“DEATH IS MY VISITING CARD”- KATTRADHU THAMIZH

What follows is not a review of Kattradhu Tamizh. I will not, at any point in this piece of writing, recommend or oppose the viewing of this film by anyone. However, I will give free rein to my thoughts regarding the various happenings in this movie, so, those of you who haven’t watched it and want to, beware: SPOILERS ABOUND! Close this tab immediately. Those of you who have decided to go on, keep in mind that I am neither a film critic nor a film scholar; what you are reading is, essentially, a speech given by a drunkard on the virtues of alcohol. 

Kattradhu Tamizh came highly recommended by a friend. He told me that the film was about (I’m taking the concept of paraphrasing to an extreme, here) a graduate in Tamil who is angered by society’s unfairness to him. I stored the film in the ‘Hmm…Interesting’ cabinet of my memory and forgot about it until, a few weeks back, I watched Thanga Meenkal, another film by the same director (Ram), and was so impressed by it that I googled him and found out that Kattradhu Tamizh was his first film. The film was immediately transferred to the ‘Must Watch’ cabinet. Later, when I brought the film up with a group of friends, one of them told me that it was so relentlessly depressing that he couldn’t watch more than half of it. It is my opinion that any film which manages to elicit such a strong reaction from a viewer deserves to be watched as soon as possible.

Within the first forty minutes of the film, I understood what he meant about it being ‘relentlessly depressing’. Prabhakar (the bearded protagonist, whom some label ‘Dostoyevskian’), the narrator, takes us through a failed suicide attempt, the murder of a railway booking clerk, the death of his pet dog (crushed under a train) and the death of his mother and grandparents in a car accident. The scene where his family dies in a car accident was particularly disturbing, mostly due to the intensity with which he describes the scene. The rest of the film covers the time he spent at a boarding school with his Tamil teacher (which were, he confesses, the happiest years of his life), the death of his Tamil teacher (a bus accident), his time at an arts college, studying Tamil, and the events leading up to the kidnapping of Yuvaan (Karunas), a cameraman, to record his confession. Prabhakar (Jiiva) also recounts the time he spent with Anandhi (Anjali), his childhood friend, mostly with relish.

After watching Kattradhu Tamizh, I couldn’t help thinking that it was famous for all the wrong reasons. Sure, it has something to say about how Tamil is looked down upon in the modern urban society, and that is what the title ‘Kattradhu Tamizh’ (or Tamizh M.A.) suggests, thus, doubly reinforcing the result that when people watch the film, they tend to think of Prabhakar’s problems as arising from his graduate degree in Tamil. We Tamizhas and Tamizhachis aren’t new to movies that ask us to take a stand against unfair bureaucrats and politicians, and characters who expound upon the beauty of Tamil aren’t that uncommon (one of Vivekh’s best comedy tracks comes to mind), so, for a film that is considered to be one of the best, Kattradhu Tamizh wasn’t really showing us anything new. Also, Prabhakar’s rants against the westernized urban population of Chennai do not start until the second half. This leads me to ask: Is the movie really about urban society’s unfairness to Tamil? I think not. I think of it as being an excellent character study on Prabhakar; an examination of how the events of his childhood and adolescence shaped his ideology and made him lose control over his world (back to Dostoyevsky, who was famous for analyzing his characters psychologically).

 Early on, Prabhakar asks Yuvaan whether he had ever seen death. Yuvaan replies that his father and grandfather had died within a span of two years; both of them had died relatively painless, natural deaths. Prabhakar then tells him about how he witnessed his first death at the age of seven, when his dog, Tony, runs into a railway tunnel and is crushed under a train. The children (Prabhakar and Anandhi), who run after him, are rescued by a man who happens to be present. After the train passes, they go inside the tunnel, lanterns in their hands, and see the mangled corpse of the dog. The man who rescued them covers Anandhi’s eyes with his hand, as Prabhakar watches the dog, unable to take his eyes away.

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Prabhakar’s second brush with fate happens when he and his family are travelling in his father’s car. He gets out of the car to urinate (his father gets out with him), and the car (with his mother and grandparents inside) is hit by a lorry travelling at full speed. The memory of his mother’s corpse stays with him throughout his life, he is reminded constantly of it by people who don’t recognize him until he tells them that his mother had died in a car accident when he was young. “Death is my visiting card.” He tells Yuvaan. I feel that Prabhakar held himself responsible for the death of his family, since it was he who had pressured his father into stopping the car at that spot, I also think he realized that it had been a close call for Anandhi, whom he had invited to accompany him, and whose mother had said that she wouldn’t be able to do that because she was sick.

When his father enrolls him in a boarding school, the hostel warden, who is also a teacher of Tamil becomes a sort of father figure to him (his own father wasn’t, I think, because he hardly spent any time with his son). This is when he develops an interest in Tamil, influenced by the Tamil teacher, Poobal, whom he idolizes. This also explains why he was so intent on becoming a Tamil teacher, when he could have found work as a writer for a newspaper or something similar. Tamil is something he associates with happiness, which, to be honest, he hasn’t seen much of. It also, later, becomes his identity, hence, I believe, the title ‘Kattradhu Tamizh’. All goes well, until the end of his final year of school, when Poobal dies in a bus accident.

I describe these events because I believe that Prabhakar’s violent acts were not performed due to his anger on society. He wasn’t a Shankar-esque vigilante, tirelessly striving for the greater good. He was a psychopath, who committed murder due to jealousy and to assert dominance, who generalized his bad experiences with society and used them to justify his acts, and even his justification was born out of a need to assert ethical dominance over the rest of humanity. This is not to say that the feelings he expresses towards our culture and language aren’t pure.

When we say that the film tells us to respect our culture and heritage, we should remember that the film is not narrated by an everyman. What happened to Prabhakar was very unfortunate; almost everyone he loved was taken away from him by a twist of fate (only his father died a natural death, everyone else succumbed to accidents). This signifies that his life wasn’t in his control from the very beginning. His decision to study Tamil was an attempt to change that, so was his failed suicide attempt. In fact, almost all of the murders he committed were rebellions against his perceived controllers, the most memorable of these being the railway clerk and the policeman who had arrested him previously.

Prabhakar shows that he has a superiority complex early on in the film, when he asks Yuvaan about the number of deaths that he has seen. It is clear that he thinks that he is more deserving than the rest of humanity because of the tumultuous happenings of his childhood and adolescence. He is also someone who is proud of his intelligence and moral stance, as is evidenced by the multiple instances where he asks Yuvaan “Purinjuchaa?” (“Do you understand?”), and gives a knowing, almost condescending, smile when Yuvaan replies that he doesn’t. He therefore goes berserk (understandably, perhaps), when people who have had sweeter childhoods than him and who are less deserving of life’s nectar than him look down upon him (his friend from the IT company, to whom he says “Two…Two lakhs! Neeya (you)?”).

It is when he meets his friend at the IT firm that he gets ‘provoked’ by the statement ‘TOUCH ME IF YOU DARE’ written on a woman’s t-shirt and touches her, immediately after which he regrets what he did and is kicked out of the office. This isn’t the first, or the last time that we see Prabhakar’s sense of morality in conflict with the base desire to prove his superiority (almost paradoxically). It happened before when he apologized to his friend for beating him after the latter said something bad about Anandhi. It also happens again when he beats up a random guy who works at a call centre. In fact, the first time he doesn’t feel sorry for what he did is when he kills the railway clerk. He smiles maniacally and boards a train. He admits to feeling like God at the time, an allusion to winning his internal battle against the forces that have been in control of his life.  

The scene which I mentioned earlier, the one in which Prabhakar beats a random guy up, was one of the best shot scenes in the movie. Prabhakar is drunk and has just been antagonized by a guy in car who has splashed muddy water on him. As he picks up a rock and stumbles forward to launch it at that car, another car skids to a stop behind him and its horn is pressed. He throws the rock at this car instead, drags the driver out, and starts slapping him. He later apologizes to the driver and forces him to sit down and talk with him. He asks the driver about himself and expresses derision when he says that he works at a call centre where it is required that employees change their names to something more western to suit their customers. Prabhakar taunts Koushik (the call centre employee), asks him to repeat what he says, and recites a verse in Tamil. The scene is full of shots in which Prabhakar directly faces the audience.

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It is us he ridicules when he says “Sollu da! Sollu da!” (“Say it! Say it!”) I found myself cringing in shame when I couldn’t understand what the verse meant. It was perhaps this scene which led many to label the film as being ‘a message to society on the evils of neglecting our language’. I agree that the message is there, clear and visible. But take a look at the layer immediately beneath it, and you will see a tortured person trying to prove his superiority to the man who backs away in fear, to us, who have not gone through what he has and yet have the privilege of sitting comfortably on leather cushions and passing judgements on his intentions, plight, and thoughts. The best subliminal fourth wall break I’ve ever seen.

Next comes the murder of a couple who were making out on a beach. He himself admits that he was jealous. We come to know that he is a very protective person when he says that he used to wait eagerly for the holidays so that his Tamil teacher would be able to spend time with him, and him alone. Add to that his obsession with Anandhi, and his separation from her (he says he pines for her, in the bathroom), coupled with his violent instincts, and the murder on the beach was an egg waiting to be broken. This isn’t the only place where he shows jealousy, in fact, it could be argued that his need to dominate was born out of jealousy. He asks almost everyone he meets how much they earn, and then sets about establishing that they are inferior to him.

I’ll end this free-wheeling bombast with one of the film’s final scenes, where Prabhakar reaches the end of his confessional, and says, “I am not trying to justify what I did” and does just that. With his believable and well-executed statements about salary inequality and the neglect of our culture and language, he paints a self-portrait in which he reconciles his addiction to murder with his sense of morality (as displayed in his attitude towards prostitutes and his frequent apologizing). In other words, he is trying to elevate himself from common criminals (impulsive and stupid), as seen in the scene where he feels sad that he had been made to squat with them in prison, in order to maintain his sense of moral superiority.

No, this film will not slip through my memory now, as it once did. Even as I write this, I hear Prabhakar saying “Ulagamae yenn kaaluku kadilae irrukura maari irunduchu” (“I felt like the whole world was under my feet”) and I can see, clearly in my head, the accompanying shot: A worm’s eye view of Prabhakar standing on the footboard of a train, viewing through spectacles cracked on one side, his right hand covered in blood.

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