Mani Ratnam or Bala?
Watched Mani Ratnam’s “Anjali” and Bala’s “Naan Kadavul” back to back. Here are some thoughts:
Mani Ratnam’s “Anjali” was undoubtedly his best film. A middle class melodrama about a petit-bourgeois family with three children, the youngest of whom has a terminal illness, in addition to having a stunted mental development. Performance wise, everyone in the movie was brilliant (except the Janakaraj role, which is a caricature). And all central characters in the movie are cute, desirable, adorable. The central focus of the film, the child’s suffering and its impact on those around her, is converted to an aesthetic phenomena. By the power of her innocence, she converts an entire neighborhood of mean kids into shedding a tear for her. When the movie finishes, you too might be left crying, because you too are a target of this conversion. But what really lies beneath your platonic compassion is a perverse pleasure that you have enjoyed – that you have done your duty by feeling for an innocent, sweet, suffering child. You can leave feeling human.
Bala’s “Naan Kadavul” also deals with disability – but instead of the aestheticized, and anesthetized, suffering of an individual subject in a ‘normal’ middle class family, he introduces you to the suffering of the underclass among the underclass – beggars. Suffering, in Bala’s vision, is not some catastrophic event, but everyday existence. Bala takes pain to whole new level. He takes you to the the daily life of a class to whom the closest relationship the middle-class viewer might have had is one of condescending charity. The central character of the “man-god” (Arya) only lampoons the godlessness of religion. Spirituality and humanity are not venerated – their failures are exposed. There are no cute characters and the only character which you might find ‘tolerable’ – the blind beggar played by Pooja Umashankar – is beaten to a pulp and seeks salvation in death. (Note: Death is the only thing that the Hindu variant of liberation theology can offer.) Bala’s aesthetics, or anti-aesthetics, breaks the platonic trinity of the Good, the True and the Beautiful. In the end you are left feeling overwhelmed by emptiness. Or, closer to the human essence.
Mani Ratnam tests your middle class sympathy. Bala tests the limits of your middle class stomach. Mani Ratnam offers you a pseudo-reality for you to enjoy the illusion of reality without its harsher side-effects. “Beer without alcohol”. Bala on the other hand offers you that very reality that you are unwilling to admit, that dark corner of humanity that society tries to repress. If great art is meant to be something penetrative, Bala is the greater artist. Mani sir only scratches around the surface.
So, Bala > Mani Ratnam.