Athiyan Athirai’s debut film Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu epitomises cinema as a form of resistance
Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu plainly explains the connections between imperialism, crony-capitalism and arms trade
Athiyan Athirai’s debut film Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu — loosely translated as “The Last Bomb of the Second World War” — has an imperative to offer. In a time when war-mongering for electoral gain is rampant in India, and when the rhetoric deployed by news outlets appear to be urging nuclear powers towards war, “mass” films are faced with a choice. The kind of films that feed the polarised narrative we’re bombarded with on a daily basis play the dangerous role of propaganda. It’s worrying that they may be part of a well-considered agenda.
Filmmakers need to decide between two stances. Like politicians who harvest votes from the bodies of dead soldiers, will they continue to try and win the box-office with war mania, or can they approach cinema as a form of resistance?
Gundu follows a scrap-metal dealer and a lorry driver in his employ (played by Dinesh), who wind up with an unexploded shell that has washed up on a beach in Chennai. For a considerable time they are unaware that it is an explosive. The events that unravel involve an arms-dealer, a Left-wing journalist (Riythvika), peace activists, corrupt cops and labour unions. Like most “mass” films in Tamil, it defies genres. It’s a darkly comic thriller saddled with an inter-caste love story. But using the industry formula to foreground matters of social justice is not new to Tamil cinema.
Cinema and cine music in Tamil Nadu have had a longstanding connection with politics. The relationship between the industry and the Dravidian movement’s rise to popularity is well documented. Carefully coded symbols, gestures, dialogues and lyrics carried their progressive (to a degree), anti-government message widely to the cinema-loving state. In recent years, filmmakers like Pa Ranjith, Athiyan Athirai and Mari Selveraj, and musicians and song-writers like Arivu and Tenma, are pushing audiences not towards (an eventual) party mandate, but direct political engagement.
Pa Ranjith’s films from Madras to Kabali have done well in theatres and have taken Dalit politics and socialist ideas into mainstream cinema. Ranjith is also the producer of Gundu.
Athiyan has been clear about his political leanings off-screen and in his first film. In an interview earlier this year, he spoke of his disaffection with the Tamil cinema industry in the mid-2000s. He describes how he wasn’t willing to comply with the unyielding hierarchy. Once he was even apparently fired for calling a director “thozhar” (comrade). He walked away from filmmaking for some time, turning back to his writing, animation and even working in a scrap metal yard. Incidentally, there are many “thozhars” that are dropped easily in Gundu’s dialogues.
The film plainly explains the connections between imperialism, crony-capitalism and arms trade. Athiyan manages to bring in the terrible fallout of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, large-scale shellings during World War II, references last year’s Defence Expo in Chennai, and there’s even a fleeting appearance of a character with an eerie resemblance to a former Minister of Defence.
Gundu provokes critical questions: If this nexus is international, shouldn’t solidarity with war-torn countries take precedence over blind loyalty to the nation-state? If “revenge” can be clamoured for from the safety of Twitter handles and newsrooms, can we use those tools to understand the consequences of war? Hate-speech, hate-crimes and discriminatory policies are pushing India further and further away from the Constitution. What more will it take for young citizens to form a political conscience and begin to resist this, it asks.
The final song before the credits roll, “Thalaimurai,” explicitly demands to know when that moment will come. Written by the poet-songwriter and singer Arivu, it is an anthem for the indifferent generation. “Thalai murai thalai thookuma? (Will this generation even look up and take notice?)” The sentiment itself indicates a rather low bar for human conscience, but perhaps that is what we are left with in times of hardened apathy. The relentless stream of images on the screen from actual conflict zones, maimed bodies, large scale protest, the dead and the dying could be criticised as an appeal to rank sentimentalism. But elections are being won by allowing people to confuse strength with brutality. Our empathy is repeatedly classified a threat to national security. Solidarity is not in the national interest, we’re told.
At the time of writing this article, the song felt significant for one more reason. The lyrics mention how unchecked authority wounds, changes social relations and creates refugees. This forcibly brought the Citizenship Amendment Act to mind. The bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha with the ascent of 293 MPs out of the 375 present. Cautionary references to the Reich Citizenship Law and the Israeli Citizenship Act were made during the debate and expunged from the records. It was finally passed with 311 ayes from elected MPs. Since the Citizenship Amendment Act is inextricable from the possibility of a future nation-wide NRC, there is considerable fear amongst citizens that if this bill is passed into law, it will be the beginning of the "Hindu Rashtra". The bill passed through the Lok Sabha on Prevent Genocide Day (9 December). In commemoration of the latter, the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted something that we in India need to read: “The Holocaust did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes and prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanisation and escalating violence.”
I asked Arivu what he had in mind as he wrote the lyrics to “Thalaimurai”. “I was thinking of violence across the world, from the genocide in Sri Lanka to caste murders here. But words are also a method of warfare, yes. Divisive rhetoric is splitting us apart. People are murdered because of it,” he says. We discussed how words and bills can be weaponised after I admitted my anxieties regarding the CAB. He speaks candidly, but it’s hard to miss the depth of his reading and agitation at injustices. “Conflict always claims children as its victim. They die in their own countries. Before they’re old enough to even learn their country’s name, theirs are on gravestones,” he added. He hopes that his song will disrupt what he believes is deliberate political ignorance adopted by large portions of society.
Tamil cine music has played a historically crucial role in the politics of the state, though it continues to be inadequately written on. Film historian Theodore Baskaran raised the same concern when he wrote on the song as the message-bearer, calling it a “potent medium for propagating social and political ideas” and a “significant phenomenon on the cultural scene”. He traced the massive industry comprising broadcasting mediums, poet-songwriters, film personalities, folk and Carnatic music and their eventual relationship with the Dravidian movement.
This “cultural scene” is not dead. The films of Pa Ranjith, Athiyan Athirai and Mari Selveraj, the song-writing and music of those like Arivu and Tenma, are re-making this scene in the hope for an empathetic democracy.
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