Several tributes poured in two weeks back in honor of K Balachander’s 90th birth anniversary. Many films were discussed and dissected. For a filmmaker who boasted of such a rich oeuvre, it is impossible to achieve comprehensiveness in the true sense of the word. But one film that I sincerely feel that deserves more attention is KB’s Kalki, released in 1996. I remember reading some fairly positive reviews. The film ran for over 100 days. Sure, it has flaws. It is overwrought in parts. The music, for a KB film, is mediocre. One of the lead characters (Rahman) comes across as terribly one-note. And a key plot point is reminiscent of Sindhu Bhairavi. Yet, it is far from a film that can be dismissed. The three female characters, played by Sruthi, Geetha and Renuka, are all superbly detailed. The actors all do full justice to their roles that are diverse from one another. But in my book, the best of them is the titular character played by Sruthi.
When on song, K Balachander was a master at establishing plucky characters with an economy of scenes. Be it Seetha slapping a lecherous old man in a movie theater (Unnal Mudiyum Thambi) or Suhasini turning all inquisitive in the middle of a concert (Sindhu Bhairavi), KB made his audience sit up and take notice of his female leads swiftly. Sruthi in Kalki sparkles right from the beginning. One of the best scenes in the film is the sequence where she calms down an agitated former policeman (Thalaivasal Vijay, in a splendid cameo) who brandishes a gun in a supermarket. She, like other shoppers, is stunned initially. But the moment she hears of his sad past, she sets her basket aside, approaches him and…kisses him, upon him requesting her. One can go into the rights and wrongs of the decision she takes. But for who this character is, this is just about the perfect character establishment scene. It is also a crucial scene for another reason. Geetha sees her in action here and is drawn to her because she sees a trait in Kalki that she doesn’t possess – boldness.
16-min point in the video:
Upon hearing the horrors and trauma of Geetha’s marriage and divorce from Prakashraj and her yearning for a child, Sruthi hatches a plan to get close to Prakashraj, who is now married to Renuka. She becomes pregnant with his child and decides to ‘gift’ the child to Geetha. Rahman plays an aspiring film actor who is hopelessly in love with Sruthi. If that plot is KB-esque in spirit, the way Sruthi essays her role does not really have the stamp of the KB film performance. And I mean that as a compliment.
There are some films where I felt like the lead actors and actresses had some all too familiar tics and quirks. These mannerisms, some endearing, some annoying, made it appear as though the actors were simply acting out instructions and not blending with the characters. To me, that made some truly three-dimensional characters – on paper – appear as two-dimensional on the rectangular screen. No such problems are evident with Sruthi’s acting here. Apart from the customary KB eye-squint at a couple of places, her performance comes across as authentic and in sync with her characterization. As a result, Kalki comes across as a flesh-and-blood character. The way she essays this scene (below) is a case in point. Her agitated movements in the house, the relief upon seeing Rahman and the slaps on his face all come across as absolutely real. KB’s lines sizzle, especially the manner in which Kalki berates birthday celebrations. (Trivia: After Thillu Mullu, this is the second KB film that features the word, bourgeois!)
1 hr 20 min point in the video:
Sruthi’s performance is especially measured in the rather dramatic concluding portions. There is tremendous conviction in the way she utters KB’s piercing dialogues. Especially these two lines – “Naan senjathu than right-nu solla varle, aana naan senjathu thappu illa.” And, “Karpa vida conviction perisa thonichu.” It takes an actor of special talents to not only rise above good material but also lift the material itself from paper to screen convincingly. Sruthi possessed that talent. Too sad that no other filmmaker in Tamil gave her meaningful material.
2 hr 25 min point in the video:
Kalki remains a footnote in KB’s illustrious career. And whatever its flaws may be, I think it deserves more attention. It is a rare film that makes a mockery of Tamil cinema’s sickening obsession with the virginity of its female characters. Even the way the film ends is refreshing, for a KB film. (Spoiler alert: The fact that it doesn’t have a tragic ending, in a way, is a statement too against patriarchal notions of purity and virginity.) Above all, the lead actress turns in a performance that is arresting from start to finish. And that is reason enough to shed a bit of light on this sadly underrated film.