Tamil filmmakers have seldom recognized the untapped potential of Tamil literature. The argument that Tamil cinema is too ‘masala’ for it to borrow from literature doesn’t hold water because Tamil literature doesn’t just have ‘serious’ and ‘deep’ books. It has a humongous repository of pulp fiction. For every intense work like Pa Singaram’s Puyalilae Oru Thoni, there’s one gripping page-turner like Sujatha’s Ratham Orae Niram or Rajkumar’s Kaatrin Niram Karuppu. Thus, it is dumbfounding when stars complain about the paucity of good stories from filmmakers.
However, novel adaptations in Tamil are not entirely nonexistent. It is an age-old phenomenon. Films like Jayakanthan’s Unnaipol Oruvan (which received a National Award in 1965), Rajinikanth’s Priya (1978), Karaiyellam Shenbagapoo (1981), and Kamal Haasan’s Vikram (1986) are some of the notable examples. Yet, these are just flashes in the pan. A sustained trend of film adaptations hasn’t happened in contemporary Tamil cinema. But filmmaker Vetri Maaran seems to be giving some hope.
The National Award-winning filmmaker has so far directed five feature films of which two are adaptations of Tamil novels. His upcoming films Viduthalai and Vaadivasal are also based on Tamil literary works, which makes Vetri Maaran, a vital link between Tamil literature and cinema. Not just that, he has also cracked the formula of using serious literature for making commercial films.
Literature and Vetri Maaran
The relationship between literature and Vetri Maaran should have begun way early in his childhood as his mom Megala Chitravel is a noted Tamil novelist. On top of that, the director also studied English literature at Loyola College, Chennai. When he wanted to work with his mentor, prolific filmmaker Balu Mahendra, it was his knowledge of literature that aided him to get the opportunity. In an interview with Tamil magazine Anandha Vikatan, Vetri Maaran shared that Balu Mahendra asked him to come up with a synopsis for a novel as part of his interview process for the assistant director role. Though only his third film, Visaaranai (National Award-winning film and official Indian entry to the 89th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film) turned out to be his first adaptation, one can see that his tryst with written words has been an integral part of his journey.
Making literature mainstream
One of the criticisms against Asuran, Vetri Maaran’s film adaptation of Poomani’s Vekkai (Heat), is that the story was commercialised and unfaithful to the source material. Yet, his mainstream treatment of the novel is what contributed to the film’s commercial success. Vetri Maaran gave a ‘Baasha’ twist to Poomani’s novel, which turned the layered novel into a story of an underdog.
Vekkai is about Sivasamy and his 15-year-old son Chidambaram, who are on the run from the police after the latter kills an upper caste man Vadakooran to avenge the murder of his elder brother. As the dad and son spend around eight days in the forest hiding, the story of oppression and caste politics unfolds. The novel is devoid of heroism and deals with everyday people and their excruciating pain. Vetri Maaran made a significant change in his film by making Sivasamy the ‘hero’ of the film, while in the book, Chidambaram is the ‘protagonist’. Also, Dhanush’s Sivasamy is an entirely different person from the one we find in Poomani’s book. In addition, the entire backstory of Sivasamy, which depicts him as a rebellious young man, is absent in the novel. This made Dhanush’s Sivasamy a familiar trope of mainstream cinema – a man with a violent past. This vital change made the film accessible to all sections of the audience.
However, critics of Vetri Maaran are also not wrong. A faithful remake of the film aided by Vetri’s brilliant cinematic language would have yielded a far better cinema, but it would have been a gamble when it comes to the business aspect of the film. One should only look at Vetri Maaran’s attempts as a small step in the right direction.
Challenges ahead with Vaadivasal
I am looking forward to seeing what he does with CS Chellapa’s novella Vaadivasal. The story of the novel doesn’t have enough meat for a typical Tamil feature film as it is just a story of events happening in one day at a Jallikattu event. A guy named Picchi arrives at a neighbouring village for the jallikattu event. He wants to tame the frightening bull named Kaari, which killed Picchi’s father years ago. That’s all there is to the story of the novella. Yet, it stands as a brilliant literary piece for its dialect and the depiction of caste politics in the sport of jallikattu. It would make up for a great cinema if Vetri Maaran recreates everything faithfully on screen.
Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if the director opts for an entire flashback portion for Picchi’s father (Reports, already suggest that Suriya is playing a dual role in the film). Despite the commercialisation, such adaptations continue to sustain the importance of literature. I mean without the film adaptations, the mainstream would have remained unaware of these literary gems.
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