Even after 16 years, Kamal Haasan’s Virumaandi packs a visceral punch, and for all its debt to Rashomon, it is his ultimate meta movie that analyses Myths, Movies, Truth and Reality.
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas are two of the greatest films ever made. They are also the greatest movies made on the relationship between organized crime, Family bonds, Clan wars and tribal loyalties. The big difference was that Godfather was a classical, romantic take on the subject, with the family patriarch treated as the god of his realm, while Goodfellas was an avant garde, down and dirty treatment of the same , showing the protagonists as the violent wretches they are.
Both films has triggered countless imitations, inspirations, rip offs, etc. in films made all around the world. Kamal Haasan has himself being part of two Godfather adaptations. First was Nayakan , directed by Mani Rathnam where his Shaktivelu Naicker was modeled on the family patriarch Vito Corleone. The second, Tevar Makan , which Kamal himself wrote and produced, had him in the role of Michael the family scion who inherits his father’s mantle. The story of Tevar Makan(1992) was set in the tevar clan of rural Tamil Nadu, and like Godfather. it was designed as a very classical film that romanticized the Tevars especially the lead characters of the feudal lord and his son Sakthivel . Kamal’s directorial venture Virumaandi (2004 ) is again set in the same milieu, and deals with similar subjects of tribal feuds, loyalties and battles over land and women. But this time Kamal takes a ‘Goodfellas’ approach , by going real, down and dirty. with his treatment. the linear narrative structure is chopped up into Rashomon style separate narratives from the perspective of 2 main protagonists of the film Virumaandi Tevar(played by Kamal) and Kothala Tevar(played by pasupati). Both the characters are now in prison – Kothala for life, while Virumaandi is sentenced to death- for their involvement in a mass murder that took the lives of about 24 people. Virumaandi is also accused of raping Kothala’s niece (and Virumaandi’s lover) Annalakshmi , who later committed suicide. Rashomon also dealt with differing perspectives about a rape and murder. But that’s where the Rashomon connection ends .
Unlike in Tevar Makan, where the lead protagonist Sakthivel is shown as a cool headed , well educated, modern leader, who inherited a great legacy from his father, Virumaandi is portrayed as gullible , impulsive, hot tempered and an orphan. His childhood and adolescence was spend in misery, and away from home, in Singapore. He is ruthlessly used and betrayed by people whom he love and trust. This is more the tragedy of Othello to Tevar Makan’s rousing Henry V. And as in Othello, Kothala tevar plays the role of scheming Iago and Annalakshmi is the Desdemona surrogate . the film takes an unflinching look at the violence and destruction caused by these impulsive , ultra-violent men . It’s definitely not a film for the faint hearted, with graphic scenes of heads and limbs being chopped off and scenes of violence against women and children, the film certainly earns it’s A certificate. There are no romantic notions of chivalry or valor here ,its about imperfect human beings, death, demons and lawlessness
Since this is a Kamal Haasan written and directed film, it is dense with multiple layers. The formal structure of the film is extremely ambitious. It consists of a prologue; a news documentary style framing device; two separate movie narratives about the same set of events and an epilogue. Both the prologue and epilogue deals with people talking about abolishing capital punishment. In the prologue, it’s the Eminent justice V.R. Krishna Iyer talking directly to the camera where he terms Capital punishment as state sponsored murder and in the epilogue, it’s Kamal and Rohini (in the characters of Virumaandi and Angela respectively) speaking on a news show about repealing death penalty.
Kurosawa’s Japanese film, Rashomon, explored the concept of Reality in relation to subjective truth from different perspectives in medieval Japan. In Virumaandi, the story is set in the Theni district of Tamil Nadu in contemporary times, but the place is no different from medieval Japan consumed with class and caste feuds. The place is portrayed as a crazy mix of ancient and modern, where women riding motorbikes, mobile phones and a modern police force coexist with bull fights, swords ,sickles and tribal law enforcement. Apart from the two perspectives already mentioned, There is also a third perspective. An objective ‘real’ perspective from the Point of view of an activist Dr. Angela Kaathamuthu(Rohini) who works towards abolishing capital punishment and has now come to the prison, where the Two protagonists are lodged, to interview the inmates. The prison itself is a cesspool of corruption with drug trafficking and murder committed under the aegis of Deputy Jailer ,Peykaman who was also the investigation officer in Virumaandi- kothala case. The jailer, Jayanth (Nasser) is a straightforward man, but is helpless in stopping the corruption
Even as the film deals with subjectivity of truth, it can also be considered a critique of popular mass masala cinema set in the rural heartland ,which is a particular favorite of Tamil film industry, with its superheroes and simplistic solutions to complex issues. Kamal’s previous film Anbe sivam , which was a solemn meditation on the existential crisis of a disfigured communist leader and his relationship with a modern yuppie, was decimated at the box office by the Vikram starrer Dhool: exactly the kind of hero worshiping masala cinema that Virumaandi is critiquing here . What Kamal does, is to give his film the look and feel of a rural mass film, on the lines of a murattukalai, the Rajnikanth starrer or his own sakalakalavallavan , and then goes about subverting it at every stage. In that regard it’s very much a meta movie and here is where the the 3 perspectives come into play.
The film adopts three different visual styles to showcase these three different perspectives. First is that of a television news documentary to show the reality , to capture events as and when they are happening. Angela’s entry into prison, her interview with the two protagonists, the final scenes of riots and subsequent police action, all come in this section. A lot of the shooting is done through the video camera used by Angela’s cameraman to give it an authentic feel.
The second visual style is that of a fast paced mass commercial film. This is for the narration of the events from Kothala Tevar’s perspective. In this version Virumaandi gets a mass introduction sequence: A superbly shot jallikattu sequence where he showcases his valor by taming Annalakshmi’s pet bull followed by a rousing song eulogizing him. Virumaandi is portrayed as a violent immoral drunkard who has no scruples about getting into fights or killing people. Kamal’s performance in these portions are intentionally exaggerated in the vein of massy star performances . The camera moves are swift , the editing cuts are brisk, Ilayaraja’s musical score is loud and the colors are garish. There is also a court scene straight out of a B movie with lawyers arguing in English and a joke about the word ‘pertaining‘ . Here director Kamal is (cinematically) stating that this entire story narrated by Kothala is untrue and fake like the movies they represent
Then comes Virumaandi’s perspective of the events and since this is the true version, it’s shot in a more classical style in the form of serious artistic films. We saw the heroism, the violence in the first story, now here we see the reasons and consequences. The wounds and scars , both physical and emotional. This portion starts of with Virumaandi showing the scar made by Annalakshmi’ on his chest, A mark of love that would end up incriminating him in the crime of rape. We saw the heroic jallikattu scene in the first story, now we see the wounds from it. We saw his emotional outburst and misbehavior at his grandmother’s burial, now we see his pain at her lose. We saw his arrogance, his physical strength, his penchant for violence, now here we see his gullibility, his vulnerability, his yen for forgiveness and him being betrayed by his own people while being protected by his enemies. Above all it subverts the concept of taming of the shrew elements that was present in the first version – and a staple of Tamil mass cinema – showing that it is the other way around. It’s Virumaandi who gets tamed by Annalakshmi. She being the more intelligent, cool headed and superior to the hot headed ruffian .
As already mentioned, this version is more classically shot. The takes are long, the editing is fluid and takes its time between cuts. The colors are muted and so is the musical score, including the songs. It’s stunning to see a sad song showing Virumaandi’s agony at the passing of his grandmother used against the visuals of the rousing title track celebrating the God Virumaandi from the folk tales. All in all , this version represents the kind of cinema that Kamal believes in and hence represents the true version of the events.
There is another layer regarding the local myth of God Virumaandi, who resided in Kerala . Peykaman was a demon killed by the God at the insistence of Goddess Pechiamma. But then Pechiamma imprisoned Lord Virumaandi in a well, using a ruse of her lost ring, as she couldn’t pay him his agreed offering. She then negotiated a new deal by which he will be let out of the well on a specific day when people will make their offerings to him. This traditional day is shown in the Virumaandi title song and the myth is described in detail through the lyrics.
The myth is referenced throughout the film and it forms a very interesting subtext. Since the film has two separate time frames, one in the real world and one in the flashback ‘movie’ world, there are also two sets of characters representing the 3 characters from the folklore. In the ‘movie’ world , Annalakshmi is Pechiamma, Kothala Tevar is Peykaman and Virumaandi is of course Lord Virumaandi. in the ‘real’ world , they are represented respectively by Angela, Deputy Jailor Peykaman and Jailor Jayanth. You see that Peykkaman takes different forms -Deputy Jailor here, police officer there- and flits through both worlds. In the movie world its established in a scene that Kothala and Peykaman are mirror images of each other. While Virumaandi who comes to jayanth’s help ,puts on his uniform and cap proving that they are one. That’s not all, Jayanth gets stabbed in the back by Peykaman’s men exactly the same way as Virumaandi is stabbed by Kothala’s men
In the ‘movie’ world , Virumaandi comes from outside -Singapore- like the lord comes from Kerala. Annalakshmi takes Virumaandi away and marries him in secret by giving her ring to the temple priest. This priest lies in court and gets him locked up in Jail. The well also plays a big part in the story, the well were Virumaandi’s grandmother is buried, where the meetings between Virumaandi and Annalakshi takes place. The women who loses her child , when she accidentally drops it in a well during the mass murder , goes mad and stalks Virumaandi for the rest of the film . In the real world Angela finds the crucial evidence that would prove Virumandi’s innocence. She helps him to get out of the jail as Pechiamma promised Virumaandi in the myth. Finally Virumaandi , jayanth and Angela join hands in the real world to defeat the forces of Kothala & Peykaman , both of whom are killed by Virumaandi amidst the riots in the jail
Kamal has always used animals to convey the nature of the lead character. The Tiger in apoorva sahodarangal, the Elephant in Hey Ram, the horse in Vishwaroopam, here it’s the bull. Bull represents the wild beast in Virumaandi which is tamed by Annalakshmi. who shows him the path of reason and forgiveness. The moment he loses her , he becomes the raging bull again as seen in the scene where he is trying to escape from Peykaman and his police force in Kothala’s house after he has killed a slew of his men in revenge for Annalakshmi’s death . The bull wreaks havoc , just like the elephant in Hey Ram who has lost his mahout, reflecting the character of Saket Ram who has lost his wife in that film. There is also the fact that Pechiyamma is the local folklore version of Goddess Parvathi. The bull is the vehicle of her husband Lord Siva. There are also local customs where women are married off to men who tames the bull. Finally when Annalakshmi commits suicide, it’s by standing on the bull, holding on to the commitment made to her husband and refusing to be taken by another man.
The bullfighting also relates to the ‘cinema cinema’ aspect of all Kamal films. Like Tarantino , he pays tributes or homages to other films, Indian and foreign. The main homages here are paid to his acting idols, Sivaji Ganesan and Marlon Brando. Sivaji is referenced for his film Veerapandiya Kattabomman. The character of Nallama Naicker (played by Napoleon) in the film is a direct descendant of Kattaboman. His bull that takes part in the Jallikattu is also named after the historical figure. In that film, there is a bull taming sequence through which the character played by Gemini Ganesan wins the hand of Padmini .A poster of Another Sivaji film, Vasanthamaligai can be seen on a wall of the building where Virumaandi and Annalakshmi spend their first night. Sivaji played an alcoholic in that film who is reformed by the heroine. Its also amusing to see Kothala Tevar, who is a sworn enemy of Nalama Naicker , claiming to be true descendant of the Pandyas, particularly sundara Pandiyan. Actor M.G.R. played sundarapandian in his final film Maduraye Meetta sundarapandyan and its as if Kamal was playing on the age old rivalry between the fans of Sivaji and M.G.R.
Regarding Brando, the influence is reflected most in Kamal’s performances. There is a loose ,improvised quality to his emotional outbursts most evident in the death scene of his grandmother. His performance here is inspired from Brando’s similar monologue at his dead wife’s bedside in Last Tango in Paris.
Kamal references his own Nayakan , where the famous dialogue “Naalu perkku nalathu …(if 4 people are going to benefit…) is spoken here by Rohini’s Angela when Virumaandi asks her why should he tell his story to her.
It goes without saying that it would take a herculean talent to pull of this amount of detail, this density, these many layers in a single film and without a doubt Kamal who wrote this film besides, producing directing and playing the lead role, is one of the greatest screenwriters in the world. As i mentioned before, all his films are dense, but in his best of films -Apoorva sagodarangal, Tevar Makan, Hey Ram, etc we do not notice this density or get bogged down by it, the narrative is so smooth, you just flow along with it, and then come back again for the details. But in his not so good films like Aalavandhan, Anbe sivam, Dasavatharam or Uttama Villain , the film seems to come to a stand still when Kamal goes off into tangents to explore one idea after another. Thankfully Virumaandi belongs to the former category. And Kamal the director begins where Kamal the writer leaves off. The film is brilliantly shot with every frame designed to provide multiple reading keeping in with the basic structure of the film. The opening Jallikkattu sequence is mind-blowing and one of the greatest action scenes ever put on film. And in keeping with his nature Kamal has taken a lot of newcomers in front and behind the camera, Special mention should be made of the actors, Apart from Kamal, Rohini and Napoleon rest are all either complete newcomers – stage artists, street performers- or not very well known , like Abhirami who played Annalakshmi. The performances are fantastic all around and casting of these unknown faces provides the film a verisimilitude that few films posses. Kamal himself leads the way with one of his career-best performances; without resorting to gimmicks like make up or special character tics, he creates a full blooded, earthy character. The only grouse one can have is that he looks a little too fair and sophisticated, a little different from the others around him, but then again he is playing an ‘outsider’ ( like Othello), the Singapore machan as he is called, so i didn’t find it very distracting and he more than compensates for it with his performance.
Apart from Kamal, the other hero of this film is music maestro Ilayaraja who provides an extraordinary score for the film that combines rustic and western sounds. I already talked about the different visual styles adopted by Kamal for various sections of the film, Ilayaraja does the same with his music. the film has a different musical rhythm – very loud , fast paced -for the Kothala tevar narrated portions, but the moment Kamal makes his entry in the prison , the music completely changes. It has a more devotional feel befitting a god. once it proceeds to his narration, the music becomes more somber, serene and romantic. The documentary style sections are without music. but the moment Virumaandi breaks out of the prison with the help of the fellow prisoners, the mythical sounds come back with the viru viru maandi tile track making an appearance celebrating the god coming out of the ‘well’ . Kamal and Ilayaraja has had a long association where Raja has scored music for many films that Kamal acted in. Even if one discount those films and just take Hey Ram and Virumaandi alone, one could say that Kamal – Raja combination is one of the greatest filmmaker music composer collaborations.
When Kamal Haasan began work on Virumaandi (Then named Sandiyar), he was probably at the lowest ebb of his life and career. He had suffered a series of professional setbacks, starting with the abandoning of his dream project Maurudunayagam and the flopping of his directorial debut Hey Ram. This was followed by even more ambitious and expensive failures like Aalavandhan and Anbe Sivam, which put a huge question mark on his commercial viability as a mainstream star. He had to to do some quickie comedy films like Panchatantram, Tenali etc to keep himself afloat. He was practically in movie ‘jail’ ,with financiers refusing to fund his films . His situation was no different than Virumaandi who was imprisoned for no fault of his with the kothala tevars (read business minded film producers.) He had a major falling out with the producer of Aalavandhan who went around blaming him for the failure of the film, painting him as the sole villain of the piece. It’s no wonder that Kothala Tevar’s version is shot like a typical mass masala film.
On the personal front , Kamal was reeling from a divorce from his actress wife Sarika, Sarika was not just his life partner for more than decade and half , but also a close creative collaborator on his films , working closely with him in various departments of the filmmaking like Writing, costuming and production design. Right from Raajaparvai, which was the first film Kamal wrote and produced, his female characters had resembled the women in his personal life. the character of Madhavi in that film is very similar to his then wife Vani Ganapthi. In the films that he made after his divorce from her and marriage to Sarika, mainly Tevar makan and Hey Ram, he played the man caught between two women, one (Gauthami in former, Rani Mukherjee in latter) who is intellectually (and perhaps sexually) is his match or even superior to him and the other one(Revathi in former, Vasundhara in latter) who is not quite up to his stature. This film made after his second divorce , portrays him as a one women man who loses his lady love\wife irrevocably , Angela here does come into his life , but its not a romantic attachment
These professional and personal setbacks would have broken a lesser man and forced him to pursue a safer, more tried and tested formula film as his next venture, But Kamal channeled his setbacks to make his most artistically daring mass film of his career. He did, what his character in the film did to get out of jail. He sheds the image of the renegade artist (just outwardly) and put on the uniform and cap of the Jailor (the legitimate commercial filmmaker) .in other words, He gave a commercial coating to his renegade artistry and burst out of movie jail as the film became a blockbuster . You can’t get more meta than that.
The film ends with a plea to abolish capital punishment. One can also interpret it as an appeal for clemency for the daring artists – the movie gods from D.W. Griffith, Francis Ford Coppola, Orson Welles to Guru Dutt who have all been slaughtered by the system – who are bound to fail more often than they succeed as they dare to think differently to expand the boundaries of their art.