Thupparivaalan — A Journey of cold Logic into the warm world of Emotions

Before going to watch Mysskin’s Thupparivaalan, I saw his interview with Sudhir Srinivasan, in which he said the following with a grin.

For Vishal’s audience, the film will be a pleasant surprise. For my audience, they will know my crankiness. They will laugh. They will say, “Okay this man, this time, this year, this kind of madness has come out of him. Okay good. Let us enjoy!”

Being “Mysskin’s audience” and knowing his crankiness, I felt exactly as he said. Although I never got completely immersed in Thupparivaalan, throughout the film I kept thinking, “Okay this man, this time, this year…”

The Two Core Ideas

I was sure that when Mysskin picks up Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, he’ll give it a philosophical twist. He has done it before. He gave ghosts a philosophical twist in Pisasu, when the plot was born from the question, “Why should a ghost seek revenge? Can’t a ghost forgive and fall in love with the man who killed her?” Likewise in Thupparivaalan, Mysskin daubs a criminal investigation with generous splashes of philosophy.

Is the death of any form of life an insignificant event?

In the first book of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha, there’s an episode in which a man is punished for killing animals in order to save a human. In Thupparivaalan, Devil’s downfall begins when he kills a dog. While readers of detective fiction are poring over their books and breaking their heads on complicated twists and clues, Mysskin gently taps them on the shoulder and shows them the death of a dog, luring them to meditate on the question, “Is the death of any form of life, be it a man or a dog, an insignificant event?”

By placing the death of a dog as the trigger point for the film’s plot as well as the villain’s downfall, Mysskin evokes the Buddhist philosophy that all forms of lives are equally precious. Interestingly, this is also the crux of ‘Yaadhum Oore Yaavarum Kelir’, the Sangam poem written by Kaniyan Poongundran, whose name Mysskin uses for his detective.

Although I liked this core idea, I couldn’t help but bury my head in the ground, when Devil explicitly voiced it out before drawing his last breath. The final encounter between Devil and the little boy, who lost his dog, should have been silent with no words exchanged.

(Aside: It’s interesting to note Mysskin’s friend, Ram’s obsession with dogs and their death too. You have it in all 3 of his films — Katradhu Thamizh, Thangameengal and Taramani. “Ram, Mysskin and the Death of Dogs” would make a great article!)

The other core idea was to show Kaniyan’s gradual descent from the world of cold logic into a whirlpool of emotions. He starts out as a purely rational man, just like Sherlock Holmes, but his investigations and the characters who enter his life, draw out the emotions buried within him.

In this aspect, Thupparivaalan isn’t your typical Sherlock Holmes story. It’s not concerned about who did it or why he did it. As the story progresses, you have Kaniyan letting his emotions lead the way rather than logic, which isn’t something you’d expect from Sherlock Holmes. I liked that.

I also liked the idea that Kaniyan picks up the case a little boy brings him. It’s not a grown-up, it’s not the secretary of some powerful person. It’s a little boy with a seemingly insignificant problem. In fact, I doubt if there’s been any case that a child brought to Sherlock Holmes in the Conan Doyle stories. That's an interesting touch that Mysskin adds. A child’s problems are equally important too!

And it’s not just any other boy. It’s a boy with a terrific eye for detail just like Kaniyan. (In fact, the boy could be his protege if there are sequels in the future.) I loved the appreciative smile on Kaniyan’s face when the boy spells out the exact distance from his house to the beach because he and his sister had measured it using a ruler. “Never trust general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.”

(Fun fact: In the very first Feluda story by Satyajit Ray, Danger in Darjeeling, Feluda’s teenage assistant Tapesh, is also observant of distances to a specific place. Of course, in this case Feluda proves him wrong!)

Ostrich Moments

But… there were a lot of ostrich moments in the film that made me want the darkness in the theatre to swallow me. The Devil furiously making omelettes, Kaniyan breaking down after Mallika drew her last breath — moments like these tempt me to place Thupparivaalan closer to Mugamoodi than to Onaayum Aattukuttiyum, which I still consider Mysskin’s best film ever.

Kaniyan Poongundran vs Sherlock Holmes

Despite the spiralling arc towards emotions, the character of Kaniyan is clearly inspired from Sherlock. The introvertedness, the frustration of not having a case to solve, the love of impersonations, martial arts, emotionally attacking witnesses to make them speak — all of these Sherlockian attributes are present in Kaniyan too.

But there are a few slips, or shall we say departures, from Sherlock. When he inspects the dust on a table, Kaniyan remarks aloud, “There’s dust over here but not over there. Why?” Sherlock isn’t the kind who’s prone to verbalising his internal thoughts. That line was placed to help the audience understand, rather than let Kaniyan be true to his character. Also in the final water ski chase, Kaniyan’s phone is in his pant pocket and while taking it out it slips from his hand and drops into the water. Such sloppiness and such reluctance to use technology (wireless earphones in this case) would make Sherlock click his tongue in disapproval.

However, I’m willing to excuse such mini-sins since the character is named Kaniyan Poongundran and not Sherlock. I pacify myself saying, “This is Kaniyan. This is how he is.” Maybe the “Ivan Thupparivaalan” song was composed specially for Sherlock fans like me, to hammer into our brains that this is not Sherlock Holmes, this is Kaniyan Poongundran.

Mysskin clearly stating he’s a detective and his name is Kaniyan. He’s not Sherlock. Dot.

Third person exposition

The kick derived out of any Sherlock story is when we’re left clueless about how the mystery was solved and Sherlock explains it to us in the end, along with his perspectives on which aspect of the case was the toughest nut to crack. But in Thupparivaalan, a police officer is stripped and beaten up before he narrates the details of how all the crimes were perpetrated, while Kaniyan stands listening quietly in the background. This kind of “Nab criminal, bash him up and make him speak” approach makes Thupparivaalan a police procedural rather than a Sherlockian mystery. But I can understand why Mysskin did this.

It’s because Mysskin’s character arc for Sherlock is a straight escalator descent into emotions. He starts off as a pure rationalist with absolutely no emotions, who asks a woman to stay locked up in her house if she thinks the city isn’t safe. But gradually he descends from his high position on top of the ladder towards Mallika and begins to feel emotions. Once you have Sherlock getting emotional, you can’t have him rationally explain the mystery.

Kaniyan’s escalator descent into emotions

(Related: Karundhel Rajesh compared the scene with the fat police inspector tied up and bleeding to a shot from Seven and felt it was the most visually interesting shot in Thupparivaalan.)

The Bresson & Kurosawa Influence

“Let the cause follow the effect. Not accompany it or precede it.”

That’s a line from Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematograph. Once when Bresson was walking through a garden he saw a man’s eyes light up. When he turned around to see what he was looking at, he noticed a woman and a child walking towards the man. Had he seen both together he might have missed the change in the man’s eyes. This spurred him to think that the cause and effect should never be shown together and the effect should always precede the cause if you want to draw your audience into the film. So in cinema he always showed a character’s reaction first and then slowly revealed what the character was looking at.

You can see Mysskin following this Bresson principle in several scenes of Thupparivaalan. There’s also an obvious hat tip to Bresson with the subway pickpocketing scene. Although I liked this scene, I felt it was not as effective as the brilliant scene Bresson staged in Pickpocket (1959). That was indeed a dance!

Getting rid of back stories for the criminals reminded me of Kurosawa’s Stray Dog. You only get details or snippets of the criminal’s life. You go home and try to piece together their motivation. That’s how it is in real life. You read about criminals in the media, little snippets of who or what they were before they did what they did. And you keep wondering all your lives what really made them do what they did. I liked the fact that the Devil and the silent old man each have a debilitated woman at home. Devil is mentioned to have a blind mother and the old man has a bed-ridden wife. These are just enough hints for you to piece together the mystery of their lives.

The hat tip to Kurosawa’s Stray Dog

The other obvious reference to Stray Dog comes after Kaniyan finally defeats Devil. The two-sides-of-the-same-coin framing shown above is yet another homage to Kurosawa, who did the same in Stray Dog when the police officer finally nabs the criminal. In both shots, a long-winding chase has finally come to an end. In both shots, the characters are silent and panting for breath. In both shots, the viewer is permitted to reflect upon the lives of two characters who were faced with similar circumstances but turned out to be completely different individuals.

Mysskin’s Achilles Heel

Watching any Mysskin interview, you’ll quickly realise that the man wants to be the puppet master. He wants every single crew and cast member to simply do what he tells them. While this brightens the halo behind the director, I wonder if it’s the right approach to filmmaking, which is essentially a collaborative art. The biggest takeaway for me from Conversations with Mani Ratnam was the brilliant ways in which Mani incorporated inputs from his artists, while not compromising with the film’s vision.

I feel this instinct of wanting to dictate everything is Mysskin’s boon and bane. When there’s a flow it gives rise to beautiful poetic cinema. But when the magic is missing it gives rise to stale, often comical shots with the actors coming across like robots with programmed movements. In this aspect alone, if Mysskin opens up to inputs like Mani and works with artists capable of giving sensible creative inputs, his cinema can blossom in a much more beautiful, organic way. But for now he seems content working with people who’re willing to submit themselves to him and his eccentricities completely.

The other issue with acting in Mysskin films is that his actors portray stylised realism with movements and facial expressions inspired from Kurosawa’s Samurai films. I’m not sure if this is a good idea. This is the reason the acting feels alien at times because he’s juxtaposing Japanese sensibilities in an Indian setting. And I don’t think Mysskin is doing this consciously. The works of Japanese masters are so deeply ingrained in him that perhaps he doesn’t realise this yet.

Take for example this shot from Chithiram Pesuthadi when the father is found at a brothel. The way he stares in shock and the way he slinks away — I wouldn’t call it “overacting”. It’s stylised realism and I can imagine Toshiro Mifune doing it in a Samurai film. This style of acting would sit well in a Kurosawa film due to its period and the Kabuki tradition. But when juxtaposed with Indian settings it feels out of place, wrenches you out of the film and might make you laugh. Thupparivaalan too suffers from a similar problem in several scenes. Of course this problem becomes unbearable when it’s coupled with incompetence of amateur actors whom Mysskin uses a lot. Again the only solution is for Mysskin to give up the director’s ego a little and work with sensible artists who add something to their roles and refuse to be mere puppets.

Haiku shots

In my article on Mysskin’s filmmaking tropes, I wrote about how he’s a big fan of the Japanese haiku and his films are a vast and complex web of cinematic haikus strung together. There was one such haiku moment in this film that I loved.

After Mallika and her accomplices complete the pickpocketing of a man, Mysskin shows us a close-up of his balding head with beads of sweat against the backdrop of a sea of people walking through the subway. Not only is the shot an emphatic full stop to the act of pickpocketing, but it gives you space to let your mind run amok. That single shot elevates the act of pickpocketing or any criminal act to the level of a cosmic ballet. Like Nature that stealthily steals hair from the heads of men and quietly pockets your youth as you walk through the tunnel of life everyday, are pickpockets too a force who loot stealthily? It leaves you wondering if thieves and criminals can be seen as a natural force, just like insects that suck nectar from flowers and fly away.

This is the thing I like about Mysskin films. Even in a not-so-good film you get at least one shot that you can take home and meditate upon.