Friday, January 17, 2014

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction

Kavaya Ashoka took me on a nostalgic ride today morning (via Q3D):

Unlike Bollywood’s avaricious national reach, the somewhat humbler linguistic ambitions of Tamil cinema dictated that it was usually about Tamilians, usually living in Tamil Nadu. Films therefore offered a peculiarly intimate window onto our lives. Although my own Tamil was poor — English having long usurped its place as my primary language — I could easily grasp the gist of the dialogue of my grandmother’s preferred brand of family melodrama. But their proximity to family life (ours and, I thought, everyone else’s) meant that they offered nothing new — they revolved endlessly around love, marriage, and familial duty, inevitably ending in dramatic monologues, tears, and death, which never came quickly enough. What fascinated were the rapid and logic-defying dress and scene changes during songs, where a dhavani-wearing peasant girl could be delivered from the tedium of tending water buffalo by a seamless camera cut, instantaneously depositing her into the perfectly reasonable confines of a blood-red cocktail dress as she sashayed down a London street. Movies seemed to capture both the provincial grip of our city of three million as well as our equally provincial ambitions to leave it.

Tamil thrillers and horror films, on the other hand, were riveting, their uncanniness­ only compounded by the fact that I couldn’t fully understand their more intricate plotlines. One film in particular comes hurtling back from the otherwise hazy cloud of cinematic childhood memory. In the 1979 Rajinikanth film Dharma Yuddham, the primary moral lessons of a son’s filial revenge for the murder of his parents washed over me with little effect. What grabbed me by the throat was Rajini’s gruesome discovery of glass jars filled with eyeballs in the villain’s refrigerator; the man who had killed his parents was also involved in the illicit trade of pilfered body parts. Rajini’s realization that what the villain had been referring to as his “black roses” were actually human eyeballs was rendered all the more unnerving because of their strangely captivating English moniker. It was naturally this that stuck in the mind of the transfixed nine-year-old, and of course that Tamil villains often spoke English, had mysterious names like “Robert,” smoked large pipes, and haughtily commanded their underlings to fetch them large measures of Scotch.

And this is so true and I think I am still the same:

Chakravarthy was also deeply invested in making the “popular” — what was read by auto drivers and tea stall owners — accessible to a broader audience. She wanted to introduce non-Tamil speakers to this kind of Tamil writing and give them a glimpse of the cultural universe of Tamilians, an act simultaneously demystifying and enchanting. She made some choices early on, deciding that food and familial relations, what she considered to be two vital aspects of Tamil culture, would not be translated. “I was very staunch that I will not translate idlis into rice cakes or dosa into rice pancakes, you know?” she told me in an interview. “Or upma into porridge. I have grown up reading Enid Blyton and Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. I never knew what a croissant or a scone was! And it didn’t matter to me!”

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