Just finished reading a wonderful novel by Sujatha, called Kanavu Thozhirchalai (Dream Manufacturing Unit). It’s a hard-hitting story of stuff that happens behind the camera in Tamil Cinema. The story follows the lives of three main characters
1. Arun, an arrogant actor, who’s got a huge fan following
2. Manonmani, an extra, who is bounced around in the industry & given petty roles
3. Arumairaasan, a poor, devout Christian, who comes to Kollywood with the dreams of becoming a lyric writer.
How the lives of these three people intertwine and play out is the crux of the novel. There were several things that I liked about Sujatha’s writing.
The chief factor that hooked me and got me to finally finish reading this book is his writing style. Difficult to give an adjective to it. Words chosen are never bombastic. Not once did I feel the need to consult a dictionary to understand what has been written (In contrast, if I were to read something written by Jeyamohan, for every other line I would need to pick up the dictionary. And a lot of times, I’d put the dictionary down without being able to locate the word.) And Sujatha threads words together into a sentence in such a neat and minimalist manner. He’s able to convey visuals to the reader with the minimum combination of words. And most important of all, just like a needle, a lot of the writing in this book, pierced my heart. I could not stand the fate that some of the characters in this story had to face. I felt like jumping into their lives and setting things right by doing something. I felt like entering the scene and giving a few slaps to some of the characters. (Actually, in the second half he introduces a character, who sets some of the things right and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.)
Most of the stories of Sujatha that I have read are either funny or science fiction. And so this novel was a pleasant surprise and showed me his versatility. I had seen it already in one of his short stories, “Nagaram”, which again has a needle-pricking-your-heart climax.
The key advantage of having multiple characters, each with their own storylines is that you can intercut at appropriate moments to increase the tension or to point out the irony. And throughout the novel, Sujatha plays around with such possibilities. After reading the first few chapters, I got used to this style of writing and began to anticipate when he would cut to another scene. That was part of the fun of reading this book. And these cuts to another scene happen without any hint. There is no dashed line or asterisks separating the paragraphs. So you might be reading a line and a character is in the peak of an emotion. The very next line might cut to a completely different scene and you’ll now have to wait with bated breath for another few pages to find out what happened.
There were several spots where he wrote lines of dialogue, in which he does not explicitly tell you if they’re spoken by someone in the scene. Or if it’s a recollection that one of the characters is having. Or if it’s imagined by one of the characters inside the head. As a result, for some time you’re left wondering if the character actually said it out loud or not. And then, a few lines later you’re given the reveal. A very nice strategy. I think it takes us into the dazed world of the characters, where they themselves are sometimes not sure of what’s happening around them. If it’s a dream or reality.
The character of the main protagonist Arun was built up very nicely. He’s the true example of a grey-shaded personality. In the story, he’s an extremely popular star. People crowd around his car the moment they see it. But, he’s not the “Ella pugazhum iraivanukke. En uyirinum melaana thamizh makkale” types. He’s extremely arrogant sometimes. He’s extremely selfish sometimes. He finds some of the scenes he acts as a farce. And he’s even surprised how people like this kind of stuff. And in an epic scene, he actually beats up some of his fans because they disturb his privacy. The affair he has with a heroine or the way he ignores a fan, who has travelled a long way with a special request, is so real that it pricks you.
And the biggest plus, in my opinion, in Sujatha’s writing is that he never tells you what any character in the story is feeling. He describes to you their outer reactions, their physical responses. As a reader, he lets you judge for yourself what’s going on inside their minds. There never really is an explanation as to why Arun is frustrated most of the time. There is absolutely no explanation for why a character does what he/she does in certain situations. And that gets the reader hooked into the story I think. It draws you in. It makes you pause and reflect after each and every paragraph, what each character’s motivation really is. Sometimes a character might be saying something out loud, but you, the reader, having spent great deal of time mulling over earlier chapters, now know that the character does not really mean it. But Sujatha would never tell you “The character said it with a derisive smile” or something like that. Because you’re already invested in the characters, just by reading the line of dialogue, you know in what tone the character would have said it. Brilliant characterization!
The other interesting thing for me was the story arcs of each of the three main characters. There are many stereotypical ways in which he could have carried forth the three story arcs. But he refrains from it. He throws in a few surprises, when you least expect them. He pulls back immediately with some disappointments, when you least expect them. In short, I think he has tried to reflect reality in as casual a manner as possible. Real life is unpredictable.
Each chapter begins with a film-related quote by someone or an anecdote that explains some aspect of filmmaking. I loved this, as he had taken care to pick a quote or anecdote that was in some vague way related to that particular chapter. It gave scope to think about what happened in the chapter, after having read it.
The other thing I loved is that, as a writer, Sujatha does not judge any of the characters in his story. And that is evident from the way he handles the story arcs. You might expect the cruel guy to get punished. You might expect the “good” person to get justice and win. As a writer, once I judge a particular character, it will create a bias in me to take his story arc in a particular direction. But no sir, this does not happen in Kanavu Thozhirchaalai. He takes it forward in the way it might have naturally proceeded. It will prick you but Sujatha does not manipulate it to prick you. That in my opinion is the highest achievement of this novel.