Saturday, June 01, 2019

How the dead stay alive in Super Deluxe and Jaane bhi do Yaaro

[From my column about movie moments for The Hindu]

The ambitious, energetic Tamil film Super Deluxe, directed by Thiagarajan Kumararaja, begins with the voices of two people over the opening credits: a married woman, Vaembu, and her ex-boyfriend are setting up a tryst on the phone. It’s a lively exchange, but one of these two will spend the bulk of the film very dead. The boyfriend, deeply stressed because of a financial tangle, dies during sex – precipitating a macabre but slapstick-y situation where Vaembu must try to hide his body before her husband Mugil gets home.

Later, when everything is out of the closet (or the refrigerator), the two of them try to figure out what to do with the corpse. And some of the film’s goofiest scenes centre on this dead body that becomes a bouncing board for the playing out of living people’s emotions.

As I wrote the above sentence, I deliberated for a second whether it should be “dead body who…” or “dead body that…” Vaembu and Mugil don’t face any such dilemmas. In one droll scene, where they have the body propped up in the back seat of their car, she uses the descriptors “it” and “this thing” – prompting Mugil to say: “Remember what you were doing with ‘this thing’ just a few hours ago?”

As it happens, Super Deluxe – which casts its philosophical net very wide, commenting on the nature of consciousness and self-perception across multiple narrative strands – contains other scenes where “it” is used for people (or creatures) who exist outside conventional human categories. The word is contemptuously directed at a transwoman named Shilpa (a wonderful performance by Vijay Sethupathi) who has just returned home after years, to the shock of her family; it is even, in one of the most delirious scenes, used for an actual extraterrestrial. This film has fun with the different implications of “alien”.

But stone-cold dead bodies are a whole other dimension of “it-ness”, especially when they have a full-fledged role to play in a narrative. In that car scene, when Mugil and Vaembu speak with each other in the front seat and the camera cuts between them, the framing never stops showing us the corpse in the back: a silent third participant in dark glasses, looking like a stoner. When Mugil is alone with the body, he directs a cuckold’s anguished monologue at “it”, asks “What have you got that I don’t have?” and is even on the verge of opening the dead man’s trousers to size-check.

The car scene reminded me of other dead bodies – or ghosts – in backseats, in films as diverse as Georges Franju’s great Eyes Without a Face (which opens with a murder victim being transported in a car, again sitting up as if alive), Konkona Sensharma’s A Death in the Gunj and the 1968 comedy Sadhu aur Shaitan. However, the scene also suggests that the dead can be used as blank slates, on which we can impose our own feelings or perspectives – not unlike the famous 1920s Kuleshov experiment where an expressionless actor’s face was intercut with different objects, resulting in viewers interpreting the expression to fit their own emotional responses. 

Of course, the most famous extended role for a dead body in an Indian film is in Jaane bhi do Yaaro, where Commissioner DeMello, having shuffled off his mortal coil halfway through the story, is then subjected to many indignities for the remainder. Satish Shah, who played the part, told me that in some scenes he arranged his expressions such that viewers could imagine what the corpse was “thinking” (looking fearful while standing high up near a theatre’s rafters, for example).

The dead DeMello also helps us understand or judge the behaviour of the other characters. Jaane bhi do Yaaro is known for its many eye-popping DeMello scenes: a coffin being mistaken for a sports car, the body traveling on roller skates and being dressed up as Draupadi onstage. But some things that didn’t make it to the final film are even more suggestive of the corpse as distorting mirror. In one scene that was never shot, the body ends up in a nursing home where the doctor gives it a complete check-up and avuncularly proclaims “Ghabraane ki koi baat nahin. You’ll be fine in two days.” In another, it is posed as a beggar with hands outstretched, and the film’s bad guys – all cut-throat mercenaries – stop to generously put coins in the bowl.

These scenes and others – even while operating within a framework of goofy humour – contribute to the film’s denouncement of social hypocrisies and professional ineptitude, and it takes a mute “it” to make them more effective. Much like the dead swain in Super Deluxe, playing buffer – or therapist? – to a married couple who have many issues to sort out.

[My earlier Hindu columns are here]

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