SHAJI KARUN, the acclaimed Malayalam filmmaker, had just received one of France’s most respected awards, le Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters). Asked in a December 2009 interview to Open magazine what he thought of contemporary South Indian cinema, he said, “Watch out for Tamil films. They are easily some of the most original and vibrant in India, perhaps the world.” Karun was hoping to startle cinephiles, trying to draw the attention of our huge and varied movie-going public to a new kind of Indian cinema, one that was different not just from Bollywood but even from the independent multiplex Hindi film. And what he had in mind, I’m sure, was a film like Naan Kadavul—or any of the other dozen Tamil films from the last couple of years.
I saw Naan Kadavul last February and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. There’s nothing quite like it in Indian cinema. Its director, Bala, is known to surprise with every new offering (his last film Pithamagan was about a band of outsiders—a graveyard caretaker, a ganja seller and a conman—and the unusual friendship they forge) and I was prepared for something different, but not what I saw.
I’ve seen the film a few times now, and with each new viewing it grows more fascinating. It’s a difficult film to write about, defying synopsis and explanation. Naan Kadavul brings two very strange worlds together: The netherworld of the aghori (members of a Hindu sect who live at cremation grounds, eat dead flesh, meditate on corpses and beg with bowls made from human skulls) and the hidden world of maimed beggars. You’d think the result would be bizarre and sentimental but it bursts with wit, energy, unique characters, striking scenes, uncanny casting (non-actors who outshine professional ones), real emotions, darkness and light.