What’s in a name, you may ask. In cinema especially, where having baffling stage names is de rigueur. But die hard literature buffs might be able to make the umbilical connection between a fictional Russian prince and a film director from Chennai. The venerable Russian writer Dostoevsky could hardly have ever imagined that his finest creation from ‘The Idiot’ would become the cinematic mask of mystique worn by a geeky but prodigiously talented Tamil schooled boy from south India. A new wave darling who would go on to become better known as the avant-garde auteur called… Mysskin.
The Tamil cine industry has given rise to not just brilliant technicians but also highly intellectual lifelong students of film. In the 80’s, the iconic Samco restaurant in Chennai became the meeting ground and creative hotbed for stalwarts like Mani Ratnam, PC Sreeram, etc. They were bright film students who wanted to found their own cinematic movement. And boy, did they succeed. They went on to win innumerable plaudits, set the cash registers ringing, wowed critics with their technical finesse, but most of all inspired a whole new generation of film geeks. Among them was Mysskin (pronounced Mish-kin). His story could be an indie film in itself. As a young boy he pored over English classics under a streetlight and consumed as many films he could of legends like Kurusawa, Ray, etc. In fact, he was so moved by the sensitive neo-realism style Ray made iconic in films like THE APU TRILOGY, that his entire filmography has references to it.
Mysskin’s universe is populated by the economically downtrodden and showcases the glaring social imbalances that are hallmarks of Neo-realistic filmmaking as originated by the Italian masters. Yet, Mysskin invests in his stories deep subtexts and layers that require multiple viewing to unravel them. He may deliver a box office hit, but Mysskin strives to give the viewer more to ponder about on a profound philosophical level. When he exploded on to the scene, he became one of the front runners of Tamil new wave with Anjaathe (2008), where he has remained till date. The use of mis en scene and fast paced narrative style in Anjaathe helped announce Mysskin’s arrival as an innovative filmmaker to watch out for. Another trait common to his movies is the commitment to truth. The brutal violence isn’t sugar coated, and a child’s gleam is pure and innocent, as they should be. The lighting, costume and production design create the right atmospherics to draw the viewer into a parallel world where reality exists only in the darkened hall. For example, the acclaimed Yuddham Sei (2011).
While praise and derision are all part of one’s creative journey, Mysskin isn’t impervious to criticism for being overindulgent at times, much to the detriment of the story. The failure of Mugamoodi (2012) was such an example. His ode to Bruce Lee and superheroes was panned by all. His obsession with minute details can also take away from the way a scene plays out. Many inferior directors with little to no technical knowledge can crank out a “mass” film that pulverizes the box office buoyed by star power.
In Tamil mainstream cinema hyper-masculinism, patriarchal themes, casual sexism, etc. are par for the course. A puny mediocre looking “hero” can pinch the ample bottom of a gorgeous buxom woman double his size and get cheered on by the mostly male public. The darker the hero, the fairer the heroine seems to be the Tamil cine equation. Mysskin’s characters look like real people and talk like them, without grandiose posturing and punch-worthy dialogues. This commitment to realism is another Mysskinism.
Tamil cinema also has a longstanding history with geopolitics. It’s almost naïve storytelling format and black and white characters make for easy viewing. This explains the demigod status conferred on actors from the 50’s onward, despite their personal fallacies. From Sivaji Ganesan to MGR to Jayalalitha and Thalaiva himself, they have been hailed as Gods among men. To a north Indian, the concept of performing an “abhishekam” (milk offering) on a 50 feet lifesize cutout may seem bizarre, wasteful and laughable. But to a Tamil cinegoer, with its complex myriad fan club politics and competitiveness, it’s fandom at its manic best. Therefore, the cerebral cinema of Mysskin is best suited for OTT platforms which provide for multiple views and a more intimate setting, almost like a film school classroom. Thanks to Netflix and Amazon, regional cinema has come pouring out of the far reaches of the country. One can analyze, debate and enjoy the works of cutting edge artists that were hitherto unknown to the rest of India. Mysskin has appeared from that crack to non-Tamilians.
While not quite yet at the masterful level he obviously and keenly draws his inspiration from, he is still evolving as an artist and a person. Like Anurag Kashyap, Mysskin is not only a directing “brand”, but also a very competent actor, accomplished screenwriter and even a singer. Savarakathi (2018) was a box office hit, where he featured as an actor and overshadowed the main lead. The growth of a true artist is the ability to keep exploring every opportunity for honest expression. Mysskin does so in spades. His work as a mentally challenged person and the sensitivity with which he portrayed the character in Nandalala (2010) probably led him to carefully understanding the shadow world of marginalized characters. With a writing credit for Super Deluxe (2019), which I found to be the most audacious and breathtaking work I’ve seen in modern Tamil cinema, Mysskin has nailed his spot as a future great and helped create Shilpa, one of Indian cinema’s bravest characters and memorable feminists. It would not seem farfetched to imagine a grateful Shilpa giving Mysskin a warm peck on the cheek for telling her story.
Avoiding the usual pitfalls that plague more recognized directors from Bloodywood, Mysskin has remained humble, witty and mysteriously aloof, with a playful smile lurking behind his signature Wayfarer shades. His interviews are replete with self-deprecating humor, reverent tributes to his film heroes and a workman like explanation of his art sans fake pomposity and unnecessary intellectualisations. In a post-truth world where overexposure and in your face promotions have fast become the norm, Mysskin remains in the shadows like a slithering serpent, emerging only when necessary. He himself may be innocuous, but his films spit and strike with lethal venom, right between the eyes. More often than not, they are a wild entertainment ride, which is what commercial cinema should be. Dark humor is like fine scotch, selective and smooth. Mysskin’s work has dollops of it. Once you get past the initial distaste, you take pleasure in it tenfold. Mysskin’s films can be graphically uncomfortable due to their content, but they reflect our violent reality.
A film is not a soapbox, unlike what some stars assume. It holds a mirror to society and reflects the truth. Whether by way of a sartorial Sherlock in Thupparivaalan to Onaayam Aattukkuttiyum, Mysskin promises to keep pointing that mirror for us in that self effacing manner till he encounters another compelling dark subject. By when we will be hypnotised once more by the charm of that cinematic snake who goes by the name… Mysskin.