It was the year 2010. A quiet and reserved filmmaker from Chennai called Thiagarajan Kumaraja made his debut with a strikingly unique and unconventional Tamil film called Aaranya Kaandam (English titles: Jungle Chapter or Anima and Persona). It was immediately compared to Pulp Fiction and hardcore film buffs were elated. “Tamil cinema finally has their own Tarantino!” said one excited friend and “This guy is like the Guy Richie of Chennai!” said another. Although this (cult) film won two National Awards (for Best Debut Film and Editing) and also the Grand Jury Award for Best Film at the South Asian Film Festival, it still remains an underrated and overlooked piece of work.
Thiagaraja’s difficult experiences with the Censor Board and the distributors are similar to what Anurag Kashyap (who is a big fan of the film) went through with his first film Paanch. Many, including myself, were desperate to see it but didn’t get a chance to. A DVD release wasn’t expected anytime soon. We finally got our chance two years later, when we were told that the film would be screened at the 10th Chennai International Film Festival. I made up my mind and decided to make it to the screening. The theater where it played was packed! It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. We were behaving as if we won’t ever get to see it again. Needless to say, after seeing the film, I learned that all the hype was real.
Yes, the Tarantino and Richie influences were there and in addition to those, there was a Sergio Leone influence as well. Although Thiagaraja cited The Godfather as his primary influence, Jackie Shroff’s Singaperumal character, a repulsive and impotent don, is no Vito Corleone. In fact, he is the complete opposite. His mannerisms brought to mind some of the characters from Leone’s films. The film marked Shroff’s Tamil cinema debut and I have to say, this is the only performance out of his entire career that I really liked and cared to remember. You’ve never seen Shroff like this before. He keeps a young mistress named Subbu (a terrific Yasmin Ponnappa) who is half his age and subjects her to physical abuse when he can’t get it up.
Then there are his gang members who sit around and discuss things like how to get laid and the various tricks one can employ to make it happen. You are instantly reminded of Joe Pesci’s scenes from Goodfellas or the opening scene from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. One of these men tells the other, “Ask a woman which actor she prefers more. If she likes Kamal, that means she is horny and if she likes Rajni, just ignore her. Kamal oozes sex. It’s pure technology.” These lines are amusing and you might wonder if they have any sort of relevance to the plot. In Tarantino’s films, they don’t but in Kumararaja’s they certainly do. It’s when you get to the later scenes and especially the surprising third act that you realize the significance (and irony) of these lines.
Aaranya Kaandam gives you the effect of watching three films in one: It’s a neo-noir, gangster film, and a Bicycle Thief-style father-and-son story all rolled into one. And naturally, because of this, a few tonal shifts are to be expected. But a patient viewer will be rewarded with one of the finest film watching experiences they’ve ever had. The three stories are interconnected and culminate in a satisfying resolution. Just like one (or two) of its pivotal characters, the film’s true colors and intentions are revealed only in the final scenes and this takes you by surprise. You see the ending and you go, “Oh so this is what the film is really about (and stood for).”
The film’s release and distribution problems can be attributed to the high-level of profanity and gut-wrenching violence (some of which are heavily stylized) which the general Tamil movie going audiences are not used to. It ran into some problems with the Censor Board which demanded that some dialogues be bleeped out. The dialogues, although not family-friendly, play a huge part in taking the narrative forward. I was fortunate enough to watch the uncut version which has nearly 10 minutes of additional footage with all the dialogues intact. While I eagerly await Thiagaraja’s next film starring Fahad Faasil, Vijay Sethupathi and Samantha, I hope this one gets a proper Blu-ray release and that too the uncut version.