Sunday, November 6, 2016

The glimpses of humanity in “Mahanadhi”

As Kamal Haasan turns 62 today, Nov 7th, I want to rewind the clock 22 years in time to the Pongal of 1994 when “Mahanadhi," written by Kamal and directed by Santhana Bharathi, was released.  Viewers, with some of the limited pre-release publicity, probably thought that Kamal was making a family drama, no more no less.  But as the turnstiles opened on January 14th, what people got to experience was the most potent wrench ever to wreak havoc on their gut.  This was soon seen as a fictionalized account of the slimiest side of society ever; a story of a simple man, Krishnaswamy (essayed by Kamal), whose journey starts off in a beautiful Camelot, only to take twists and turns into the ugliest lanes of society.  The journey did end with a ray of hope back in that village where the story originated.  But by then, the viewer felt bare minimum consolation. 

Over the past two decades, I have watched “Mahanadhi” umpteen times, rarely experiencing anything less than an emotionally draining experience.  But a couple of months ago, I revisited parts of the movie because I was writing an article on my favorite ‘smaller’ scenes in Tamil cinema.  The Kamal – SN Lakshmi interactions had always moved me deeply.  So, for that article, I recounted the early morning sequence after Kamal realizes the error of his ways, in trusting a woman with questionable values.  As I watched more of the movie, a thought crystallized in my mind.  That “Mahanadhi” was not just a tale of the darker side of our society.  It seemed, in equal measure, a story of hope, humanity, empathy and above all, the responsibility that we have towards fellow human beings.  In short, Anbe Sivam!  Let me try and illustrate, with a few examples.

The friend’s remarks:  One of the events that sets the story into motion is Kamal’s well-to-do friend visiting his house.  As Kamal sees the sophistication evident in his friend’s kids (who are settled in London), he starts to think of a better future for his family beyond the idyll of his village.  This is depicted in a lovely scene when Kamal’s friend takes leave of him and Kamal’s son asks him for a similarly expensive car.  I found the writing to be exquisite here.  Especially for how Kamal’s friend treats him in a casual but not condescending manner, especially in the way he apologizes for an insensitive remark on Kamal’s wife who had died young. 

Watch from 2:28 – 5:30:

SN Lakshmi’s characterization: “Mahanadhi” has to be the movie with the loveliest portrayal of a mother-in-law character, played by the great SN Lakshmi.  Kamal’s scenes with the seasoned veteran are a joy to behold.  Be it in the way he addresses her as ‘Amma,’ or in the way she requests him – a widower- to get remarried, it is a delightfully understated relationship that was brought to life by the acting and the writing. (Kamal wrote the story and screenplay, while he co-wrote the dialogues with Ra Ki Rangarajan.)  Watch this scene where SN Lakshmi teases him playfully, owing to his eagerness to see Sukanya’s photograph.  Goodness.  Pure and simple goodness.

Watch from 1:30 – 3:06:

Another scene where the Kamal – SN Lakshmi relationship comes to the fore is the delicate, moving sequence when the family visits Kamal in jail after his daughter has come of age.  Amidst all the sadness that pervades the scene are two touching moments.  One where SN Lakshmi says, “Naan thirupathi-ku mottai podartha vendiruken maaple…”  and the other where she apologizes for renting out the house.

Watch from 0:27 – 2:23:

“Naan Veezhvaen Endru Ninaithayo?”: Fans of K Balachander will realize that the Bharathiyar poem cited in a perfectly situational manner in “Mahanadhi” was probably Kamal’s homage to his mentor, given KB's fondness for Bharathiyar.  The timing of the poem’s inclusion here is as perfect as it is thought provoking.  As I had mentioned earlier, one of those hidden-in-plain-sight elements of “Mahanadhi” that I finally started to see was the emphasis on the responsibility that we have towards fellow members of the society.  In this context, the Bharathiyar poem here is like a whiplash, with the Kamal character finding much-needed inspiration at a key moment in his life where he has to bear the one-two punch of societal evil and quirk of fate, without falling down.  Who better than Bharathiyar to urge him to not be felled?  (As an aside, this poem is brought back in an equally appropriate manner in the climactic sequence at the hotel terrace.)

Watch from the start until the 33-sec point:

The kindness of a stranger-exhibit I:   One of the oft-used tropes in thamizh cinema is the portrayal of rich people as monsters and underprivileged people as innocent and gullible.   Truth to be told, “Mahanadhi” does have sequences that utilize this trope.  But the writing is so splendid that the scenes play out in a completely unfussy manner, with the characters remaining just that – characters, not mouth pieces to make larger points.  The “Thalaivasal” Vijay scene is a case in point.  His character doesn’t even have a roof over him, yet offers protective cover to Kamal’s son (who had gotten lost earlier).    What could have been a cliched scene is lifted by some gentle humor and understated sentiments.  The scene has a perfect lead-in, with Kamal raising several tough questions about society, without knowing that the answer actually lay in humans having the most basic of values – kindness.  That he is pleasantly surprised minutes later, lends the late night scene extra poignancy.

Watch from 2:47 of clip 28 till the end of clip 29:

The kindness of a stranger-exhibit II:  Discerning movie goers will probably never forget the prostitution house sequence where Kamal rescues his daughter.  It is one of the most deeply affecting sequences ever to find its way to screen.  But when I watched this scene recently, I noticed a subtext here that I had not realized was there.  That, to ensure that humanness doesn’t become a rare commodity, we ought to be looking out for those that need to be given a lifeline or a lending hand.  And, in this sequence, the lady that pays the pimp Rs. 5000 to let go of Kamal’s daughter is that angel that rescues Kamal.  Savor that irony for a second.  She herself is in a prostitution house and yet, feels the need to help a father in distress.  This has to be Kamal’s most unheroic moment ever.  Which is why his acting is all the more remarkable.  This scene has an utterly poignant end where her daughter applies sindoor on the forehead of Kamal’s daughter.  (Actually, one overlooked aspect of “Mahanadhi” is the progressive nature of the movie.  In the world of thamizh cinema that can, sometimes, be very regressive in its approach to its women characters, this movie ends with Kamal's daughter, a victim of prostitution, being happily married to the son of the jailor, played by Rajesh.)  

Watch from 4:06:

As I sit back and reflect on this movie, I am reminded of Parthiban’s lovely line, “Innoruthar irukum varai yaarume anaadhai alla.”  The way I look at it, we sometimes have to be that “innoruthar.” And, I must thank Kamal and his “Mahanadhi” for making me think of what I owe my fellow human beings. From up above, both Bharathiyar and K Balachander would be smiling with pride as they think of what Kamal accomplished with "Mahanadhi."  That, in itself, is as good a birthday blessing as Kamal could possibly get!


Acknowledgment: Sincere Thanks to Anu Warrier for letting me adopt her style of recounting impactful moments from her favorite movies.  A wonderful writer, she blogs at


Zola said...

Ram Murali :

Awesome in its simplicity ! Really loved this article on Mahanadhi, one of the movies I always am squeamish of watching. That last line of the first para and the interactions between Kamal and SN Lakshmi were simply too good.

And nice of you to acknowledge Anu in your article.

Great going !

Rahini David said...

It is not a movie I have seen many times for it is not a movie I CAN see many times. It is surely too draining. The thalaivasal Vijay sequence is sadly overshadowed by a number of poignant scenes. I loved the detailing in that scene where 'T' V says "Engalukku ellam mele vaanam keezha boomi, kashtam ellam ungala maadthiri aatkalukku thaan saamy" when offered movie to compensate to the effort he took in taking care of the son for 2 years. This line is something I have thought about often and anyone who has witnessed the nari-kuravar way of life will agree that he is telling the truth.

Also I loved the detailing in Sukanya's character. She responds to the matrimonial ad herself. It is not Poornam Vishwanathan who responds to the ad as is the usual practice.

After she realises that Kamal is in jail, she takes it upon herself to visit his family regularly. She changes SN Lakshmi's medication from injections to pills and makes Mahanadi Shobana take typewriting lessons, promising her that she will help her join a computer class soon. This sort of detailing disappeared in Kamal's subsequent work, IMO.

Zola said...

I'll go with Rahini.

I'd rather "see" the movie through this article than go through the gut wrenching events in the film.

Can absolutely relate to the comment on 'Narikuravar'. There's a couple ho come daily to take the apartment garabage ...and they're the ONLY ones in the world who SMILE !

Anu Warrier said...

Ram, Mahanadi is one of the few films that I cannot bear to watch again - like Thaniyavarthanam in Malayalam, Chandni Bar in Hindi and La Veuve de Saint-Pierre in French.

I will remember it through your recollections, and agree that despite the despair that runs through the film, Kamal manages to allow the rays of humanity to shine through.

Thank you for the shout out; that was sweet of you. As I said, that style is not unique to me, but I appreciate the acknowledgement.

Nandini said...

For a very long time, I did not muster enough courage to watch this movie after reading the reviews - well made movie but is too intense for someone like me. But, thanks to you Ram for putting together this post that focuses on the positive aspects of the movie. I watched all the scenes that you have embedded in your post. Indeed, very well made- to say the least. As usual, the post is well thought out and beautifully etched.

Anusha said...

I watched Mahanadhi when I was in school, and I never recovered. I was horrified that such a world should exist, and I've never watched the movie in its entirety since. Maybe I catch a scene as it plays on TV but that's about it. The scenes you have recollected are uplifting in a way, but I'd rather just read about them at this point.

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - thank you so much! yes, SN Lakshmi had her best roles in Kamal movies. This one, MMKR, Kadhala Kadhala, Devar Magan...all short but extremely well-written parts...

Rahini - great observations on the detailing of the Sukanya character. Thank you.

Anu - yes, the "rays of humanity" were shining brightly when I watched it this time around. Re: the shout out, you're most welcome. Just a case of giving credit where its due!

Nandu - thank you for reading this despite your strong preference for lighter movies :)

Anusha - "...but I'd rather just read about them at this point." That seems to be the general sentiment! Thank you for commenting...

Unknown said...

I am so glad I landed here today. Happy New Year Ram and thanks for sharing this wonderful writeup with me. (I feel a little guilty that I was able top check up your blog only today. 2016 was an awfully hectic year.)

It is so consistent with what I have read of your comments/posts so far that you should choose to highlight all those lovely, uplifting moments in an otherwise gut-wrenching film. Mahanadhi was the first film I cried a lot after watching and I was barely 8. I couldn't then make out much of what happened in the movie and my mom had carefully shut my eyes in the theatre (after the bad decision of dragging a kid of my age to such a film.) I have always watched only a scene or two afterwards and pieced together the whole film only in my head. Even today, I would hesitate to watch it in full.

It is a wonderful observation you make here about the way the mother-in-law is portrayed: gentle, caring and wise. I wish we had more of such onscreen. Let us begin 2017 with hope :)

Ram Murali said...

Iswarya - so glad to see your comment. Just logging back in after the holidays. Happy New Year to you too.
May this year be great for everyone! As my Dad often says, "Loakakshemam Thamashraye!"

Ram Murali said...

Iswarya - so glad to see your comment. Just logging back in after the holidays. Happy New Year to you too.
May this year be great for everyone! As my Dad often says, "Loakakshemam Thamashraye!"