Pa. Ranjith’s newest film “Natchathiram Nagargiradhu” (which translates to “A Star Shoots Across the Sky”) is about love, but is not a love story. The film is about caste, sexuality and gender; it is about the ways society interacts with and distorts love stories along frameworks of prejudice, as society seeks to uphold the harmful systems that define it.
A bold and ambitious film, “Natchathiram Nagargiradhu” endeavors to discuss these topics not through a tightly-woven plot nor heavy-handed moral aphorisms, but by immersing the audience deeply in the experiences of its characters: the members of a motley theater company. Their production of a love story ultimately becomes the narrative’s focal point, an unfolding story within a story.
But the movie doesn’t begin by introducing us to the theater company as a whole. Instead, it begins long before the production has begun, with a different story of love gone wrong.
We meet Rene, the film’s central protagonist, and Iniyan, her partner, as they leave each other. With one of the film’s characteristically abrupt tonal shifts, the scene moves from the two lovers cuddling to the upper-caste Iniyan disparaging Rene over her caste. Even in what appears to be a safe space with someone she trusts, Rene finds that society defines her by her caste, and these simmering tensions underlie the story as the two break apart.
Later that night, a shooting star captivates Rene. She wishes on it, and the camera pans upward toward the title screen.
The opening musical number subtly highlights the theater company’s closeness through casual intimacy. Rene and Iniyan appear once again as they reconnect with their fellow actors, distanced from one another by the lingering sting of their breakup. Arjun, the newcomer to the company and last of the three main characters to be introduced, finds himself confused and stranded by his bigotry in the midst of this diverse family.
The audience is immersed in his feelings of alienation; he, like Iniyan and Rene, is shaped strongly by his social identity. But unlike Rene, whose identity as a Dalit of the lowest social caste has subjected her to violence her entire life, he is deeply privileged and conservative. His prejudices manifest in overt misogynistic, homophobic and casteist statements during the company’s first group discussion, as well as his subtle discomfort with several members of the company, such as Sylvia, a transwoman.
As the movie progresses, members of the company clash as their experiences — shaped by their privileges and social identities — influence the conversations about love and politics they have with one another and the production they decide to put on. During one group discussion, Arjun spews casteist vitriol to explain caste-motivated honor killings, prompting another in the theater company to condemn Brahminical ideology as the cause of those murders. This infuriates Diana, an LGBTQ Brahmin who argues that this accusation completely excludes violence from middle-caste individuals.
But for every clash, there is another moment of harmony, as the members try to seek out and understand one another’s experiences.
“Our love was very organic,” the troupe’s director says of his marriage during another group discussion. He explains how after his conversion to Islam to resolve the inter-religious nature of his relationship with his wife, his family history — plainly, his caste — was “looked into.” “But others looked beyond that love. They needed more ‘reasons.’ They wove more stories … All those stories were reflecting society’s mindset. Let our play be about the stories that people weave.”
Thus, love becomes inherently political.
The film’s strengths lie in its artful depictions of the characters’ experiences and dynamics with one another. The audience is poised to ask themselves the same questions that characters ask one another. Even Rene, the film’s central character, is not a traditional protagonist; rather, she is the sun that the theater company revolves around, a lodestone to which Iniyan and Arjun are both drawn to and seek absolution in.
The film initially characterizes Rene through the lenses of other characters. First, through Iniyan’s reflections on their past relationship. This continues later on, as Arjun falls into unrequited love with her after beginning to unlearn his prejudices. In both cases, she is pursued with an immediate, almost starry-eyed infatuation.
But “Natchathiram Nagargiradhu” avoids the pitfall of reducing her to a manic pixie dream girl stereotype in the name of these infatuations. Arjun accuses Rene of feeling out of reach, saying, “When I see you from afar, I’m in awe. But when I get close …”
In a stunning animated sequence, Rene snaps up those ellipses. She recognizes his perception of her as a “broken mirror” and describes how she had to collect all of those shattered pieces to recreate herself amidst the casteist violence she faced her entire life from strangers, friends and lovers alike. She has to be bold, has to be unapologetically herself because she is her social identity as a Dalit. Unlike Arjun, she does not have the privilege of being humanized by society; she must reclaim her own right to live, because she does so on behalf of more than just herself.
Though the film primarily uses the theater company’s interactions to dissect casteism and honor killings, it also immerses the audience in the topics alongside the company through their preparation for their production. In one segment, the company listens to several individuals who have lost loved ones to caste-motivated honor killings. Interspersed with these accounts are clips of actual honor killings, further blurring the lines of the narrative and inviting the audience to follow along and reexamine their understandings of love and politics at the same time as the company itself.
The film engages the audience constantly, urging it to interact with the experiences presented, the topics discussed and the belief systems challenged throughout the story. However, the film is only able to do so as effectively as it does by utilizing subtext. It is a deeply atmospheric film; it mires itself in Tamil Nadu as a setting.
This regional context is crucial when viewing the film. During the accounts of the honor killings, it isn’t immediately apparent what the film is showing both the company and the audience. It is a slow-blooming horror that the audience feels, as the victims recount their experiences, as the clips are shown, as the haunting musical number “En Janame” (which translates to “My People”) is sung over shrines that act as graveyards.
But it is a horror that likely blooms slower in those with less background knowledge of the prominence of caste-motivated honor killings in the region, and slower still in those forced to rely solely on the English translated subtitles, thus missing various nuances of the language. Double meanings or connotations, namely, are frequently downplayed.
Despite the fact that the film requires more engagement from both a diasporic and international perspective — despite the fact that I, a member of the diaspora, may not be the film’s target audience — I felt that there was tremendous value in taking an active approach while watching the film. By seeking out clarification and engaging with the real-life discussions upon which the film develops, I was allowed crucial insight into issues that are by no means limited to the region the film is so closely tied to. These issues persist today — they persist in the liberal Iniyan’s stubborn hypocrisies, in the privileged Arjun’s oblivious prejudice and in diasporic communities. We have a responsibility not only to acknowledge these issues but to actively engage with them far beyond the scope of the film.
“Natchathiram Nagargiradhu” is about community — how it can oppress but also how it allows those from disparate backgrounds to connect with alternate perspectives. The film ends on a bittersweet note just as transient and just as hopeful as the shooting star it depicts. It shows that when we understand each other — when we recognize and uplift and fight for one another — we stand a shot at telling stories that have been silenced for far too long and perhaps one day creating a world in which those same stories can be rewritten.
“Natchathiram Nagargiradhu” is available to stream on Netflix.
TRIGGER WARNING LIST:
- Sexual harrassment [attempts at nonconsensual sexual contact]
- Graphic depictions of honor killings
- Physical violence
- Flashing sequences
- Threats of and attempts at suicide
- Graphic descriptions of violence
- Graphic descriptions of infanticide
- Brief homophobia, transphobia