An edited version of this article can be read here.
Name : Mysskin
Skills : Director, Screenwriter, Producer, Singer, Actor
Language : Tamil
Active Since : 2006
Favourite Genre : Crime Thriller / Drama
Biggest hits : Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum (2013), Yuddham Sei (2011), Anjathe (2008)
Shanmugha Raja was so impressed by the character of Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot that when he began his film career, he decided to rechristen himself as Mysskin. And just as Amarendra Bahubali died while roaring “Jai Mahishmati!”, Mysskin is the kind of director who wishes to draw his last breath between shouts of “Action!” and “Cut!”. His films are a reflection of his real-life character. They’re moody, melodramatic, poetic, rebellious and stylised at the same time.
His Best Work
Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum (The Wolf and The Lamb, 2013): Chandru, a medical student finds a man lying bleeding on the road from a bullet wound. When hospitals and the police refuse to take swift action, he carries the wounded man home and attempts a splenectomy to save his life. The next day the man goes missing and the police arrive to arrest Chandru and his family, revealing that the man he saved was a murderer. Who exactly is the man Chandru saved? What happens to Chandru’s life after this incident? These form the rest of the film’s plot. Together with Anjathe (Have no Fear, 2008) and Yuddham Sei (Wage a War, 2011), this film makes up Mysskin’s crime trilogy.
Pisasu (Ghost, 2014): This isn’t your typical horror film in which the ghost wants to avenge its death so that it may attain liberation. The house of Siddharth, an upcoming violinist, is haunted by the ghost of a girl he tried to save from a road accident. Pisasu is Siddharth’s journey in understanding the ghost’s true intentions.
Trivia: This film was produced by Bala at a time when horror flicks were all the rage in Tamil cinema. Remember ‘cunning commercialism’ from Bala’s filmmaking tropes? 🙂
Nandalala (Lullaby, 2010): This film is in sharp contrast to the rest of Mysskin’s filmography in terms of content and genre. Inspired from Takeshi Kitano’s Kikujiro, it’s the story of two characters in search of their mothers – one is a lonely young boy and the other is a mentally challenged person on the run. Their unlikely friendship and adventures make this a heartwarming film, as illustrated by this scene.
5 Filmmaking Tropes of Mysskin
Whether the genre is drama, thriller or horror, Mysskin’s recurring theme in each film has been compassion and forgiveness. His films inevitably have a character who begs for forgiveness or a character who wholeheartedly forgives. They’re compassionate and melodramatic crime dramas! His films are what you get if Anurag Kashyap’s body gets possessed by Rajkumar Hirani’s soul.
The world he portrays is cruel with untoward accidents lurking around every corner and filled with heartless people who look away when someone bleeds to death. In his world you’re better off being blind, but there’s inevitably that one soft-hearted person who’ll go to any extent to save a life. Pisasu depicts the pinnacle of compassion and makes you reflect silently on the violence that’s usually unleashed on screen in the name of revenge. In fact, this song gives voice to the underlying thread that ties all his films together. It speaks of darkness being dispelled by the flame of heart and God falling at the feet of man.
Mysskin abhors the close-up and finds it boring. His films lay bare their interiors for your inspection with innumerable static, wide-angle shots. You’ll find the characters going out of focus during critical moments. Mysskin likes to convey emotions through the entire body and movement, both of the actors and the camera. In his recent interview with Baradwaj Rangan, Mani Ratnam revealed his thought process behind staging scenes in a way that adds more depth. Likewise you can find Mysskin constantly experimenting with staging. Some work and some don’t but you can always see he’s trying. There’s a scene from Anjathe of a police officer’s attempts to save a dying man. Emotion, emotion everywhere but not a single close-up to feel!
Several cardboard boxes containing severed hands had to be revealed in public places at different points in the narration of Yuddham Sei. This is achieved by a repetitive visual motif, involving a long shot with the camera finally tracking sideways to reveal each box. And in Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum, when he depicts an investigation, visuals of officers asking questions is intercut with visuals of a wooden table being dragged across the floor. The sound of wood grating against concrete intercuts the barrage of questions.
His stunts are extremely stylised and get your adrenaline pumping. Classic examples are the fight on an overbridge with a pocket knife in Yuddham Sei and the subway fight in Pisasu. There are no grand sets or camera gimmicks but instead you have simple blocking, movement and editing. This perhaps stems from the director’s love of kung fu, which by its very nature is a simplistic martial art. Moreover, the stunts are never present just for the sake of it. The overbridge fight comes at a point in Yuddham Sei when the protagonist gets a firm hold on the case he’s investigating, just as firmly as he grips the pocket knife in his hand.
In the opening portions of Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum, as a bleeding man lies in the middle of the road, passers by click photos to be posted on Facebook. When he’s rushed to a hospital, there’s a ward boy who’s enjoying a comedy scene on television with a smile permanently plastered on his face. There’s wry humour in the last words of each person who is shot dead. Some of them shout out names of Gods, some the names of women while some merely cry out, “Why?” And in Yuddham Sei, a man’s severed head is found amidst a bunch of watermelons!
Unlike Bala’s protagonists who’re larger than life, Mysskin’s protagonists are flawed and fragile. We’ve seen cool police officers and gangsters in mainstream cinema, who strut on screen as if they were born to be a cop or a criminal. Mysskin strips his characters of any cool factor. In Anjathe, you can see the protagonist’s struggle in coming to terms with the harsh realities of being a police officer and in Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum, the medical student can hardly bear the brutalities that he’s forced to witness. When such protagonists overcome their weaknesses to stand up and fight, then we jump into their shoes and the film resonates with us.
Mani Ratnam uses songs as a bridge to travel from one point in his story to another or to heighten and elaborate an emotion. Unlike Mani, Mysskin considers every song a roadblock to his narration. As a result, songs in Mysskin films are either non-existent or thrown in deliberately, thereby shifting the focus to background score.
Typically background score is used to underline emotions or in the rare case to act as a counterpoint to visuals. Sidney Lumet stated in his book Making Movies, “I want the score to say something that nothing else in the picture is saying.” Mysskin attempts to do just that and here’s a great example of this in an early scene from Anjathey. The film’s core is the friendship between two men which goes awry. As they reach a crossroads during their banter, the background score is an ominous wail mourning the events that are to unfold.
In a specific scene from Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum, when a character hacks at the legs of some baddies as revenge, the background score doesn’t celebrate his heroic act. Instead it mourns and sounds almost like “Ah! Being born as humans, the kind of things we’re made to do…” In Pisasu, after the protagonist witnesses death firsthand, the scene cuts to a music studio, in which he’s one of the violinists. He plays a tune that’s out of sync with the current composition but in sync with his internal emotions.
In Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum, which is in essence a hunting expedition, there’s the persistent hum and roar of bike engines throughout the film. This sound doubles up as a mechanical counterpoint to the human heartbeat as well as the dull roar of a predator. You hear it when a wounded man is drawing his last breath and hear it again when a constable remains frozen awaiting his death. This use of sound coupled with a background score helps Mysskin communicate unspoken words and emotions. In fact, in Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum he credited the composer Ilaiyaraja for “foreground score”.
In Yuddham Sei, the protagonist spends every night under the streetlamp where his missing sister was last seen. Just like the person from the zen story who searches for a lost key, the revelation hits the protagonist much later that he’s been looking in the wrong place all along. Mysskin’s films are peppered with many such zen moments. He’s a big fan of the Japanese haiku and his films are a vast and complex web made by stringing a lot of cinematic haikus together. Each scene is composed like a riddle that offers up something new on multiple viewings. The sequences in Pisasu that build up to reveal the true identity of the culprit are best enjoyed on a second viewing.
And just like a haiku you never know what’s coming. One moment you’d be savouring an existential quandary and the next line would hit you with melodrama and the very next would drop you in the middle of action. It’s best to treat the scenes of Mysskin films as you’d treat a haiku. Depending on your temperament, you could cast them aside as meaningless aesthetic constructs or plumb into their silent depths and construct your own meaning.
(With inputs from N Balasubramanian and Srinath Nalluri)