West indian literature

Vetri Maaran: A vital link between Tamil cinema and literature

Tamil filmmakers have rarely recognized the untapped potential of Tamil literature. The argument that Tamil cinema is too “masala” to borrow from literature does not hold water because Tamil literature does not only have “serious” and “profound” books. It has a huge repository of pulp fiction. For every intense work like Puyalilae Oru Thoni by Pa Singaram, there is a captivating page-turner like Ratham Orae Niram by Sujatha or Kaatrin Niram Karuppu by Rajkumar. So, it’s mind-boggling that stars complain about the lack of good stories from filmmakers.

However, new Tamil adaptations are not entirely non-existent. 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 notable examples. Yet these are just flashes in the pan. A sustained trend of film adaptations has not occurred in contemporary Tamil cinema. But filmmaker Vetri Maaran seems to give some hope.

The national award-winning filmmaker has so far directed five feature films two of which are adaptations of Tamil novels. His next films Viduthalai and Vaadivasal are also based on Tamil literary works, making Vetri Maaran a vital link between Tamil literature and cinema. Not only that, he also deciphered the formula of using serious literature to make commercial films.

Literature and Vetri Maaran

The relationship between literature and Vetri Maaran should have started very early in his childhood as his mother Megala Chitravel is a renowned Tamil novelist. Besides that, the director also studied English Literature at Loyola College, Chennai. When he wanted to work with his mentor, the prolific filmmaker Balu Mahendra, it was his knowledge of literature that helped him seize 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 role of assistant director. Although only his third film, Visaaranai (domestic award-winning film and official Indian entry to the 89th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film) turned out to be his first adaptation, it can be seen that his date with written words was integral of his journey.

Growing Literature

One of the criticisms against Asuran, the film adaptation of Poomani’s Vekkai (Heat) by Vetri Maaran, is that the story was commercialized 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’ touch to Poomani’s novel, which turned the layered novel into a story about an outsider.

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 Vadakooran man to avenge the murder of his older brother. As father and son spend about eight days in the forest hiding, the story of oppression and caste politics unfolds. The novel is devoid of heroism and is about ordinary 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’. Moreover, Dhanush’s Sivasamy is an entirely different person than we find in Poomani’s book. Also, the entire backstory of Sivasamy, which portrays him as a rebellious young man, is missing from the novel. This made Dhanush’s Sivasamy a familiar trope in mainstream cinema – a man with a violent past. This vital change made the film accessible to all audiences.

However, Vetri Maaran’s reviews are not wrong either. A faithful remake of the movie aided by Vetri’s brilliant cinematic language would have made for much better cinema, but that would have been a gamble when it came to the film’s business side. Vetri Maaran’s attempts should only be seen as a small step in the right direction.

Upcoming Challenges with Vaadivasal

I can’t wait to see what he will do with CS Chellapa’s novel Vaadivasal. The story of the novel does not have enough meat for a typical Tamil feature film as it is just a story of events happening in one day during a Jallikattu event. A guy named Picchi arrives in a nearby village for the jallikattu event. He wants to tame the creepy bull named Kaari, who killed Picchi’s father years ago. That’s all there is to the news story. Still, it stands as a brilliant piece of literature for its dialect and portrayal of caste politics in the sport of jallikattu. It would make up for a great cinema if Vetri Maaran faithfully recreates everything on screen.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if the director opts for an entire flashback part for Picchi’s father (reports already suggest Suriya is playing a dual role in the film). Despite commercialization, such adaptations continue to support the importance of literature. I mean without the film adaptations, the general public would have remained ignorant of these literary gems.

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