If a spaceship landed some place in Tamil Nadu and aliens wandered into a theatre playing Super Deluxe, they would get a pretty accurate image of what passes for humanity in this part of the world these days. Thiagarajan Kumararaja, one of the four writers and the director of the film, creates a world full of real, flawed and morally ambiguous characters whose stories intersect only marginally, but in significant ways.
Much like his earlier film Aaranya Kaandam, in Super Deluxe too, Kumararaja narrates the stories of seemingly disparate groups of people who navigate difficult lives. Yet, the film transitions from one situation to another so seamlessly that it doesn’t even feel like parallel worlds. For instance, when Shilpa (played by Vijay Sethupathi) is introduced, everyone expecting her arrival freezes at the sight of her. Breaking this silence, we hear someone call out, “arputham…arputham…” (amazing.. amazing...). As this continues, we learn that it’s someone knocking on the doors of a character named Arputham (Mysskin) in another scene. Super Deluxe is full of such clever double-meanings that will delight cinema lovers.
In fact, I anticipate — half in fear and half in delight — that every dialogue from this film will soon be all over the internet’s meme-loving heart soon. Each line is loaded with meaning, applicable in various instances in several ways. Equally captivating is the staging of each sequence. For instance, there is a revolving door in Vaembu (Samantha) and Mugil’s (Fahadh Faasil) house that hides/reveals just as much as necessary to retain the cinematic tension. When the lives of the four young boys turn upside down after their failed assignment, we see it as it is — upside down.
The biggest strength of Super Deluxe, however, is the characters. In spite of the many interesting characters (and excellent actors) that share screen space, we understand and empathise with them. For instance, a teenage boy waiting for his friends to bring porn to watch warms himself up by watching a sensual duet from a 1980s Tamil film on TV. He sings along, passionately, with the male actor, pausing for the female portions to play in between. Fahadh’s Mugil has the tendency to break into ill-informed political discourse every time he’s stuck in a bad situation. Samantha’s Vaembu puts a knife to a young boy’s neck in a moment of weakness. After this she asks plaintively, “I didn’t know what to do. I was paralysed. So, I put the knife to the boy’s neck. You get the logic, don’t you?” We kinda do. We understand these characters not logically, but instinctively.
This intricacy in writing characters doesn’t stop with the main ones—there’s a boy who wouldn’t behave himself in a stranger’s house, an assistant to a fake-godman, a friend named Minnal who gets things done, a half-blind, almost-deaf old man, the porn-selling woman—Kumararaja packs so much into so little time that we walk away feeling like we know these people, even if we don’t really like all of them.
But the film doesn’t bother itself with the inanities of likes and dislikes, rights and wrongs. It is simply a commentary on the goings-on. In that commentary, the one thing that gets the most flak is the idea of a system. Super Deluxe rejects all established systems with a vengeance. Its utter disdain for law enforcement is embodied in Berlin, the sub-inspector who likes to call himself “meladhikaari” (senior officer). Without blaming Berlin alone as the embodiment of evil, Kumararaja presents law enforcement as an evil system of the powerful exploiting the powerless. In fact, the powerless constable is the only kind one.
So, in the world of Super Deluxe, all systems fail the powerless individual—society, religion, politics, patriarchy, education and healthcare are all held up to contemptuous scrutiny. Obviously, none of them pass. Yet, every time, the individual triumphs in spite of all systems failing her.
That is not to say that systems change. It is just to say that life goes on. When Leela (Ramya Krishnan), an erstwhile porn star, asks her son, “When lakhs of people watch porn, there will be four people to act in it. Why are the actors shunned, while the watchers are forgiven?”, it appears like an important statement. But almost immediately, her son and his friend call each other “thevidiya payale” (son of a whore) and laugh. In that sense, I wonder if this film is more Kino Eye than Kino Fist (Kumararaja’s production house is called Tyler Durden and Kino Fist).
But there is more to Super Deluxe than that meets the eye. The ambient sounds are as much a character as any of the human ones. Yuvan Shankar Raja does a rousing job with the background score, elevating every scene a notch, sometimes with sounds, sometimes with silence. The constant presence of the street-seller (whom we never once see), a nondescript machine running in the background, indistinct conversations at a distance while there is distinct silence in the foreground, a film within the film—Super Deluxe is full of auditory pleasures. But a mere ‘thank you’ card for Ilaiyaraja won’t suffice for the role his music has played in this film, each important scene playing out against the background of an immaculately chosen ‘situation-song’. It adds a touch of magic to every actor’s performance.
Samantha as Vaembu, the unhappy woman in an arranged marriage, delivers her career-best performance. Fahadh as her hen-pecked partner-in-crime, Mugil, is a delight Tamil cinema needs much more of. Ashwanth Ashokkumar as the innocent but wise Rasukutty is the closest thing to a cinematic miracle. The role of Arputham, the fake-godman in an existential crisis, couldn’t be more perfect for Mysskin. Kumararaja extracts performances from each of these actors that we didn’t even imagine they were capable of.
Yet, Sethupathy’s Shilpa has a rather discomfiting presence about her. It is not that Sethupathy doesn’t try, he perhaps tries too hard. But it appears as if the actor is somewhat distant from the character. More importantly, for a film that is all about the rejection of established norms, couldn’t Shilpa just have been played by a transwoman?
I had a similar discomfort with the unbearably long build-ups to sexual violence, one involving Berlin and Shilpa, and the other involving him and Vaembu. These moments are gratingly long, the tension building for ages as we watch the women plead for mercy from anyone who’d listen to them. In the scene with Berlin and Shilpa, there is even a break-away for a joke.
In spite of these shortcomings, Super Deluxe is a delicately intelligent commentary on modern life with such powerful writing and artful filmmaking. This journey is one you must not miss.