Kuthiraivaal: Viewer makes no head or tail of Tamil "magic realism" movie
Monkey la irundhu oru
Manusha payyan vandhalum
Innum pogalaye vaalu
(Translation: Even though humans
Have evolved from monkeys,
They still didn’t give up their tail)
The lyrics above are from one of the popular item numbers in the 2004 Tamil film Vasool Raja MBBS, a remake of Raju Hirani’s runaway Bollywood hit Munna Bhai MBBS. The words ‘monkey’ and ‘manushan‘ rhyme in these lines which make this song catchy.
The word ‘vaal’ (Tamil for tail) is commonly used to denote mischievous children or to warn someone ‘Don’t shake your tail with me’ and ‘I will chop off your tail’.
But what happens when a human being really grows a horse’s tail? How does one deal with that? This is the question the recently released Tamil fantasy, psychological thriller, Kuthiraivaal raises even as audiences are left scratching their head trying hard to unravel the plot. Written by G Rajesh, and directed by Manoj Leonel Jason and Shyam Sundar, the film stars Kalaiyarasan, Anjali Patil and Chetan.
A Kafkaesque script
Saravanan (played by Kalaiyarasan), is a loner and is employed in a bank. One night, he slips into a deep dream in which he sees a horse minus a tail in a mountain forest. When he wakes up, Saravanan realises he is sporting that missing tail. The chaos that unfolds in his mind after that forms the rest of the plot. After Madras (2014), Kalaiyarasan gets a solid part to sink his teeth in and the actor does not waste the opportunity.
The film clearly has a Kafkaesque script. The scene in which Saravanan realises that he has grown the horse’s tail, may remind the audience of Gregor Samsa’s plight in Kafka’s novel, Metamorphorsis, who finds himself transformed into an insect overnight.
While Saravanan tries to grapple with the meaning of his dream he finds his alter ego Freud. When Saravanan inhabits the being of Saravanan, he always thinks about the tail that he has grown which is, of course, not visible to others. Whereas, when Saravanan slips into the state of his alter ego Freud, he does not fuss about the tail but doubts every other person who he comes across.
In the state of being Freud, Saravanan gets introduced to Babu, his neighbour and Van Gogh, a mysterious girl who claims she always lived in the home where Saravanan lives. Saravanan is however clueless about her identity. Weaving in such mysterious characters not only confuses Saravanan but also the audience. If the audience stays invested in the script till the interval, the second half of the film fortunately makes some sense.
Borges ‘illusion’ theory in screenplay
The Kafkaesque script uses Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges’ poem translated in Tamil by Brahmmarajan. The reason why the writer Rajesh uses Borges’ poem is revealed in one of the scenes, in which Saravanan’s math teacher explains illusion theory. Borges had used the concept of ‘illusions’ in his fantasy short stories.
When Saravanan takes the help of his math teacher to understand the meaning of his dream, the teacher tells him that Saravanan is entangled in an illusion. The teacher tells the hero that he may have loved a girl in his childhood and has forgotten her. But she was still lodged in Saravanan’s subconscious mind and disturbs him.
An astrologer too tells him the horse is a symbol of sex, and that Saravanan is in the process of becoming a transgender but he is oblivious about the transformation. A flashback in the second half still leaves us without any decisive answers. Frankly, that is the beauty of the screenplay.
Climax with a touch of Nobakov
Tamil cinema has witnessed many kinds of psychological thrillers ranging from dissociative identity disorder, short term memory loss, bipolar disorder etc. In the same vein, Kuthiraivaal deals with another psychological problem known as ‘referential mania’.
Referential mania or referential delusion is a rare condition in which the sufferer imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. To simplify this, the individual mistakenly believes that the ordinary things happening to him or her have some hidden meanings.
It is interesting to note that this condition was first used in the literary world by none other than Vladimir Nabakov in his 1948 short story ‘Signs and Symbols’.
Ode to MGR
Throughout the film, the audience is subjected to many references to yesteryear superstar MG Ramachandran either through graffiti, songs played in the film, etc. The reason for using those references is also finally unveiled in the climax.
Industry experts say that Kuthiraivaal has kickstarted the ‘magical realism’ genre in Kollywood. But can this film make such a tall claim? Not really. In Spanish fantasy drama films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), for example, which features elements of magical realism in its sub-plots, the audience could still grasp the premise of the film without any confusion. But Kuthiraivaal fails on that front and leaves an ordinary film goer completely foxed. They will not be able to make head or tail of the film (pun intended)!