The recently released trailer for Super Deluxe has got a rousing response on social media. The film is Thiagarajan Kumaraja's second directorial, coming eight years after he made his debut with Aaranya Kaandam, hailed as Tamil cinema's first neo noir film.
Those who remember watching the trailer of Aaranya Kaandam will recognise the similar style in Super Deluxe - both have a voice-over narrating a story which has the quality of myth, introducing the characters like a sutradhar and setting them up within a predicament that forces them to make certain choices. While the title Aaranya Kaandam refers to the part of the Ramayana which is set in the jungle (with the chief villain being named Singaperumal), the trailer of Super Deluxe is about a man being chased by a tiger.
In 2011, the CBFC wanted 52 cuts to be made in Aaranya Kaandam, ranging from a joke involving Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan to profanity in the dialogues. The film finally released with an 'A' certificate and several beeps. Fans of filmmakers like Tarantino and Guy Ritchie were quick to spot the inspirations in Aaranya Kaandam, but for most of the Tamil audience, the film was nothing like they had seen before. Besides, the language, moral ambiguity in the plot, and the 'A' certification did not draw in what's usually called the "family audience" to the theatres. Consequently, although it received rave reviews, Aaranya Kaandam did not set the box-office on fire.
However, since then, Tamil cinema has changed a lot, with younger directors experimenting with genres, filmmaking techniques, character portrayals, and storytelling devices. If Aaranya Kaandam released today, there's a good chance that it will do much better in terms of commercial success.
The film begins with a dialogue between Nagadathan and Vishnugupta Chanakya (From Volga to Ganga), the political adviser of the Mauryas. Nagadathan asks, "Vishnugupta, which is dharma?", and Chanakya, the master strategist, says, "What we're in need of, that is dharma." The lines are from 400 BC, but nothing could be more apt to describe the amoral landscape of neo noir films where crime is often what characters need to do in order to survive. Guilt, if present, is momentary, and forgotten when the characters experience pleasure.
The first two characters we meet in Aaranya Kaandam are Subbu (Yasmin Ponnappa), a seemingly naive young woman who is repeatedly sexually assaulted by an ageing drug mafia don, Singaperumal (Jackie Shroff - apparently, nobody from the Tamil industry was ready to play such a role). The don has an embarrassing problem - he is impotent and every time he cannot get it up, he brutally beats up Subbu. Throughout the film, we see how his sense of inadequacy plays on his mind; he is out to prove that he's "still a man" - later in the film, when his rooster loses a cockfight and the opponent throws jibes at the bird, Singaperumal loses his sense of control, taking the insults personally and beheading the winning rooster.
Singaperumal entrusts Subbu, who fell into his clutches believing she'd become a heroine in the film industry, with a young man referred to as "Sappai" (meaning useless/impotent). Played by Ravi Krishna, Sappai and Subbu appear to be even-matched in their wide-eyed fear of Singaperumal. When he finds her upset after a beating by Singaperumal, Sappai pretends to swallow a plane and fart it out to cheer her up. Their brief friendship soon turns into passion and they end up sleeping with each other, under Singaperumal's roof. Thus, Sappai, who is always bullied by the rest of the gang for his lack of "manliness" becomes the guy who proves his sexual prowess to a woman who'd been marked out by his boss for himself.
But Subbu isn't a mere plaything. Though she is irritatingly innocent, she later proves to be a "femme fatale" (a stock character in film noir or a female "Baasha", as she calls herself), taking down Singaperumal and Sappai, and safeguarding her own interests.
Connecting the characters in the plot is a parcel of drugs. The mule carrying the drugs decides to make a deal directly - unleashing a tug of war between the two gangs, one headed by Singaperumal and the other by brothers Gajendran (Arumugam) and Gajapathy (Dheena). But meanwhile, the parcel falls into the hands of Kaalayan (Guru Somasundaram), an erstwhile zamindar who wasted away all his wealth, and his trenchant young son Kodukkapuli (Vasanth), who is way more intelligent and mature than his father.
Also in the game is Pasupathy (Sampath Raj), who worked for Singaperumal but turns against him. In fact, the trailer for Super Deluxe, which is the long narration of a chase, resembles a fight sequence in Aaranya Kaandam when Gajendran's men are hot on the trail of Pasupathy and he's thinking about his situation and the choices ahead of him.
Throughout Aaranya Kaandam, characters narrate tales and anecdotes to establish a point, in the style of epics which have stories within stories. Among the most effective of these is when Pasupathy is telling the boys about how fierce Gajendran and Gajapathy are, when they are out drinking tea in a small restaurant. He recounts a time when the two brothers wrongly accused a mule of stealing their stash - which nevertheless ended with the man losing his life, and his wife losing her thumb. The boys find the tale too tall to be true, but just as they are laughing in skepticism, a woman comes in to take their tea glasses and the camera focuses on her hand, showing that she has a missing thumb.
The film also has many unexpected moments of humour - like when a "mind-reading" astrologer pesters Gajendran to think of two flowers so he may guess them. But no matter which flower he lists, it isn't what the gangster thought of. When he gives up and asks him to name the "poo", Gajendran says, "Prabhu, Khushbu". The gangster Chittu's "Chanakyan" strategies for "correcting" aunties, too, is hilarious - and this is where the Rajinikanth-Kamal Haasan joke that offended the CBFC comes into play. Even Singaperumal, who has little to recommend himself, is seen learning and practising English in between beating people up and making drug deals.
True to the style of neo noir filmmaking, Aaranya Kaandam (cinematography by PS Vinod) has several tracking shots, time splices, low angles, dutch angle shots, and wide shots that show the relation of the characters to their surroundings. The environment they are in offers cues to their state of mind. For instance, when Sappai and Subbu are contemplating their escape, they walk down the winding stairs that lead up to a water tank, discussing their plans. The shadowy lighting, narrow corridors and dingy rooms of Bava Lodge, where Kaalayan and his son stay, suggest a claustrophobic atmosphere from where they wish to flee towards better prospects. The slick editing by Praveen and Srikanth ensures that despite the many characters in the film (and despite the many CBFC cuts), the narrative remains cogent.
Yuvan Shankar Raja's background score is a huge plus for the film and was very new for Tamil cinema, where fight scenes are always accompanied by heavy thuds and thumps. The score adds to the stylisation, almost turning the violence into poetry in parts, and underlining the dark comedy in the scenes.
The ending sees the emergence of a new don in the drug world, and a new dawn for Subbu, who manages to outwit the men around her. After all the gangster wars, the one-line conclusion that Subbu draws - Sappai was after all a man, and according to me, all men are Sappais - deflates the machismo we see on display thus far.
Aaranya Kaandam may not have done well when it first released, but it has been a talking point among cinema lovers since then. Given this, Super Deluxe with its motley characters and stellar cast will open to high expectations. And considering the appetite Tamil cinema audiences have developed for experimentation over the years, it has every chance of doing what Aaranya Kaandam couldn't.