(Recommend reading after watching the film)
One of the most heartwarming lines in the neo-noir Aaranya Kaandam from Thiagarajan Kumararaja arrives during the closing scenes of the film. Pasupathy asks Kodukkapuli a question. Is his father, a wastrel of a man, so dear to him? Kodukkapuli replies,”No, but he is my father”. The line hits you at warm and colder places like an arrow piercing flesh. The Kodukkapuli-Kaalayan story is not only the most entertaining thread of the film but also one that packs the maximum emotional heft. In Thiagarajan’s second film Super Deluxe there are several threads and these threads spawn their own threads. And every thread, as wicked as they are, carry an underlying sensitive layer similar to what we saw in Kodukkapuli’s. A father reinvents himself only for the son, like Kodukkapuli, to rediscover his father. Adolescence goes through several motions in the span of a day. A volatile marriage finds its feet amidst gruesome lows. A man questions his god while his son is forced to confront his mother. Humanity is reduced to dust and then rises like a phoenix to a newer, more beautiful form.
Who would have thought that after a gangster saga with blood, gore and nudity Thiagarajan Kumararaja would turn to something at the core of life and relationships. That isn’t to say there is no violence here. It is present in several other, more lurid forms. It is no wonder that the initial title for this film was Aneethi Kathaigal or Unjust Tales. Super Deluxe looks and feels like a polished B-movie, with moralities hanging on a loose thread, sometimes gently tapped with Thiagarajan’s lone finger and allowed to fall into the abyss. A son fighting for his life calls his mother in the most despicable way possible, a police officer sexually harasses a trans woman, relishing it as if his tongue reaches his cheekbones. Pornography turns into an eye-opening life lesson for a bunch of teenagers and an extramarital affair first turns violent then becomes cathartic. There are frames and sequences rarely ever seen in Tamil cinema, or even Indian cinema and never in something as loaded with star power as Super Deluxe is. The film also marks a return to one of Thiagarajan’s themes from Aaranya Kaandam – masculinity and how easily can it be punctured. Cuckolded Mugil, deluded and delinquent Dhanashekar and his son, a world unable to reconcile with a trans woman as a father figure.
Thiagarajan Kumararaja picks the choicest of places to position his camera. The camera is always in a closed space eavesdropping on the action outside. Like us, in a closed cinema hall watching these characters doing what they believe they are doing in secret. In private. He places it on the backseat of a car while two characters mull their situation outside. It is on the edge of a doorway tracking ants crawling up a wall as we witness an event in the household that’s doing the same to everyone’s skin. The camera sits on a table in a tiny room with a kid watching in darkness while all the action takes place on the road, in daylight, as characters run away from each other, auto rickshaw following auto rickshaw. This is a pattern, Super Deluxe moves like a relay race, a character hands over the reins of the screenplay to another and moves on, the film’s inspiration – Jafar Panahi’s The Circle – coming through. Thiagarajan’s long take moves through a claustrophobic flea market, giving the impression of a maze mirroring the psychology of the character. Two films old and Thiagarajan possesses a singular film grammar, his colours light up a day in Madras like nothing and no one has done before and a filmy graininess adds to the authenticity, not to mention the B-movie feel. The frames are busy with detail as are the lines and characters. It’s hard to tell how he achieves the effect but they look at once natural and painfully designed. Along with his familiar affectations – Bappi Lahiri and Ilaiyaraja, Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan (years have passed therefore A.R Rahman makes a fleeting appearance). A character, erstwhile christened Manickam is asked what he was doing in Bombay. There is Star Wars theme on nadaswaram that works like a charm while there are also charms that don’t have the same impact. The third act goes for batshit crazy turns in which some work, some don’t but the film is never less than enchanting, the unnecessary philosophical exposition notwithstanding. Super Deluxe also shares its universe with Aaranya Kaandam – a corrupt cop has a phone conversation with his counterpart – Mayilvaganam – from the earlier film.
Questions must rightly be raised about casting a cis male in the role of a trans woman. The trans woman character Shilpa is unlike the few we’ve seen in Tamil cinema. So far we’ve seen trans women characters (in honest, dignified portrayals) who play the friend, the supporting shoulder or at times the savior. Super Deluxe goes for something tiny bit revolutionary, the trans woman as a lapsed parent. And maybe this radical choice needed a familiar cushioning in the form of a star to make its point. Thankfully there are no red flags for the most part and Vijay Sethupathi’s thread comes off as the most poignant and tender stories in the vast world of Super Deluxe.