(Balaji Vembu Chelli’s Tamil film The Tremor/Nilanadukkam had its India premiere at Arthouse Asia Film Festival in Kolkata last week. Here is Aditya Shrikrishna’s review)
A journalist, a writer and a storyteller walk into a bar. They expect the earth to quake. By the sheer weight of their effort, investment and intention. Does it?
A journalist (Rajeev Anand) – unnamed – is informed of a massive earthquake in a village called Kookal near Kodaikanal and the higher-ups have asked him to cover it. He wants to be the first responder – from the media. He says it will be the massive break his career needs, well aware at the back of his mind that it might be at the cost of several lives, probably a whole village.
“Badhikkapatta edathuku epdi povudhu?” How do I reach the place that’s been affected? It’s a loaded question, framed in a way that is both desperate and telling of what the new Tamil film The Tremor/Nilanadukkam, the debut feature by Balaji Vembu Chelli is trying to achieve. It’s also self-serving. That’s the question the journalist poses to a villager as he tries to make his way to Kookal. The question and the task packs an inherent violence in itself. He is after a story that will give him great recognition. He will feel good about telling the stories of people oppressed by nature and by profiteers (he meets a real estate contractor who might be involved in illegally constructed buildings). We catch stray conversations, like laborers at the mercy of their boss. Or another video journalist who prides himself at having been the first on site – as always. The Tremor tries to get into the root of what the journalist, the media and a particular class of society indulges in, something far worse than savior complex. A place where good intentions are left to merge with moral decay. Where only incredible tragedy sells, not stories of triumph or splendor, not stories that celebrate different lives and cultures. Or what the government is doing or not doing for a forever neglected bunch of people.
The Tremor would not be the film it is without its formal precision. The direction and camerawork (Vedaraman Sankaran) help in creating a relentless atmosphere out of serpentine roads and dense mist of the Western Ghats (presumably). We spend a large part of the film in the journalist’s point of view from the driver’s seat of his car, the road and turns ahead along with the steep fall off the bottomless cliffs can give a heady vertigo. The experience inside a theatre would only add to this, in a good way. We are always moving ahead with him, chasing signs, chasing ghosts, chasing vehicles or following people’s directions and if I am not wrong, we never spot a vehicle coming in the opposite direction. He is only racing ahead. For Kookal. For that story, the story that would follow the word “Breaking” in every form of media for the next few days. There is also a sense of lethargy in his actions, something that translates from the way Balaji stages his scenes. Long before reaching the destination – that is supposed to be in ruins – a sense of calm exudes from him, the location and the screen, as if he has already cracked it, nothing can stop him from getting his big break.
The Tremor is further carried by Maarten Visser’s score and Vivek Anandan’s sound design – wailing cries and all – that adds to the eerie mood building, foregrounding the horror that is always present within arm’s reach but never comes to pass. The film needs little dialogue thanks to their work and it abides. So the few lines that are spoken carry more heft than usual. There is another line that gives away the journalist’s innermost purpose – a guest house manager tells him Kookal is far away and he can stay here and food is available too, which he won’t find even if he drives to the nearby town. The journalist replies, “prechhana adhu illa” (that’s not the problem now). It’s like the Stalker, the Professor and the Writer navigating the Zone to find the room not knowing what they really want in Tarkovsky’s film. Balaji crafts a controlled thriller in which your greatest horrors are right by your side. But the real horror hits you when the journalist flashes something that would remind you of a Hitchcockian moment.
A journalist, a storyteller and a writer walk into a bar. They leave, forever scarred. Or are they?