Friday, January 11, 2019

The river continues to flow: Reflections on "Mahanadhi" 25 years after its release

It was 25 Januaries ago that one of the most important films in my life hit the theaters.  Matters of taste are extremely subjective.  But let me just say that if I were to pick five movies that made me cherish good cinema, appreciate understated acting and applaud perceptive writing, on top of that list would be Mahanadhi.  It is a film that chalked its place in my subconscious over the years and has stayed there.  And at the risk of engaging in hyperbole, I will say that this movie helped me find and refine the film fanatic in me. 

Reams of film essays have focused on various aspects of the film.  Such is the density of thought and the delicacy of expression.  There are several emotionally devastating moments that make this movie a rather tough experience.  But it is a testament to the institution that is Kamal Haasan that I make myself go through this experience time and again, only to be awestruck at the impact that a fictional tale can make.  I think that the reason is that Kamal Haasan, as a writer, usually transports the viewer to the worlds he creates – Devar Magan, Kuruthi Punal, Hey Ram, Virumaandi, Anbe Sivam all feature milieus and situations that are not exactly familiar to the lay person.  But aided by his carefully sculpted scripts, Kamal the actor made you invest in the extraordinary situations that the protagonists found themselves in.  But the reason Mahanadhi is in a different league altogether when it comes to emotional resonance is because Kamal does not take the viewer to his world; he brings his world to the viewer. 

By making the protagonist a very unheroic character - in the cinematic sense of the word - and by writing situations that are rooted in realism, even if of the gut-wrenching kind, and above all, adopting an acting style that is an exercise in understatement, Kamal ‘brings’ the characters right next to us.  He gives us the feeling that we are watching the proceedings as a helpless, invisible observer.  Nowhere else have I felt a two-dimensional screen project the happenings in a film to me as Mahanadi did…and still does.  Without wearing any weird glasses, I have experienced the most fulfilling three-dimensional experience every time I revisit this film!

When people talk about Mahanadhi, they invariably refer to the sadness.  But look closer, you will realize that there is a lot of goodness in the movie too.  Kamal’s life is made miserable by a slew of detestable antisocial elements.  But at the same time, he is surrounded by a worldly-wise mother-in-law (SN Lakshmi), a caring jail warden (Rajesh), a woman that loves him deeply (Sukanya), to name a few.  Of the lot, the late SN Lakshmi stands tall.  There is no artifice in her performance.  For a veteran artiste who had acted in much more melodramatic fare in the 60s and 70s, she is remarkably restrained.  She sells every moment that she is on screen, especially the lovely early morning scene where she offers Kamal some sage advice in the most loving manner possible.    

Click on Play to go to the SN Lakshmi scene:

Even as the movie descends into one emotional abyss after another, it is continually peppered with moments of pure, humane goodness.  When Kamal is beaten black and blue by the constables, the kind-hearted Rajesh gifts him a book of Bharathiyar poems.  And the stirring lines which end with "...naan veezhven endru ninaithayo" do more justice to this scene than any dialogue could possibly have. (Bharathiyar's inspirational poetic verses feature in the climax too.)  And as harrowing as the sequence in the prostitution house is, what stands out is the innocence of the daughter (of one of the prostitutes) who applies sindoor on the forehead of Kamal’s daughter once she is rescued.  Kamal’s reaction here is one of the most priceless images ever committed to film.

Light at the end of the tunnel:

MS Prabhu’s cinematography brings to mind Mani Ratnam’s words about the craft behind a movie – “It is okay if viewers don’t recognize something as long as they sense it.”  His work is especially stellar in the prison sequences.  His close-ups of Kamal’s face in the hauntingly bittersweet scene with his daughter is a case in point.  Kamal’s instinctive reaction when his daughter falls at his feet is a brilliant piece of emoting, one that is captured in an unobtrusive manner by Prabhu’s camera.  His camerawork in the brothel is astounding – note the overhead shots through the narrow lanes.  It brings a sense of claustrophobia and heightened anxiety as Kamal searches for his daughter.

"Kaveri enga?":

Ilayaraja, as is his wont, comes up with a magnificent background score for the emotionally charged scenes.  My favorite piece of his actually plays during the action sequence in the prison.  The violin piece, even as Kamal beats Shankar to a pulp, is a wail that perfectly describes the mindset of the Kamal character – he is not resorting to violence out of rage; the blows are a byproduct of immense pain.  It takes a perceptive genius to understand the nuances of Kamal’s writing and as always, Ilayaraja rises to the occasion. 

Raja's use of violin in a stunt sequence:

Finally, a word about Kamal’s dialogues, which he co-wrote with Ra. Ki. Rangarajan.  Kamal’s penchant for weaving in his personal views into his writing is well-known.  Here too, indignation that is vented out in tirades against societal evils, rationalistic thoughts, a mention of Mahatma Gandhi are all there.  But there is not a single place where any of these lines or thoughts stick out like a sore thumb.  Every discourse about the ills pervading the society flows organically from a situation faced by the character.  While the conversation that Rajesh, Poornam Vishwanathan and Kamal have in Rajesh’s house features several sharp lines, it is the late-night outburst of Kamal that seamlessly blends searing intensity and emotional poignancy.  

"Nallavanuku kedaika vendiya ella mariyadhaiyum...":

It has been 25 years since Mahanadhi hit the screens.  Many of the themes are undeniably – even unfortunately - relevant in this day and age.  The movie, named after a river, not only continues to lead us to a stream of tears but also makes us marvel at its oceanic depths.  The experience might make us feel drowned in a whirlpool of sorrow but thanks to several standout moments of goodness, it buoys us to the surface too.  That a creator can command such attention and involvement is a tribute to not just the filmmaker but also to cinema itself. 


Zola said...

Superbly written Ram ! I can see that you were heavily invested and it flows in your writing in this piece.

"Kamal does not take the viewer to his world; he brings his world to the viewer" This was one of the lines where I felt you were channeling Kamal the writer. In fact he very well could have written this line :)

Personally, I avoid movies like Mahanadhi. But thats more a personal failing and doesnt take away anything from it.

Absolutely agree that his underplaying in this one - like in Vettaiyaadu Velaiyaadu, was top class. A veritable acting machine as it were. you ask more he gives more. You ask less he gives less.

Amazing !

Zola said...

One more interesting sidelight.

Kamal had listed 50 movies which he had either acted in or watched with a one liner on each.

On Mahanadhi alone he went into paras - simply because he had to explain why he made it.
One reason was ofcourse was his views on corruption in society.

The other had its roots in an incident where Kamal's own domestic staff, driver, etc were planning to kidnap his children. Luckily he came to know of it in time and fired his staff.

Ram Murali said...

Comment on WhatsApp from my friend's Dad:

I agree with you Ram, Mahanadhi is one of my all-time/ anytime favourite movie and almost all the actors in the movie have done a class act and obviously, apart from Kamal, S N Lakshmi, Kamal's friend who tempts him to invest his money ( I forget his name, I think he is no more )have been a stand out.
The scene where he meets his daughter in the Red light area, the one where Kamal meets that guy who lured the innocent Shobana into prostitution saying, நீ உதிர்த்து போட்ட குப்பையெல்லாம் இன்னிக்கு குப்பை மேடாயிருக்கு!
Another scene where Kamal finds his lost son amidst narikuravas. The narikuravas ask K whether he will have food with them and he replies, என் பையன் இத்தனை நாள் சாப்பிட்ட சாப்பாட்டை நான் சாப்பிட மாட்டேனா என்ன! Many scenes like this would well up the eyes of many�� Thanks for sharing the movie, which would help me to rewind and recall the dialogues which will always remain etched in my memory����

Zola said...

Here's the link Ram. Check out what he has to say about Mahandai

Ram Murali said...

Zola and Uncle, thank you for your kind words.
Zola - that list is a treat to read.

sai16vicky said...

Hi Ram,

Sorry for the digression. I didn't know how to reach you and recently wrote a post that I thought you would really appreciate. It is here -- Since you are a great Vasanth fan that I know of, really looking forward for your comments.

Sai (sai16vicky from BR's blog)

Ram Murali said...

Sai - thank you for sharing. I have commented on your blog.

sai16vicky said...

Thanks a lot Ram! Your feedback meant a lot to me.

Ram Murali said...

Sai, I don't know if you are on twitter - I tweeted a link to your write-up:

sai16vicky said...

Hi Ram,

Unfortunately, I am not active on twitter but I really really appreciate you sharing it!

Thanks a lot for your comments on the blog as well!