A man asks a woman for coffee and then drags a dead body to the toilet. He takes with him an electric saw. The sickening sound of sawing and liquid squirting fills the air. The woman knocks on the door, coffee in hand. He casually opens the door - the entire toilet is covered in blood and so is he - and drinks the coffee.
This scene from director Mysskin's new release Thupparivaalan is only one among the many chilling depictions of graphic violence from the film. Another close contender would be an old man (Bakkiyaraj), who has been knifed by his gang member, crawling on the floor, and suffocating his beloved, bedridden wife.
Fittingly, in one scene, a character passes off by the name 'Stanley Kubrick', a hat tip to the director of A Clockwork Orange.
Said to have been inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, Thupparivaalan hit the screens on Friday and has opened to mostly positive reviews.
Gory but not mindless
Mysskin, who took on the name from the protagonist of the Dostoyevsky novel The Idiot, was previously called Shanmuga Raja. The maverick director is known for his intense films which have their fair share of violence. However, while several Tamil films in recent years have displayed a penchant for high voltage action sequences, the violence in Mysskin's films is not mindless.
These scenes are not thrown in to pump up the hero and please the crowds, they're integral to the film. They're without a doubt gory - we see bodies cut, electrocuted, subjected to torture, but none of it is 'extra'. Onaaiyum Aatukuttiyum, for instance, had the director also play the role of a man named Wolf, who is found lying on the street with a gunshot. A medical student finds him and operates on him to remove the bullet. The camera does not focus on the student's (Sree) face - as most films would have to avoid showing the blood - but on the student's nervous hands as he makes the cut on the body.
In Yuddham Sei, a chilling revenge drama, we're shown people being amputated, blinded, and tortured for a crime that's usually passed off as comedy in Tamil cinema. The peeping Toms in Yuddham Sei suffer a terrible fate and as members of the audience, we're invited to take vicarious pleasure from the violence because it is justice well deserved. Or so the director would have us believe.
In Anjathey, which was about a criminal gang that extorts money from victims, the director went into excruciating detail on what would have usually just been a template narration in most Tamil films with some comedy thrown in. The film too had its share of graphic violence.
While they might make your stomach churn, Mysskin's films give one a roller-coaster ride in a dark world where Tamil filmmakers have seldom ventured. Of the contemporary lot, it is perhaps only director Bala, who has made such difficult-to-watch cinema.
Interestingly, when he made a horror film, a genre which actually lends itself to the bizarre and the gory, he came up with an unusual love story called Pisaasu. The film was unlike anything we've seen in Tamil cinema. A woman dies in a car accident and haunts the home of the man who killed her. But here's the twist - the man has no idea it was he who caused the accident and embarks on a journey to find the person who killed her so she'd leave his home.
The ghost is the heroine and while the film has its jumpy moments, its triumph lies in drawing you to believe that such a love can exist, without the narrative becoming unintentionally funny. Creepy, beautiful and evocative, Pisaasu was produced by Bala and went on to become a hit at the box-office.
Mysskin's films are cerebral and though they are populated with ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, it's not often that you find yourself welling up while watching them. He's never boring though.
The camera angles, the colours in his frames, the minimal dialogues of the characters, the intelligently choreographed fight sequences, the irony, the erudite references, the gory surprises he throws on your face with shocking casualness (in Thupparivaalan, for instance, Andrea's character opens the fridge to get a drink and we're shown the dead body of a man; she knows he's there and doesn't care). - they all work to create the discomfort, dread, and vicarious pleasure within the audience which has earned him a cult following.
His women characters in these violent films tend to be either victims stripped off agency or social outliers (Lakshmi Ramakrishnan in Yuddham Sei, Andrea in Thupparivaalan) and don't quite inhabit the interesting grey areas as the men do. But still, they are rarely there in the film for mere decoration as they are in mainstream cinema. Onaaiyum Aatukuttiyum also had a trans woman playing a substantial role.
When he made his debut in 2006 with Chithiram Pesudhadhi, Tamil cinema had already started exploring possibilities other than the campus romance which had been such a rage in the '90s. It was in the same year that films like Pudhupettai and Veyil were released. More than a decade later, the number of takers for his brand of cinema has only increased. Mysskin is not for everybody and it's hard to "enjoy" his films in the conventional sense, but he's certainly among the most interesting directors Tamil cinema has produced in the new millennium.