Forgotten Classics-RAJAPAARVAI & GUNA

 

Nayagan,Thevar Magan, Mahanadi, Anbe Sivam are some of the movies which come to our minds when making connoisseur statements to a friend wearing Forrest Gump or Shawshank Redemption as a badge of honour on a lackadaisical Saturday night one upmanship, ensconced in the Kamal Hasan hall of fame. The realm of cinema is no exception to the adage-” While success as flawed as it is, has got many fathers.Failure as opulent as it may be, more often than not is an orphan”


This piece is about  his relatively underrated masterpieces-RajaPaarvai & Guna, which despite featuring in the sanctum sanctorum of many a movie lover’s collection including me for posterity, failed at the box office and went on to be inundated in the shadow of popular cinema in the coming years. 


RAJAPAARVAI:

Right from the oxymoronic title which translates to “Royal Vision” for a story about a blind man, this movie is as audacious as endearing classics get. This 100th film of Hasan that also marked his directorial debut is a story of a blind violinist played inimitably by Hasan himself who sees the world pompously, perched in the throne of his mind’s eye, hence the title.

This movie is a sort of an antithesis of the usual tropes of a disability movie, right from the gratuitous sympathetic-romantic angle, vulnerable protaganist and a melancholic finale intended at leaving a lump in the throat of the viewer.

Here, the protaganist is infact a narcissistic-brat, who’s made a daily routine out of intimidating naive people trying to lend him a helping hand,with his self assured-brash candour. To him, his self respect is the crutch he latches on to walk equally among normal men and gratuitous sympathy bestowed upon notwithstanding the genuinity, is the blindness that reminds him about his disability. The way he effortlessly wears his blindness like a crumpled shirt, is by far one of the coolest perspectives of the condition.

The movie is about how he ends up falling in love with a woman, who deconstructs his fortress of inaccessibility built upon misconceptions and insecurities, brick by brick while awakening to her own self discovery in the process of being his eyes.



GUNA:

This movie is about a senile man’s mission towards his soulmate-Abirami,a namesake from folklore of his formative years.Raised by a mother, a prostitute in the backdrop of rampant fleshtrade, Guna believes Abirami to be his route to salvation. Shuttling between an asylum and the custodianship of his maternal uncle who uses him for small thefts, he finally happens to come across his Abirami in an affluent girl while in a temple as a part of a heist. The divine trance he breaks into at her first sight, is put across in one of the most poetic cinematic depictions, with acting in it’s most unadulterated form punctuated to the mellifluous composition of Ilaiyaraja.

The next time he bumps into her, he kidnaps her to a dilapidated mansion on the top of  a relatively virgin part of a hilltop. From here on, the movie unfolds from the girl’s perspective with her being wary of his delusional ways at the outset, to go on to endear the obsessive love from the hooligan, an amenity that had eluded her affluence till then. 

In this set up, with mountains, wild vegetation and five sensed creatures for company, she reciprocates his primal love, with every layer of her sophistication peeling away to make her revel in the same pedestal as him, her maverick soulmate with brain of an eight year old.    
There’s this beautiful sequence in the movie before the finale, where Guna wants to write a letter to his love, Abirami but is an illiterate who can’t write. So he dictates this letter addressed to her, to her to write. This leads to the evergreen song-Kanmani Anbodu , which she sets to tune while writing to herself as dictated by him.In the end, with the ground below their relation shrinking with every passing moment with challenges galore, they jump off the cliff , to eternally be united at a place, elsewhere.





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Papanasam- A master at work

Drishyam was a rare piece of cinema. It blended art and commerce; without having to  lay either on the altar of sacrifice towards upholding another. It was one of those movies that made the audience feel smarter from the edge of their seats, while unknotting to the bedrock of the mystery scene after scene. Thing with visceral genre of movies is that, while they tend to engage; seldom do we empathise with the plight of a protagonist.It is in this very aspect that, Drishyam is exclusive.
It stirs a storm and throws a family in its eye. Their survival through this tumultuous phase is designed like a game of chess, with a simpleton deploying a maze of deception to lead astray the legal system.
Drishyam was a memorable movie not just in Kerala, but throughout the south. The movie not only ran for months together in these parts, but triggered spontaneous remakes in every South Indian language. So when the news of the tamil remake starring Kamal Haasan broke; it was a mouth watering proposition for every fan of his; more importantly every fan of cinema.
The original starred Mohanlal as the protagonist-Georgekutty, a movie smitten-cable TV operator who bails his family our of a murder they had committed, scot free.What made things interesting was not just the prospects of seeing one doyen interpret a role made immortal by another; but the fact that Drishyam was a watertight plot driven movie with modest room for its hero to expand. It was always the plot above the characters, who dissolved in the flow of its narrative. There’s always been this accusation about  Kamal movies by some naysayers, , that his performance at times tend to hijack the movie while propelling it ahead; notwithstanding the peaches that they were.

So Kamal reprising the cable operator as Suyambulingam was not just a tight rope walk, but shone a light on the ability of a giant to bend down at the threshold of a glorious piece of art; to beautify it without looming large over it. Papanasam was a special movie also for the fact that, it brought to fore Kamal-the actor alone without the accoutrements that generally make his movies an exhibition of his versatility,at times reducing the director’s to a vestigial designation.
Last time this happened,we got Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu-a movie that didn’t warrant a thinking hat to appreciate the underlying subtexts. It was resultantly a very popular movie with the masses,reiterating the huge star that he was.

Papanasam easily got to rate among his most consequentials efforts, for carving a niche for itself as a masterpiece; despite staying honest to the original alongside classics like Kurudhipunal and Satya. Kamal’s Suyambulingam is an endearing man with a gift of the gab; speaking in a mellifluous Tirunelveli dialect(which aurally resembled a symphony composed in bullets) while not being smitten by movies. His portrayal was faced mostly with the same conflicts as Lal’s Georgekutty, yet had its own magic;managing to decorate without diluting.

This role was that of a small-towner’s, with a simplistic outlook towards life. Unlike Haasan’s earlier ventures, this jurisdiction wouldn’t let him wax eloquently in chaste english about abstract aspects of communism and his long lasting adherence to atheism- the meta movie aspects of a quintessential Kamal movie.
Suyambulingam is a man, who flaunts his agrarian roots with the length of the earthworms wriggling beneath his feet. Unlike the actor’s previous outing, where his real life persona often percolated into his reel life manifestations-even if seamlessly so-this one was diametrically opposite.
He wasn’t the compulsive global citizen that we’re used to seeing him play so often, with a fine blend of altruism and sarcasm. On the contrary here was a man-whose life revolved around his adorable family-to protect which he would go to any extent.(Even if it meant tripping to the other end of law).
The movie neither had a grand ambition about defusing a bioweapon or outsmarting a militant outfit; instead it had a family based out of a small town making conversations about a long pending trip to the city over breakfast and a miserly dad who hoped to pay for his daughter’s expensive excursion on a prorata basis.

While the average actor makes you appreciate his acting like an anxious kid performing a skit on the lookout for applause, a master makes you identify with his character’s plight through his acting. Haasan effortlessly is the latter.

His Suyambulingam is a vulnerable man. Vulnerable by his situation, not by ability. A trait you witness so often through the twinkle in his eye-as he deceives his way out of every investigative procedure. There’s a look of fluid contentment in his face- forged out of dexterity and relief- every time the investigation buys into his carefully crafted red herrings.
It is sheer bliss to watch the thespian essay an author backed role with such aplomb after a long time. He just doesn’t flesh out his character beyond the prosaic; but makes him a jolly good fellow with his own little charm, be it the way he gets heady while watching an erotic song or the fashion in which he cajoles his wife to bed-with a liberal dose of talc and innocence.

Papanasam is stroke of genius even if deconstructed to minute details forming its frills. Like the way it is bookended by the shot of Suyambulingam’s eyes-metaphorical of watching things unravel through his eyes; almost poetic given the fact that the movie deals with the deception he creates.

Kabali- A “what-went-wrong” deconstruction

Now that Kabali is out in the theatres and the fracas around it has settled down, people have started talking beyond the gargantuan hype surrounding the movie; and the feeling seems to largely be mixed- bordering from bafflement to disappointment. And a handful of the die-hard fans of Rajni seem to crying out foul, at the not-so-flattering air inundating the movie.
A marketing blitzkrieg carved out of planes plastered with Rajni’s face and silver coins forged with his impressions, can only go as far as kindling the curiosity of the hoi polloi, to check out the movie over its opening weekend. What transpires in the dark of the theatre, as the movie starts to interact with its audience is far removed from the hype held in the painted plane; that handheld them into the theatre in a frantic spell. The final taste that the chocolate leaves in the mouth is completely independent of the celebrity in the advertisement and the expensive foil wrapping it.

Honest marketing campaigns as they come, achieve the middle ground between preserving the true core of a product, while attempting to augment its reach. When the product rolls out, they manage to create a positive synergy to firm up its equity. This is probably where Kabali seems to have slipped.

Marketing is not an elaborate artifice, but a propaganda with a fiduciary angle to ensure an honest positioning of an underlying product. Hollywood employs this to great effect. Take for instance the case of Robert Downey Jr, easily the biggest star of this generation. The marketing campaign for a simple little movie starring him called, The Judge was diametrically different from the scale and tone of his Avengers movie. It was positioned as an emotional- court drama with a personal conflict at its heart. When it released the audience  didn’t feel deceived, as it catered to the niche it was made for who exactly knew what to expect from it. Imagine their plight had they gone in expecting an Ironman kind of a movie, to only find a vulnerable Downey Jr( sans his Tony Stark quirks) reconcile with a grumpy father in the backdrop of a lackadaisical small town.
Coming back to Kabali, going by the two teasers that went viral  to the numerous promotional initiatives creating the endless halo around the movie, one thing was clear. They were loudly reiterating the movie to be a quintessential Rajni fare with celebratory accoutrement on the lines of a Basha or a Annamalai. There was not an inkling about it being otherwise, as the color and scope fashioning the imagination of the prospective ticket buyer were far removed from an experimental movie that was not run of the mill.

About the countless memes doing rounds about feeling let down by Rajni not playing his larger than life self, that firmed his stratospheric stature. We go to a circus that touts the jumping through the flaming hoops by its exotic tiger as its flagship act. Suddenly the tiger wants to juggle like the monkey, much to the crowd’s bafflement. The attempt as noble as it is, wouldn’t sugarcoat the collective disappointment of the audience that had paid to watch the tiger’s deft defiance through the rings of danger.

Evaluation of a movie from the standpoint of the income and expenses of its producer isn’t an organic assessment of the taste it leaves, lingering in the minds of the audience as they step out of the theatre. For movie making is an art form that thrives beyond the jurisdiction of commerce, the flourish of which doesn’t depend on the coffer of the investors alone.
Kabali to me is an overpriced cola without its fizz, the fizz people were conned into paying for in hordes. I would anytime suggest a helping of Annamalai over the trivia of a painted plane carrying wealthy people masquerading as Thalaivar fans to an uninitiated person; to understand the aura of the phenomenon called Rajinikanth.

Kabali and Uttama Villain- the similarities that we overlooked

Cinema at a surface level is an ostensibly exciting medium that promises to manipulate your imagination for the price of a ticket and the duration of the movie. While most movies leave our minds as we peel away from the seats once the lights come on, few remain to intrigue. Sometimes some of such attempts are made of the fabric that wove another special attempt. Some might be surreptitious spin-offs with gratuitous level alterations to appear unique, while some might be loud-announced inspirations at the outset.

Dissimilar looking things with a little more deconstruction might turn out chalk and chalk, while things appearing identical at the surface level might actually be chalk and cheese beyond the initial deception.

Last week saw the release of the Rajinikanth starrer Kabali amidst much fanfare. But it was surprisingly not a typical Rajini escapist fare, which instead resulted in a lot of debates and observations of subtexts and symbolisms that were overlooked; something that usually happens after the release of every Kamal movie.In introspection, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between Kabali and Kamal Haasan’s Uttama Villain that released last year. This piece is my attempt at deconstructing the similarities between both the films.

The Imprisonment-Metaphor and Literal

If Kamal’s Manoranjan was imprisoned in his fame, Rajini’s Kabali is in a facility. Uttama Villain starts with a star who is trapped in a prison of his popularity, too comfortable to notice the mediocre that it has turned him into. Kabali opens with an elderly gangster who has been framed into imprisonment for 25 years now, who in the evening of his life doesn’t have anything to look forward to, beyond the walls of the prison.
It takes the knowledge of a life ending cancer to shake up Manoranjan out of his self imposed imprisonment, while it takes a joint motion of compassion by a bunch of Malaysian diplomats to end Kabali’s term.

The Surprise daughter and the Foster father

In UV, a doctor walks into the life of the protagonist to shine light on a blind spot from a plaintive chapter of his life, an unrequited romance. Mano gets to know about his biological daughter through him, a love child he had hoped to have in the past. With the knowledge of his imminent death comes another surprise of as much gravitas, a relation to yearn for with the little time left.
Kabali sets on a manhunt to take down the men behind the murder of his beloved wife, who was pregnant.  As he narrows in on another suspected scumbag running a brothel to take down, neither does he expect him to be a foster parent;  leave alone to his own daughter,  who he had assumed to have perished along with his pregnant wife years ago. Moments later in a crossfire, the revelation of his life stands personified in his daughter spraying bullets all over the room to save his ass.

The Artifice-Theyyam and Meta movie & Gangster plot and Malaysian Tamil rhetoric

Knowing that his days are numbered,Manoranjan wants to make a memorable movie, that would embalm him in the minds of the people long after his time. He chooses to make an existentialist comedy of errors about an “immortal” theyyam artist who manages to prevail over death, ironical to his reality.
Kabali takes it upon himself to be the voice and at times, fist of the marginalised tamil demography of Malaysia. He swears to bring down the empire of his ideological opponents in a gang that goes by the name of “43”(in dragon font), while running a rehabilitation facility for tamil people in the front end.
UV had a solid core in the self discovery of its dying protagonist and how he unites with his estranged family, that was diluted by the parallel narrative involving the meta movie that was neither funny nor poignant enough to be taken seriously.
Likewise Kabali too has a wonderful premise in the emotional journey of an old gangster who brings back his scattered family together, the impact of which was watered down by the montages of Tamil revolution and the excessive caste rhetorics that neither caused a stir nor organically gelled with the narrative.

The Reunion, Redemption and Departure

By the time UV draws to its end, Manoranjan manages to win his estranged daughter’s love, reconcile with his indifferent family and most importantly finds peace within, at the sight of all his close ones coming together in one warm embrace. He eventually dies , but only after redeeming himself with the completion of his last movie, that he leaves behind to last forever.
Close on the heels of his union with his daughter, Kabali wakes up to another pleasant shock about his wife being alive in India. Soon, all the three unite in one teary-eyed occasion, that wells up their eyes with relief, than joy. Fate continues to be a solicitous hope changer in his life with every incongruous surprise it hurls at him.
He comes back to Malaysia, to single handedly annihilate his arch nemesis-the 43 gang, to only be confronted by irony, in the form of a bullet that left the pistol of an unassuming youngster from his own camp.

When Uttama Villain released last year, it dichotomised the audience by the bipolar reception it met with- into ones who swore by its mastery in their elaborate deconstruction articles to be a timeless classic with a myriad metaphors beneath or simply trashed it to be a preposterous movie that failed to hold their attention. The movie finally ended up as a failure at the box office.
Encore of the same seems to be happening with Kabali, with the movie turning to be  fodder for a lot of debate; atypical of the  vanilla euphoria around a Rajni starrer. For now, we’ll  have to wait and watch as to where it lands from here.

Kamal Haasan, the name says it all!

At sixty something,he’s a veteran now, a doyen in every dimension of the word. A crown jewel to the acting fraternity. His body of work and the influence it exudes statiting the obvious. But with regards to him, age is just a number. Not in the cliched way, that he looks eternally young. No. What I’m talking about is the fact that this stroke of genius which we see on screen these days to sheer bafflement didn’t get honed over the years to get there, it was there since forever.

Case in point being Nizhal Nijamagirathu that released in 1978. He plays Sanjeevi, an atheist with a communist affliation (his alter ego) with an authority that belongs to an oeuvre spanning a few decades of mastery.The way he struts across the terrace,nonchalantly crooning Kamban Emanthan,gives you the image of an actor expressing his feelings, not the lyrics.Mind you he was in his early twenties back then.
The way he looked into the eye of his woman, was stuff that made the cupid delirious. The way he dexterously wove poetry around the scaffolding of her humming on a then-and-there basis in the Sipi Irukudhu,Muthum Irukudhu sequence from Varumaiyin Niram Sigappu,stands testimony to his prowess in romance.Most of his mainstream movies treated women as capable peers- strong willed and independent- not just as objects of desire or the shrews that needed to be tamed.

There was something about his mojo, his portrayals endeared while continuing to enthral. It is not now, but even back then, he breathed fresh life into the male protagonist prototype. When every A-lister around him back then, was content playing monochromatic-single note characters; he plumbed the depths of the flawed vulnerable man with aplomb.
Take Unnal Mudiyum Thambi, where he sits down for dinner after showdown with his idealistic father. Red faced he rants about the importance of being a good human being over a good musician. He simmers about how the confrontation before didn’t affect his appetite. Then he quivers. In a moment the red in the face pales down, anger segues into disappointment, as he breaks down leaving the food unattended.

Satya was about a angry young man, alright. Not the noblest of character sketches in the Indian panorama during the eighties one might’ve assumed, with his peers- Rajinikanth and Amitabh playing it to great effect in every other movie. But what Kamal did to the archetype, few have managed. He added a humane coat to its larger-than-life stature. Beyond the dishoom-dishoom, Satya was a guilt saddled son, who rightfully felt instigated when touched beyond the tip of his nose. The outcome of his instigation weren’t only street fights like the norm used to be. Instead, it sometimes came out as heartfelt meltdown like the one with Amala in the jeep or a sarcastic rant at the hypocrisy of his neighbourhood, who wouldn’t testify to a dear one’s murder.

Kuruthipunal opens with a letter, a prologue of sorts in his baritone, addressing the societal disparities and the bloodbath that sucked him into it. His is a voice endowed with a sonorous finesse to it. His diction brings a certain credibility to the proceedings, even before a scene begins to kick in. You almost feel like, his granular articulation could baptise the crudest of swear words and tackiest of lines in Tamil.

There’s only so much a writer can write, so much the director can oversee; what transpires onscreen is the actor’s making. Imagine a generic scene-where a man in his forties meets his girl at a wedding and its love at first sight for him. He asks her to marry him immediatly and she accepts.This exactly is the sequence in Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu where Raghavan proposes. Kamal waltz through the scene, while churning out corny lines playfully with his chivalry intact. He makes us totally buy his dramatic proposal and its acceptance. In a less gifted actor’s hands, this scene would’ve been another instance of craddle snatching patriarchy inundating our industry.
He brought along a certain dignity to onscreen break-downs. A rare sight back then, even more now. When his eyes welled up with disbelief as he stood islanded ,hit by an offhanded remark of his mother in Aboorva Sagotharargal, we sunk along with him. In Pammal.K.Sambandham when he naively stood there after being used by a woman he loved, asking her dumb things to cushion the gravitas of her rejection; a part of us died there.
Well, what could you say about a man who could direct as well as he could act. Sing as well as he could direct. Orate as well as he could sing. When Maniratnam was asked about Nayagan in an interview, he said,”When you have an actor like him, all you need to be is a pair of eyes and follow him“. That should pretty much sum him up.