J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 21, 2014

SAIFF ’14: Jigarthanda

At least he’s not making another indie navel gazer. When an aspiring hipster filmmaker gets an offer to make a violent gangster movie, he decides to do it the hard way. Traveling to Madurai to research a local gangster, Karthik inadvertently attracts the attention of his intended subject. Things will get a bit sticky, but the film must go on in Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda (trailer here), which screens tonight at the 2014 South Asian International Film Festival.

Karthik should have just remade a Hong Kong gangster movie like Scorsese. Bringing the true story of “Assault” Sethu to the screen is a dangerous proposition. Just ask the muckraking journalist he burns to death. Crashing with his local school chum Oorani, Karthik takes the indirect approach, trying to befriend key henchmen. He also starts romancing Kayal, the daughter of Sethu’s housekeeper. Of course his mercenary motives will eventually cause trouble for Karthik, especially if he ever realizes he might have squandered something good. However, Sethu will be a more pressing problem when he busts the clumsy snoops.

Fortunately, a prospective big screen treatment appeals to Sethu’s vanity. He is more than happy to talk and talk about one horrific crime after another. Inconveniently for Karthik, Sethu soon develops Get Shorty ideas, but he is no Chili Palmer. This is where his filmmaking mettle will really be tested.

Comedy often travels poorly, but Jigarthanda’s dark satire (particularly as manifested in the third act) translates unusually well, sort of like Tarantino adapting O.Henry, but with more restraint. Still, there is enough violence to make it tricky to definitively categorize, while compensating for most of Karthik and Oorani’s early rubber-faced slapstick.

As Karthik, Siddharth is plenty earnest, but rather bland in that comedic leading man sort of way. Conversely, Bobby Simha gives a big, physical performance in just about every way imaginable. His colorful associates also have their moments, especially Sangili Murugan as Petti Kadai, the shopkeeper who knew Sethu back in the day.

Jigarthanda is that rare film that actually becomes more stylish as it progresses, so it is worth sticking with it. At times, it critiques the media glamorization of gangsters quite pointedly, but it is first and foremost a valentine to movies and the artists who are forced to compromise in order to make them. Recommended for fans of Tamil cinema, Jigarthanda screens tonight (11/21) as part of this year’s SAIFF.

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