Diwali 1995 offered a delectable variety for moviegoers across genres. If Muthu was a typical commercial vehicle for Rajni, Makkal Aatchi was a rare highlight for RK Selvamani, post his early hattrick of successes. But the film that I will remember for its cracking fireworks will be PC Sreeram’s Kuruthi Punal. An official remake of Drohkaal, it is a gripping, violent film. That it is also thought provoking at many places is a reason why the film stands above other action films.
The plot of Kuruthi Punal is uncomplicated. Two best buddies, Aadhi (Kamal Haasan) and Abbas (Arjun) plan a covert operation to infiltrate a militant group headed by Badri (Nasser). The success of their effort, Operation Dhanush, hinges on their protégé Siva (Arvind Krishna) and his ability to earn the trust of Badri's gang and pass on valuable information to Aadhi and Abbas. The trials and tribulations of this pair, the impact that this operation has on them and their families, is depicted in a gritty, focused manner.
The absence of songs is not the only element of Kuruthi Punal that we can adduce as evidence of the filmmaker’s convictions. This is a taut, tight film that is interested in delving deep into the characters’ psyche and motivations instead of framing a good vs evil battle. The film focuses as much on the vulnerability of the protagonists as it does on their bravery. As a result, there is none of the instant gratification of the traditional police stories. This talky film demands a bit of patience and reflection of the viewers. Also, as was seen in films like Thani Oruvan decades later, the film is brave enough to have a sharp, quick thinking antagonist. In fact, it is the Badri character who, especially in the latter portions, calls the shots in the brinkmanship between law and outlaw. So, even though the film’s posters may have reeked of bravado and style, the actual film is a meditative exploration of the highs and lows of the protagonists.
Actor Madhavan once quoted Kamal as saying that, “it is okay to take the back seat in service of a film.” That is exactly what Kamal does here. Even though Arjun may have had limited screen time, it is his Abbas character that sparkles at several places. It is his sacrifice that spares Kamal’s family of a certain death at the hands of the Surendar character. There is a lovely moment where Arjun excoriates Kamal (“What shit are you talking, man?”) where you witness that unspoken privilege that their friendship offers him. Their relationship is showcased beautifully. Little choices like them wearing identical outfits, Arjun saying, “En Siva romba getti…I am sorry, nambo Siva” are all instances of a kinship being projected in an unfussy manner. Kamal, as a writer, has always been fond of depicting a sibling-like relationship between a man and his friend’s wife. (This was seen in Hey Ram, Dasavatharam and Manmadhan Ambu as well.) And Geetha’s (who plays Arjun’s wife) outburst as she tugs onto Kamal is a deeply poignant scene. Kamal, the actor, gracefully cedes the spotlight to his fellow actors in these scenes because of the demands of the script.
Of course, the man that steals the spotlight, its bulbs and wires, is Nasser. In what is arguably his career best performance, he turns in a searing portrayal of an antagonist who is “driven by ideology.” Notice his body language change in the scene where he realizes that Kamal has identified him as the leader of his group; it is a bravura performance. He is the core around which the plot pivots in the second half. Fully aware of the responsibilities Kamal and PC have placed on his broad shoulders, he rises to the occasion with an incredibly arresting performance.
Like Kamal the writer, the entire technical crew contributes handsomely to the singular vision of the film. Be it the sound design (for the first time in Tamil cinema, the sound of bullets feel real), PC's stupendous cinematography (especially the interrogation scenes) and Mahesh’s rousing background score, they all work in perfect unison with one another. Together they enhance the film’s impact in a thoroughly professional manner, never once calling undue attention or yanking the viewers out of the mood of a scene.
The violence in the last 45 minutes of the film is intensely graphic. But as with all the other elements of the film, the unflinching violence does not feel out of sync with the story. Starting with Nayagan, Kamal has rarely shied away from realistic violence. Even if one could argue that he overdoes it from time to time, it is impossible to not register the impact of it when it fits into the script as organically as it does in Kuruthi Punal.
Watching it 25 years after its release, the film has aged incredibly well, its central themes still largely relevant. Kuruthi Punal is a good example of what characterizes Kamal Haasan’s best works – they stand the test of time because they were ahead of their times to begin with.