Friday, April 30, 2021

Wit and Wisdom: A detailed analysis of Manivannan's Amaidhi Padai

The Tamil Nadu assembly election results are due in May.  That seemed like a good enough excuse – not that I need one! – to revisit the best political film ever made in Tamil Cinema, Manivannan’s Amaidhi Padai (1994).  There have been strong contenders like Mudhalvan and Makkal Aatchi.  But Amaidhi Padai remains the pinnacle.  The film is an amazing blend of trenchant wit and solid drama.  The laughs, the tears, the thrills and the chills are all woven seamlessly into an astonishingly fluid narrative.  As opposed to my other reviews, I have chosen to analyze this movie in more detail.  So, please stay with me through this attempt at a detailed dissection of an important film.

The context

Manivannan was going through a rather lean patch in the early 90s.  Though there were the occasional marginal successes like Therku Theru Matchan, Manivannan’s films were a pale shadow of some of the powerful dramas that he made in the 80s.  I attribute it to two reasons.  One was that Sathyaraj had become a bona fide hero.  So, Manivannan could write neither character roles for him nor villainous parts.  And there were very few other actors that could truly do justice to Manivannan’s direction style.  Though he had made some undisputed classics like Ini Oru Sudhandhiram (with Sivakumar in the lead), Manivannan seemed to reserve his best for Sathyaraj and vice versa.  The two of them shared an unparalleled personal and professional chemistry.  But with the trappings of a ‘hero’, Sathyaraj had become limited in what he could offer Manivannan.  And the second reason was that Ilayaraja had – I am unsure of the reason(s) – not scored the music for any of Manivannan’s films between the late 80s and early 90s.  Manivannan himself confessed to packing his scenes with way too many dialogues because he felt that he did not have the luxury of impactful background scores with other music directors.  But with Sathyaraj agreeing to play a villainous character and Raja scoring the music, Manivannan could rely on the two big pillars that rested on the foundation of his script, lifting the film to great heights.  And thus, Amaidhi Padai was born.

The plot of Amaidhi Padai

A son sets out to avenge the cruel injustice that his biological father had meted out to his mother.  In an interview Sathyaraj once observed that the underlying plot of Mr. Bharath and Amaidhi Padai were fundamentally same but that the treatments were so different that one can hardly spot a similarity between these two films.  It is as much a chalk and cheese observation like the claim that some people make around Minsara Kanna and Parasite!  As mentioned earlier, Amaidhi Padai takes the loose ‘revenge’ template but uses it just as an excuse to chart the arc of its antagonist, right from his humble beginnings to his meteoric rise and the inevitable downfall.

The initial portions

The first 20 odd minutes of the film focus on the son (also played by Sathyaraj) and his upcoming engagement with a sweet, innocent girl (Ranjitha).  These portions remind one of Bhagyaraj’s antics with Sulakshana in Thooral Ninnu Poachu.  The light romance leads to the important engagement scene where Sathyaraj is insulted for being an ‘illegitimate’ child.  That, in turn, paves way for the flashback where his grandpa explains the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his birth. 

The Sathyaraj-Ranjitha romance is not especially noteworthy.  But a word about the title song, “Vetri Varudhu.”  It is a rousing number, no doubt.  But paying close attention to the lyrics that Manivannan obtained from poet Ponnadiyan, one instantly recognizes his socialist ideals – Enakum unakum thalaivan thondan naamada… - and his love for his fellow Tamils.  The lines, vaethu manidhan namadhu inathai ozhikkiran…nam naatu manidhan ivanum uyirai edukiraan…” are a terrific one-two punch.

The title song:

The transformation of Ammavasai

The introduction of the Ammavasai character is where Amaidhi Padai begins to truly set itself apart.  From his very first scene, the viewer realizes what the ink of Manivannan’s pen had been yearning for the years prior – a powerful antagonist.  The scenes that depict the gradual rise of the ambitious, cunning Ammavasai are a character establishment tour de force.  We don’t see just a one-dimensional personification of evil.  We witness the growth of a man who is driven by greed and covetous of power, loyalties and gratitude be damned!  Manivannan’s lines that drip with sarcasm and intelligence play no small part in establishing the shrewdness of the Ammavasai character.  And Sathyaraj begins to show us exactly what we had missed in some of his traditional hero roles – the sheer casualness of his body language and dialogue delivery.  Effortlessness is something that is very difficult to achieve on screen.  It requires an actor to completely trust himself and act seemingly oblivious of a camera or a need to ‘perform’.  But Sathyaraj, the villain, was a master at this.  Note the way he delivers lines such as this -  Mudiyum-nu nenachuthunalathan vellakaran poayi nilavula kaal vechutange. Mudiyadhu-nu nenachathunalathan naama innum nela soaru ootikitrukom!”  There is a certain rhythm to Manivannan’s lines that is done full justice to by Sathyaraj. 

Arguably the film’s most vaunted sequence is the election scene.  Manivannan’s conception of this scene is truly ingenious.  The striking visual of Sathyaraj easing into the chair (with his steadily increasing lead over his opponent) is accompanied by a score that similarly increases in intensity, to culminate in a majestic saxophone piece.  In what is a stamp of true genius, Raja uses the same tune with more beats and trumpets when Sathyaraj Senior is reintroduced as the ageing MLA.  The man is a lot more powerful at that juncture and the grand, scintillating background music underscores that.

The election scene:  
The background score for the Sathyaraj Senior introduction:

The handful of scenes that portray Kasthuri falling for Sathyaraj don’t feel nearly as convincing, but the gullibility of her character does serve its purpose in advancing a key plot point – that of her carrying his child out of wedlock.  Amidst such powerful dramatic scenes such as the panchayat scene where Sathyaraj denies any association with Kasthuri, the ‘item’ number with Vichitra seems to be a completely unnecessary commercial compromise, the kind of which have thankfully made their way out of Tamil Cinema.

The Son Rises…So does the Father

Once the grandpa narrates the story of his evil father, the son decides to avenge his mother’s death.  While he assures his grandparents that he will not do anything foolhardy, we do see the stage set for a battle of the son against his father.  The scene with SS Chandran features one of my favorite lines in this film.  As he talks about the death of this daughter (during childbirth) he says, “Naan peththa pillaya selavu kanakula ezhudhittu…ava peththa pillaya varavu kanakula vechutu andha oora vittey kilambiten.”  He could have just said, “Once my daughter died, I just left my hometown with you, my grandson.”  But it is a testament to Manivannan’s felicity with words that such a simple scene is elevated by some sharp dialogue.

In what is another example of economy of scenes to establish a character, Sathyaraj Senior’s feisty wife Sujatha gets just two scenes that show us the depth of her character and her role in the conflict in the second half.  One is the scene where a party worker asks them to name his newborn – she names the girl child, Thaayama after the woman that her husband cheated!  And the second is the short flashback scene the night of their wedding.  When Sathyaraj threatens to chop her leg, she wryly observes, “Oru kaalathula enge veetu watchman, ulla kaal eduthu vecha vettiduven-nu ungala paathu sonnan.  VeLeela kaal eduthu vecha vettiduven-nu neenga enna paathu solreenge!”  In scenes such as this and many others in the second half, Sujatha shows us what a fantastic yet underutilized character actress she could be.  It is a measure of Sathyaraj’s towering presence as the villain that it is easy to forget that it is the Sujatha character that is a worthy adversary to him more than the character of the son.

The seeds of the riot are sown

The first half concludes with a riveting scene featuring an astrologer who pays for his astrology consultation with his own life!  The foundation for the second half is laid with the caste-based riot connived by Sathyaraj.  He hatches a devious plan to distract the voting public away from his own failings as a leader.  In what is a trope that was utilized by Shankar years later in Mudhalvan, the self-serving politician engages in the kind of brinksmanship that would result in huge loss of life and property to advance his own agenda.  This is where the satirical element of Amaidhi Padai shines brightly.  Be it tossing off throwaway lines such as, “Mael jaadhi naaynge…andha naaynge-ngaratha azhuthi sollanum” or casually evoking the demolition of Babri Masjid, the writing is in top gear in these scenes.  For a satire to truly work, the writer has to get to the depths of the target that he has set out to skewer.  Amidst all the laughs that the director-actor duo serve us here, it is imperative to not miss the serious issues that they bring to the fore such as the futility of caste-based violence. 

The conflicts – both personal and political – escalate

The son reenters the picture as part of the reserve police that is tasked with controlling the riots.  The father – son meeting scene is a memorable one.  This is a scene where father and son engage in a verbal duel, one sincerely expressing his idealism and the other brazenly verbalizing the realpolitik that he stands for.  But before they start conversing, there is a stupendous background score that accompanies the visuals where the son ‘introduces’ himself to his father.  Sathyaraj Senior’s expressions are delightfully nuanced, as is his shrieking, “Junior!”  

The father-son verbal duel:

The conflict escalates and Sathyaraj Senior decides to eliminate every obstacle in his path of political glory.  As heartless a person as he is in this movie, he realizes that he is committing a grave sin by ordering his henchman to kill his own wife.  There is a beautifully acted scene where Sathyaraj realizes that it will be his final goodbye to Sujatha.  He knows that she doesn’t deserve to die.  But he is so intoxicated with political power that he just cannot stop himself.  The manner in which Sathyaraj pauses and turns towards Sujatha to see her one last time is strangely moving.  It is a shade of this evil incarnate that adds a human dimension to the character.  It is moments like these that should not be overlooked as we celebrate the humor and satire of Amaidhi Padai.  It is as much a powerful drama with three-dimensional characters as it is a political film.

Sujatha's final scene:

For how superb the conflicts are built up, the dénouement of Amaidhi Padai remains a crushing disappointment.  Seemingly unable to decide whether he wants to let the villain or the hero deliver the coup de grace, Manivannan wrongly opts for the latter.  I have always wondered why the villain didn’t deliver on his earlier words that if he realizes that he is about to fail politically, he will commit suicide.  Was it because that kind of a climax would have reminded us too strongly of Pagal Nilavu?  Or, was it because Sathyaraj, still a leading hero in Tamil Cinema, had to be the one to deliver the knockout punch to the villain (also played by him)?  Whatever the origins of this climax are, it is just not a fitting end to this classic.  But the impact of the prior 2 ½ hours is so strong that the film has stood the test of time and continues to rightfully be regarded as a classic.

Manivannan is no more.  He died way too young.  But with films like Amaidhi Padai, he has left behind a body of work that may have had its share of misses.  But when he got into his zone, there were very few that could match his level of razor-sharp writing or surehanded direction.  And with creative collaborators like Sathyaraj and Ilayaraja, he knew exactly how to bring his vision to life.  It is the sort of ‘life’ in a creation that makes its creator immortal even after he passes on.

Miss you, Manivannan Sir.  My sincere thanks for Amaidhi Padai.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Shot Stories – A compilation of 10 unbroken takes in Tamil Cinema

Having just finished reading Glenn Kenny’s intricately detailed book, “Made Men” on the creation and enduring impact of The Goodfellas, I revisited key sequences from the film.  One of which was the stunningly shot Copacabana sequence.  It is a bravura 3-minute sequence filmed as a single “shot.” (In case you didn't know already, according to Wikipedia, a shot is “continuous footage or sequence between two edits or cuts.”)  This set me thinking about Tamil cinema sequences where I felt very little or no little ‘cuts’ between shots.  And as I began compiling a list of shots of considerable length, I was amazed at the dazzling array of performances or feats of cinematography that Tamil Cinema can boast of.  Without further ado, here is a list of 10 examples that I have compiled.

1.  Sivaji Ganesan in Parasakthi (1952)

The granddaddy of all Tamil cinema monologues, this court sequence is not shot in one shot.  But there are very limited cuts.  As a result, we get to relish the power and rhythm of Karunanidhi’s lines - the “thadaagam” line takes my breath away every time I watch this – and the diction and intonation of Sivaji Ganesan’s dialogue delivery.  To think that this was Ganesan’s on-screen debut gives me goose bumps.

2.  Nagesh and Baalaiyya in Kadhalika Neramillai (1964)

As with Parasakthi, this rib-tickling sequence is not filmed in one shot.  But again, there is very little cutting.  The manner in which Nagesh tees up his story, replete with his sound effects, and the gradual escalation in tension on Baalaiyya’s face is so delightful that any more cuts would have robbed this sequence off its charm.

3.  Saritha in Achamillai…Achamillai…(1984)

Saritha’s eyes - that’s the shot.  This shot is the actress' showcase, to display a gamut of expressions with her large, powerful eyes.  The sound design, for a film made in 1984, is exceptional.  You can ‘see’ all the off-screen events in your mind’s eye.

4.  Kamal in Gunaa (1991)

If there was ever a character establishment scene where the cinematography (Venu) and writing (Balakumaran), not to mention the scintillating performance, came together seamlessly, this is it.  Thanks to Kamal’s ability to deliver his lines with exquisite modulation while walking in a circular motion, the emotional wallop of Gunaa is unsurpassed.  The circular motion is not just a gimmick.  It purposefully takes us into the disturbed mind of the protagonist instantly.  

5.  Rajni in Annamalai (1992)

The book, “My Days with Baasha” co-written by director Suresh Krissna and Malathi Rangarajan is a truly illuminating read.  We tend to take starry vehicles for granted, not always valuing the decisions taken by the behind-the-scenes unsung heroes.  In the Annamalai portions of the book, the director details how, in the crucial confrontation sequence, instead of cutting too much or moving in a more conventional round trolley fashion, the camera first moves from right to left (starting from behind NizhalgaL Ravi) gradually zooming in and out of Rajni, drawing a neat triangle.  PS Prakash’s camera movements are smooth, unobtrusively but palpably enhancing the intensity of the searing Rajni monologue.

6.   The route to the hideout in Roja (1992)

This is the earliest instance I remember of a steadycam shot.  As Santhosh Sivan's camera moves steadily on the rocky path (Rahman’s background score is superb) towards the hideout, we experience not just a dazzling display of cinematography but a gradual build-up of tension as we get to see where Aravind Swamy is held hostage.

1:09:08 min point in the video below:

7.  Parthiban in Swarnamukhi (1998)

There is an unforgettable scene in this film where Fathima Babu visits Parthiban to request him to gracefully exit her daughter Devyani’s life.  A flurry of emotions from shock to anger to indignation to devastation envelops Parthiban.  This is where the actor summons all his acting chops.  The manner in which he implodes with grief (once Fathima Babu leaves the house) is deeply moving – the way he collapses to the floor is just about the perfect finish to this scene.  Click ‘Play’ to go to the part of this scene that happens in one unbroken shot. (While you are at it, check out the next scene in Devyani's house as well. Parthiban is stupendous in that scene too.)

8.   Raghuvaran in Mugavari (2000)

When Raghuvaran tells a story, you don’t cut away. You just sit and listen.  That’s exactly what director Durai did with this lovely story that he narrates.  Balakumaran’s lines are profound – inga jeikala-na makku-nu solluvange…jeichitta luck-nu solluvange.  And PC Sreeram’s camera lovingly captures a master character actor at work.

9.   Prabhu Deva – Raju Sundaram in Pennin Manadhai Thottu (2000)

One of India’s finest dancers and his brother, an equally brilliant choreographer, come together for this foot-tapping number.  For a little over a minute, they move together in perfect sync, perfectly utilizing the props in the slum.  None of the dance steps are particularly noteworthy but the gay abandon with which they dance as a duo makes this song rather irresistible.

2:39 min point in the video below:

10. The birthday scene in Kannathil Muthamittaal (2002)

One of my favorite character establishment sequences, this scene is captured all in one shot, focusing on Keerthana and her family members, quickly establishing the impishness of the kids, the pragmatism of the mother and the impulsive nature of the Dad. This scene is especially effective as a prelude to the adoption scene.   The camera movements are gradual and the actors ‘behave’ on screen in such a way that it does not look staged at all.  It is no wonder Mani Ratnam’s craft is admired as much as it is!

I could not get the Tamil version of this scene. Click on "Play" to go directly to this scene.