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The new Tamil cinema - Black comedy art for heart sake

Venkataraghavan Srinivasan21 Sep 2013

Avid film enthusiast Venkataraghavan Srinivasan tells us how black comedy has evolved in Indian films, especially Kollywood.

The new Tamil cinema - Black comedy art for heart sakeFilms that showcased black humour

The term black humour (from the French humour noir) was coined by the surrealist theoretician André Breton in 1935 to designate a sub-genre of comedy and satire in which laughter arises from cynicism and scepticism often relying on topics such as death, violence, racism and insanity.

Breton coined the term for his book Anthology of Black Humour (Anthologie de l'humour noir), in which he credited Jonathan Swift (Author of Gulliver's Travel) as the originator of black humour and gallows humour, and included excerpts from 45 other writers. Breton included both examples in which the wit arises from a victim, with which the audience empathizes, as is more typical in the tradition of gallows humour, and examples in which the comedy is used to mock the victim, whose suffering is trivialized, and leads to sympathizing with the victimizer, as is the case with Sade (The term Sadism).

The terms black comedy or dark comedy have been later derived as alternatives to Breton's term. In black humour, topics and events that are usually regarded as taboo, specifically those related to death, violence, insanity and brush with law are treated in an unusually humorous or satirical manner while retaining their seriousness; the intent of black comedy, therefore, is often for the audience to experience both laughter and discomfort, sometimes simultaneously.

In 1940, when Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator, a landmark black comedy that satirises Hitler and Nazism, little did he know that he would be applauded by the man himself for the near accurate take. Then what explains the general aversion to this genre by a section of 'Auteurs' especially in the Tamil film industry?

Comedy in every form can work in Kollywood, but movie makers like to underestimate the intelligence of our audience. Black comedy is a little tricky because you are taking on an establishment. While black comedy may not be for everybody, dark humour, in the 100th year of Indian Cinema, is making inroads into Tamil Cinema. The sensibilities are changing, the established are getting disrupted essentially the ghetto has been broken and this is a positive trend.

{Box office note: The first Tamil film to be successful in both Tamil and Hindi versions was Chandralekha. Made on a budget of Rs. 3,000,000, it was released in 1948. The director, S. S. Vasan, and producer, A. K. Sekar, designed a huge production campaign so successful that Chandralekha grossed Rs. 10,000,000. As per present day money adjusted to inflation, the above numbers are Rupees 250 and 850 crores – an amount that belittles Bollywood's 200 crores club.}

One of the most unique features of Tamil cinema is the way the medium has been used and intelligently exploited to make political commentary and win political elections. Screenwriter C. N. Annadurai and actors M. G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan utilized their films to move into political office in the 1940s and 1950s. Films with political themes continue to be made into the present day with some recent examples such as S. Shankar's Kadhalan and Muthalvan and Mani Ratnam's trilogy Roja, Bombay and Dil Se.

We now see that the dark comedies competing with each other and with the masala movies in the screens of Tamil Nadu are essentially a result of political dysfunctionality present in our society; the new age iPhone Tamil filmmakers and their tweeting audiences are not alone waging these countercultural battles on the silver screen in Tamil Nadu. In India, you can see this as a clear trend in Bollywood as well, be it Anurag Kashyap or the Vicky Donor, essentially these are the "Cinema of the Outsiders". These films extol anarchy, and the new anarchic Tamil cinema has gone far too global for the rest to even fathom.

Anarchy is often a symbol of healthy organic progress!

Due to several factors of moral, economic and political engagement, modern Indian filmmakers can only hate today's system deeply but can't do much about it since after all they are a part of the "system" or even if they were not are sucked into it, much like the climax scene of Shankar's movie Mudhalvan in which he laments "Kadisila yennayum ivangala madhiri aakitangaley"(In the end they have made me a politician like them) but in these new Tamil films we discover redemption coming through not in the acceptance of the five songs, one overseas, three fights, two dance and one final chase - 'formulaic' authority but in the comic enactment of an emotion repugnance.

The Tamil audience, primed through their movies by their mainstream directors into seeing the village headman (Nattamai theerpa mathu!) marrying the baddie, minor Kunjumani to the girl who he raped (invariably the sister of the movie's protagonist) are going to be confused when they see posters reading 'Death to rapists'!

Strangely, this variety of emotion can only happen in the weird and almost unclassifiable realm of Tamil Black Comedy. In "Kollywood", these films are a commemoration of the shame that the liberalism ushered into the Gen X, Y, Z whatever... of the 21st century, expressing what they feel about their apathetic grandparents generation who had romanticized themselves in the fantasy of Tamil nationalism.

The 24x7 cable viewing disconnected new Tamilian, who accidentally stumbles onto the History Channel while surfing channels during his serial ad breaks wonders what must have gone wrong with their elders who gave them 'authentic' Tamizh names (Tamizh Kudi Magan!) and even tyrannical Russian names like Stalin and Trotsky. They wonder when they bump into the plethora of 24x7 news channels what must have motivated their grandparents' towards Language Chauvinism and be prepared to give their life screaming 'Down with Hindi' while their elected politicians continued to go about spreading caste hatred, amassing wealth, disapprovingly castigate yet share their bed with their 'Hindi' speaking Delhi allies.

For all practical purposes, Tamil politics and its socio-political negotiations are completely driven by Electoral politics and for the moment the new Tamil movie wave has swept into an amicable zone of black comedy. These films are, to use the term, 'Super-Duper Hits', raking in several times more money than regular run-of-the-mill entertainers, scarring established players and making the audience happy.

Difficult as it may be for some to experience laughter and discomfort simultaneously, filmmakers need not look too far for inspiration, for it is right here, among us!

Tags: ChandralekhaRojaDil SeKadhalanFilm MakingFeature

The author is a feignman who has the incredible ability to feign intelligence on any topic from vedas to vodkas, although mostly it is on the latter, that he makes sense. A movie junkie and a die hard Rajini Fan who has not missed a Single FDFS from Annamalai(1992) till date. An Entrepreneur, Chemical Engineer and a post graduate management in the business of Digital Content, he also dabbles in modelling in his spare time.

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