Cruel Cinema: New Directions in Tamil Film

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Co-curated with Lalitha Gopalan
To the seasoned eye, the anointed Friday premieres of the latest blockbusters—with film-star fan clubs trucking in audiences to fill the theaters—are a routine phenomenon hardly worth reporting in Tamil Nadu, where cinema and politics have long been enmeshed in the public sphere. But those are not the films critics are writing about; rather it is the small-budget film with unknown actors, sizzling with artisanal energy. There are signs aplenty of a Tamil new wave well underway. As with the new waves before them, here, too, there are new directors on the marquee: Bala, Selvaraghavan, Sultan, Sasikumar, and Vasanthabalan. There is a new gang in town, in Chennai.

This new wave is infused with cinephilia. Visual quotations from Tamil films punctuate the narratives: protagonists watch films on television and wander into movie theaters, fights break out in movie theaters and projection booths. Yet, these films are at a startling remove from the star antics and high-gloss productions characteristic of both mainstream Tamil cinema and the more pervasive Bombay cinema. Entire new mise-en-scènes open up onscreen: butcher shops, pigsties, teashops, alleyways; freaks and misfits are the protagonists of these films. The intimate cruelty of family and the tortured narratives of heightened caste and class antagonisms form their narrative backbone. Clearly, this is not fare for a family outing.

Cruel Cinema offers an unflinching introduction to these films:
Pudhupettai (Selvaraghavan, India, 2006)
Paruthiveeran (Ameer Sultan, India, 2007)
Subramaniapuram (Sasikumar, India, 2008)
Naan Kadavul (Bala, India, 2009)

• Series Review: The Cinema of Cruelty and Kindness, Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal, April 2011


Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, 2011
The Smithsonian Insitution, Washington DC, 2011
BAM Cinématek, Brooklyn, 2011
Northwest Film Forum, Seattle, 2011
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2011