Editor’s Note: It was necessary for the 500th post to be special. For that, we have a truly special author, National Awardee Baradwaj Rangan! Thanx for his co-operation and to Qalandar who helped make it happen!
And on the occasion, gratitude is due to all those helped us reach this stage and readers who have been supportive and patient.
Fifty years. That’s five decades. There are people who don’t live that long – so it’s entirely understandable, this extraordinary (bordering, at times, on the excessive) hysteria enveloping us as Kamal Haasan celebrates his mammoth milestone. After so many years, with so many movies and so many memories, it would seem the easiest of things to compose an ode to his achievements – but it’s the opposite actually.
Where do you begin? What do you pick? Do you, for instance, write about him as a young god of romance, about how he single-handedly changed the way the hero goes about the business of courting the heroine? Or do you regard these facets as mere frivolities and begin to delve into the acting dimension, about how he represents the perfect middle point between the completely externalised melodramatics of a Sivaji Ganesan and the completely internalised Methodisms of a Naseeruddin Shah, giving just enough of a “performance” to make even the most unsophisticated audience member tune in, but without alienating the sophisticates?
The time-honoured rules of writing endorse a trajectory of the outside to the inside, from the general to the particular – but why not, instead, employ a particular to illustrate the general? Why not talk about the one film that brings to my mind all that’s special about this sakalakalavallavan? In that vein, I opted for Aboorva Sagotharargal, simply because the film is Kamal’s single greatest achievement. (It’s also, coincidentally, twenty years since the film’s release in 1989, which possibly warrants a commemoration of its own.)
In pure cinematic terms, the film is a stupendous success. It’s easily the best screenplay he’s ever written. (Thevar Magan comes close, but there’s the shadow of The Godfather that looms large over it. Perhaps, like the Oscars, I could say that Aboorva Sagotharargal is Kamal’s Best Original Screenplay, and Thevar Magan is his Best Adapted Screenplay.) If the success of a film lies in how well it ends up doing what it sets out to do, Aboorva Sagotharargal is Kamal Haasan’s finest hour as actor-screenwriter-producer.
It wants to be a crackling masala entertainer, in the grand tradition of Tamil cinema’s escapist entertainment, and it becomes this through inspired riffs on some of the most cherished of masala-movie tropes. The hero playing multiple roles (with a moustache, and without), the twin brothers who are separated at childbirth and eventually reunited, the son who avenges a father’s murder, the brothers on opposite sides of the law, the heroine being the daughter of a villain – it’s all here, alongside affectionate homages (intended or otherwise) to images from older masala cinema, like the duet staged around a stationary car that echoes the staging of Pesuvadhu kiliya in Panathottam, or the kadi joke where Appu anoints himself Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban while perched on a globe.
And if you want to get all meta on the film, you could note that it captures the quintessence of the many facets of Kamal Haasan – the actor who can play roguish Madras-Tamil-speaking lover boys in his sleep, the actor who would go on to increasingly hack away at his handsomeness through makeup-enhanced grotesquerie (though here, he merely hacks away half his legs), the star who’d grow excessively fond of playing multiple characters (one being the regular hero, the other representing the “unusual,” the film’s USP) the writer who’s never happy unless submerging himself in subversion (what is it if not at least slightly subversive that the adorable, kid-friendly Appu, whom we first see clowning around on a toy train, is ever-so-gradually transformed into a freakish homicidal maniac?), and the producer who’s never afraid to put his money where his mouth is (how hypocritical would it have been if Kamal had merely spouted off about quality cinema without actually bothering to invest in it?).
There are far too many thoughts swimming around in my head when it comes to Aboorva Sagotharargal – they’d warrant a collegiate thesis instead of a casually commemorative blog post – so I’ll focus on the one aspect of this remarkable film that never fails to amaze me: the character (and the characterisation) of the dwarf Appu.
I suppose I should be politically correct and say “little person,” but that phrase doesn’t carry the pejorative weight that “dwarf” does. And Appu is a dwarf in practically every sense of the world – not just because everyone’s taller than him, but also because a “normal life” (love, a respectable career) remains frustratingly out of his reach. And it’s not till the Unnai nenachen song sequence that we see how truly the world at large – or to put it another way, the “larger” world – has imprisoned him. In a succession of shots, we see Appu inside the motorcycle cage, inside the lions’ cage, and finally, inside the worst prison of all, the clown mask, forever doomed to laughing through tears.
The tragicomic travails of a clown aren’t new to the cultural scenario, whether as far back as Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci or as recently as Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker, but there’s an unusually demonic perspective to Appu. Rejected by the girl he loves, ridiculed by the mother he worships, he pours his heart out in that song, and at the end, when he flings the mask away, it lands on the branch of a nearby tree and dangles by its strap. That’s when we witness Appu’s transformation from benign to bedeviled, thanks to the morbidly crazed gleam in Kamal’s eyes, the spectral lighting of the scene, and the chilling sound effects that Ilayaraja provides in the background.
Appu attempts suicide, but his mother intervenes and tells him the whole story, and you see a fiendish resolve descend upon him as he decides to become executioner. (He later mocks the hapless lawyer played by Jaishankar, “Idhu high court illa… my court.”) There’s finally a purpose to Appu’s life. He’s now a man possessed, and the grand conceit of the film is that he dispatches the villains through means that are as freakish, as “abnormal” as he is – the double-edged stunt gun, the funhouse rig that conceals an arrow, and his animal friends from the circus. (You can imagine Kamal murmuring while stooped over his screenplay draft, “Feed him to the lions.”)
This sense of the freakish, the macabre, is the aspect that elevates Aboorva Sagotharargal from being just another masala movie (though it’s a testament to Kamal’s intelligence and skills that he suffuses the film with so much “traditional” entertainment that these Grand Guignol excursions in no way impede the enjoyment of the causal viewer). At first, it appeared to me that Kamal stumbled upon playing a dwarf simply because he pretended to be one in Punnagai Mannan, and he must have seen the gimmicky potential in a full-fledged extrapolation of such a character – but Appu is no mere gimmick. This dwarf is one the many, many reasons Kamal Haasan towers over much of what passes under the guise of Tamil cinema.