There’s a niche problem in Tamil cinema. No, it’s not Atlee or all the commercial atrocities committed on screen. People will be more interested in Samantha’s silambattam than the death of one of India’s finest writers. I’ve made my peace with this universal truth.
There’s a whole bunch of young filmmakers who’re making their entry into films, but lacking a certain maturity and perspective of life. I felt comparing 8 Thottakkal (8 Bullets) to Stray Dog, the film it was inspired from, would be a good case study of this problem.
The basic plot of both films are the same.
A rookie police officer’s gun gets stolen on a bus and he needs to find it. With the able guidance of a senior police officer, while he’s on the quest to find it, crimes begin to happen in the city for which his gun is used.
Fantastic! Now let’s see how Kurosawa and Sri Ganesh handle the same plot.
(SPOILERS AHEAD! Please read only if you’ve watched both films!)
In Stray Dog, it’s post world war Japan. The setting alone is telling you many things. The poverty. The angst. It’s already indirectly suggesting to you what the cause for the robbery might be. It gives you a clear picture of the haystack in which the protagonist needs to find the needle. When Detective Murakami, the protagonist, searches the streets in the disguise of a vagabond, we get to see the inhabitants of the city in which the gun was stolen. There’s a specific sense of period and location that’s evoked. And the story brews out of the setting.
In contrast, 8 Thottakkal is set in a generic city during a generic time period. There’s absolutely no specificity.
8 Thottakkal has a love interest for the protagonist and two duets. In Kurosawa’s script, I don’t even have to say.
Harumi Namiki is a showgirl who’s the criminal’s love interest in Stray Dog. In 8 Thottakkal too, one of the criminals has a love interest and he plans to elope with her. In fact, he goes to the extent of stealing a necklace for her. This woman in 8 Thottakkal is merely there. There’s no detailing to her character.
In contrast, the showgirl in Stray Dog has greater depth. When the detective interrogates her, she tells him that one day when they were walking down the road, she saw a splendid dress in one of the shops and wished she could wear it at least once. The criminal looked at her with the saddest expression and then one week later he brought her that dress. Despite knowing that he committed a crime to get it for her, she says, “He committed a crime for me. But, I’d have stolen it myself if I had the guts. They deserve it for flaunting these things. We have to do worse than steal if we want things like this. It’s the world’s fault. A world where people steal a vet’s knapsack!”
In 8 Thottakkal, the love interest never asked for a necklace. We don’t even know what that woman wants in life. We know nothing about her other than the fact that she’s cheating on her husband. Whereas in Stray Dog, Harumi Namiki is a reflection of the mindset of the have-nots.
The Mani Ratnam Effect
This paragraph is a rant so you can skip it if you want. In the final scene of 8 Thottakkal, when all problems have been resolved, the protagonist emerges with a crisp, white shirt without blemishes. Can we please stop having such symbolisms? I understand Mani Ratnam is a great filmmaker and black, grey and white are very interesting colours. But, we need to work on what to do next. We need to stop worshipping him and make better films than what he’s done. This kind of symbolism is going to prevent our cinema from evolving.
The cop’s guilt
There comes a beautiful moment in Stray Dog, when Detective Murakami realises that the man who bought his gun from the gun dealer was about to return it without committing any crime. But, when Murakami raided the dealer’s den, the man escaped and the next day he committed a crime. So in his heart, the detective feels extreme guilt that he was the one, who instigated the criminal to commit an act of violence.
At a later point, Detective Murakami feels sorry for the criminal. And that’s when the more experienced Detective Sato tells him, “Thinking like that won’t get you anywhere as a cop. It’s easy to develop delusions, chasing criminals all day. We can’t forget the many sheep a lone wolf leaves wounded. There’s no help for a cop who doesn’t believe he’s protecting the masses. I say leave the psychoanalysis to the detective novels.”
Stray Dog isn’t just a hunt for a stolen gun. It’s also the coming of age story of a sensitive rookie cop. And you don’t find this in 8 Thottakkal. It’s just not there!
(Side remark: Lone wolf and sheep? Hey! Did Mysskin get his title idea from this line?)
Getting your knapsack stolen
The climax of 8 Thottakkal shows you the protagonist at a traffic signal, staring at a man who ruined his life. So the director ends the film with the suggestion that there’s a criminal snoozing within each one of us and it’s about the choices we make when we’re at a particular juncture in our lives. Okay let’s assume this is a great philosophy. But how do you convey it through the medium of cinema?
Here are 3 brilliant things Kurosawa does.
- Throughout the film every single character is sweating. The film is set during a particularly blistering summer in Japan. As a result, everyone from the detective who lost his gun, the criminals he interrogates, the thief, every single police official, the showgirls, the commoners, everyone is sweating. Everyone’s reaching out for a fan to stop from sweating. And there you have it! He has conveyed to you visually that every single person is in the same state!
- The detective visits the house of Yusa, the guy who’s committing crimes with the stolen gun. Yusa’s sister tells him that he was disillusioned with his life when all his belongings were stolen on a train. And later we learn that the detective too had his belongings stolen at one point in his life. The detective says, “I was half out of my mind with rage. I could have pulled off a robbery back then. But, I realised I’d hit a dangerous crossroads, deliberately chose another way and got myself this job.” Thus, the suggestion that it’s the choices we make is embedded into the narrative.
- When the detective finally catches hold of Yusa after a long-winding chase, he shackles his hands. Kurosawa has an exquisite frame at this moment. Both of them lie panting on the ground for breath, one with his hands shackled and the cop with his stolen gun finally back in his hands. No words exchanged. It’s a silent moment as both the chased and the chaser do the same thing. Breathe.
The Criminal’s Motive
And there’s another brilliance to this scene. Just as they lie in this manner, a group of children pass by singing a song. And for some unknown reason, the criminal bursts out crying. A deep wail that shocks the detective. And that’s all Kurosawa gives you. There’s no monologue of the criminal, talking about his life. There’s no justification given for what he did. All that you get are bits and pieces about the criminal that’s uncovered during his investigation. As the viewer, you’re left to piece together the puzzle.
This is what his sister says about him. “Ever since he got home from the war, he’s like a stranger. His knapsack and everything he owned was stolen from him on the train ride home. He turned bitter.”
This is what his brother-in-law says. “He’s always blaming the world, the war. Like he’s carrying all of Japan’s problems, but he never lifts a finger.”
When asked when she last saw him, his sister says, “He didn’t come when the dinner was ready. I found him sitting here in the dark, crying, his head in his hands.”
And in his room, they find a poem he had scribbled on a piece of paper.
Another sleepless night
I hear that alley cat crying over the rain
The one who followed me through the storm
It’s only going to suffer and die
Better to kill it once and for all
I still remember how it felt
When I crushed it with my foot
I’m a coward
Just like that rain-drenched cat
What’s the point…
This is all you get! Why did Yusa burst out crying? Why did he do what he did? Was it trauma caused by war? Was it loneliness? Was it his inability to make a life for himself? What’s his poem trying to say? Kurosawa doesn’t give you the answers.
In 8 Thottakkal, MS Bhaskar, a terrific actor, plays the equivalent of Yusa’s character. In his desperation to make his character strong, the director throws in all sorts of stuff. He has a conversation scene in which MS Bhaskar shares his life story. Then, we’re told he was suffering from cancer all along. Before dying, he even says he didn’t steal money to cure himself, he simply wanted to live with pride. He also expresses his regret for having killed a little girl by mistake. Talk talk talk. When Mahendran began making films, he was deeply dissatisfied with films of his time. He felt they were more “talkies” than cinema. And that’s true even today!
Now, compare this to the single, unexplained wail in Stray Dog and his poem. I rest my case.
So what’s the problem?
You cannot make great cinema simply by watching the world’s best cinema. You need to have the ability to grasp the nuances and soul of a great work of art. (And Stray Dog isn’t Kurosawa’s best even!) One of the reasons why directors like Balu Mahendra, Mysskin and Mahendran emphasise literature is because reading can help you gain that ability to see the significance of details. It’s perhaps Balu Mahendra’s rigorous training that has helped Vetrimaaran have the maturity to adapt Bicycle Thieves to Indian milieu brilliantly. But, literature isn’t the only way. You could gain maturity from direct life experiences too.
The problem with the good movies in Tamil cinema is that they’re mostly “inspired” cinema. A concoction of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie and Mani Ratnam, with varying proportions depending on the filmmaker’s tastes. And this inspiration is more surface-level inspiration. The young filmmakers are mesmerised by the flourishes, the cuts, the angles and snazzy bgm. As a result, these new wave films have polish, some exciting filmmaking techniques but no solid core. They’re like the very first drawings we make by looking at other great artwork. They’re like kids reciting the hero’s dialogues at home, without understanding a word that was spoken.
I don’t mean to dismiss 8 Thottakkal as a “copy”. (Here’s a review by Baradwaj Rangan that points out the good things about it.) It’s always good to get inspired by other works of art. But, you need to have a perspective, a vision of what your art stands for. And that core has to grow within you organically. It cannot come from outside.