Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Realistic Fantasy: A retro review of Shankar's Indian (1996)

As a 90s kid growing up in Chennai, it was impossible to not notice the humungous splash that Director Shankar was creating with his initial films.  Gentleman (1993) and Kadhalan (1994) were poles apart in terms of content – I dare say, quality too. (The latter is one of my least favorite films of Shankar.)  But with the level of grandeur, be it in action, song sequences or just the canvas overall, Shankar was creating a unique brand for himself.  It was in his third film where Shankar truly fired on all cylinders.  Indian, which I reckon as his best film till date, is not only a magnificent spectacle which made for a terrific theatre experience but also one of the best scripts ever written in service of commercial cinema. 

A common aspect of Gentleman and Indian was the vigilante being hunted down by a committed officer.  But where Charan Raj was a bit of a cinematic caricature, Nedumudi Venu is superb.  Aided by Nasser’s voice, Venu is dignity personified.  If you notice in lesser films, the intelligence of these officers never truly comes out.  Even in a well-made film like Ramana, the investigating officers were made to look like fools in order to make the Yugi Sethu character shine.  Whereas here, Venu’s character is the law-enforcing counterpoint to the violent brand of justice meted out by the Indian Thatha character, essayed, of course, with great style and conviction by Kamal Hassan.  Nowhere is this brought out better than the scene where Venu says that he, as a person, is an admirer of Indian Thatha but as a CBI officer, he is and will always be honesty personified.  The scenes where he goes from “meticulous” to “meticulous, old man” to “meticulous, old terrorist” are among the finest investigation scenes in Tamil cinema.  It is thanks to the sparkling intelligence of these sequences that the film acquires its seriousness amidst the commercial additions.

The key difference between his earlier films like Indian and Muthalvan versus his most recent works was that he and writer Sujatha brought a lot of painstaking detailing to what were inherently scenes straight out of a fantasy.  Take the TV station scene for instance.  How a septuagenarian could break into a TV studio, film a murder and manage to get it telecast is, if you think about it, nonsensical.  But the amount of details that are packed, the explanation given around the Philippines-based telecaster all point to one admirable trait – Shankar did not want the audience to feel that their intelligence was insulted.  It was as if he set out to demonstrate that if at all an elderly gentleman were to go about making a razor-sharp (!) statement and telecast it during Oliyum OLiyum time, this is probably how he would do it!

Of the two flashbacks in the film, the Kasthuri portions are short but impactful.  The actress too turns in a fine performance.  But it is in the freedom fighter flashback where the magical mix of great writing and top-notch production values happens.  Jeeva’s cinematography in the black and white scenes is masterful, especially the professionally shot war scene.  The sets, the costumes, the purposeful use of graphics are all epic in nature.  I love the little moment when Senapathi (a follower of Subhas Chandra Bose) shoots a puppet and later apologizes for it.  It is a character-defining moment that shines light on the depth of his patriotic fervor.  AR Rahman's "Kappal Yeri Poyaachu" in the flashback is a marvel. (The film, incidentally, also has one of his best background scores.)

Indian is not a perfect film by any means.  Shankar’s early films had some disgusting ‘male gaze’ scenes like the introduction of Manisha Koirala here.  His characterization of the women in his films have rarely left an impact.  The two heroines here are little more than eye candy.  Only Sukanya has a meaty role.  But even her character is subject to the gratuitous sensationalism in the riots scene. (Sukanya recollected in an interview that she had serious issues with how the sequence was shot.)  Shankar’s weakness in writing romantic scenes is evident here too.  He tries to obscure that weakness by making the scenes comic.  But as a result, Manisha pleading with the senior Kamal to spare his son resonates purely because of Sujatha’s great dialogue, not due to her characterization or their romance.  As an aside, that scene is one where Sujatha’s pen is sharper than Indian Thatha’s knife, especially the lines, “avanuku valika koodathu-nu meesai-ya ezhandha Senapathi inaiki avana ezhaka mudivu pannittan.  Unna vida enaku thaan ma ezhappu jaasthi.” 

Weaknesses aside, Indian remains an instance of a grand spectacle where style doesn’t trump substance.  The trailer of Indian-2 doesn’t look nearly as fresh or exciting as the original was.  But let us hope that even if the film doesn’t live up to the exalted standards of the original, that it doesn’t diminish its legacy.  Because Shankar’s films may have gotten bigger and grander in terms of visuals and graphics.  But it was in Indian where the expensive and exclusive fabric of the production was truly the by-product of a yarn that was ‘meticulously’ spun by its writing team.

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