Gunaa : Kamal Haasan’s idiosyncratic amalgam of Rainman, Rambo and Devdas makes for compelling cinema

This piece on Gunaa(1991) is my new addition to  60 years of Kamal Haasan series. Gunaa is a truly unique and idiosyncratic film, that was a flop at the time of it’s release, but has gone on to acquire a cult following since then. The film is also, perhaps , the great collaboration between Kamal and music director Ilayaraja, who has provided an astounding score.


After the mega-success of Apoorva Sahodharargal(1989) , Actor\filmmaker Kamal Haasan bid adieu to his masala phase of the 1980’s , as well as being an actor for hire(with some notable exceptions), and moved into a new phase of his career: of experimenting with his roles and films, where he is the chief author of his works. Though he refrained from doing full blown masala films, he hadn’t given up on the tropes and ingredients of masala, but rather, he channeled them into making a kind of Hollywood genre picture with a strong personal touch. The subject of Michael Madana Kamarajan, that released in 1990, was a derivative of  classic masala films like Amar Akbar Anthony, but Kamal chose to make it into a full blown comedy – a sort of tribute to his idols like Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His Gunaa, released in 1991, contains all the characteristics and trademarks of the new-phase Kamal film, even-though, Kamal’s name appears in the credits only as an actor, his fingerprints are all over the product . His is the predominant artistic voice we hear in the film.So what are the characteristics of this voice. They can be broadly stated as:

Derivative but Original : Kamal, like a lot of  great artists, is influenced by other works , either in Tamil, Hindi or Hollywood. His Gunaa is an amalgam of a wide variety of sources  , but they come together to form an original, standalone piece , whose influences are well camouflaged or assimilated into the body of the piece.

Rainman : Like Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Character from that film, Guna is neuro-divergent. he lives in a world of his own, with it’s own fantasies and ‘rituals’, though physically, he is more than fit

Rambo : Guna is physically strong , or even superhuman. his character arch: of returning from the mental asylum and not able to adjust to civilization and escaping into  the jungles and caves, is very similar to Rambo in First Blood. Both films feature the protagonists evading police and the jungle becoming the battlefield; there is a steep fall from the top of a mountain that’s very similar to the iconic scene in First blood, where in both cases, the protagonists fall on branches of trees and, are saved from death.

Devdas : Obviously, the doomed lover meeting a tragic end. As opposed to Devdas, who is pining for a love that he lost and finding solace in the arms of the courtesan Chandramukhi, here, Guna is pining for a love he has not yet attained and he is kept company by Rosie(Rekha), a prostitute in his mother’s brothel

Pakeezah : Kamal Amrohi’s 1972 Hindi film Pakeezah told the story of a courtesan’s daughter , who is raised in a brothel and becomes a courtesan herself, but, remains pure and virginal throughout – hence the name Pakeezah, meaning The pure one – and, who falls in love with her upper class lover , Salim,  even before  meeting him; just from a few words he had scribbled for her , while she is asleep on a train, Pakeezah is one of Kamal Haasan’s favorite Films(and so is Devadasu, starring ANR).  He admires the film for it’s exquisite marriage of drama and music – the film being blessed by a Divine musical score by Ghulam Mohammed and the songs being popular even today. Guna is Kamal’s  version of the Pakeezah story. Analogical to Pakeezah, which was set in Lucknow, the film Guna is set in Hyderabad and finds the character Guna (short for Gunashekharan) in a brothel; his mother being the brothel madam. He is surrounded by woman and sex, but he is totally asexual; believing in the concept of a Divine, higher love. Guna considers himself the avatar of Lord Siva and he is awaiting anxiously for the arrival of his wife, goddess Abirami, who he is going to marry on the full moon day.

Kamal combines these influences to craft a film ( and a ‘lead character’),which  is one of the most unique, unprecedented and un-replicated in the course of  mainstream commercial Indian cinema.

Philosophy and socio-politics : Deep ruminations on philosophies and commentary on soci-political situations have been hallmark of Kamal’s films. It’s no wonder that he’s now a politician. Gunaa also grapples with a lot of issues: what’s pure?, what’s impure?; what’s human?, what’s divine?; what’s sane? , what’s insane? ; what’s beautiful?, what’s ugly?; these questions are at the heart of the film

Hindu Mythology: Kamal is a self confessed atheist or rather agnostic. Born a Brahman , he is not a practicing one. But, almost all  his films tackle Hindu mythological tales in one way or the other. He usually mixes universal myths with local legends. In Guna, it’s the union of Siva & Sakthi that forms the basic theme of the film , which is channeled through the local legend of goddess Abirami in relation to the legends of Thirukkadaiyur Abirami Temple and poet Abirami Pattar . Pattar’s shlokas praising the goddess , known as Abirami Anthadi, is used throughout the film; both as part of dialogue and songs.


Ilayaraja’s music : Right from the beginning of his career Ilayaraja’s music has been a key element in all Kamal films. But in this phase, Kamal would cut down on the songs , i mean the ‘itemised’ songs , and goes more for the situational songs. so the songs come in small snippets with a Background score that sets the mood and elevate the film to another level. There has been several films which are saved by Ilayaraja’s music , but Guna is different ; it’s not like Karagattakkaran or even Chinna thambi which needed Raja’s music to  become blockbusters . Guna needs Raja’s music  for reasons that are totally aesthetic ,rather than commercial. As already mentioned about Guna’s belief in his own divinity and the legend of goddess Abirami, Guna is not a singer or poet; as he says to his doctor, his divinity and his devotion toAbirami is inside and it does not come outside through words. So it’s ilayaraja’s job to convey that through music. He uses a rich assortment of traditional  musical instruments like temple bells, veena , tabla , … to create a lush score . He created a special  Abirami theme; which is played everytime Guna imagines his Divine lover;  a recurring motif, without which the film is unimaginable. Though the writing and directing of the film is credited to Sab John and Santhanabharathi respectively, Kamal and Ilayaraja are the true authors of this film.

The use of cutting edge technology for narrative purposes : Kamal has always tried to bring in new technological innovations in his films . In Gunaa, its an extensive use of the steadicam camera ; its a sort of camera stabilizer that isolates the operator’s movement, allowing for a smooth shot, even when the camera moves over an irregular surface. This allows the director to have lengthy takes without having to have a cut in between. Steadicam was first used in a trio of 1976 pictures in Hollywood: Bound for Glory , Rocky and Marathon Man. I am not sure when it was first introduced in India, maybe in the late 80’s, but i am pretty sure that Gunaa was the first film , where it was used so extensively and very much keeping in with theme of the film. Venu, who has photographed some of the great films of Padmarajan and Bharathan in Malayalam, has photographed this movie.

Gunaa is a very dense and very ambitious film, with it’s emphasis on experimenting with both, characterization and cinematic medium.This is obvious right from the first shot of the film, which is a continuous, unbroken Steadicam shot that goes on for about 3 mins. The film opens with the shot of a man standing on top of a tower in a busy, seedy neighborhood. He is striking Lord Siva’s ‘Nataraja pose’, by standing on one leg and, the camera is focused on his back, we don’t see his face. From there , the camera tracks back into the neighborhood – the  song ‘inhi logon ne‘ form Pakeezah plays in the background. The camera continues to move and we realize that we are in the middle of a brothel; we see prostitutes , customers, pimps, goons all walking in and out of the frame making conversations ; and the camera comes back and stops at the frame where it began , the back of the man standing on one leg. then it goes around him , and comes up from below , reverentially looking up at the godly figure . we see it’s kamal Haasan : lean and dark complexioned , and as he looks down , we see , from his perspective, a marriage procession going by . He comes down , gets into the  car with the bride calling her Abirami. He is caught and beaten up by the people around , until, he is finally saved by Rosie. The scene is a terrific blend of cinematography, sound design and production design that allows the film, in the course of just a couple of shots, to  set up it’s  text, subtext and the lead character; minimalist, cinematic and extremely efficient . The opening conveys the concept of purity and divinity existing in the most crass, impure world of a brothel. it also establishes the inner and outer word of the protagonist; his ‘divine madness’ and the environment that feeds it. Guna has just been released from a mental asylum , but this crazy act forces his mother to send him back to his doctor, Dr. Ganesh (Girish Karnad) .


The next scene is , the famous pentothal scene. Guna is injected with Pentathal, and as a result of that , he becomes hypnotized and starts talking  freely. It’s again,a bravura shot:  where the camera continuously  rotates 360 degrees , as it follows Guna going around the room as he talks and talks – all his angst and his curious philosophy comes out – his anger at his father for abandoning them , giving him an ugly face and forcing his mother into prostitution, and the only solution he has for all these ills , is to marry Abirami on pournami day,and go to the temple and circle the sivalinga, that will purify his mind and his body. At the end of the scene, he unknowingly walks into the door and falls down unconscious .He is once again confined to the asylum.

One of the problems this scene has, and it extends to the film as well, is that : in his desire to be purely cinematic, he cuts down all  exposition or explanations about the character’s mental state and the effect on the drug on it, which is what the scene is trying to convey and, if you are not concentrating very carefully on the scene , brilliantly underscored by Ilayaraja with the Abirami theme,  you’ll miss the point and it would look like empty showboating. Now showboating is part and parcel of every Kamal film and performance, he is a born limelight moth , by his own admission, and part of that scene is really Kamal showcasing his talent and the new technology, but it is also strongly linked to the narrative , its not showing off for showing off sake. the scene brings to mind a similar scene that kamal did at the end of Moondram Pirai(1983).

Post credits, we are introduced to Guna’s uncle(Janagaraj), a petty thief. He has a plan to break into a temple vault and steal the money and gold. But for that he needs Guna, who has special skills at breaking locks, and whom, he has used in his many previous thefts . So he hatches a plan to get Guna out of the asylum , and is successful in getting him back to the house, but Guna’s return only creates more problems for his mother and her business as she faces the threat of eviction from the premises. After a bitter fight between mother and son, Rosie puts Guna to sleep , by singing a lullaby. This sets the stage for the next bravura Steadicam shot. the lullaby slowly morphs into a Ghazal , and then into a Rajasthani song & dance and then into a boisterous Telugu song,  as the camera tracks through various parts of the brothel and we see love expressed in its various colors, shades and languages. The scene ends as the camera tracks back to Guna’s bedside and this time we see his mother singing the lullaby,Rosie having gone into the next room to entertain a customer. Another terrific set-piece used to convey the multiple themes of the film. Guna’s uncle volunteers to take Guna back to the hospital, but on the way , he uses the ruse of his love for Abirami to take him to Abirami’s temple for the theft of the temple locker. Once at the temple, Guna is entranced by the appearance of a woman, Rohini(Roshini ), whom he believes is Abirami. All the signs point towards that , or rather his unhinged mind interprets everything as a sign towards the woman being Abirami. He is overjoyed, having finally found his Abirami. Ilayaraja’s music kicks into high gear here, first with the divine Abirami theme, followed by the rendition of  Abirami anthadi shlokas , seguing into the fantastic “Partha Vizhi” , sung by Yesudas. The song ends with Guna imagining them to be Siva and Parvathi and their union represented by the appearance of the Sivalinga.


The next day, the theft of of the vault goes horribly wrong , thanks to Guna being distracted by the reappearance of Rohini\Abirami again at the temple. In the violence that follows, Abirami is held hostage by one of The thieves in her car, as they make their getaway. Guna is also in the car along with her , and as police gives chase , the car falls into the river . Guna manages to save both Abirami and the money , and he returns to his mother’s place with both. But the local goon, Ismail, gets wind of the presence of a new girl in the brothel and he comes to claim her. In the ensuing fight , Guna beats up everyone and takes Rohini to a dilapidated church in the jungles. Rohini resists all his overtures, as Guna does his best to convince her that she is Abirami. She tries her best to escape from the place, but is unsuccessful. One such attempt leaves her precariously dangling at the end of a cliff and Guna has to come to her rescue, putting his own life in danger. He rescues her , but she refuses to help him get back on the ground, and he takes a Ramboesque fall into the trees down below. After Rohini’s disappearance, her guardian SK(Sharat Saxena) – she is an orphan having lost her parents in a car accident – and CBI officer Ramiah(SPB), has been searching for her. SK’s real intention is to kill Rohini and swindle all her wealth. Through Guna’s uncle and Ismail , he tracks down Guna’s hiding place and forces Rohini to sign over the family property to him – this is just after Guna has fallen from the cliff. She refuses to do so, but faced with the threat of rape, she signs the document, but. SK has made up his mind to kill her , and,  just before he could  shoot her, Guna magically reappears, complaining to Rohini for not helping him. A fight breaks out between Guna and the villainous trio, which ends with Ismail getting killed , SK and Guna’s uncle severely wounded. But in the midst of the scuffle, Rohini is brutally beaten by SK and her leg is broken , unable to move, she cries out for help from Guna. Guna picks her up and takes her to a perilous cave in a remote part of the jungle.

In the caves, as Guna takes care of her,  Rohini comes closer to him . After SK’s betrayal, she has lost all faith in the rest of the humanity, and ,she is moved by his unconditional, asexual love for her. Ilayaraja’s great song ‘Kanmani anbodu kaathalan‘ showing them expressing their love for each other.  She accepts his marriage proposal , and though it’s not the full moon day, she convinces him to marry her, which he does. But the next day , she is down with heavy fever and he goes out to get the doctor. But Guna, now being a wanted man for kidnapping , is recognized, putting the cops on his tail. He somehow manages to make it back to the caves with the doctor. But in the scuffle , he has accidentally shot a cop and now the Inspector(Ajay Rthnam) in charge of nabbing him is hell bent on killing him. Dr. Ganesh , Ramiah and Rosie and Guna’s mother also make their way to the mouth of the cave. Rosie goes in and try to reason it out with Guna to give up the gun and come out of the cave.  He refuses , but is persuaded by Rohini to do so. Rohini , who is overcome by Guna’s love and under the effects of fever , has become a little unhinged herself and refuses to leave from Guna’s side, calling herself Mrs. Guna and loudly declares her love for him. Guna is overwhelmed and he escorts Rohini out of the cave. But SK is waiting outside and he shoots and kills Rohini. Guna , overcome with rage ,  beats him up and kills him. By the time he returns to Rohini\Abirami , she is dead. Overcome with grief and, calling her a death a lie, he recites the Abirami anthadi, picks her up on his shoulders and jumps from the top of the cliff, loudly proclaiming that “No human can understand this love as it is beyond the comprehension of humanity”. The next, and the final shot of the film, shows the full moon rising on top of  the church.

One of the first questions that come to your mind, after you finish watching the film is: “Did the filmmakers have to labor so much to make this film ?”.Not the physical effort of making it , but more about the elements that went into the film. The film has action, adventure, romance, sex, violence, humor, songs, dances, pathos and the mandatory lip to lip kissing scene.The last one is very important, because, in those days of stringent censorship, only Kamal used to get away with it. The film could have been  transferred into a poem on celluloid,  without any of these ostentatious embellishments. Secondly , The basic plot of the film is not something that organically gives into such a mix and match of commercial and artistic ingredients. Not that Kamal & Co, are unaware of it, and they have done their best to integrate everything into one whole, but the the film is less than the sum of it’s parts. It is alternatively spectacular, solid, good, pretentious, tedious, irritating, exhilarating , but, to give the film it’s due,  remains interesting throughout. (Something similar could be said about Kamal Haasan’s performance also). It’s really unique and Kamal’s obsession to do something different is evident in every scene and every frame of the film. This attribute: of the film falling short of its parts, is quite common to the films in this phase of Kamal’s career. The main reason for this is Kamal, apart from being such a great actor, is also a big star and his films need to make a certain commercial return to be profitable to distributors and keep his stardom intact. And whatever different, out-of-the-box concepts he wants to experiment with in movies, he has to do it within the confines of that. He has to emerge a hero in the eyes of his fans. which is the reason why the Ramboesque qualities and stunts has been added to a character that is basically Rainman plus Devdas. Now it’s not just randomly added, the character of Guna  is shown to be superhuman. In many ways, it’s an inversion of his Appu character in Apoorva Sahodharargal. There, Appu was physically weak, but mentally tough and brilliant, here, Guna is mentally retarded, but, physically a god. We see him escaping unharmed when Rohini rams her car into him. We see him escaping from a steep fall from the mountains, we see him lifting Sharat Saxena high above his head, before throwing him down to his death; it ties in perfectly with the ‘divinity’ theme of the film. But it doesn’t always gel with the overall mood of the film. Take the scene where SK and Ismail ambush Rohini in the church and is rescued by Guna, the violence is so extreme and so excessive, it just doesn’t mesh with the poignant, romantic scenes that follows in the cave. It also gets a little tedious , seeing Kamal repeatedly beaten up by everyone from his mother, to Rohini to the villains, and he accumulate bruises all over his body, finally, looking like a cartoon character in those bandages and stitches. Now, that again could be the point of the film; this outcast, this freak finally finding love . We can see the resemblance with the stories of Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre dame.  The tragic ending of the film too, looks like a nod to his own Ek duje ke liye\Maro charitra. 


But all said and done, i still find the film very addictive; something that i have watched a lot of times and  still  want to watch it again. As a piece of cinema , it’s absolutely brilliant. You could watch the film just to marvel at every frame and every set-piece.And it could be said, that  no actor int he world could have pulled off this role , except Kamal Haasan . Only he could play these various shades- the emotions, the body language, the dialogue delivery, the comedy timing, the action scenes, the song sequences,… There are times when his performance soars to heights of extraordinary brilliance –  that pentothal scene is just vow!- and there are times it  irritates the hell out of you.At times he is perfectly in sync , other times, the limelight moth takes over, where he is begging for audience appreciation, like i think he did in the climax, which is very excessive. In this post 80’s phase of his career, there are three films i consider to be sui generis masterpieces : Thevar Magan, Hey Ram and Virumaandi. I would rate Gunaa a notch below these three films. It’s ambitious and out of the box and most of the time  delivers on it’s promise, but just doesn’t come together as  a cohesive whole as those three films. What’s another common thing between these films is his extraordinary collaboration with Ilayaraja, and on that score, i would rate Gunaa over and above those films. For the reasons i already mentioned and, i think the music is more inventive – both the songs and the background score. Gunaa was released on 1991 Diwali, where it clashed with Rajnikanth’s Thalapathi, and turned out to be a box office flop, which is understandable. It was neither a Diwali movie, not the kind that should have been released opposite a Rajni movie; even otherwise, i believe that the film had limited commercial potential. But over the years, the film has acquired a cult following. 1991 Diwali also marked the zenith of Ilayaraja; with Gunaa and Thalapathi, two of his greatest , most inventive and most popular scores. The very next year Mani Rathnam’s Roja would release and a debutante music composer named A.R. Rahman would put an end to the reign of Raja as the undisputed King of Tamil film music.