Apoorva Sagodharargal : Kamal Haasan’s post-modern masala classic remains a towering achievement

Kamal Haasan, who turned Sixty five recently, has completed sixty years in the film industry.His Apoorva Sagodharargal(1989), which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, was a milestone in his career , in which he essayed triple roles , both, in front and behind the camera.

A Honest police officer arrests a gang of ruthless criminals. In retaliation , the criminals murders him . His pregnant wife , who somehow escapes the carnage, gives birth to twins. But the twins are separated at birth. One grows up to be a mechanic , the other , a dwarf, becomes a circus performer. Fate brings them together and they join hands to finish off the villains responsible for the death of their father.

This in nutshell is the plot of Apoorva Sagodharargal, starring Kamal Haasan in a triple role and directed by Singeetham Srinivasa Rao. Obviously, the basic plot is same as that of hundreds of masala movies made in India . What makes Apoorva Sagodharargal different , apart from the fact that one of Kamal’s characters is a dwarf, is that it could possibly be the first, and the most (commercially and artistically) successful, postmodern exercise in masala cinema. The chief protagonist being a dwarf is a major component of the post-modernistic aspect of this film . But perhaps even that is secondary to the fact that ,the chief villain of the piece – the character of Dharmaraj – is played by veteran, ace comedian Nagesh. Nagesh’s casting, and his exaggerated, deliciously dark comical performance, is the most unique aspect of this film ; something that is not extensively analysed when this film comes up for discussion. As a post-modernistic work, the film is specifically designed so that ,at every point , we are made aware that the film is referencing, and having fun with, the masala genre, to which the film belongs. A Masala film is basically concerned with creating an alternate mythological narrative, such that, the characters and events depicted in the film would very much be at home or, seamlessly blend in, a traditional mythological universe. It is hard to find an exact western cinematic\artistic concept that’s equivalent of Masala. In it’s worldview, Masala is similar to the American Western genre; a perfectly delineated moral world of good and evil , with an emphasis on myths and folklore.In its narrative structure, it’s akin to Shakespeare; where you have the most lofty thoughts expressed in the most exquisite poetry in one moment and then you suddenly get the lowest of lowbrow comedy . Masala too thrive on a similar mix and match of opposite moods and ingredients.What Kamal and his collaborators are doing here is very similar to what Sergio Leone did with his post-modern takes on the western genre. And as it is the case with several Leone films, like The Good, Bad and the Ugly and so on, Apoorva Sagodharargal is, both, a straight drama, as well as, darkly comical and irreverent throughout its running time. The filmmakers takes the archetypes, tropes, ingredients and cliches associated with the genre; the God-like hero, the demonic villain, the real mother , the foster mother, the loyal friend(s)- human and animal,sons orphaned and separated at birth reunited as adults, The hero’s quest to conquer the villain , the mythic hero introduction scene,the rousing mass song, the larger than life action scenes, the comedy track, etc, and , constructs a narrative that works equally well as a straightforward masala film as well as a send-up of it.

Look how the film begins: it’s almost like an art film. There is no music , just background sounds.The film starts with a tight closeup on the face of a duck. The camera then tracks along with a flock of ducks as they make their way through, what appears to be, a rural landscape, with men and woman making routine conversations . We see one of the men go into a thatched hut. And then, Boom!, out of the blue, a car – in mid-air- crashes through the hut , followed by a motorbike.driven by Kamal Haasan – playing Police Inspector Sethupathi ,chasing the car. After some over the top action scenes, Kamal manages to nail the culprit .What follows is a rather quirky moment, where Sethupathi starts beating up the goon, posing the question “Per sollu” (tell me the name). And he replies that his name is David. But that’s not the name Sethupathi is interested in, he wants the name of the person David is working for. After some thorough probing from Sethupathi, David spills the name of his benefactor , Dharmaraj(Nagesh). The film immediately cuts to the introduction of the villain Dharmaraj and his three associates: Francis Anbarasu (Delhi Ganesh), Nallasivam (Nassar) and Satyamoorthy (Jaishankar). The four villains broadly represents the four evils in the society, which are listed out by Sethupathi-Prostitution,Alcohol, smuggling and corrupt politics. Sethupathi arrests them , strips them down to their underwear and have them paraded through the streets; pictures of which makes it to the newspapers. The quirkiness of this opening, both in visualization and wordplay, perfectly sets the tone of the film.


But the accused are let off by the court , after Sethupathi fails to provide adequate evidence against them.Next: the villains barges into sethupathi’s house , beats him up and ties him to a chair., as his pregnant wife Kaveri(Srividya) watches on helplessly. Now here, we get a real glimpse of the meta nature of the film. Nagesh’s Dharmaraj breaks into a monologue ; that’s at once dead serious and darkly comical . The gist of what he says is that ” Guys this is starting to look like a regular revenge scene, where we come in and kill the hero and heroine, this is very very ordinary, we need to do something different“. And as something different,what he proposes to do is: He wants Kaveri to drink a bottle of poison, otherwise he kills her husband.This is a pivotal plot point in the film. Kaveri , as we see later, will give birth to twins and , because she drinks the poison ,one of the children, Appu, turns out to be a dwarf . Appu would become the avenging angel ,as opposed to the regular hero character of his brother Raja, who avenges the atrocities committed on his parents; A plot subversion that would set this film apart from the usual masala fare.

But before Kaveri is forced to drink all of the poison, Sethupathi breaks free of his shackles and take on the villains. He manages to save Kaveri and their unborn child(ren), by casting her off on a boat, but in doing so, he sacrifices himself as he is brutally murdered by the villainous quartet.. Kaveri is given asylum by Muniyamma(Manorama) , who helps her in giving birth to her children. But once again fate intervenes, as Kaveri and muniyamma are separated , each carrying one of the children and each believing that the other is dead(along with the child) in a an explosion in a depot where they were supposed to meet; in one of the most darkly hilarious scenes in which a man carrying an axe is mistaken for a woman carrying an infant. A totally distraught Kaveri, now having lost her husband and one of her children, is seen cradling the only child she is left with and telling him that the only reason she is alive is for the day when he would call her Amma(mother) . Next is a direct jump cut ,post 25 years, when we see an all grown-up Kamal Haasan riding into frame calling out Amma, ammaaa…. ,but, its again a cheat on part of the film , as this Kamal is not the child who was left with Kaveri, but the one that was left with Muniyamma and he is now a mechanic named Raja. And as it is a staple with all these mass masala films , the hero gets a rousing introduction song , the iconic Raja Kaiyye vacha, describing the prowess of the hero.

Next:we are introduced to the main heroine of the film,Janaki(Gowthami). The character is a stereotype of the cute, dumb, arrogant rich girl; here intentionally dialed up to eleven. The heroine of this breed, which in this film is perfectly used as part of its post-modernistic ambitions, would soon be, most unfortunately, immortalized on Tamil film screen as the loosu ponnu; they would come to populate even the ‘straightest’ of romantic\action dramas. The loosu ponnu is a sort of a cross between the dumb blonde from the screwball comedies of the golden age and, what the noted critic Nathan Rabin termed, in a more modern context , as the Manic pixie dream girl. The relationship between Raja and Janaki is a send-up on the rich girl-poor boy love story; they start out as adversaries and then, through a series of ridiculous situations become lovers. As an added masala angle, Janaki is the daughter of Sathyamoorthy, one of the assassins of Raja’s father. Sathyamoorthy is horrified to see Raja,who is a spitting image of his father, when Janaki brings him home. He believes Raja is out to get them- his father’s Killers, and he shares his concerns with Dharmaraj and others, but they dismiss his concerns.

Now comes the introduction of the ‘real’ hero of the film. Appu, the Dwarf and circus clown, raised by his mother Kaveri. We also get an MGR reference; when Appu starts spinning a globe and calls himself Ulagan suttrum Valiban- the title of the blockbuster movie that M.G.R directed and acted in. Kamal, due to his acting prowess and his yen for doing versatile characters, is considered the heir of Sivaji Ganesan – the Legendary actor rather than M.G, Ramachandran – the Legendary movie star. But a closer look at Kamal’s filmography in the 1980’s would reveal that his films (and roles) during the time were much closer to the mass masala films that M.G.R. was famous for throughout his lifetime. M.G.R was the first movie star in the country who had a rabid mass fan base , who worshiped him as a god ; the same mass appeal which he would later convert into a successful political career that would see him become the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. Another thing : M.G.R’s 1965 film Enga Veettu Pillai could be considered the first masala film made in this country and, Apoorva Sagodharargal has a lot in common with that film. In Enga Veettu Pillai, MGR played a double role: of twins – Ramu, the weak one and Ilango, the courageous one – who are separated at birth. Their paths cross eventually, with the strong Ilango coming to Ramu’s rescue in fighting the villain. Kamal overturns this concept to make the physically weak Appu , the intelligent and heroic character in the film while the regular hero character of Raja, is turned into a sort of idiot. Kamal’s first four-quadrant hit Sakalakalavallavan(1982) was a loose remake of M.G.R’s super hit film Periyaidathu Penn(1963). And even in his other films made during the 80’s, like Thoongathey Thambi Thoongathey or Kakki Sattai , there are a lot of M.G.R. references. Apoorva Sagodharargal could be considered the zenith and his fond farewell to his masala phase of the 80’s ; The phase made him the top star of the Tamil Film industry. This is hard to believe today , because Rajnikanth dominates the public perception so completely vis a vis mainstream commercial films and big box office is concerned. It is interesting to note that the the two biggest hits of the 80’s were Sakalakalavallavan and Apoorva Sagodharargal . Post this film, Kamal would go into a phase of serious films with an experimental , artistic bent , with uneven box office success, and thus loosing a lot of his mass appeal.

Now getting back to the film,Appu is loved by one and all in the circus camp and he is expected to inherit the circus after the death of the circus owner . But a romantic misunderstanding involving the owner ‘s daughter(Roopini) ; Appu believes she is in love with him, but she is just using him as a ruse to marry her boyfriend, as well as, some unintentionally insensitive remarks passed by his mother about his vertically challenged appearance, sours Appu on life and he decides to commit suicide. And just like everything else in the film , this romantic tragedy track is also exaggerated to the optimum, with Kamal going overboard in his histrionics and Ilayaraja’s background score kicking in, complete with a sad song ‘Unnai ninachen pattu padichen‘, working overtime to extract copious tears from the audience. Appu is saved in the nick of time by his mother, who reveals their tragic past history and what could be the reason for Appu turning out to be a dwarf. Appu goes to the library and seek out old newspapers , from which he comes to know his father and his assassins. Now Filled with an obsessive desire for vengeance , perhaps more for turning him into a grotesque freak, than for avenging the sins committed against his parents, Appu turns avenging angel, seeking out each of the tormentors one by one and putting them to death in ways that are as uniquely freakish as he is.

The mythology of the film (and the character of Appu) is very interesting. It references Lord Vishnu’s Dasavatharam , particularly the first 5 avatars , where the lord is at his most freakish- the quintet of Matsya-koorma-varaha-narasimha-vamana. Appu is a dwarf like Vamana, and as with the mythical character , he is underestimated , but he turns out to be the giant who would send the demons to the underworld. Appu’s first kill is Anbarasu. He uses a pair of trained circus dogs to lure Anbarasan – who is fishing – to a deserted go-down. He taunts Anbarasan for being careless and compares himself to the small fish who escaped , while they killed the big fish sethupathi. Appu uses a Rube Goldbergian contraption to kill Anbarasan . Next one to be killed is Nallasivam. Appu uses his pet tiger, Jimmy, to finish him off, while he is out playing golf. Due to his limited height, Appu appears to be half man-half tiger; with a human head and tiger’s tail, to Nallasivam’s servant. After that, Appu breaks into Sathyamoorthy’s house and kills him using a ‘special’ circus gun, that fires from both sides.Finally, Appu kills Dharmaraj in the violent climax set in the circus tent ; Appu shoots the rope that Dharmaraj is holding on to escape from the lions below. The rope breaks and Dharmaraj falls into the midst of the lions, who makes a meal of him , thus completing his Narasimhavataram. It’s one of the greatest masala conceits ever attempted and successfully executed – and to think that, Kamal would so badly bungle the same concept when he tried out all the ten Avatars in the disastrous Dasavatharam (2008). I guess there are some concepts that work well only within the masala genre and not in a pseudo-sci-fi, Hollywoodish thriller.

Apropos to Appu’s revenge track, there is a parallel track involving the character of Raja, who gets blamed for all the murders committed by Appu. He is suspected and followed at every turn by the bumbling Inspector-Constable duo , played by Janakaraj and R.S. Sivaji. The two tracks of Appu and Raja are seamlessly married together. After Appu kills Anbarasan, Raja happen to hitch a ride on the same Lorry in which Anbarasan’s corpse is lying, thus making him a suspect. After Nallasivam is killed by the Tiger, The police finds Raja dancing in the streets dressed as a tiger.And when Appu kills Sathyamoorthy, Raja happens to be visiting Janaki, to clear her misunderstandings about him being a murderer. But her father’s death only confirms her’s (and the police’s) suspicions about Raja being a murderer. Now Raja is on the run, and it is during the course of this chase that he and Appu comes face to face . Appu saves Raja from the Police, even as he aggressively asserts his seniority and superiority as the elder brother- something that the film does too- having born a few minutes earlier than Raja; something that Raja is loathe to concede due to Appu’s diminutive appearance. The moment of Appu and Raja’s reunion is once again used for some genre self referencing. Obviously, the Divine intervention or coincidence that reunite siblings are part and parcel of the masala world. The characters hardly belabor about it with wonder or surprise. They accept it with a sense of fatalism, And here, Appu tells Raja that they must split up again. Raja protests that, hey we have just been reunited and you are talking about separation. Appu replies that we need to separate so that we can reunite again. In the scene, they are being chased by the police and they need to separate so that they can escape and, if everything went well, they can meet up at the circus tent and be reunited with their mother. This scene implicitly references the separation\reunion motif of masala cinema. Another major moment of referencing or subversion comes at the end of the film. Kaveri, who plays the archetypal long suffering mother of the twins and usually acts as the moral center in the masala world, does not dissuade, or rather, implicitly gives Appu her blessings to kill the villain.


The film proved once and for all why Kamal is such an all round movie genius. As a producer, writer and star\actor he outdoes himself here, especially when you think that he is making a film in the mainstream masala format, in which few people put such serious efforts to give a quality product. Forget the fact that, perhaps technically , the Dwarf character doesn’t hold very well today. We have gotten used to much sophisticated special effects. Kamal is in great form in all the three roles, distinguishing them from each other, by adopting a different dressing style, hairstyle and body language for each one, but , it is his performance as Appu that is simply brilliant, and i am not even talking about the painstaking physical process he had to go through for bringing the character alive. He gives the role a unique flavor – with his speaking style and mannerisms. Just watch the mischievous twinkle in his eyes, in the early part of the film when he is the circus clown, that turn into a maniac’s glint when he starts dispatching the villains or, the slang he adopts for the character that is, at once, very funny, sad and diabolical and that laugh, which is both cartoonish and demonic. There was an effortlessness and warmth to his performances during that period ,that got lost as he got more obsessed with delivering overwrought performances with their emphasis on heavy intellectualizing and even heavier prosthetic makeup. He just stopped having fun and providing fun after a point in his career. Though the lion’s share of the success of this film is always credited to Kamal Haasan, the film is a great marriage of several talents. The full Rajkamal team is here; P.C.Sreeram’s exquisite photography; Ilayaraja’s songs & terrific BGM ; Panchu Arunachalam, the King of 80’s masala movies ,who wrote the story ; Kamal Haasan, with his more modern sensibilities, who created a fast paced, intelligent script out of it; Crazy Mohan, who wrote some of the most hilarious dialogues; and,above all, Director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao, with his penchant for mixing humor with Mythology and Sci-Fi , putting it all together seamlessly. its truly a team effort, where the contrasting sensibilities of the makers complemented each other to create a unique cinematic experience. Above all,this is one bloody entertaining movie that doesn’t have a single boring moment or false note and, would give any of the current, so called, masala entertainers a run for their money.


Eminent critic Baradwaj Rangan’s thoughts about Kamal’s 1980’s phase


A great post about Loosu Ponnus written by Rahini David:


And a superb piece on Kakki Sattai, one of my favorite Kamal film from the 80’s, by eminent cartoonist S. Ravishankar. I wanted to write about this film, but I gave up when I realized I can’t do better than this