Capitalism against socialism, sciences and finances against arts and humanities, welcomed invasion of foreign languages against native tongue in the shameful verge of oblivion, cramped urban spaces against the pristine villages: the brutal ever-going battles raging between these divergent forces fuelled by the rapid socioeconomic changes in the world are presented and pondered over in Ram’s angered, melancholic and controversial directorial debut, Kattradhu Thamizh. This renders the film inevitably open to varied perceptions. The film built on the thesis of globalisation (as stated by the director himself), the first in the filmmaker’s trilogy of the same (Thanga Meenkal, 2013; Taramani, 2018) grows intense, loud and even baffling at certain points in its outrages at the society.
There is an interesting, nevertheless tricky side to peering exclusively at the soul of a film, disassociating a bit from the social angles, following keenly a specific spiritual quest rooted in the tale and let us not dismiss that there are myriad ways to view a film and build perspectives around it. This is an exercise of this sort exploring a fascinating thematic nuance of the film.
Kattradhu Thamizh is a film as personal as it is political and the film’s greatest power and its strength of tragedy flames in the battle found in its soul, in the depths of its theme and on which these societal layers and aspects of the thesis seem mounted. This battle, supremely universal, achingly existentialist, the primal of all, mirroring the larger societal angles in the film is of life and death itself.
Kattradhu Thamizh, positioning the struggle of life and death, of damnation and deliverance in its core becomes an intimate chronicle of a traumatised man’s life and his view of the changing world around him, a trigger to his collapse. Prabhakaran (Jiiva), the protagonist is also the narrator of this tale. He is either talking aloud, alone to his absent Anandhi with striking candour as we take her place as listeners or he is recounting his life for a video recording he is to share with the people. Prabhakar can be indeed placed in the historic list of condemned men whose outrages against the world shall be taken to be the very projections of the self’s trauma, absurdity and damnation. Prabhakaran, a post graduate in Tamil literature confesses he is a murderer and we soon see that he is on the run, not merely from law but death too. Death looms large in Prabhakaran’s life, in Kattradhu Thamizh, with its menacing ghosts ushering the course of the journey, twisting the roads back to damned destinies. The film itself commences with Prabhakaran’s attempt to end his life. This sad and desperate attempt of his is built into an elaborate performance as he stands atop a building, singing aloud a Tamil poem, looking down ironically on the world and its people and he starts to reason why he took to such a drastic step.
Death and salvation, however, do not come easy for him, in a mere jump or fall. He is deterred in his final leap to death by a few electric wires drained of power in an hour of blackout (more widespread during the late 2000’s) and he is left swinging midway in the air, wavering between life and death. He regrets his lack of caution and his stupidity if not for which he would have attained ‘motcham’, the ultimate salvation. The wild paths of death are to instead take him down dizzying, dreadful spirals since there lurks a curse, a curse which condemned him early in life. He has never known death in its peace, one that arrives when the heart rests in slumber and carries it off gently to an eternal sleep. He has confronted death only in its most dreaded forms and this makes his dealing with loss and the imposing certainty of death more bewildering and painful.
At the age of ten, Prabhakaran confronts the first gruesome death in his life, losing his pet dog Tony to the train thudding from the dark cave, indifferent of the lives it preys on and crushes. The curse and trauma clouding Prabhakar’s life emanate from this cave. Soon Prabhakaran witnesses death in devastating proximity, smelling its rot, touching its burning flesh and blood in an unfortunate car-wreck which kills his mother and grandparents. Prabhakar’s father is in the military, a zone again where the battle of life and death figures prominent. The damnation ensues and death begins to chase Prabhakar.
Years later, aged 26, he still trembles all over, his voice quivering as he recounts the invasion of death in his life, revealing the prisoner of the trauma he is. He now strokes and opens an old set box which he had with him when he witnessed Tony’s death. He still carries this baggage of trauma. When Prabhakaran later introduces himself to Anandhi’s mother, to the post master and to anyone who has known him in his early days, we see him mentioning his name and recounting the death of his mother in the same breath to just help them recognize him- the deaths seep into his identity and seem strongly tied to who he is.
Amidst this crushing damnation, Prabhakaran discovers his liberation, his escape from the ghosts of death in three phases and in three forms.
His first means of deliverance comes in the affectionate form of his father-figure, his Tamil teacher, he who will inspire love for Tamil literature and devotion to childhood love interests. Azhagam Perumal as the loving, fatherly Tamil teacher invokes the lost bliss of childhood in Prabhakar, becoming the heal to his wounds and he delivers the boy briefly from trauma. In the set box Prabhakar treasures, there are also fine white feathers Anandhi (Anjali) gifted him. These feathers never grow into large flapping wings, taking him soaring across the clear skies; however, we soon see him happy and fluttering like a little butterfly in the company of his mentor.
Yuvan’s delightful Para Para Patampoochi spread over Prabhakar’s happy days with his Tamil teacher hint at the same metamorphosis. His mentor is also a man intimately connected to his childhood alike Prabhakar but in more torment-free ways. We see this dear old man writing a letter to his 7th grade love interest despite being utterly unaware of where she is or if she is alive at all. Prabhakar will soon follow the similar devotion and romanticism in his life before it all shatters in the turbulence of his realities.
The ghosts of death soon return as the curse continues in its bitter pursuit. His Tamil teacher dies in an accident and it is this death which leads Prabhakaran to his second, greater means of deliverance. Prabhakaran is reunited with his long-lost friend, his lover, his Anandhi (her striking and ironic name means ‘happiness’ but she is seldom happy and in a heart-rending way she endures her fate) outside a mortuary, both grieving the loss of fathers (the father figure in Prabhakar’s case). Death haunts Anandhi’s life too, she was with him after all, a witness to the gory death of their dear dog Tony. With the death of her father, she becomes an outcast in the society for she is an illegitimate child. The lovers seek their deliverance in each other, transported to the blissful days of their early years when no death, curse and trauma had befallen them. Death reigns over their dreams too finding its ominous presence in the playful chronicles of them kids.
Seven-year-old Prabhakar shares a made-up tale with Anandhi of a dreaming tiger, a creature of his imagination lurking in the midst of the wilderness and what does this tiger dream about? It dreams of deserts, a landscape devoid of life where death and heat are omnipresent. The fictional tiger and its dreams of a desert symbolise the bond tying Prabhakar to Anandhi where the far-off parched lands are more peaceful, more idyllic than Edenic hills echoing with the cries of the dead.
The third, final means of deliverance assumes the deadly form of violence. Prabhakar finds himself suffocated and devoid of honour in the lands of Chennai which challenges him cruelly every passing day and night. Here is a man in search of deliverance and the city denies him even a chance at decent survival let alone salvation. The urban spaces are portrayed to be devoid of poetry, hence of soul and life and are prone to the penetration of inhumanity. The residents in Prabhakar’s cramped dirty mansion express their strange awe over him being a man well versed in poetry and a desperate flirt even pleads him to write a soulful love letter for his girlfriend whom he is cheating on. This theme of urbanisation vs nature capturing the essence of man’s struggle and his deterioration recurs in Ram’s further works too, distinctly in Taramani and Peranbu.
Trains become the forces of terror and the harbingers of death in Kattradhu Thamizh. The initial trigger to Prabhakar’s decision of ending his life sparks from a confrontation he has with an old friend in a train. After committing his first murder, revelling in the strange blood lust, Prabhakar hops on a train. His second and possibly final murder too occurs in a train. This maybe Prabhakar exorcising those ghosts of death haunting him. For once, he assumes control over death which has chased him all life, death bought again by an indifferent train. The words of Dostoyevsky, the greatest existentialist whose stories revolve around condemned men from the likes of whom Prabhakar seem inspired best elucidate the ecstasy of this extreme form of deliverance which emerges from his trauma: “The enjoyment was just from the too intense consciousness of one’s own degradation. It was from feeling oneself that one has reached the last barrier, that it was horrible but it could not be otherwise.” Prabhakar claims to have murdered nearly twenty-two people while police and press reports dispute the same. Prabhakar when introducing himself to us in the film’s fine trailer confesses that he is a shameless liar and this renders a fascinating ambiguity to his killing spree.
The sole instance in the film when the train heads towards deliverance, emerging from the darkness of the tunnel into the light is when Prabhakar goes in search of Anandhi to the deserts of Maharashtra in the second phase of deliverance in his life, also one of the most poignant stretches in the film. He fondly engraves her name in the train. The unsettlingly beautiful, soulful music of the film resonates strongly with the fleeting nature and being of joy in Prabhakar’s life. Innum Or Iravu becomes a singular psychedelic chronicle of damnation.
The other three songs, the ephemeral bursts of bliss break away in the middle and resume only post the threatening visitation of trauma: the nightmare in Para Para Pataampoochi, the loss of the beloved Royal Enfield bike in Unakkagathaney, the poignant conversation of the lovers in Paravaiye Engu Irukirai. The theme of deliverance manifests profoundly in the lyrics of Na. Muthukumar expressing the deepest desire in Prabhakar’s heart to be liberated from the curse and the songs become effective narrative tools delving into this theme of the film: ‘Thaneeril mithakum erumbuku ilai padagu aaanathey’ (The leaf becomes a lifeboat to a little ant flailing in the waters) goes a line from Para Para Pataampochi. In Unakkagathaney, the lines evidencing this desire for deliverance are: ‘Oru murai, oru murai nee sirithal, naan vaazhavthu artham aagum. Maru murai, maru murai nee sirithal, intha jenmathin saabam theerum.’ (If you will smile once, a new meaning enters my life. If you will smile again, my life shall break free from the spell of curse) The desire and temptation grows, fleetingly realised in the song Paravaiye Engu Irukirai, ‘Muthal murai vaazha pidikuthe, mudhal murai velicham pirakuthey, mudhal murai murindha kizhai ondru pookuthey’ (For the very first time, I am joyous of feeling alive, a new light shines on my life and this broken branch blossoms.) Another irresistible, sensitive detail lies in Anandhi cleaning Prabhakar’s large spectacles and admiring him as she makes him wear it. Later, the crooked, blinding turn Prabhakar takes is evidenced first by a great crack in his glasses, suggestive of his once innocent vision of the world becoming distorted.
Destiny enables the reunion of the lovers in a brothel. Their lives gone astray gain the last hope of salvation. Anandhi, in Prabhakar’s words is a divine piece of god herself for around her, he magically becomes a seven-year-old boy again, unaware of death and the harshness of the world. The lovers reach the cave after years of suffering, loss and separation. This cave, the origin place of the curse looming over their lives lures them when threats of death arrive from an external force, the police. The cave and the trembling train emerging from it offer Prabhakar and Anandhi the final dreadful deliverance from the curse for it is where their damned destinies lie and the lovers embrace it in a passion of insanity, in a childlike hope that they shall be able to save their dog Tony after all.
Ram, in an earnest voiceover claims that if you are to visit Acchankovil someday, you shall be able to spot the seven-year-old Prabakar and Anandhi, running along happily bearing shining lamps as their Tony hops behind them.
The death finally frees the condemned with the ghosts of death ultimately turning gods, restoring Prabhakar and Anandhi to their childhood, to eternity and paradise.