were expressed as direct, first-hand witness accounts. The scars of war will be expressed with greater depth in the next 25 years. I felt Jeyamohan’s novel Vishnupuram paints a picture of the period from Nehru’s times until the fall of Leftist ideology throughout India. You may interpret Vishnupuram as a parable or fantasy about India after independence. Ponniyin Selvan is similar. It may not have the same level of intensity or conflicts as Vishnupuram. It tells the story of the treachery and plotting that led to the fall of the Chola empire as seen through the eyes of an innocent youngster (Vanthiyathevan), who has the fresh idealism and energy of a newly independent India. Is Sundara Chozhan a metaphor for India or does he symbolise Gandhi?

Cinema doesn’t consume and digest history to give birth to it in new forms. Cinema is a medium that engages in instant conversation.

Athiyan: Do you think there’s a need for rooted story-telling techniques in Tamil cinema? Directors like Asghar Farhadi explore the synthesis of cinema and theatre. How can we strengthen the connection between cinema and art forms rooted in Tamil Nadu?

R. Abilash: Tamil cinema has always had rooted storytelling—many commercially successful films have made use of them. In fact, Indian cinema was formed by adapting several nuances from art forms like street plays, stage plays and naiyandi melam (background percussion for kavadi and karakattam). Mani Ratnam mentioned in an interview, “Songs are shot like fantasies in Indian cinema. Even realistic films enter the realm of fantasy through songs. This makes it possible to portray that which is impossible to be expressed through realistic storytelling. Hollywood can’t do this!” Film songs emerged as art forms rooted in Indian soil! We have told stories through centuries with song and dance! Professor Nirmal Selvamani opines that Sangam poems read more like dialogues of a play rather than poetry.

Our experimental films are inspired from world cinema. Kumararaja’s Aaranya Kaandam is an example. This is my question, “Can we develop a new form of storytelling and a new cinematic language for such films using our folk arts and Tamil folk tales?” That will make it a unique cinematic style that Tamils can take credit for. If we can make such balanced films that garner audience interest as well, then they’ll receive reasonable box office success too.

Athiyan: Rejection of political correctness is said to be one of the identifying features of postmodernism. Films garner the most attention in our society. Do you think a postmodern filmmaker should try to be politically correct while making films?

R. Abilash: Political correctness poses the biggest danger today—it forces us to live in constant anxiety. You should not hurt anyone, you should not be perceived as regressive—these fears literally choke us today. An artist requires extensive freedom. When one views oneself to be responsible for an entire society’s actions and becomes more acutely aware of public perception—that’s the moment an artist loses freedom. It doesn’t matter if you are a postmodern filmmaker or not; you should avoid political correctness. For example, Mani Ratnam isn’t a postmodernist. Yet his Kaatru Veliyidai does not smack of political correctness.

This film told a story from the perspective of a self-obsessed man who is madly in love with a woman. It portrayed his cruelty, insensitivity and aggressive behaviour. It also portrayed a woman who put up with all of his flaws out of love and whose heart melted for him. Our feminists couldn’t bear to see this film and expressed their vehement disapproval.

The feminists expect Mani Ratnam to show the woman desert the man and live a life of her own. This sounds perfect from an ideological point of view, but it’s not true to life. Love in real life feeds and thrives off many evils. It’s not easy to answer why this woman is madly in love with a man who doesn’t respect her. Love enslaves us and makes our hearts enjoy being enslaved. Simple-minded feminists who approach life purely from a rationalistic standpoint can never comprehend this depth.

An artist must ignore them.

Athiyan: You are an essayist whom Mysskin’s fans love. You’ve written about his films since the days of Nandalala (2010). Could you share with us your experiences with Mysskin and his films?

R. Abilash: Mysskin is a fascinating personality. He’s someone I sought out to meet. I learnt a lot through conversations with his friends about him. Based on such observations, I wrote an analysis of Thupparivalan. I posit that the film reflects the structure of Mysskin’s mind. The only other Tamil director who has the depth of perception and awareness of cinematic language is Ram.

Mysskin has reached his current status through his hard work and personal drive. Right after he wakes up in the morning until he goes to sleep at night, he doesn’t take interest in petty matters. He focuses only on his art, knowing the self and living a free life. I have seen him implement many Zen teachings in real life. I can’t say enough about him in a single interview. I shall write a book someday about his personality and films.

Athiyan: What do you think is the state of film criticism in Tamil?

R. Abilash: For a long time, we thought cinema is yet another story-telling medium like literature. We wrote criticism from this perspective. There is more to film criticism such as analysing its technical aspects like framing, blocking, cinematography, editing, or story and dialogues.

There are many entertaining and outspoken film reviews being written today on Facebook. People interested in world cinema express their views and give film recommendations too. There are infinite possibilities to learn the language of cinema on the internet today. Opportunities to do serious research on cinema, to study and write about them, are more widely available. It is our responsibility to make use of these opportunities, to push film criticism to the next level.

Athiyan: Director Ram said in a recent interview that there is no film appreciation culture in Tamil Nadu. What can we do to foster a film appreciation culture?

R. Abilash: His complaint is that Tamil cinema critics analyse only a film’s plot in the name of criticism. He is right. A film isn’t a sum of its plot and dialogues. Cinema is a visual medium. One can analyse how a film comments on society, the human conscience, moral dilemmas and political problems, by discussing its visuals, editing and various other technical aspects.

The impact of such a cinematic language is sharp and powerful. Cinematic visuals leave a permanent imprint in our minds.

In Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray used the train as a metaphor for the onslaught of modernism on rural villages. He showed its impact through a shot of two children feeling a train’s reverberations by placing their ears on a railway track. This visual acquired mythic proportions and was imprinted in our psyches. Balu Mahendra framed a similar shot in Moondram Pirai as homage.

Satyajit Ray uses the train as a visual metaphor for the death of a culture and a way of life. The train enters the village like a knife that slices through the heart. In Ram’s films, trains and all sorts of vehicles that displace people are associated with loss, longing and negative emotions. This is evident in his films from Kattradhu Thamizh to Taramani. You may pick up this fine strand and analyse all of his films. Unemployment of Tamil graduates, lack of respect for the unemployed, the erosion of moral values by the IT sector—these are superficial layers in his films. He wants people to peel off these layers on the surface of his films and look deep within. His frustration is caused by the lack of such analysis.

I wrote an essay recently for Uyirmei magazine[2] that gave an alternate interpretation of Iruvar based on its cinematography. That was my first attempt at writing an essay focusing on cinematic language. I’m not sure if I’ll continue writing such essays. I’m not a full-time film critic. When I see film language analysis on English Youtube channels like Wolfcrow, I wonder when such analysis will happen in Tamil.

A healthy atmosphere of film appreciation will make Tamil cinema prosper. Ram’s appeal sounds fair!

Athiyan: How do we bring about this healthy atmosphere of film appreciation?

R. Abilash: The language of visual media can be taught in schools as a part of language curriculum. Simple introductions to cinema can be given in populist media. A series of essays (that don’t simply summarise the plots of world cinema) in Vikatan will create a huge impact.

There are experts in Tamil who are well-versed in the technical aspects of film and the history of its visuals. But they don’t write about it. Once when I met Director Ram, he showed me the first 40 minutes of his upcoming film Peranbu. When I asked him a few questions about its opening scenes, he spoke to me at length about the nuances of those scenes. I’m amazed by his knowledge of screenplay and visual grammar. But Ram doesn’t write about these things; he doesn’t have the time. We need people who are interested in writing and publishing such analysis.

Athiyan: Many intellectuals denounce Tamil commercial cinema stating that it’s inferior. How are you able to use such commercial films as a lens to observe societal changes?

R. Abilash: Commercial cinema discusses social trends as and when they occur. Commercial cinema is the mirror of a society’s subconscious. Analysing commercial cinema helps to shed light on society’s face that lies frozen in the shadows.

Athiyan: What is the next step in your journey as a writer?

R. Abilash: To be honest I don’t know. Writing has been bliss so far. I feel an immense rush within me whenever I write. So I think I’ll keep writing until my final breath.


  1. An introduction to Abilash’s essay collection 90galin Tamil CinemaWatch video
  2. R. Abilash’s essay on Iruvar in Uyirmmai Magazine – Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

All images have been provided by R. Abilash. They may not be reproduced without permission.

About the interviewer

Athiyan is someone with a fondness for good literature, cinema and music. He is interested in reading about politics and history. He hopes to live his life without being shrunk by labels and identities: “Every country is my country, and everyone is my kin.”

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