Movies about movies

Second take

Impressive: Mohanlal and Meena, in a scene from ‘Udayananu Tharam’.

I’m sure Vidya will be quite wonderful on her own terms, but impersonating Silk can’t be one of them: the two actors, beginning with their skin tone to their sexual politics, are from opposite worlds. The Dirty Picture also alarmingly sounds more and more like another obnoxious Bollywood caricature of the South Indian film industry. Nothing could be sillier and more out of place since the most vibrant Indian cinema for some time now has come from the South. I hope I’m wrong, and that The Dirty Picture plays out more like an affectionate tribute to the 80s. (The truest movie about our cinema was the much hyped but little appreciated Quick Gun Murugan).

Movies about movies are box-office taboo in Indian cinema: the word out there is that plots set in the movie industry seldom work. Is this because the world of cinema feels too esoteric, self-reflexive, and unreal for the audience? Or, is going behind the scenes too much like finding out how an illusion is achieved, and being disappointed from it? Movies about movies usually tend to be satires, spoofs, and parodies — and this is fatal for an audience wanting to be more emotionally involved with the plot. One marvelous exception is the Malayalam film, Udayananu Tharam, which is superb for the way it makes you care for its characters even as it smartly goes about making (good natured) fun of the industry.  
It’s available on DVD now with subtitles, and is totally worth checking out if you missed it the first time around. Udayananu Tharam is a witty, sharp, winning satire of the perils of stardom in Indian cinema. And though a spoof of sorts, it never fails to move and involve you emotionally. This is a rare subject in Indian cinema and you would expect a Malayalam movie with higher ambitions to pay little attention to music and dance, but the songs, though only a handful, are a delight. Mohanlal is Udaya, a struggling assistant director in Malayalam cinema who has moved from Kerala to Chennai in search of better film projects.

He lives in a small, squalid apartment in Koddambakam, the Hollywood of Kollywood. In Koddambakam are also several hopefuls and wannabes: friends and rivals struggling together. Udaya’s dream is to make his own film and he has a fool proof scheme to achieve this goal: write a sure-fire script and insist on directing it himself. 

When the film opens, we find him battling a writer’s block. He has everything worked out in the script, except the ending. A little later in the film he has an eureka moment when the perfect climax reveals itself to him. Jubilant, he announces to everyone in Koddambakam that he has the perfect script. Huge mistake. Rajappan (Sreenivasan), a sly, struggling and untalented actor hatches a plot to steal the script, pass it off as his own, and insist on being the star of the film. I won’t elaborate more on the juicy plot which takes interesting turns. Mohanlal is wonderful in this role. He doesn’t stereotype the struggling artiste but gives the character doubt, integrity, and compassion. Sreenivasan is mesmerising and complex as the bad actor who has to act to save his life. A challenge for any actor: how does a good actor play a bad one?  

In many ways, one could say that Udayananu Tharam is a Sreenivasan film. Though (expertly) directed by Rosshan Andrrews (making an assured debut; he spells his name in that peculiar way because his astrologer told him it would bring him luck) with Lal clearly the star, Sreenivasan’s stamp is everywhere. This interesting and unusual looking actor is a superb and original scriptwriter who has a cult following in Malayalam cinema. He writes, directs and stars in many of his own films.

The movie suggests that “commercial cinema is always a compromise: something a serious filmmaker like Udayan is forced to contend with on his road to success”. (The Tamil remake with Prithviraj as Mohanlal and Prakash Raj as Sreenivasan is decent but not as fresh and exciting as the original. The self-referential in-jokes and gags about the movie industry don’t fully carry over here). 

Udayananu Tharam echoes many of Sreenivasan’s favourite themes. What is unique to this film, though, is satirising commercial cinema — and in the process indicting Indian stars and their nearly fascistic behaviour on and off a film set. Andrrews, Sreenivasan and Lal bravely criticise Malayalam cinema, once known for its artistic excellence, for selling out. There are several delightful supporting performances, particularly unforgettable is veteran comic Jagathy playing a flamboyant acting coach, a kind of Kollywood Stranislavaski via Kathakali.

Which bring me to the best running gag in the film: the way names of legendary acting coaches are dropped, particularly by Rajappan who mangles Russian names (Stanislewiskey) even as he pronounces them with élan. My favourite moment in the film comes right at the start: Mohanlal offering arathi to photographs of his personal gods on the wall as he waves incense and chants their names: “Blessings to Satyajit Ray, blessings to Kurosawa, blessings to Chaplin, blessings to Adoor Gopalakrishan”: invocations to a pantheon of iconic film directors sacred to film aficionados and aspiring filmmakers.

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