Kamal in his elements

Watching films written by Kamal is a unique experience. After growing up watching the film one would discover an aesthetic element, an angle of storytelling that was completely hidden till one sudden viewing. Then on it is impossible to not see the movie without feeling that pattern. In fact it could be so weak that one may not find anyone else who would agree with the interpretation. But then, well made films provide for each viewer’s experience to extend beyond the content of the film.

This happens to me on a regular basis with Kamal films. I can never be sure that the way I enjoyed it this time would be the same as it was last time or the next. Kamal written films tend to be highly deliberate: a line of dialogue, a frame of screenspace exists because it was meant to exist that way. This is what propels you to wrestle with questions about why someone said/did something on screen. And it is most often rewarding.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen ThEvar Magan. It is a movie that raises complex questions about the nature of responsibility, heritage and individualism. Right from the very title the movie it puts into focus the simple truth which most Indians find anything but simple, that ‘the individual’ is an artificial construct.

Any social critique in India will be incomplete without the artist’s expressed view on God and religion. One of Kamal’s pet themes of atheism, or atleast the impossibility of celestial relief for human problems, is presented quite centrally in movies like Mahanadhi. In others like Hey Ram and Kurudhippunal, they find direct mention. But in ThEvar Magan the issue is handled very subtly and beautifully.

Elements have always enjoyed a supernatural status in our tradition. But in this film they are cast as spectators and sometimes as part of man’s weapons against his fellows.

All is well on the surface, till Sakthi gets Esakki to break the lock of the temple. A temple that is everybody’s and nobody’s like the sky.

But the heavenly quest ends in the gruesome disaster that sparks things off. Ramu and co. respond by setting fire to the opponents’ huts.

The opponents reply by blowing up the reservoir and letting the water flood in and kill.

When Sakthi gets the better of that challenge (with a highly visual image of being soaked in the wet earth), Mayan is disturbed. The lawyer’s cunning idea is to get back through land. The scene ends with the lawyer’s wink and Mayan’s smile cutting to a shot that is on a hole in the reddish brown earth where the fence is being planted. The plan sees the end of Periya ThEvar.

The last faceoff does not end in a granary — as it could have very easily been. But the fight is broken into two and a chase is inserted — even at the great risk of losing tempo which is why I feel very strongly that the whole thing is highly deliberate. The chase takes Sakthi and Mayan into excessively windy open fields.

The final encounter happens with veshtis fluttering wildly and Sakthi uses a minor God’s weapon (which one may think of as the culmination of the cycle mishaps that began at a temple).

Note that the wind may seem like a really weak link here. But there is more than one shot of it which makes my case slighly stronger.

  1. When Esakki and Kanakku lead a gang to attack Chinna ThEvar’s house, they rise from below in a frame. The crop in the foreground is seen to sway to wildly in the wind.
  2. Similarly when someone passes the news of Mayan’s hideout to his mother, the atmosphere is very windy in the backyard.

This whole attempt to see the story in the backdrop of an elements may seem nebulous but I put the reason why I put it forward is because of this:

In the discussion in Chinna ThEvars house, Chinna ThEvar asks what is the course of action. The possibility giving them a taste of their own medicine by burning their huts in reply, is ruled out. The henchman appears silly by replying: “adhu mudiyaadhungayya, mazhai peyyudhulla, amaththippudum” to which Mayan replies with “neruppukku badhil thaNNi dhaanE”: isn’t water the (fit) response to fire ?

On the surface this looks as if a gem of an idea germinating from the henchman’s stupid remark. But I argue that it is more than that. It was a broad hint of how the elements are pitted against each other in the rest of the film.

This helps connect ThEvar Magan to Kamal’s other films where he puts the onus of social ills, squirely on individuals. Not blaming religion per se, but blind faith. The aesthetic appeal lies in the fact that, the views do not decry the institution of religion itself. For instance Periya ThEvar’s famous dialogues in the rain-scene, seem very much in line with the Gita-vian emphasis on every individual’s duty and is of universal appeal. And it is perhaps hinted, that it is highly compatible with rationality.

PS: Thanks a lot for the pics, Thilak.

[Editor’s Note: A new site is just the beginning. We also need new ideas and fresh blood. Here comes some, in the form of Prabhu Ram!]

19 Responses to “Kamal in his elements”

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  1. Kris says:

    I would love a same kind of analysis of Hey Ram too.Lookin forward.. By the way a great look at Devar Magan Thanks.I feel Virumandi should be included in the list too.


  2. Thilak pratap selva kumar says:

    Great PR. What about the names? Like Mayan, Sakthivel - Do you see any implication or significance?

  3. randramble says:

    PR: great analysis. Your post set me off thinking in multiple angles.

    Firstly, you substantiate what Kamal mentioned during the time of Hey Ram — that he uses movies as a creative medium, just like a poet writes poems. People may dismiss it as entertainment, but it has literary value which can withstand the years.

    Regarding atheism, even if Kamal doesn’t include it on purpose, it is natural for it to find its way into his writings, because it is a belief that influences his thinking.

    Another subtle message that I found in Thevar Magan was in the climax scene again. After killing Mayan, Sakthi walks off carrying the heavy sickle on his shoulders. He could have dropped it and walked, but he didn’t. Of course, he wasn’t in a state to realise exactly what he was doing. But the way the shot is structured, it reminds one of Jesus walking with the cross. In a way, Sakthi bears the cross for the deeds of his people.

    Kris: I feel the metaphors in Hey Ram are more obvious.

    Thilak: ‘Sakthivel’ is a name which he used in Nammavar and Sathi Leelavathi too. It is said to be in honour of his friend, RC Sakthi, the director.

  4. MRT says:

    DEVAR MAGAN is an amazing movie at multiple levels -

    1.the names - in Indian metaphysics, or the yogic system, Sakthi is a positive force referring to , and Mayan refers to one of the two negative forces MAYA (the other being KAALA, or KALAN) - KALA and MAYA are believed to exert all the negative influences on one’s mind, while SAKTHI helps overcome the same!

    Kamal repeatedly says he is an atheist, but if he is, then, he is a VERY well-informed/read/knowledgeable atheist!

    2. the fight between the two families has shades of Mahabharata’s fight between the cousins, Pandavas and Kauravas, though this is not implied.

    3. Fighting for a piece of land - doesnt it sound very close to what is happening in the Middle-east between Jews and the Arabs(Palestinians) ?

    (a) like Shakthi and Mayan, the Jews and Arabs are related as well! in fact they both come from the same semitic tribe!

    (b) like how the Jews and Arabs are fighting over a temple, the trouble begins in Devar magan storyline, when Kamal enters the temple! read the following:

    “Palestinian violence erupted on September 28, 2000, triggered by a visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple mount in Jerusalem. This location, called the Haram as Sharif in Arabic, is also the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque, holy to Muslims. False rumors spread that Sharon had entered the mosque, helping to fan the unrest. The US called a summit conference in Sharm-El Sheikh in October, in order to bring about an end to the violence. Both sides vowed to put an end to the bloodshed and return to negotiations. At the conference, it was also agreed to set up a US led investigative committee that would report on the causes of the violence and make recommendations to the UN. This eventually resulted in the Mitchell Report. Shortly thereafter, however, Arab leaders and Yasser Arafat met in an extraordinary Arab League Summit in Cairo, and issued a belligerent communique praising the Intifada and calling for an international investigative commission rather than the one agreed upon in Sharm El Sheikh. About two weeks later a suicide bombing in Jerusalem put an end to the truce”

    The similarities are startling!

    in one shot, Kamal the genius has made subtle references to the West Asia problem as well!

  5. Bala says:

    I am in the process of buidling a DVD collection of Kamal. (I know, in this day of iTunes, I am still stacking up dvd - archaic !). It seems to be impossible to land Thevar Magan, Raja Paarvai. Does anyone know if it is true that Kamal has not released the rights for DVD for movies from his production house ? With ragards to Hey Ram, a couple of sites that had thorough viewpoints are: http://www.uiowa.edu/~incinema/ & http://www.allthingskamal.info/blog/2007/05/31/hey-ram-kamals-visions-indias-nightmares/

  6. Sakala says:

    Mind blowing i would say! I was wondering how to reach everytime these kinda posts from PR/Bala/Kannan and other fans, at Mayyam.com. Now its easily accesible compilations.

    Reading this elements, kamal mentions just in One line, about these 5-elements in Virumaandi, just after his appathaa’s death scene…

    Included snapshots really made this post more interesting.

    Hope to contribute something, in coming days

  7. Sakala says:


    the climax reminds u jesus carrying the cross, well, when i see (young)kamal himself doing Jesus role, in the movie Annai Velankanni, i see the ‘+’ shaped cross as alphabet ‘T’ decipting ‘T’amil Cenima…he carries the whole Tamil Filmdom on his shoulders happily with so much pain!! Or is it too much imagination?!?!

  8. Kumar says:

    Well written PR. Good observations, especially how the elements are pitted againt each other. That still shot of the duelling cousins is absolutely mint. To me, this scene is the ultimate showdown between the cousins who battle it out one last time, under the watchful eye of the local deity. This god doesn’t take sides; in fact, it sems that he’s given both of them some help in the form of the weapons they use on each other.

    Once again, well done PR. Hope to read more of your work soon.

    PS: Do us all a favour and write a movie!

  9. randramble says:

    Bala: I’d love to have the DVDs too. The Tamil version of Hey Ram is definitely not available.

    MRT: Interesting analogies. That reminds me that I need to post about Kamal’s article on Al-aqsa. And yes, Kamal is definitely a well-informed atheist.

    Sakala: Your imagination, though it went a bit too far, was interesting nevertheless…:-)

  10. Sridhar says:

    Nice write up guys, especially the one by PR about how the elements are used in Devar Magan.

  11. Prabhu Ram says:

    Thank You very much guys. Hope to be able to share more in the future.

    Didn’t know Sakthivel was actually a tribute to RC Sakthi.
    Sakthivel(u) is Kamal’s name in Nayagan too (mentioned only in the last scene with his namesake grandson.

    //He could have dropped it and walked, but he didn’t. Of course, he wasn’t in a state to realise exactly what he was doing. But the way the shot is structured, it reminds one of Jesus walking with the cross.//
    Lovely ! Actually Thilak had a pic of that too. In fact he puts it in words too when he tells Esakki :’Edthukkittadhellam pOdhumdA” and walks off with the disproportionately large sickle (reminding me of the unwieldy sword held by Kikuchiyo, the 7th Samurai in Seven Samurai - by one of Kamal’s favourite filmmakers: Akira Kurosawa)

    Very interesting links Bala, particularly the second one.

    Thilak, no idea about the names. MRT’s reading of Mayan and Sakthi are pretty interesting. But otherwise the names do not seem to stand out here (unlike his other films)

    Kumar, that was a beautiful part about the final showdown.Credit for the great pics go to Thilak. Perhaps the spectator God strengthens MRT’s Mahabaratha connex.My favourite connex is the more obvious map to Godfather.Sometime else.

  12. Qalandar says:

    Prabhu, what a wonderful and thoughtful post this is. Sadly, I have not been able to see Thevar Magan, because sadly it is not available with English subtitles, unlike most of the recent Tamil films. This sort of essay only makes me feel the loss all the more keenly…

  13. MRT says:

    In an interview, Ilaiyaraja had replied thus about kamal: “he knows everything about Indian spiritual bacground/history” - so I wouldnt be surprised if the names Sakthi and Mayan came out as a result of collaborative effort between IR and kamal during story discussion!

  14. Prabhu Ram says:

    Thank You Qalandar. You managed to get the Hey! Ram DVD with subtitles ? (read your excellent piece, still absorbing it)
    Even that is pretty rare. I share Bala’s suspicion that Rajkamal Films’ has not released DVD rights for (m)any of its films.

  15. Qalandar says:

    Prabhu: Yes, Ayngaran (which releases most of the subtitled DVDs in the UK/US/Canada markets) has released a subtitled version of Hey Ram. The same company also released subtitled versions of Anbe Sivam, Virumaandi (a film I have an especial weakness for; the DVD transfer is of very high quality indeed), Aalavandan, Thenali. But Ayngaran’s catalogue is rather spotty for films prior to 2000. Most of those films have been released by Pyramid with subtitles so wretched even a non-Tamil speaker can tell that something is seriously wrong! (not to mention that the DVD transfer is also much worse than the Ayngharan one). Btw, interestingly — and tellingly — while most of the subtitled Tamil DVDs only have English subtitles, Kamal’s films often have subtitle options for a number of other languages too.

  16. Deepauk M says:

    A more recent visitor to this blog and hope to see more posts like this. I believe that some level of public discourse is required to completely evaluate what Mr. Haasan’s films exposition. Of course this is at the risk of over analysis, but I think its a small price to pay. Great article Prabhu!

    I have always wondered why it was so windy during the final scnes of the movie. I wonder if any meteorological evidence can be provided for such occurrences in non-seaside rural areas in Tamil Nadu. This seems to answer some of those issues.

    I believe the entire silambam sequence has an undercurrent of associating violence to the male pre-occupation with his sexual identity. This theme also finds its way into Hey Raam. Wonder if similar themes are seen in Virumaandi? Anyone?

  17. Prabhu Ram says:

    Thank You Deepauk.

    The silambam sequence is just extremely well done. Sakthi is shown to be easily worked up to defend his ‘pride’ when taunting comments are made, particularly about his ‘woman’. This immediacy between sexual affirmation and bravery (bravado) is primitive as it gets. Scratching the surface of Sakthi is shown to be very similar to what he claims he is not.(Another instance is when his uncle questions his “identity” in the panchAyat.)

    Peria ThEvar:”indha kAttumirANdip paya koottathule ‘ngoppanum
    oruthan dhEin ngradha maRanthuraatha”
    Sakthi: appidi paarthaa naanum oruthan thaan ‘ya…..aanaa adhai ninaichu perumaip pada mudiyala

    If the scene that justifies the title, it is actually the silambam sequence that provides the rich meaning(s) to the title.

    raising interesting questions about identity and the influence (or the apparent lack of it) of education and exposure on someone’s personality. As a side note: Ilayaraja’s BGM is just awesome in the silambam scene. He is pretty much a co-writer !

    Virumaandi is all about misplaced bravado (remember the original title :-) ). But the setting and characters do away with any need to be subtle about being ‘primitive’. The PanchAyat scene exchanges bear that out. The scene itself ends with Virumaandi getting violent when there is an insult to KothAlan’s wife !

  18. Deepauk M says:

    I agree with Ilaiyaraja’s impact on the movie. There are multiple scenes:

    1. The BGM for the slow motion scene post Peria Thevar’s death.
    2. The purposeful silence through the entire of the dialog right up until Peria thevar catches a hold of Sakthi’s collar.
    3. The intro BGM when Sakthi and Banu exit the car when they arrive for the first time - In the words of Senbaga Pandian “Athukke Aayiram pon kodukalaam!”

    There is also another instance of a cyclical nature that indicates Sakthi’s transformation. The “modern” Sakthivel kisses Banu when he sends her off the first time (its done pretty quickly). But when he sending her off the second time he leaves abruptly and Banu kisses him, maybe in the hope of finding the old Sakthi, bu he isn’t there.

    Speaking of Virumaandi there is an interview that Kamal gave on Astro Vaanavil (malaysia - I caught it on Youtube), where he speaks abt the ecological ills of digging way to deep in search of a receding water table. I thought that was interesting while noting how I completely missed that point while watching the movie.

  19. Deepauk M says:

    Also would like to mention Vadivels incredible performace. That bit of casting was quite prescient.

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