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In the wake of Tamil actor Vijay Sethupathi completing 11 years in the Tamil industry, India Currents celebrates his experimentative genius by reliving the star’s 25th movie — the highly underrated 2018 movie Seethakaathi.
Director Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Seethakaathi marks a milestone in the lead actor Vijay Sethupathi’s filmography. The man is unrecognizable as he plays the role of a septuagenarian character named Ayya Aadhimoolam. Ayya is a theatre actor who delivers slow, long monologues, so we don’t get to hear the actor’s trademark breathless diction. And for most of the movie, Ayya lives in photo frames, in hoardings, and in spirit. How is that for a surprise 25th outing?
That spirit makes its way into the body of a fellow actor in Ayya’s theatre group transforming the latter into a stunning performer. It remains a closely guarded secret initially, but becomes public knowledge soon, as Ayya suddenly becomes the most sought-after soul-behind-the-scenes. He wins awards, becomes a sensation amongst movie-goers, and filmmakers flock for his dates. It’s a part-amusing, part-satirical stretch, as we see Ayya gain everything he didn’t when was in flesh and blood. We are used to watching living characters on screen, and dreaming of our lives being as successful as theirs, but Balaji’s creative treatment of the subject here makes us want to have an after-life like Ayya’s. So what if we don’t have our wants and desires fulfilled yet, there may just be a thrilling after-life to look forward to!
In an odd way, the entire soul-entering-other-people’s lives conceit reminded me of Spike Jonze’s cult classic Being John Malkovich, where people find a portal to enter Malkovich’s mind. (How Jonze and writer Charlie Kaufman conceived the sequence where Malkovich enters his own mind is pure genius, and one that gives me goosebumps even today).
Seethakaathi isn’t as head-spinning as that one, as Balaji finds a balance to make the movie largely accessible to the mass audience. It is to his credit that the movie isn’t just an interesting experiment, but one that works on many levels. For the most part, it remains a neatly executed satire that holds a mirror to the times we live in. When Ayya dies, his news is barely seen on one tiny frame in a sea of screens, most of which carry entertainment shows and cricket feeds. And yet, later on, when the soul goes missing, it is suddenly the talk of the town. The media coverage and the ensuing frenzy resemble reality shows of today’s times. The movie is also a tribute to all art forms, not just theatre. When an actor cannot get Ayya to enter him and enact a seemingly easy scene even after numerous takes, we empathize with him, and appreciate the difficulty of the art form. We realize that theatre isn’t the only difficult place where an artist’s skill is tested.
In doing so, Balaji doesn’t belittle the medium of cinema, a plot trap most makers would have fallen into while showing the glory of a theatre stalwart’s greatness. There is also a quasi-real feel to Seethakaathi that makes us connect with it. When a leading filmmaker of yesteryears tells us that not having worked with Ayya was one of his biggest regrets in his life, we wonder if he may have been referring to any of the actors he actually didn’t get to direct in his real life. There is also a popular Chennai-based film critic of today who plays the role of himself in a talk-show debate about what Ayya’s soul is up to.
I only wondered if the soul had to meet the end the way it did eventually. Didn’t it deserve a grander exit rather than a forced, unceremonious escape from today’s troubling times? I must concede though that it isn’t easy to finish a movie dealing with the meta-physical that satisfies us from every perspective. As a character shows us while refusing to obey a judge’s order to “act” in a courtroom, there is something called free will in this world. Maybe Ayya’s soul can act on free will too.
If this is what we get for Balaji’s collaboration with the actor for his 25th, I cannot wait for the 50th.
Anuj Chakrapani loves cinema and believes movies, like other forms of art, are open to interpretation. And when you begin to interpret, you realize that the parts are more than the sum. Adopting a deconstructionist approach, he tries not to rate movies as “good” or “bad”, instead choosing to capture what he carries away from watching them. Anuj lives in the SF Bay Area and works for a large technology company.