Karthik Subbaraj’ National award-winning Jigarthanda: guilty of having too cold a heart?

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Jigarthanda—the second venture of the talented Karthik Subbaraj—breaks down to mean “Cold Heart”. After releasing to great expectations last year the film is back to being under the scanner for being the recipient of twin awards at this year’s National Film Awards for Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor (Karunakaran). While a viewing of the film reveals that both the honours were well placed the film still falters if taken as a whole.

With the novel setting of a struggling filmmaker trying to cut his first feature film by researching the life of a real-time gangster in the temple town of Madurai for a big-shot producer, the film holds the promise of being a real ride. Having debuted with the critically well-received and rather spine-chilling Pizza (2012) Subbaraj is spot-on when it comes to creating atmosphere and holding on to it with an exacting style of editing. But it is the editing that hangs over the film like a double-edged sword. At a mammoth running time of 171 minutes—and yet it has the Editing award to vouch for its pace—the film’s first half delights you with the story of a young would-be filmmaker trailing a gangster using the most ingenious of methods.

Whether it is the fact that the protagonist Karthik (Siddharth) lands up in Madurai and holes up in a friend’s (Karunakaran) house, their subsequent plan of closing in on the gangster by trying to befriend his acolytes, the bizarre working style of the gangster in question, Sethu (Bobby Simha) or the coincidence of meeting a professional saree-stealer Kayal (Lakshmi Menon) who is the daughter of Sethu’s cook—the twists are wittily placed.

It is only on the other side of Intermission that the grand trope of the film-within-the-film begins to be dragged into the predictable demarcations of good versus evil. Suddenly the well fleshed characters of the morally inept, ambitious albeit opportunistic Karthik and the enigmatic, menacing and endearing Sethu get limited into the clear-cut pegs of the hero and the villain while the underwritten part of Kayal serves as a puppet to further the plot. The film’s attempt to don several hats at once only serves to make its story run cold. Does it want to be a film about a gangster’s life? Does it want to be a somewhat autobiographical story about the journey of a filmmaker towards his debut film? Does it want to be a caper dealing with the life of a gangster? Or does it want to be a black comedy about human ambitions and its unavoidable pitfalls?

At another level, the film also becomes a fan film paying its tribute to the directorial geniuses of Coppola, Tarantino and Mani Ratnam who have seamlessly meshed violence and emotion in their cult films on gangsters. It is ripe with references of the darker works of Ratnam (Nayakam) and Anurag Kashyap (Gangs of Wasseypur) which however, does not add to the film’s mood organically. To be fair, given it is just his second film, Subbaraj can be given the benefit of doubt about developing his visual narrative style.

Stylistic editing in a film about violence with traits of black comedy is a very dicey affair. Too much of it has been accused of crumbling such films’ emotional quotient and too less of it leads to slackening the crisp pace needed. The film grounds its aspirations with early references to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather Trilogy” and the eccentric oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps, this itself is the invisible impediment that keeps Jigarthanda from finding its own cinematic idiom. His idols are a tad mixed up, while Coppola stands for a very sombre, stretched anticipation of violence Tarantino injects his equally atmospheric pieces with an irreverent excess of gore almost bordering on the absurd. Again, the Indian idiom of realistic violence has traditionally had an emotional vein in it if you notice the benchmarks set by Parinda, Satya or the more recent Gangs of Wasseypur films. Collating all these sources might be an uphill task and require a little more invention than what Subbaraj employed. Further, a film placed in this relatively untrodden space in Indian cinema better steer clear of all clichés—in this case, the unnecessary twist in the film’s end to achieve which the meta film’s plot-point was needed in the first place. In the long run, comedy and violence can be a real heady cocktail if the indulgent Indian filmmaker can let go off the excess ingredients.

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