Monday 17th June 2024
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How long is that film?

One of the biggest breakthroughs ever made in Tamil cinema was achieved by Unnai Pol Oruvan (UPO). Besides the crisp storyline, tight screenplay and the absence of songs, UPO broke another spell in which Tamil cinema had always been bound to…duration.
There was a time when Tamil movies ran for four hours. I vividly remember watching Sampoorna Ramayanam in the early 80s in a cinema in Trichy, South India. The show started at 2 pm and finished at 6 pm, with two intermissions. At the end it was a grueling travel through time, and when it was all over, the audience that walked out looked battered, abused and clueless.
As years rolled on, Tamil movies became shorter, but I can’t remember any movie breaking the two-hour barrier. Now and then, we do get movies that remind us of the bygone era, one example being Kanthasamy which ran for 195 minutes. It was a true test of patience trying to endure a high-flying, Matrix-like chicken. When it was over, I had lost my appetite for chicken and stayed a vegetarian for the next few days.
The issue here is not that Tamil film-makers are unable to tell a story within two hours. Chakri Toleti (the UPO director) could, bearing in mind that it was indeed a scene by scene remake of the Hindi film of the same duration, A Wednesday, directed by Neeraj Pandey. The problem lies with the add-ons that drag movies to crazy lengths. Songs, comedy tracks and fight sequences take up quality airtime and usually do not add value to the story; most often impeding the flow of the storyline.
UPO proved one thing so emphatically. A compelling theme backed up by skilled technical wizardry and powerhouse performances can win. The success of UPO at the box office simply proves that 100 minutes was more than sufficient to draw viewers.
In fact, the duration of Tamil movies has become a subject of many a joke. Stand-up comedians thrive on this subject. One of Canada’s top comedians, Russel Peters, a Canadian-born Indian, once joked that if a Tamil movie were to be screened on a flight from London, the plane would have to, after 13 hours, circle the Singapore airspace five times before it lands, because there were two more songs and a fight sequence to go.
There is also another school of thought that viewers wouldn’t mind sitting for 3 hours if the movie is able to sustain their interest. Dasavatharam proved that. A wafer thin storyline presented with a racy screenplay, and above all Kamal’s performance kept the cash registers ringing. But the question is how many movies made on the same premise would be able to achieve that?
The bottom line is UPO has set a new benchmark on duration. Just 7 minutes short of the pre-intermission length of Dasavatharam, UPO has proven that it is not a law etched on stone that a movie must be lengthy. Tamil cinema has to come out of the box and begin to seriously consider shorter movies. It would do no harm to do away with songs and separate comedy tracks. But something tells me that those with the grit to do so remain few, so very few.
As for me, I dread the thought of watching a Super Chicken ala Kanthaswamy, for another 195 minutes.
Words: Joseph David ©