“In the dream that life is, here is man, who finds his truths and loses them on this mortal earth, in order to return through wars, cries, the folly of justice and love, in short through pain, toward that tranquil land where death itself is a happy silence.” – Albert Camus (1958)
I grew up with a father whose persevering preoccupation with creating cinema promptly situated us in some kind of transcendental dialogue with time and reality. The embodied coexistence of rationality and absurdity within him, taught me to navigate steadily through life’s contradictions at a very young age. I seamlessly lived between actual and representational worlds as my beloved Nana went about trying to make cinema. He was always in the process of making a film, he was always in the process of inventing a new life for us. The day he died, I had an endearing realisation of how my own path to self-actualisation was prolonged alongside his journey. With unpresumptuous grace, he had held my hands throughout the process of my becoming.
He had strong, ruddy hands and his fingers were rounded and blunt at the tips as though he had preemptively inhaled his real thoughts before they could harden into conspicuous keratin; as though he had inhaled his truth unto himself lest someone might see the forbidden chambers of nihilism. He often made fear-allaying gestures with his hands and smiled reassuringly, prodding people around to continue carrying on with the habit of living. I could not see his hands at his funeral. They were swathed along with other physically conjoined dead parts. A pallid roll of white cloth permanently bound his body to lifelessness. The visual vastness of his large, healthy palms as I remember them, gave me so much unrealised solace. His lower limbs below the knee-length lungi were also a sight of comfort. His proportionally-bent legs were indicative of his genes that made him walk long and far just like his immediate familial ancestors.
He walked plenty inside all our rental homes and through all our transient neighbourhoods in Madras. Walking was his preferred rhythm of survival as he perused his thoughts. Passing glimpses of his moving legs as he walked past rooms evinced not just his presence as a father at home, but that there was a thinking man dwelling in our midst. I watched my father tirelessly conduct his existential isolation with his physical and mental limbs, wrangling with the perplexing currents of society’s prescriptive pursuit of power, happiness and damnation. These words that follow will not make up for his full story. This article is the publicisation of a mourning ritual. This testimony is a brief witness statement from a daughter. This is only a page from the middle.
His huge fingers would generously part with his share of small pieces of mutton or sometimes shrimp. He gently threw them onto my plate as we went through our modest ‘non-vegetarian’ lunch provided by an ever-dependable Amma. She mostly avoided meat under the pretence of some devout stance just so the rest of us had enough. On these Sunday afternoons, I would finish my nap before others and dreamily wander into my father’s room to skim through books lying on his desk, and stoically read through heavy words from what looked like freshly-read pages marked with his illegible side-scribbles. Sometimes, I would fix my little self in front of the shelf to absorb words from book spines and pretend to be silently deliberating on my choice for an afternoon read. Until I was old enough to properly read novels, I mostly ended up on the floor near the bottom-most shelf where my favorite ‘picture books’ were usually placed. They were big, heavy photo albums made of withered cardboard papers and contained eye-catching old film stills from father’s cinematic creations.
They had photographs of a handful of films — those that had lived a popular life and other films that never saw fruition outside of film inaugurals (poojas) or promotional exhibits. As I turned the pages for the umpteenth time, I enjoyed how the images began screening as films even through their stillness. They told unfamiliar backstories about a time before I was born. Through this time-frozen material, I was able to connect the dots between the ‘recentness’ of my ‘afilmic’ personal history and my father’s pro-filmic past. The albums were carried through different houses as proof of a past that defined the origin of our family’s existence.
Very early into childhood, I was able to gather all the life-anchoring pieces of information. Aval Appadithaan was the most central unit of our lives, and its subsequent love story and the coming-together of my parents explained my arrival on the scene. There was only one collective goal governing all our domestic operations — another film was to be made by father. The making of ‘cinema’ became the dreamy goal of daily struggles. Sometimes, repetitive adjournments of ‘cinema’ would confuse me and I would cheaply wish myself to sleep, hoping that the morning will bring forth this film that everyone wanted so badly. It was supposed to monumentally change our lives. My father never gave up his dream, and my mother was his strongest believer, so ‘cinema’ never stopped forming in our houses. But growing up with a sloth-paced ‘cinema’ that was eternally due, dragged us out too long into an inescapable metaphysical relationship with the celluloid medium.
The day he died, cinema stopped forming for me. Along with him, this abstract being called cinema also died before its final conception. On November 18, 2014, I was standing on foreign land, estranged by time and distance and I felt the ground beneath me hallucinatingly shift. All previous lines of reference he had drawn for me were quickly erased by new fissures. I stood in sullen silence after I hung up the phone. I had just heard my brother weep and in the background I could hear death-delaying hospital machines announce my father’s passing through digital mono-sounds. I made a proverbial attempt to hold onto his leaving self. At that single, colossal moment my entire life streamed through in a fast-forwarded jumble and I realised that he was possibly my life’s only point of relation.
I wobbled through the deafening noise of my heart beat and I began a frantic mind-search. I waded through the familiar black and white images of a lone film’s history from the photo album. I scavenged through minimally-lit scenes and shadowy frames for at least a partial silhouette of my father. I carved deep into the film’s dialogues to recall his true story. I looked for man who casually turned his back on all arbitrary structures of reality. I was searching for the dissenter. I was searching for the outsider. I was searching for my archetype.
I was 7 years old or so, and I remember standing in the school assembly hall feeling shattered when a row of teachers seated behind the high desk of authority misidentified me as someone from the upper-most caste. I stood little and muted as they put down my name for a Carnatic music competition. I had not yet learnt to speak up. Since random circumstances of privileged benevolence were typically how my parents arranged my life, my enrolment in an elitist educational institution in Madras was also by happenstance, and even by the time I finished kindergarten I knew all too well about being alienated by exercises of hegemonic exclusivity. I returned home that evening anxiety-stricken with almost half-rotten insides. A warm blur of big, soft fingers reached out and wiped the tears off my face. A sweet tune filled the air as my father’s lips moved.
He picked up a thick-bound book of aged maroon from his library and began to read a poem, simultaneously annotating the lines with meaning and melody. He was my saviour who taught me to sing the cinematic rendition of Bharathiyar’s “Kaakai Siraginilae Nandhalala”. Not too long ago, he had told me that I didn’t have to worry about the veritability of god’s existence. And yet, on that day he taught me to appreciate music and poetry of the pious. That day he helped me contest my way out of a dreadful tomorrow. I search now in vain to hear again that soothing voice of my life’s default core.
His most notable mannerism was twirling his sturdy fingers between his palms in an uncanny wrapping motion, as he passionately went about spilling story concepts and commentaries about life and cinema. Chosen carefully and sometimes whimsically, the audience for his story-telling sessions ranged wide. There was, however, a core set of people who I would like to call his ‘believers’. Amma regularly had full access. Her handwritten notes of paper with Nana’s words warmly filled our different shelters. And of course, Guna, Kavi, Shiva, Chezhian, Mathi, Tilak and others, who were father’s ardent young associates and my avuncular fellow believers were also regulars. As time passed, I began to perceive all of us as equals because we seem to have had an unsaid acknowledgment of our belief in the images envisaged by father.
He imaged for us a glorious exposition of truth and living through a philosophical mode of narration. “Vaanga, polaam” he would say, to break these sessions, standing up to redo his veshti, pick up a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, as he led people away. I saw people follow him to terraces, to balconies and to open outdoor spaces. I saw people walk with him through changing times and new residential locales as he painted intricate canvases of human stories with his words. Although I was officially inducted into his audience quite late, my childhood was very much enacted out in this unique domestic mise-en-scène. Between my furtive entries and exits in the show, I caught glimpses of his audience swimming in words and images that streamed inside his room. As time passed, some of us ‘believers’, including myself, reluctantly moved on into the humdrum of life, cautiously relocating our faith in his proposed creations to a utopian realm. Once in a while we would inevitably break our weak stance and end up joining the remaining few who continued to be enlivened by his cinematic plans.
There were also duplicitous friends whom he magnanimously allowed to fleet through his life. They always looked animatedly evil to my young self as I watched my father fall into one trap after the other. These vicious-looking people gained entry into his room through their apparent monetary prowess and business ideas, but I remember their leaving faces rattled by a sense of envy after they had sat through one of his story sessions. This same perky, generous side to him also formed ad-hoc gangs of neighborhood chums wherever we lived. Security guards, car drivers, tea-shop acquaintances, auto-rickshaw drivers, ‘ironing’ men were all his people too.
He reveled in being able to deliver ideas to them. Even though he may have seemed slightly wayward about time and other adult responsibilities, I secretly loved catching him during these oratory performances near apartment gates, street corners or outside a potti kadai. His face contorted into blissful smiles and unfettered laughter, and his audience looked visibly drenched in this exuberant show of love for them. For some reason when they occasionally disappointed him, for almost a week he wouldn’t stop bemoaning the follies of the working class and how the masses have despicably failed Karl Marx, and carried on with other disgruntled communist rants. In the end, we were all his people with whom he not only shared stories but also freely shared his anxieties, joys and wisdom.
His general disposition was that of reticence and complete calm, in comparison to Amma’s gregarious self. He preferred not to be among crowds, but the few times when we had to be at a wedding or any other public space, his sacred state of pensive solitude glowed and remained untouched by the crowd. A serene smile rested on his face throughout the ordeal; my brother and I would stay by his side, watching people do their thing, and making him laugh now and then with our jocular jibes. He did have a characteristic, boisterous laughter that would break the domestic lull on some special days. From a different room, my ears would perk up to hear him say something like “vaa yaa”. It had to be Vannanilavan uncle, I would think; and I was right most of the time. His rare visits or phone calls revealed a very rare shade of happiness in my father.
More laughter than talk, Vannanilavan and his wife Chandra always brought out father’s youthful earnestness. His face wouldn’t stop beaming even after they had left. Old friends and nostalgia for the “good old days” always made him merry. Despite recurring conflicts between the two, Kamal (Haasan) was definitely another friend who could rekindle this shade of fierce happiness in Nana, reminiscent of a famed past that they shared. Interestingly, the only other person who was able to evoke father’s unrestrained laughter was Goundamani on television. I could see why Nana loved Goundamani’s deep, intelligent sarcasm and snappy criticisms of Tamil lives.
He was less interested in the world when he was by himself with books. His fingers coiled across his face into a ‘classic’ position — what I would call the ‘Rudraiah’ pose — as his little finger and thumb stretched to join under his chin, while the remaining three fingers rested on his cheek. The pose to me signified deep, cognitive travel. It was pleasant to throw my school bag to the floor, go to his room, intercept his brooding poise, and find my father ever present and ever ready to engage with me. He had peculiar reading habits — reading the same books over and over again, cross-referencing between too many books at the same time, and often reading criticisms rather than the original book.
He would read for inspiration, sometimes he would read to survive, at other times he would read to escape. It was obvious that his voluminous reading made him the most forgiving person I’ve ever known. Whatever knowledge he gathered, he kept all painful insights to himself and let everyone else live and play out their impatience and malice. There were also a staple set of books on Sartre, Bergman, Camus, Whitman and few American literature classics that never collected dust on his desk. But there was one special book that he referred so much that it could well be his life’s manifest. It was Colin Wilson’s The Outsider. He didn’t just read the book almost every day but I saw him write himself onto the pages, literally and figuratively.
For a man who vehemently refused to be mythologised, death inevitably led him to memoriality. The man and his film have now become one — memorialised into a single myth. The slew of obituary articles that were published in newspapers and magazines after his death in 2014 revealed the missing element of the ‘public’ in his later life. Suddenly, my mourning was no longer personal. (I still haven’t been able to properly respond to all who conveyed their condolences through their presence at the funeral or through emails, text messages or published articles. I want to utilise this space to thank everyone for their warm thoughts about Nana).
Posthumous analyses of the man projected everyone else’s dejection with Tamil cinema and their yearning for the ‘what-could-have-been’. Some authors painted the phenomenon of Rudraiah as a rebel’s tragedy, and agreeably so because conventionality dictates restricted readings of failure. He had to be placed in a tragic narrative so that his life (now that it has ended) becomes comprehensible to others.
He felt that time and again elite critics forced reductive analyses of his creative visions by labeling them as ‘offbeat’. The lack of commercial appeal for his homegrown worldliness was sometimes wrongly relegated to foreign art like that of French New Wave, and therefore deemed incompatible to Tamil society. It is not as if other directors in the Tamil film industry were not influenced by Godard or other international cinema icons. But, ‘difference’ in a capitalist landscape rarely gets sold as a commercial product unless it is outwardly branded and hyped as “different” from other items on sale.
For years, Tamil audiences have had their intellectual tastes manufactured by powerful agents of the establishment, more explicitly than in other southern States. Nana struggled throughout his life to break away from the tagging; he advocated for hybrid forms of cinema where people, through their choice of consumption, made their own references for various types of filmic pleasure. Through his films, he wanted to transcribe important human stories into very engaging and accessible visual texts. We not only stopped him from completing his works, we also did not allow him to gradually mature as a filmmaker. After Aval Appadithaan, which was his first film right after film school, when his natural creative surge was stalled by practical issues of finance and industry politics, his noncompliant responses may have been hasty but his instinct for self-preservation remained his greatest virtue till the end.
So, in many ways, Rudraiah’s story was displacedly told by popular media. As Chezhian uncle poignantly noted in his Tamil essay, Rudraiah’s failure was everyone’s failure too. In an alternate world of truths, he was a free-willed existential protagonist in the book of tragedy that played out as Tamil Nadu’s socio-political history. Much harm has been caused by the human tendency to classify and categorise, yet there is one categorisation that is so close to the edge of imagination, where categorisation does not mean anything; this group of people — self-outlawed by logic and rationalism — were the ‘outsiders’. In her foreword to the republished version of The Outsider in 1982, Marilyn Ferguson summarises Wilson’s description of the outsider.
The Outsider wants to cease to be an Outsider.
He wants to be integrated as a human being, achieving a fusion between mind and heart.
He seeks vivid sense of perception.
He wants to understand the soul and its workings. He wants to get beyond the trivial.
He wants to express himself so he can better understand himself. He sees a way out via intensity, extremes of experience.
Rudraiah was an outsider right in our midst. Non-conformity is a natural reflex for this celebrated literary prototype. My father shunned the artist label and in fact openly voiced his disgust for cinema. He rarely watched Tamil films in theatres; on the days he surprisingly did, he never stayed beyond intermission. He loved people, not cinema. He did not love the medium as much because of how it could derogatively influence people. For the outsider, the cinematic apparatus then opens up unimagined possibilities of relating to a meaningless life. Creative agency over such a powerful medium of communication offered him with a less deceptive state of being in the unending sea of nothingness.
So, when cinema was constantly being denied to him, when he was continuously obstructed from making his authorial impressions through visual language, when his own friends dislodged his career, he suffered too much pain. But he never showed signs of giving up; humiliation and hardship left him unscathed, and time really meant nothing to him. Colin Wilson’s comprehensive book can be surely read as an extensive commentary on an imaginary fictional book about my father, if it were ever written. I’d like to think he read about himself through Wilson’s volume of analyses of existential protagonists across literature. Every page I re-read now from that book, the words continually renew my perceptions of Rudraiah, my father.
I used to think that I had lost my father to the dream of cinema, but the day he died I realised that it was cancer and not cinema that killed him. He always persisted with his plans. He hinged upon different purposes and sources for motivation over the years. During the last leg of his dreamy pursuits, I am certain that he wanted to make a film only to provide closure to his life and thereby ease his own children’s developing existential anguish. We stepped on to the conventional pedestal of care-givers before he could get to it himself. We may have outdone him in the race to fulfill the quotidian responsibilities of a functional adult, but through his love, sacrifice and knowledge he gave us each durable intellects.
Aval Appadithaan determined a large part of his life. It also dictated all subsequent ripple-patterns endowed to Amma, my brother and me. One film’s existence deeply shaped the lives of four individuals. I am where I am now because of Aval Appadithaan. The film was not just a film. It became the superseding fictional basis for our realities. Aval Appadithaan was born before I did, and with another film, he personally wanted to complete his version of the story of Rudraiah for us. My father’s legacy obviously doesn’t rest with Aval Appdaithaan alone. It also entails tangible impressions he has left behind with all his people gathered along the way with and without cinema. I firmly believe his legacy needs no carrying forward. That today he has children who know him for who he really was will more than suffice. What my brother and I may or may not do with the film medium will only be cursory to his legacy. I see no better way of celebrating my father than bearing and sharing these truthful insights, especially when my brother and I are already his de facto achievements after all.
Through externalisation, we knead for ourselves a subjective form of complete existence. While we are ensnared by time to be someone, outside of time we are all nothing — neither alive nor dead. And in many ways only surrogate dreams are left to validate a life that was lived.
Let the outsider in each of us take courage from his indelible lived reality.
(This tribute to C. Rudraiah, the late director who passed away on November 18, 2014, is penned by his daughter Ganga)