Traditionally, classical Tamil poetry (= literature) of the Sangam era (100 B.C. — 250 A.D.) is divided into akam (inner) poems and puram (outer) poems. As A. K. Ramanujan explained in Poems Of Love and War:
Akam poems were love poems; puram poems were poems on war, kings, death, etc. The two types of poems had differing properties. Three hundred and seven poets composed only the former, 89 only the latter, though 77 poets, including five of the greatest, wrote both kinds of poems.
This emphasis on the interior has continued in modern times. For the most part, Tamil movies revolve around the family, the quintessential inner place. The workplace–like other public places– is not of particular importance. Characters have jobs but are rarely shown doing them. Friends play an important role in Tamil movies, but not colleagues. In fact, the recent spate of movies about friends and friendship (Aasaiyil Oru Kaditham, 7/G – Rainbow Colony, Manododu Mazhaikalam, Paarthen Raasithen, Friends, etc.) represent an interesting new trend. Characters in these movies break often out into long paeans on friendship while family members stand around looking crestfallen. Tamil movies have begun to tell stories set in a larger world. The science-fiction movie E is a brilliant exemplar.
Its protagonist, Easwaran (‘E’), played by Jeeva, is an orphan. Though he has a "grandma", their relationship is based on love, gratitude and choice, not kinship or duty. E’s basically a hustler, a matchstick man, a would-be thug on the make. The first part of the movie spends quite some time showing him at work. Accompanied by his friend, Tony (Karunas), he hustles for political candidates, sets up cons, works in the mortuary, replaces street bulbs, is willing to throw acid on faces for a price, and endures nothing-personal beatings at the hands of overweight, mustachioed cops. In a fight scene, when he happens to throw a villain onto a call phone, E makes sure to quickly pocket the resulting fall-out of coins. In the dance bar, he pockets stray notes thrown at "his" girl Jyoti (Nayantara). He soberly advises her to do the "special dance" for a client who’s willing to pay 20,000 Rs. As he points out, he’s only asking her to do what he would’ve done, had he been a fair and beautiful girl.
The movie is all about the outside world. There’s not a single scene set in E’s house. Indeed, it’s not clear he has a house. He lives in one of Chennai’s slums. This dank, sweaty, gray dystopia (the camera work is by N. K. Ekambaram, editing by V. T. Vijayan) is a world of cramped streets, stray film tunes, yellow rickshaws, the underside of flyovers, dark Dravidians and bad teeth. The volume is one bar too high and everything is too malaria. And yet, the people seem happy. The ability to depict a happy dystopia is one of Indian film’s achievements; there is none of that edgy, hostile perversion one sees in movies like Sin City or Blade Runner (these are wonderful movies, but their dystopias are styles, not places). In E’s world, necessity is the only true evil and the movie’s humans squeeze around each other– sometimes helping, sometimes hurting– in recognition of this simple fact.
I have mentioned E is a science-fiction movie. It is, nominally. There is a mad-doctor, Dr. Ramakrishnan (Ashish Vidyarthi), who carefully files his mad-doctor plans in a folder called "Bio-War" (on a Sony VAIO, I must add). Vidyarthi’s the kind of Tamil actor who could play a bowl of breakfast cereal and make it look pure evil; in this movie he gets to run riot. His bio-war plan consists of using Chennai’s poor as Petri dishes. He’s not trying to find a cure; he is trying to find a profitable sickness. The plan, apparently, is to use these brown bodies to test the potency of designer viruses. He happens to pick E’s grandma as a test subject, which in retrospect turns out to be a bad idea.
There’s a secondary protagonist in E, a didactic "terrorist" called Nallai Mani (Pasupathy) who knows what the doctor’s up to and tries to enlist E’s help. E, of course, plays along, intending to hand him over to the mad doctor in exchange for less-chatty bundles of cash. At first, I thought the terrorist was a pointless addition, but changed my mind after a remarkable scene in which Nellai Mani explains to E how mirrors work.
E is a subversive movie. Science fiction movies, by which I mean American SF movies, are rarely subversive. E‘s sinister message is that terrorism too has its exculpatory circumstances. Towards the end, the protagonist E is forced to make to a certain irreversible decision. It is this decision that makes E a truly remarkable movie. There are no cop-outs. In a sense, the movie is both akam and puram. It is about the world this world. But as Nellai Mani points out, this world is our family. The distinction between akam and puram is a matter of choice, perhaps even an illusion.
Watch the movie, yaar.