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Hey Ram: Kamal’s visions, India’s nightmares

In February of 2006, I went to Delhi for the first time, and within two days of arrival found myself at the Rajghat. Amidst the carefully manicured gardens and general tranquility (broken only by the large number of visitors who come to Rajghat with the same idea as I had), and the mediocre monuments dedicated to the memory of some of independent India’s notable political figures, titanic (like Jawaharlal Nehru), ambiguous (like Indira Gandhi), disturbing (like Sanjay Gandhi), and forgotten and ignored (like Charan Singh), the austere black marble of Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi orients the view (I won’t say “stands out” because it does nothing so vulgar) and draws one inexorably toward it. Once there I felt a bit awkward, unsure of what to do: does one (as per Muslim tradition) pray for the soul of the departed? Did I even believe in one? What could possibly qualify me to pray for the soul of the nearest thing the Indian Republic has had to a conscience? Ultimately I felt somewhat guilty: it is perhaps fitting that India’s conscience was slain within a few months of independent India’s birth, rendering concrete the guilt that all of us perhaps should bear, and that lent some genuine pathos to Main Ne Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara — Anupam Kher’s character is of course right that he hasn’t killed Gandhi, but in the sense that he alone hasn’t killed the Mahatma; all of us do it every day. Mahatma Gandhi knew that guilt could be a powerful weapon: (satyagraha is nothing if not the insistent presentation of a mirror to one’s adversary. If one’s adversary does not like the image of himself or herself reflected as cruel, unjust, or tyrannical, all he need do is change (either his reality or his image of himself). It was thus entirely appropriate that after feeling guilty, I did what I thought the Mahatma would have wanted me to: I read the Fatiha. And gazed at the lettering on the front of the simple marble monument (so much more impressive in its way than a palace): “Hay Ram” it read in Hindi, supposedly the Mahatma’s last words after he was shot by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu militant and onetime RSS member who (like many of his cohorts) blamed Gandhi for the horrors of partition. There is surely much to ponder in the face of these words, but my mind was taken to where I generally need little prompting to go: cinema. And in particular, a film called Hey Ram by Kamal Haasan.

You really have to be a masochist to make a film that touches upon Hindu-Muslim relations in any serious way in India. For leaving aside all the commercial issues and risks, various political outfits can be relied upon to inject themselves in the debate in the shrillest possible manner, with one of three aims: (i) to get the film banned; or to have you denounced as (ii) anti-Hindu; or (iii) as anti-Muslim. Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram, one of the most outstanding Indian films I have seen this decade, has the dubious distinction of being tagged on all three grounds. Which is to the film’s credit, and testimony to its multilayered complexity that yet retains its accessibility. One might love or loathe this film, be disturbed by it or be utterly seduced by Kamal’s vision, but such is the access it affords the viewer to what is above all a mindset, and that in turn accesses us, rendering the viewer vulnerable to Kamal’s directorial gaze, that it is impossible to remain unmoved in the face of this film. For me, in fact, over time this film became an itch in my cinematic consciousness, one I didn’t want to go back to view, but one I couldn’t stop dwelling over (so much so that the film threatened to spill over into some of my writing on other films, such as on Govind Nihalani’s Dev).

A year later, it was time for me to re-visit this film; and the first thing that struck me about it was that it was as wrenching, as effective, as I had remembered. At its core is a powerful story: Saket Ram (Kamal Haasan) is dying as a communal riot rages in the city, and the old man’s memories return to the 1940s, when Saket, his friend Amjad Ali Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) and others were part of an archaeological dig at an Indus Valley civilization site. Hundreds of miles to the east, in Calcutta, is Saket’s lovely wife Aparna (Rani Mukherjee), whom the Tamilian Brahmin Saket has married against the wishes of his family. Tragedy is in store for this couple in what was at the time one of India’s most violent and communally volatile cities, and Aparna is brutally raped and murdered by Muslims in the violence that engulfs Calcutta on 16th August, 1946 — the Muslim League’s “Direct Action Day”. Aparna’s murder is one of the most unsettling I have ever seen on celluloid, and makes Saket’s subsequent descent into violence all the more plausible: he wanders through the streets of Calcutta killing Muslims indiscriminately, ultimately falling in with Abhayankar (Atul Kulkarni), a Hindu militant determined to cleanse India of Islam’s polluting presence, not to mention of Gandhian ideology. Family pressures force Saket to marry Mythili (played with almost inflammatory passivity by Vasundhara Das), but something is twisted and broken in Saket, and he is moved by the plight of Hindu refugees (including an old Sindhi friend of his) from what is by now Pakistan to focus on Mahatma Gandhi (Naseeruddin Shah, in his most memorable turn in years) as the cause of Hindu troubles. The solution is clear: Saket Ram must slay the Ravana of Muslim appeasement in the figure of Gandhi, and goes to Delhi to this end. But the impossibility of a violent “solution” is brought home to him by a chance encounter with Amjad, as is the impossibility of simple redemption: before Mahatma Gandhi can pay attention to or engage with Saket’s apology, he is killed by Nathuram Godse. The books have not been balanced, and Saket must continue with a permanent deficit.

Watching Hey Ram is a singular experience indeed, from Kamal’s painstaking recreation of the 1940s (never better than in his evocation of an orthodox Tamil Brahmin milieu) to Ilaiyaraja’s outstanding musical score to the film’s sheer dynamism: from Aparna’s rape and murder to the ensuing scenes of nocturnal communal carnage; to Saket Ram’s violent and hypnotically compelling visions of strength and eros-laced violence; to the haveli of the one-time Maharajah now dedicated to the cause of Hindu rashtra as represented by Abhayankar and Saket; and the claustrophobia of Old Delhi towards the film’s end, this film crackles with nervous, psychotic energy. Above all this is the unsettling energy of a film with something important to say, that is not simply reducible to a platitude. Kamal’s film is not about “Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai”; instead it offers a vision of the madness that seems like sanity when the whole world is mad. In doing so Kamal stages the seduction of the viewer to parallel the seduction of Saket Ram by Hindu militancy: the viewer can empathize with Saket’s blind bloodlust in the aftermath of Aparna’s grisly death, until he realizes with a start that he might himself be complicit in an ethic of justificatory violence. That is, conceding that Saket has more reason than most to use violence to get even, conceding that he is, inasmuch as anyone can be, “justified”, what then? The film doesn’t purport to answer this question in the abstract, but does present Saket’s answer: by film’s end the solution remains madness, but not Abhayankar’s dispensation, only Gandhi’s. “Madness” because in its solicitude for the other Gandhi’s way so exceeds the demands and the expectations of the everyday, so irreducible is it to a merely utilitarian calculus, that it is perhaps no less psychotic than Abhayankar’s vision (and far more “impossible” to boot). Yet this impossible madness of loving “the other” is the only way forward if the fever dreams of Saket Ram are to not come to pass.

I am more impressed by Kamal’s performance here than in almost any other film in recent years. In the film’s initial reels one sees nothing out-of-the-ordinary relative to other films featuring the Ulaganayagan — but all that changes come Direct Action Day and the butchering of Saket Ram’s wife. Subsequently we see Saket wandering through the Calcutta streets, bewildered, numb, enraged, and Kamal registers all these emotions with barely a dialogue. I have often criticized the actor for a certain lack of subtlety of late, but this sort of situation fits the expressivity of the later Kamal Haasan to a “T”. And yet even Kamal’s Calcutta riot sequences cannot prepare us for the Saket of the movie’s second half, transformed into a Hindu militant and determined to kill Mahatma Gandhi: in his evocation of masculinity sexually humiliated and the link between the latter and the politics of revenge, this “second” Saket as it were is the finest Kamal performance I have seen (if it is lesser than Nayakan because the role is more limited in range, then it is greater in visceral impact and more psychologically demanding than that of Velu Naicker). Of course it helps that Kamal-the-actor is well served by Kamal-the-director: a more obvious director would tell us what Saket’s problem is (as Nihalani has Om Puri do in Dev); Kamal, on the other hand, shows the viewer the nightmares and fantasies that haunt Saket, enabling us to both experience (and empathise with) those dreams, as well as exposing us to their disturbing violence and power. Nowhere is this more memorably done than in Saket’s and Mythili’s marital bed: her animated transformation into a machine gun that Saket clutches is stunning, and so forceful as to render all purely psychoanalytic explanations somewhat reductive. This is visionary filmmaking, and serves as a reminder that it is very difficult to craft memorable performances divorced from the context of memorable films and memorable directors.

Hey Ram has no shortage of superb supporting performances, beginning with Naseeruddin Shah as Mahatma Gandhi. Shah’s Gandhi is very far from Ben Kingsley’s Mahatma, and is in fact a rather slippery fellow. But this is no exercise in mere revisionism, and this Gandhi is all but inaccessible to us, his ways inscrutable, his personality at once frustrating and charismatic. This Mahatma is no saint, but at a minimum he evades our understanding, and hence our judgment. His refusal to engage with Saket’s remorse at film’s end — he has no time for the apology — might well be the only “flaw” to be represented in the film: one might say Bapu has never had time for the Sakets (or better yet, the Abhayankars) of the world, and one isn’t sure he has ever understood them. But Saket’s remorse is not simply a conversion on the road to Damascus. Rather, Kamal uses it to illustrate a dark ambiguity: Gandhi’s India is broken, and yet Gandhi is the only way to make broken India livable, at least if the cleansing fantasies of so many twentieth century ideologies are to be avoided.

Abhayankar (Atul Kulkarni) is Gandhi’s twin, an ideologue of the night Saket finds himself at the mercy of. Abhayankar remains Kulkarni’s most effective performance in my view, and although the character is relatively one-dimensional, Abhayankar plays him with restraint, dignity, and charisma, preventing him from becoming mere caricature. Rani Mukherjee leaves an impression in a brief role as Saket’s first wife Aparna, but her role is not comparable to the fraught nature of Vasundhara Das’ Mythili, whose sexual pliancy is precisely the antidote the emasculated Saket needs, but simultaneously her womanhood signifies the fount of Hindu honour that was violated with Aparna. Mythili is ultimately both jealously guarded treasure and gun, and it is no mere chance that Saket decides to kill Gandhi only after he marries her.

Shah Rukh Khan’s Amjad Ali Khan is a true puzzle: it’s unclear what sort of country club in British India would have allowed in a man dressed in full Pathan regalia (as we see early on in Saket’s flashback), or what sort of Raj-era archaeologist would be dressed in this manner. Even more incongruous is the appearance of this refugee from the Frontier in the heart of Old Delhi towards the end. Surely Kamal knows full well the difference between a Delhi Muslim and a Pashtun, which leads me to believe that Amjad must be a stand-in of sorts for Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier “Redshirt” and one of the most famous Muslim anti-partition political figures. That Ghaffar Khan was known as the “Frontier Gandhi” is no coincidence, for Amjad too is a “double” of Gandhi’s: he is no ideologue, but like the satyagrahi Mahatma refuses to recognize an enemy in a onetime friend, and by refusing to do so, presents Saket with an ethical claim that cannot be evaded. (The background score makes this Hindu-Muslim “doubling” of Gandhi quite explicit by means of the chant “Hey hey Ram; As-Salaam Ram Ram”). If Gandhi is India’s conscience, his incarnation in and as Amjad demonstrates that there can be no tenable partition of the spirit.

I do not read the above as an optimistic ending, but as a deeply ambiguous one: for the partition has in fact happened, and Saket knows that it is irremediably thus (in the present, he dies as a communal riot wracks the city around him), that is, that the India bequeathed by the partition is, in a sense, untenable (at least from a Gandhian perspective). Heroism, then, lies in persisting in the face of impossibility, in asserting the impossibility of spiritual partition even when it has already happened (and is in the process of happening) as a political matter. One might even say that true love is precisely that which is offered to “the Other” in conditions of impossibility. To let impossibility deter one is to accept the horror, which Saket cannot do once he has met the two Gandhis. Not for nothing is he called Ram.

[Cross-posted at Qalandar]

Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu: Kamal salvages Gautham’s lapses

Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu is really two films: the first of these (roughly the first half) is a taut detective story, seamlessly merging the script and director Gautam Menon’s technically slick vision, while also doing justice to a parallel budding friendship and romance between DCP Raghavan (Kamal Haasan) and Maya (Jyotika), neighbors at a New York hotel where Raghavan has landed up to continue a murder investigation begun back in India; it is rare indeed to find such an “adult” representation of a man-woman relationship in a mainstream Indian film. And if the masala fan in me was none too thrilled at seeing a film so very Hollywood (and hence, broadly, derivative), I was nevertheless enthralled by Menon’s control, and by Kamal Haasan’s excellent articulation of a middle-aged, low key cop (low key, that is, barring the somewhat incongruous opening sequence, wherein Raghavan beats the crap out of an entire gang all by his lonesome), one tormented by his failure to save his late wife from criminals eight years ago, and anguished by the brutal rape and murder of his best friend’s daughter.

Unfortunately, the second film, which begins when the killers are introduced, is a crude, lurid crapfest of a movie, involving much yelling, pointless plot developments, and rather lurid violence against women. The result is that Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu is one confused movie, its two halves never quite gelling into anything coherent. I couldn’t shake the impression (confirmed by Menon’s recent interview with Baradwaj Rangan) that Menon felt he had to compromise on his vision in order to make a commercially safe film; one wonders if he went too far: certainly Menon’s previous film — Kaaka Kaaka — was very successful, and that “episode in a police officer’s life” did not have the acrid smell of blatant compromise so thick about it.

Overall, I would say that the film is worth watching more for Kamal’s performance than anything else, and Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu confirms my impression that he is best in relatively understated roles; within the parameters of mainstream cinema he certainly has one here, and he handles it with authority laced with the odd vulnerable moment, the latter highlighting the fact that although the film may have begun on an “overman” note, DCP Raghavan is no larger-than-life mangod. More pity, then, that Menon did not stay true to his vision: either an out-and-out masala film, or a relatively realistic policier, would have been preferable to this mish-mash, which cannot but impinge on Raghavan’s characterization in all sorts of unfortunate ways.

Kamal and Jyotika make for a good pair, and are that rarest of things, namely a mature couple playing characters close to their real ages. In the film’s first half their interludes highlight the grey nature of the world Raghavan and Maya inhabit; in the second half one is relieved to get some reprieve from the baddies.

A word on the songs: Harris Jayaraj’s music is better than some of his recent (disappointing) fare, though the videos are uniformly disappointing (it is especially difficult to forgive Menon his lame conceptualization of Paartha Mudhal).

All in all, this is a disappointing outing for Menon as far as I am concerned, and only Kamal fans (that is to say, all cinephiles who wish to see a compelling actor turn in a performance that holds a mediocre film together) will be sad to miss this one.

[A note on the DVD: Ayngharan (the version I’ve reviewed) is by far the best Tamil film DVD company on the market, and the transfer for Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu is no exception, doing justice to the crispness of Menon’s images (in the film’s first half in particular). Ayngharan DVDs also have the best subtitles by far — by which I mean that, although I do not know Tamil, the subtitles are generally grammatically correct, and it is obvious that most dialogues are “accounted for”, unlike for instance Pyramid DVDs (as to which it is really a shame that Mani Ratnam’s masterpiece Iruvar, and one of my favorite Indian films, is only available on a substandard Pyramid DVD version). And while I’m at it, the same mercifully holds true of Kamal’s own directorial masterpiece Virumaandi, which is also available on an Ayngharan DVD that brings the vibrant, violent rural Madurai district of Kamal’s imagination to life.]

A different look at Aalavandhaan

abhay-1

Came across a new perspective on Aalavandhaan (Abhay in Hindi and Telugu). You could skip through the first half of the post, if you’re tired of reading the author’s travails of getting to watch the movie; but it gives you a peek into his mind.

Excerpts:

…completely mind-blowing, thoroughly bonkers, and immensely enjoyable mind trip of a film…

…”Abhay” is destined to become an adjective, a descriptive term for a movie so completely nutso that even over-the-top film shake their head in admiring disbelief.

Hassan has a reputation as one of Indian cinema’s bolder and more unconventional risk-takers…and Abhay was certainly a risky movie. It’s equal parts psychological horror, Hong Kong action film, fantasy effects film, and musical comedy — even Indian audiences accustomed to seeing every genre imaginable crammed into a single film didn’t really know what to make of Abhay’s gloriously madcap combination of ingredients.

Although it’s a financial failure, as a piece of mind-blowing phantasmagorical entertainment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a film more enthusiastic and strange than Hassan’s big-budget ode to schizophrenic kungfu insanity. It’s a bit bloated, definitely way over-the-top, wildly imaginative, and as a result, an absolute joy to watch — if you get to watch it at all.

Suddenly, I was greeted by a cover featuring a screaming bald man, covered in tattoos and brandishing a huge knife, flying down the side of a skyscraper. At the top of the box, an employee of this particular video store had slapped a white label then scrawled a simple message in black Sharpie: “Completely Bonkers!!!”

…for a variety of reasons at which analysts can only guess, audiences shied away from the film, and it wasn’t long before the biggest film in Indian history became one of the biggest flops in Indian history.

Still, box office failure and critical and audience puzzlement at just what the hell Hassan was trying to do doesn’t mean the film isn’t spectacular, especially from the viewpoint of a cult film fan. It packs in a ton of breakneck action, some quality acting, and some absolutely inspired freak-out scenes.

…there’s no denying that Hassan and Suresh Krishna were calling in some visual effects big guns, putting forth a vision that far exceeded anything ever attempted in Indian cinema, where effects work is often crude.

The bulk of the effects are up to the standards of Hollywood productions of the time (2001), and they set a new benchmark for the quality of effects work in Indian films in much the same way Star Wars did in the United States…

…Kamal Hassan is wonderful in his dual role, creating two chracters so individualistic and unique that you never once even realize you’re watching the same actor in dual roles.

…you never have any doubt in your mind that this guy could kick your ass while downing half a dozen beers without spilling a drop. He’s not buff, but he’ssolid, and you know he’s tough. That he’s an engaging performer only sweetens the deal.

Hassan’s script wastes no time, and even at three hours, he keeps the film skipping effortlessly from one crazy moment to the next.

Check out the whole write-up.

Image courtesy: Philip Lutgendorf, University of Iowa.

What Nayakan means to me

Some films are impossible to review in themselves: such is their impact, so thorough their influence, that when one re-visits them, even if after a deliberately long lapse of time, one is unable to view them afresh, for in them the film as it must have been back when it was released is only dimly discernible, and the prism of the film’s history and what it has come to mean almost the only vantage point that affords a view any longer. Almost. For the great film (like the great book, painting, or any other work of art) is not merely reducible to the history of its reception, even if it is inextricable from it.Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (Tamil; 1987) is such a film, and it would be no exaggeration to cite it as the one Tamil film that even Indians who have never seen any Tamil film are likely to have heard of. Yet its status as one of the seminal works of Indian popular cinema rests on more than this, on more than the fact that it was commercially successful or that the film arguably represents the high point in the storied career of its lead actor, Kamal Haasan, on more even than the sort of acclaim that saw it win a place in Time magazine film critic Richard Corliss’ list of the 100 greatest movies ever. Nayakan deserves its place in the annals of Indian film history because it changed what we came to expect from our movies, and thus in time came to change how movies were made. Whether the industry is Hindi, Telugu, or Tamil, the film Parinda, Pattiyal or Company, the director Mukul Anand, Mahesh Manjrekar, or Ram Gopal Verma, the representation of crime and criminality (and the problematic glamorisation of the same), of the life and death associated with India’s mean streets, heck of Mumbai itself, that seems normal to us in Indian film, is unimaginable without Nayakan.

Underneath it all is the story of Velu Naicker (Kamal Haasan) – rumoured to be modeled after the legendary Tamil Mumbai don (and folk hero to “his own”) Varadaraja Mudhaliar – who while yet a boy kills the policeman who has murdered Velu’s trade unionist father and flees to Bombay, in time becoming a basti hero in Dharavi and ultimately an underworld don. Along the way the police kill his foster father, rival gangsters his wife, a criminal mishap his son, and his daughter ends up appalled at and alienated from his worldview. The film ends as all Indian gangster films after Deewar must, with the death of Velu himself, shot by the retarded son of the first man Velu killed in Mumbai. In the end, Velu’s karma catches up with him.

Nayakan is not an especially profound film, and does not to my mind offer any new insight into the nature of power or of criminality; as in Bombay from a few years later, Ratnam’s politics are fairly conventional (that is to say genteel bourgeois), and certainly nothing in this film matches the visionary cinematic mode of Iruvar a decade later (still the best Indian film from the last twenty years that I have seen). But in the context of Indian cinema Nayakan is the more important and influential film, and rests on a number of assumptions that have irrevocably marked Hindi and Tamil cinema, mostly for better (though, in the hands of unthinking filmmakers, also for worse). The most important of these is the refusal to condescend to the viewer, and for the film to at all points take its audience’s intelligence for granted. This meant that not every detail of the inner life of Nayakan’s characters needed to be spelled out, leading to a more suggestive, more nuanced way of filmmaking for those who have followed Ratnam’s lead. Obviously not everyone has (and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that everyone should), but it would be no exaggeration that the majority of the more intelligent popular films have tended to appreciate the virtues of this approach over the last two decades.

A second and related feature was Ratnam’s insistence on making a film that could be very Indian, very rooted, without necessarily hewing to a formula. Thus Nayakan has no parallel comedy track, and no hero/heroine song and dance sequences. And that’s not because Ratnam is embarrassed by his cinematic heritage, far from it: Nayakan has a number of songs, but most of them are superbly situational, and are inescapably part of the experience of watching this film. Songs are one of the singular pleasures of mainstream Indian cinema, and Ratnam accords them the respect that is due by ensuring that in Nayakan they do not seem forced into the narrative. The lesson has not always been learned well (witness the recent Pokiri or Dhoom 2) but it has been learned by many, and by filmmakers as diverse as Bala, the Rakeysh Mehra of Rang de Basanti, the Ashutosh Gowariker of Lagaan, not to mention the usual suspects like Manjrekar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and even Ram Gopal Verma on occasion (ironically, the later Ratnam’s excellence at song videos has been similarly, though often unfortunately, influential, leading many a director and viewer to conceptualize songs as breaks in, and hence removed from, the film of which they are part, something that no Ratnam film I have seen is guilty of, barring Agni Natchathiram, although no doubt in the later Ratnam the songs often become more abstract than the film around them). This too is part of the filmmaker’s respect for the audience, in that “the people” are to be conceptualized democratically, as thinking beings who may be counted on to appreciate a film on its merits, not a mass who will simply react to stimuli presented according to a certain formula. The Nayakan way certainly doesn’t guarantee commercial success, but it does lead to more engaged viewers (and in any event I would argue that the surprising degree of success achieved by a Raja Hindustani or a Pokiri or Dhoom 2 suggests that something other than formulaic repetition is at work, since mere repetition is inconsistent with such exceptional success).

No discussion of Nayakan would be complete without a word about Kamal Haasan’s performance, which is both one of the most overrated performances in Indian history and at the same time nothing less than a superb and ineffably memorable showing by Kamal Haasan. Haasan – who deservedly won a National Award for his role here – is not responsible for the former, and acquits himself faultlessly when it comes to what he was responsible for, namely incarnating a Velu Naicker that would be true to Ratnam’s vision. The result is one of Indian popular cinema’s most iconic performances, and a perennially fashionable one if the slew of post-Nayakan “down home” gangsters housed in “ordinary” homes in “regular” clothes is anything to go by. And this is about more than “ethnic chic”, reflecting as it does a democratic India where power — political and street — is increasingly being assumed by those once summarily dismissed as “vernacular.”

Kamal’s performance may be divided in two, but not necessarily by Velu’s age. Rather, I see Velu prior to his coronation as different from the later Velu, the former’s combination of sullenness and naivete giving way to an unshakable confidence and resolve. The former is impressive (one can see more than a few traces of it in Madhavan’s own wonderful performance as the “bigtime” writer early on in Kannathil Muthamittal), but it is the latter – showy, obvious, and oh-so-compelling – that makes the role for me. One might cavil that Kamal’s turn lacks the nuance and refinement of Mohanlal’s matchless turn in Iruvar, but that ignores the fact that Velu is a far more uncomplicated being than Anandan. Velu is a stubby, direct, and forthright man, one who traffics in brute facts more than anything else. And Kamal Haasan is perhaps the ideal actor to essay this role, of a man who simply does what he feels right (a similar line crops up in Sarkar, in the context of which film it was a statement not of simplicity or correctness but of naked power, reflective of the different concerns of Ratnam and Ram Gopal Verma, respectively). Kamal fits in seamlessly with the relativism of Ratnam’s vision: as the famous confrontation scene between Velu and his daughter makes clear, Ratnam is aware of the problematic nature of an ethical code that is purely personal, but he is equally aware that judgment can be presumptuous in the extreme given that who one is amounts to a great extent, in the final analysis, to what has happened to one. This scene is frankly reminiscent of one of the two famous “confrontations” between Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor in Deewar (there the third in the frame was their mother; in Nayakan it is Velu’s friend and right-hand man Selva), but where the urgency of Bachchan’s charisma and resentful claim draws the viewer firmly to his side, Ratnam and Kamal resolutely refuse to do so, making clear that they are not going to go down the Deewar way (perhaps because if one seeks to replicate that inimitable film as a formula, one might be left with the neo-fascist flirtations of Sarkar as the only real possibility). Velu is not wrong vis-a-vis his daughter Chaaru, but he is not right either.

Finally: Dharavi; that is, the set erected in Madras for the film is one of the most impressive I have ever seen in any film, so vivid it fits in seamlessly with Ratnam’s on-location shots of various Mumbai landmarks, and so memorable that the city would never again be the same on celluloid, as attested to by Parinda, Satya, Company, and even Black Friday. Ratnam does not efface the ramshackle reality of the slum, but he is uncompromising in his insistence that beauty, song, life in the fullest sense, exists here too. He is aided in his efforts by a superb soundtrack by Ilaiyaraja, one that does not seem stale even two decades later, even for those who were first introduced to snippets of it in bastardized form from Feroz Khan’s unfortunate remake Dayavan. Besides Thotta Tharani, who won a National Award for Art Direction, the anonymous (to us) technicians and workers who constructed the set are among the true heroes of Nayakan, and while we will never know all of their names, Ratnam’s incorporation of their work in — indeed the centrality of their work to — Nayakan is a permanent memorial to their efforts, and, like all else about this film, a great one.

[Original post at qalandari.blogspot.com]

Virumaandi: fine effort

Virumaandi was making news even prior to release, its working title, “Sandiyar” not going down well among certain Dalit outfits, and presumably their constituents, for the implication that Haasan’s film was glorifying notions of caste pride and an ethos that Dalit activists held responsible for violence against Dalits in rural Tamil Nadu; the protests and outcry led Haasan to change the title, but some of his critics were not appeased, and calls for a boycott dogged the film even subsequent to release (it’s unclear if these adversely impacted the film’s box office performance, and at least one critic has suggested that they might have helped). Once released, the film garnered good reviews, mainly from liberal and left-leaning sources for its anti-death penalty stance, but in general from cinephiles happy to see a quality film that by any yardstick was one of the more notable films India had produced over the course of the ongoing decade. Amid all the discussion it was easy to forget that underneath the story that Virumaandi became lay a masala film, and one of the most intelligent and hard-hitting ones in recent years.

The film begins with television reporter Angela (Rohini) who is making a documentary on conditions inside a jail, where something truly appears rotten, what with a sleazy cop, mysterious prisoner deaths, and protesting families. In short order the reporter focuses on two of the jail’s more notorious inmates, Kothalla Thevar (Pasupathi) and Virumaandi (Kamal Haasan), the latter sentenced to death, the former to a life term, for their roles in the massacre of twenty four people. Thevar gets to tell his side of the story to the reporter first, the story of two villages with a history of enmity between them, degenerating into violence despite Pasupathi’s best intentions, mainly due to the vainglorious and ultra-violent Virumaandi, who even rapes and kills Annalakshmi (Abhirami), Thevar’s niece — or so we are told. But there are as they say two sides to every picture, and when Angela coaxes Virumaandi to speak, a second, “true” flashback results, and Thevar is revealed in all his villainy, as is the tragedy of Virumaandi, cursed by virtue of owning the only plot of land in the area with access to a ready supply of water, and by film’s end left bereft of his only living relative and his lover. The second flashback culminates in a jail riot in the film’s present-time, and an opportunity for Kothalla Thevar and Virumaandi to settle scores amidst general mayhem, and some of the most superbly shot onscreen violence I have seen in an Indian film in recent times.

Much has been made of the film’s supposed structural similarity to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but the parallels are overblown. Director Kamal Haasan gives us a nod to the Japanese master’s classic, but no more; and this is as it should be, given the very different philosophical perspectives of the two films. In Rashomon the truth is unknowable, an epistemological problem that is the condition of (our?) existential derangement; in Virumaandi the Janus-like structure — which ultimately privileges the version of reality offered by the film’s hero, to the extent that the initial story told is revealed to be a lie proffered by the villain — dovetails with the film’s avowed aim of arguing against capital punishment. Haasan’s point is not that the truth is unknowable but that there are truths the law cannot begin to fathom, or — at a minimum — that the law is an imperfect instrument for determining the truth. Cinema might well be a better calibrated instrument to that end (better not only than the law but also than other institutions that purport to present truth), and the film’s overture offers a number of visual cues to make the point, as the viewer is led to see the world through the TV cameraman’s lens, the editing room monitor, and even through the gate’s sighthole at the jail where Thevar and Virumaandi are being held. The director’s camera, of course, at one step removed, takes it all in, and as a cinephile it is hard not to be seduced by this vision of cinematic omnipotence, so very in keeping with Haasan’s tremendous self-regard. The man has never been known to be lacking in chutzpah, and in the blustery world of the Sandhyars in rural Madurai district, Haasan has finally found a setting that fits his instincts like a glove.

Virumaandi is not without its flaws: in particular, the director tries to ride two horses, striving to do justice to both Haasan’s anti-capital punishment ideology and to the blood-soaked revenge drama that every masala instinct in the film strains toward. The task is a difficult one, never more so than when Muthulingam’s epic lyrics pace Virumaandi’s jailbreak to words evoking the imagery of a god emerging from his cave to wreak vengeance, a deity who may not be restrained by any law. How does this wanton bloodfest fit into the anti-death penalty schema? None too seamlessly, but it’s so enthralling one ends up not caring in the slightest. For make no mistake Haasan is a gifted director, and holds the viewer spellbound not only by virtue of his thorough knowledge of the conventions of masala film-making but also by his ability to evoke the world of the rural Madurai district. The attention to detail is impressive, as is the casting of virtually all the characters, especially of Pasupathi as Kothalla Thevar, who makes for one of the most memorable villains in years; Abhirami too shines in her spunky portrayal of Annalakshmi, and in her Haasan to his credit gives us that celluloid rarity, a spirited young rural woman. Kamal is himself earthily enthusiastic and authoritative in the title role, although his acting solidity cannot make up for the fact that he is just too old to essay this role, and I found myself wishing for the lesser acting talents (but voracious screen-hog persona) of Vikram — I suspect that change might well have helped this film at the box office, although Virumaandi apparently had a welcome run at the box office by the standards of Haasan’s recent fare. Finally, Ilaiyaraja’s music is superb here, rustic and addictive in several tracks, and melodious in the love songs.

I don’t mean to cavil: for this is a fine directorial effort, and Kamal Haasan is to be commended for his willingness to take risks, and for his uncompromising insistence on taking Tamil cinema to new frontiers (with Kamal himself cast in the role of messiah, of course). All in all, this film means that I eagerly await the man’s next directorial offering: for Virumaandi is one of the best Indian films I have seen in the last two years, and one of the few that takes the intelligence of its viewers for granted. That alone makes Kamal Haasan part of a select group of mainstream filmmakers; may the man continue full steam ahead.

[Cross posted at qalandari.blogspot.com and Naachgaana.com. Editor’s Note: Please welcome Qalandar, a new contributor to this blog!]

Hey Ram, Univ. of Iowa & more

Hey Ram poster

Some time after Hey Ram released and sank, we heard about it being used as subject material in the University of Iowa. I came across a site titled philip’sfil-ums on the university’s Web-site, maintained by Philip Lutgendorf, with contributions from Cory Creekmur. It’s an amazing site with reviews of Indian movies (mostly Hindi) ranging from Amar Akbar Anthony to Yuva. The syllabus for Popular Hindi Cinema is put up, along with a list of recommended movies and also a fantastic collection of posters.

Here are excerpts from the Hey Ram review, which provides a fantastic perspective on the movie which the Indian audience didn’t quite appreciate. Despite being a foreigner, Lutgendorf displays a deep understanding of Indian history and culture.

Ultimately, one’s response to HEY RAM will depend on a perception of the plausibility of Saket Ram’s eleventh hour conversion from Gandhi-hater to Gandhian, which in turn hangs on a momentous surprise reunion with Amjad in the twilit lanes of Old Delhi.

…Amjad’s wounding by a Hindu mob caused me to viscerally relive, with Saket Ram, his own wife’s suffering, thus erasing the boundary between One’s-own and the hated and feared Other. From that moment, I was entirely in the thrall of the film’s gut-wrenching vision, and indeed wept throughout its last quarter hour. Movies seldom do this to me, and so I take my hat off to the courageous and cocky Kamal Haasan.

HEY RAM is an important and must-see film, a visceral and visionary experiment in mainstream Hindi cinema.

…Kamal Haasan’s daring and controversial meditation on the violence of Partition and its lingering traumas — a subject virtually taboo in commercial cinema for half a century. While retaining the look and sound of the Bollywood blockbuster…Haasan’s cinematic epic ventures deep into the terrain of communal conflict, examining the process by which human beings create and destroy their intimate “others.”

The film offers an unprecedented portrait of a traumatized survivor of events that others seek to forget, and reopens some of India’s most painful wounds — though ultimately pointing toward a barely-imaginable redemption.

The right-wing BJP party tried to have it banned as an “anti-Hindutva” film, while some Congress Party leaders denounced it as “anti-Gandhi”—the BJP’s reading appears, to me at least, to have been the more astute and certainly more in line with the director’s stated intent. Some leftist intellectuals, however, complained that the film’s refusal to demonize Hindu communalists and its “seductive” use of their imagery entirely subverted any progressive ideological agenda. If nothing else, such glaringly bi-polar interpretations at least suggest the intentional complexity of this courageous and groundbreaking film about individual and collective madness.

As a meditation on Gandhi (albeit one in which he seldom appears on screen), the film offers us a humanized Bapu who is cranky, humorous, and not always sure of himself—a portrayal that I, for one, much prefer to the flat and pontificating Mahatmas of Richard Attenborough (Gandhi 1982) and Shyam Benegal (The Making of the Mahatma, 1996)—whose every utterance appeared ready to be set in granite.

Such realistic strands of identity, within the fabric of Haasan’s fiction, give special meaning to the director’s own ironic subtitle for the film…: “an experiment with truth.”

The film’s Ram, like the epic’s, is traumatized by the loss of his wife and sets out on a quest for revenge that eventually carries him across the length and breadth of India. In the film, this journey includes a second marriage, albeit half-heartedly contracted, with a spirited girl named Mythili (“the girl from Mithila,” a favorite epithet of the epic’s heroine Sita), who, like her namesake, unsuccessfully urges her husband to abstain from violence.

This sequence is accompanied by the most memorable of the film’s five songs (all of which are sensitively inserted into the storyline, and reflect the versatility of famed south Indian composer Ilayaraja) — an anthem strongly critical of communalism…

The assassination scene in the garden of Birla House, though actually shot in the South Indian hill station of Ootacamund, was so exhaustively researched and convincingly recreated that the actress playing Amjad’s mother—who, in fact, had been an eyewitness to Gandhi’s slaying as a girl of twelve—was reportedly overcome with emotion, necessitating a halt in shooting.

Check out the review interspersed with meaningful shots from the movie and laced with interesting tidbits.

Image courtesy: Philip Lutgendorf, University of Iowa.

VV & reviews are out…

Vaettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu is out and so are the reviews. Expectations seem to have been met.

Sify.com possibly came out with the first review, as usual. IndiaGlitz also came up with a review. Both seem fairly unbiased, if you consider their overall assessment.

Excerpts, as usual:

  • …what gives you goose flesh is the finely calibrated performance of Kamal as DCP Raghavan. You just can’t take your eyes off him as he laces his portrayal with dignity, grace and dry wit.
  • Verdict: Go for it
  • …when you have somebody like Kamal who can get into the flesh of any character and Gautham Menon, who knows how to set up the right ambient mood and field, what you have is two and half hours of sustained and quality entertainment.
  • Kamal’s strength is that he can shine in even lonely roles (even when he can’t feed off from somebody else’s intensity). Kamal understates and underplays the cop character with remarkable discernment. The narrative simply unfolds from him.

Update on Sep. 2: Rediff.com review says “Kamal Haasan is brilliant…”.

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