Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Bhagavathi Perumal, Rajkumar
Director: Balaji Tharaneetharan
Actor Vijay Sethupathi's latest outing, Seethakathi, is a punchy commentary on the decline of Tamil theatre. Although Chennai and other cities and towns in Tamil Nadu do boast of several theatre groups, their production values and patronage have been sliding. And Seethakathi emphasises this, and we see a happy Sethupathi as Aadhimoolam playing many characters, mostly culled from the pages of history and mythology, gradually getting disappointed with and distressed over empty halls. As he ages into his seventies, the sorrow of seeing his passion and love going abegging for audiences pulls him down, and he dies during a performance – at the end of just 40 minutes of the film's 176-minute runtime. But in that brief appearance, Sethupathi sparkles through a variety of characters, and as he grows older, he essays men like Aurangzeb. A wonderfully long single take here of the emperor's last days.
In a way, Seethakathi is also a parody of how Tamil theatre has influenced Tamil cinema. We all remember how Sivaji Ganesan, for instance, refused to give up his loud mannerisms that were reminiscent of his days on stage – or the influence it had on his style of acting. In fact, Indian cinema itself was, for a long time, stagy. For unlike in the West, where cinema grew out of photography, movies in India emerged from folk plays, like jaatra and therukkoothu among others forms.
There is scene in Seethakathi that proves this with hilarity. One sees how a film director, Sundar (Bagavathy Perumal), gets exasperated and even desperate trying to get his lead actor, Saravanan (Raj Kumar), play out a part in a park in which he is supposed to display various emotions like surprise, love, etc. Saravanan who had been picked up from a theatre production just cannot get his expressions right – invariably overdoing the whole thing. A bane of Indian cinema even today, where actors seldom use their faces or eyes to emote.
Unfortunately, Seethakathi, despite its riveting plot line, begins to meander once Sethupathi disappears, and with scenes that are boringly long and overly melodramatic, the movie struggles to hold our attention.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic)