Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Virummandi - Thirai vimarsanam

'Virumaandi' has Kamal Haasan's most non-gimmicky, most affecting,
most effective performance in years, yet I couldn't help wishing he
were twenty years younger. The character is a gum-chewing hothead fond
of booze and brawls and bluster - he'll casually create catastrophes,
then calmly appear in court with sacred ash smeared across his
forehead, as if nothing's the matter - and Kamal, at times, looks a
bit old to be indulging in such mischief and mayhem.

It doesn't matter, though - the star of 'Virumaandi' isn't really
Kamal the actor, but Kamal the writer-director. If age has slackened
the jowls and filled out the gut of the former, it's also given the
latter the emotional maturity and the courage of conviction to see
through increasingly unconventional ventures, and 'Virumaandi' is
nothing if not unconventional - from the vertical opening credits on a
colour bar to the end credits that roll before the actual end, as in
TV specials about hot topics whose immediacy Kamal seeks to capture

The hot topic here is capital punishment, and the film uses the
interactions of a researcher on the subject (Rohini) with two
prisoners - Virumaandi and Kothaala Thevar (Pasupathy, in a
career-making performance) - to frame its bloody story about rural
feuds involving a third person, Nallamma Nayakar (Napoleon). (The
videotaping of their accounts and of another unwitting confession
raises a second hot topic, that in this post-Tehelka world, the spoken
word has no strength. If it isn't on tape, it cannot be taken as

Kamal has often expressed admiration for the work of Akira Kurosawa
and Shyam Benegal, and the fabulous first half of 'Virumaandi' - a
what-is-the-truth examination of similar events unfolded through
differing testimonies and different perspectives - is a fitting homage
to the storytelling styles of the former's 'Rashomon' and the latter's
'Suraj ka Saatvan Ghoda'.

Ilayaraja's contribution to these portions cannot be praised enough,
whether in bringing out the festivity around a 'jallikattu' through
the brassy 'kombula poova chutthi' or in orchestrating an 'oppaari'
with different feels to contrast diverging accounts of a tragedy.
(It's more percussive during Kothaala Thevar's narration and more
quietly emotive during Virumaandi's, suggesting that the latter's is
perhaps a truer account.) Equally impressive are Keshav Prakash's
cinematography that alternates between documentary rawness and
dramatic richness, Prabhakaran's invisible art direction, a cast
that's superb right down to the extras, and Kamal's writing, which is
organically one-of-a-piece and not merely an excuse to string together
his latest intellectual musings, exhibiting a fine ear for (often
funny) dialogue and a wonderful eye for detail. (It's no surprise that
Kamal writes for Virumaandi a lovemaking sequence - with Annalakshmi,
played by the earthily ethereal Abhirami - but what's surprising is
that his back still shows a scar from an earlier wound.)

As the story segues into real-time, the narrative novelty is abandoned
and the nuts and bolts of the film stand exposed as Kamal's familiar
themes and trademarks - from 'Thevar Magan' (a 'panchayat' scene
ending with an aggrieved party, bits about a dead child and its
grief-stricken mother), from 'Hey Ram' (a shocking tragedy, spurts of
arterial blood), from 'Mahanadhi' (the jail segments, the detailing of
the hero as an emotional fool).

In the context of the entire experience, though, a less-than-perfect
second half (with more conventional displays of heroism) is a
forgivable flaw, especially when Kamal unleashes unforgettable moment
after unforgettable moment - the balancing of a glass of alcohol on a
bull's back, the almost-surreal revelation that a judge who
shortchanges the law is really a midget, the shadow of a raised sickle
on the back of a shirt, the start of a girl who kisses her lover's
framed photograph and sees him reflected in the glass. This is the
work of an outrageous talent who dances instinctively, and fearlessly,
to the voices inside his head, and that's reason enough to recommend
this near-masterpiece of a movie.

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