@_tharkuri and I had a chat where we thought it might be a fine idea to write about what we think are Tamil films that must be watched. I made a quick list and I suggested we start with “Andha Naal” mainly because I would like start something on Tamil Films from a historical perspective with Nadigar Thilagam first.
<Before we begin, if you haven’t seen the film and can’t be bothered to (Grrr..), here’s a storyboard. It doesn’t give away the ending, but anyway>
I was talking to this friend this other day and she over ‘romantically’ said, “If I could go back to the 20s just like he does in Midnight in Paris, I really would. That’s what I think is good life”. Of course she’s never lived in the 20s and what she loves is the idea of it from books and ‘movies’.
Looking back at a film from the past, for me, is an activity of looking at what times were like then. That’s what I’m going to do with this piece on the 1954 film (about the 1940s).
Most literature you’ll find about early cinema is about the use of films by the Dravidian movement as a propaganda tool. The 1950s to the 70s is often labeled the Dravidian era, for justifiable reasons of course.
What’s to be noted here is that Dravidianism isn’t simply the call to vote for the DMK or the ADMK but a set of belief systems that the Dravidian movement nailed in the Tamil psyche – the superiority of Tamilness, divinity of the Tamil thaai, self-respect (anti-Brahmin sentiments), anti-Hindi sentiments to only name a few.
Several films that did not directly align itself with the movement also reflected Dravidian sentiments is my contention. Andha Naal is especially important because it is neither the mythological nor the Dravidian melodrama, both of which dominated the time. It was historical crime mystery film that a generous Wikipedian even calls “arguably the first film-noir in Tamil cinema”.
Of course, it reflects the time it was made in – half-trouser police man, CID officers with hats, Constables called 402 and 504, Old Tamil text, verbose almost thooya Tamil dialogues are just the beginning. What I would like to draw from the film is perhaps the popular opinion of the time, the accepted behavior for people and a slice of the 1940-50s lives.
Even when social-messages films began to be made (beyond the mythological/ historical stories that started off Tamil cinema), references to history and mythology played a major role in what was intended as ‘reviving the ‘glorious Tamil past’. Sanga Tamil, pandai Tamizhar, Kannagi, Thiruvalluvar kept showing up in films as a way to tell people how to bring back the great Tamil nation it once was.
But going back to a glorious past, brought with it the belief systems of the time gone by. A good part of this is the clear demarcation of aanmai and penmai – addressing women as thaaimaargal, insisting on purity and karpu, the Kannagi/ vasugi-motifs, the madhavi archetype who is almost always a dancer, the evil ‘modern dress clad’ urban woman are the recurring ideas we see in most films of the Dravidian era.
While many of them are explicit, a film like Andha Naal is often argued as one that does not fall into this mold. It is rather interesting how Andha Naal does exactly that. I’ll look at each female character (and their relationship with aanmai) here.
Raajan’s (Sivaji) sister-in-law Hema: she is introduced as a rude mother, who her own husband rather dislikes and suspects of murder. You’ll notice how throughout the film she is seen as one who fights for her husband’s rights but is seen perpetually in negative light. In fact, Pattabhi (Hema’s husband) goes on to state on record that Hema may have committed the murder, but only in her manic state/ hysteria (she even breaks a glass to prove her hysteria).
Raajan: pombalai aa nee? (which was perhaps the classic like to put a woman in her place in those days, oh wait, may be even now)
Hema: pombalai, aanaal aanmai ullaval
This is especially interesting because this implies two things. One – that a woman is allowed to have aanmai. Two – that it can perhaps be used when the man doesn’t have aanmai. While in the end, she gets nothing of it and is seen as evil anyway, the blatant idea of aanmai still gets discussed.
Raajan: “…akkarai irundhaa? purushana aattu kuttiyaa va aakuradhu?” (implying if a woman has ‘aanmai’ in a family, the man is most likely to become ‘aattukutti’)
Ambujam is the ‘dancer’. While in most Dravidian films, the dancer is the vamp and is all out to destroy the man and by extension the society, Ambujam is treated with more sympathy in this film. However, the implied position of hers as deviant (and troublesome) is not to be missed. The scene that Munk narrates later (the park scene) is interesting for its use of silhouettes as the beginning of placing Raajan’s relationship with Ambujam on the ‘dark side’: a subtle way to display having a mistress as ‘wrong’.
In the scene where Ambujam narrates her defense and explains her who-could-have-done-it story,
Ambujam to CID Sivanandam: “modhalla enna Pillai dhaan aadharichuttu vandhaaru”
CID Sivanandam: “Oh”
Blame me if you will for reading too much into this, but the sense of contempt in that ‘oh’ is palpable.
In the entire film, Raajan is seen smoking only when in contact with Ambujam – he doesn’t smoke any time else, not even while plotting to bomb Chennai. It may be worth noting here that smoking, drinking and engaging a ‘dancer’ went together in several films of this era. Also, here, Ambujam is the only woman who talks of ‘free will’ in the film. She talks repeatedly of ‘enakku ishtam’ while informing Chinnaiah of her wish to move on with Raajan.
Ambujam to Chinnaiah: Enga rendu perukkum oruttharai oruttharukku pidichirukku. Ungalaalai engalai pirikka mudiyaadhu
Chinnaiah: Chumma iru, Pombalai
The film begins with introducing Usha as a ‘desa bakthai’. She is college educated, thoughtful, pro-justice, well-informed and activist-types. She is also the karpukkarasi, patthini who puts ‘thaai naadu’ ahead of the ‘thaali’ (but will die right after her husband anyway).
At the backdrop of a crucial time in Indian history, the film is bound to reflect the independence fervor of the time. While that is natural and nothing to croon about, the way the references are made is what makes it interesting. While the entire film has extremely intriguing conversations, I’ll just look at the climax sequence to make my point:
When Usha finds out that Raajan is working with the Japanese to bomb Chennai and is planning to run away once the bomb is dropped, they enter into a verbose dialogue. Some key things that I find intriguing.
While talking of Indian history and the fall of the (glorious) empire, Usha quotes from her knowledge of history, which she claims is ‘balanced’:
“Ibrahim Lodi-kkum avanai saarndha Muslim sagotharargalukkum erpatta porattathin kaaranamaaga Afganistan-ilirundha Babar-ai India-virku azhaitthu, Mughal-aaya saamraajjiyatthai India’vil erpaduttinaargal.”
“Arcot Nawab-ugalukkul erpatta thagaraarai thangalukku saadhagam aakki konda British kaarargal indru varai India pooraavum aandu varugiraargal.”
As proof that any foreign intervention has only caused trouble to the Indian empire, trying to explain to Raajan that the interference of the Japanese would not be very different. Then, she goes on:
“..aandavanin vazhi, anbu vazhi, India-vin anaiyaa vilakku, vedhanthigalaal ettappattu, pinbu Gauthama Buddhanaal thoondappattu, Sangarar, Raamaanujar, Paramahamsar, Vivekanandar, ivargalaal paadhukaakkappattu vandha vilakkum adhu thaan. Indru irundu kidakkum ulagukke udhaya suriyan pol thondrum Gaandhi adigalil kaiyyil kozhundhu vitteriyum jothiyum adhuve”
You see the bias there?
From India, it moves to Tamizhnadu.
“Pandai Tamizhnaattil por kalathilirundhu pura mudhugu kaati odi varum magangalai kolla thunindhaargal Tamizhnaattu veera thaaimaargal”
“Than kanavanukku nerndha avamaanathai thudaikka oru nagaratthaiye erikka thayaaraga irundhaal indha mannil pirandha Kannagi”
After discussing for the sake of Tamizhnaadu, “naan ungalai kolla thayaar”, she says “aanal neengal irandha pin naan adhiga naal uyirodu irukka maatten”
While I insist these sort of messages are part reflective of popular opinion, one must also note that the inherent biases of Director S Balachander and dialogue writer Javer Seetharaman are perhaps what is seen here.
It’s a given that Andha Naal is an entertaining film able to hold audience attention even after half a century since its making. In its simplicity is its sophistication. Having been a commercial failure, leading AVM never again to make a film of this sort, Andha Naal was failed to intrigue the audience of its time. For a casual weekend afternoon film, Andha Naal is a pleasure. Takes you through several layers of meanings, knots of cleverness and seemingly simple story line. Munk would have you watch it for the genius that is Sivaji Ganesan, well, whatever rocks your boat, watch it anyway!
Andha Naal is known as the film without songs. AVM did not bother to enter into such arena much after this film bombed. But this film deserves to be dissected for in my opinion this is one of its kind served by a fantastic actor just 2 years into his career.
First, the times in which it is set in intrigues. Second World War (WW) is where the plot bases its motive around a bombing which happened for real, and it piqued me since I have only read on Emden, the German submarine, bombing Madras in the First WW. This was news to me.
That said, the mystery in the plot seems to be an excuse to stage the film and study the characters, their shades and have some terrific debates. Back then, the mystery itself might have seemed relevant, with the detective cracking it and all that jazz. Today, it seems a straightforward case being cracked in a couple of days (by a simple fingerprint of Usha’s, obtained by Sivanandam). We can see through the mystery today. While that might be attributed to the film’s time, it will be harsh to blame the filmmaker today for having a rather simple mystery (from today’s ‘from-the-top-of-the-perch-retrospective’ standards). Having said that, what happens around this mystery is mighty interesting. The murder is used to study multiple points of view. Again, this might make it easy to dismiss this film today by saying this style was serviced from Rashomon (seen similar dismissals for Virumandi too in the online world. This piece) and that will be sad because it will miss the point.
Andha Naal uses the time and setting in Chennai (film calls it Chennai repeatedly, not Madras) to study multiple points of view (in retrospect, for film was released in 1954 and the pivotal event in the film happens in 1943, a kind of looking back at times gone by then) and Andha Naal also goes its own way to reflect the times through these multiple POVs. Hence, stripping the film off its ‘easy’ mystery and its inspiration from Rashomon, we still have a lot to take away from it.
What stands out even right in the beginning is the continuity in logic. Like when we mention 402 and 504, the Inspector gives instructions to 402, turns around, quickly chats with CID Sivanandam, and turns back to 402 and asks him not to forget the instruction. We are momentarily distracted by the chat that we also come to our senses with that instruction. What about a ‘short’ Chinnayya (who knows if this was a subtext for his character too, he comes across as a guy, not the only one admittedly, with his shades of grey) and where Rajan tells Ambujam in their conversation before his murder (from Hema’s version) “nee andha kuLLa kubEran’idamE pO” is a throwaway that it is Chinnayya. Of course, the plot reveals it to be Chinnayya soon enough. The belated “oh” of Sivanandam is also ours, if we did not notice Rajan’s “kuLLa kubEran” :-) (Remember earlier that Chinnayya did boast to Sivanandam and the inspector that all this wealth is his and so on).
Also, it is important to note that all these are from Hema’s mouth.
Here, I would like to look at every version for what happens in them during their depictions of the murder.
She obviously has not seen Ambujam kill Rajan (eventually turns out it was not Ambujam) and yet, we see her version of how-it-might-have-panned-out dialogues with Rajan and Ambujam interacting (a clever camouflage for Hema’s, and as it turns out every other character’s narration of how the murder would have panned out). Hema knows Chinnaya was Ambujam’s patron. We see that in the ‘kuLLa kubEran’ comment. Ambujam asking Rajan if he considers she was a vEsi and Rajan replying “illayA?” are also Hema’s judgments on Ambujam’s character, as is her “kuLLa kubEran” on Chinnayya from Rajan’s mouth. The film passes on so much silently.
To elaborate further, Ambujam’s version on Chinnayya being the murderer passes on Rajan telling Chinnayya in a sardonic tone, “idhellaam en kitta kEkka unakkE vekkamaa illa?”, and Chinnayya’s pleas bring us to nearly feel sorry for Chinnayya but again, this is how Ambujam holds Chinnayya, a desperate and lonely old man. She has a sarcastic contempt for the old man. We aren’t shown anything on Chinnayya’s family, are we? A man of his age and wealth ought to have a happy family, no?
Similarly, Chinnayya passing on comments from Pattabhi about Rajan being a kaliyuga Raman in his version on what would have happened between Pattabhi and Rajan is worth noting. Notice that Rajan cheats on his wife, with Chinnayya’s guilty pleasure, Ambujam. What depth there in that dialog there, mocking him to be a Raman via Pattabhi, while we get to unravel the truth later on with the Chinnayya-Ambujam-Rajan’s triangle! Again, Pattabhi saying “yaarukku vENum indha kaasu? yEn baagatha kudu’na…” in Chinnayya’s version can easily be Chinnayya himself asking his share (Ambujam). Chinnayya’s frustrations and anger at Rajan finds vent with such subtle brilliance in the film. Understated excellence!
Again, in Pattabhi’s version, Rajan tells Hema “…akkarai irundhaa? purushana aattu kuttiyaa va aakuradhu?”and “onakku budhi seri illa”. Again, it is Rajan who is a camouflage for Pattabhi here for what Pattabhi, a presumably meek man from his conversation in the shed with Rajan (a breaking point of sorts for Pattabhi who also get poked for being a ‘poNdAtti dAsan’). It is a smart film, not for the mystery, but for what the film does around it.
Also, Ambujam tells Rajan in the park for real, “naan irukkara nelama theriyaama pEsareengaLE” twice before letting him know she is pregnant. Once while they begin to speak that we might miss this out and again, when she finally reveals what is truth. Sivaji is mind blowing here. His வாஞ்சை is entirely genuine till then and full of love. But the moment he learns she is pregnant, his face turns pale which is evident to us even in that half dark evening and his tone suddenly changes to an artificial one.
Sivaji in love
Sivaji being artificial
Similarly, when talking to Pattabhi on kaliyuga Raman and Bharathan in Chinnayya’s version much before we get to know his adultery, he lets loose a single eyed, PS Veerappa-eque glare at Pattabhi upon hearing the word “Raman” (even in Chinnayya’s imagination, this is plausible, because that is how Chinnaya would expect Rajan, an adulterous husband, to react). Sivaji is servicing Chinnayya’s imagination here. What subtle genius!
Again, in Ambujam’s version, when she is out to get water for Chinnayya in their picnic spot, we must note Rajan’s roving eyes which cast glances at Ambujam (not in the screen) with desire. Again, with Ambujam not being present there but narrating this, Sivaji servicing Ambujam’s imagination of her own complacency in her beauty (which makes her think Rajan looked at her) is all the more striking. She sees Rajan only after the interaction between Chinnayya and Rajan is done (during which time Rajan looks at her).
Rajan apparently looking at Ambujam as he chats with Chinnayya (not in frame)
The way Rajan’s character unravels; from a tough brother in a domestic trouble with his sibling (can’t judge who is right here) on to facing the brunt of his hysteric sister-in-law’s rage (we just might feel for him here) down to discovering him cheating on his wife and finally devolving into a traitor; is a delight. It is my pet peeve that most of Sivaji’s genius goes unnoticed because they are incredibly subtle and what stands out is his so called ‘overacting’.
The film also has a number of interesting moments like Ambujam letting Rajan know over a game of chess (with a ‘Ram Studio’ shining in the dark in the background, a cruel joke it looks like on an adulterous husband), “unga Raani close”. It does seem like she is referring to his wife, though Rajan immediately tells her “adhaan yen Raani nee irukkiyE”. But I refuse to take it lying there. The film does have enough ironic moments like this (Rajan telling Chinnayya for instance that he heard of Ambujam through a newspaper called ‘NambAdhE’. You blink and these moments are gone). Right there, and this is Ambujam’s version, we do feel sorry for Chinnayya who pleads to a young turk in Rajan, and Ambujam. So Ambujam offering Chinnayya his wealth back is open to interpretation (coming from Ambujam this to the CID and the inspector in her version).
‘Ram Studio’ in the background as Rajan cheats on his wife with Ambujam
Usha and Rajan’s debate is a class apart. It has the necessary sparks and some admirable balance that we, like the audience in the film, want both of them to carry on during their respective speeches. While I was beginning to get disappointed at the writing when Veerappan stokes passions, Jaavar Seetharaman and S Balachander were laughing all over me by making Rajan speak and following it up with Usha. Veerappan serves as a brilliant foil here. The balance in the debate is noteworthy because even in modern, acclaimed and rather well made films like ‘Anbe Sivam’, such a balance is absent (communism vs capitalism). Also, while the murder takes place in 1943, Rajan’s apparent anti-national rhetoric in college was several years earlier and at a time when Subhas Chandra Bose had not yet gone to Hitler. Released in 1954, this was the retrospective view the film takes. It doesn’t judge either point of view, for Usha herself feels for an anti-national Rajan (பச்சாதாபம் as she calls it) amid the ஆட்டு மந்தை which first laughed, then applauded (as Rajan predicted) and again laughed at Rajan. Rajan’s ஞானச் செருக்கு later on, is also clearly identifiable with because we have seen the full வீரியம் of his brilliance. Just the fact that he goes anti-national and doesn’t mind killing millions and destroying Tamil Nadu turns us against him. Again, how much of this would a person like SC Bose have envisioned before joining and seeking help from the Axis, is open to guesses.
The film, by placing itself in its times of historical importance and structuring its plot around those events (Rajan aids the real-life bombing in the film) closely, asks itself and us relevant questions through debates and dialogues and also offers a smattering of the culture then (Usha, the legally wedded wife, empathizing with Ambujam than feel indignant) at least in films, the view points and prejudices of every character coming camouflaged expertly (that S Balachander internalized Rashomon so well to an Indian set up is laudable) and hence places itself as a very important film, whose setting, cultural and political debates can be extrapolated even today.
Five years ago, film historian Randor Guy wrote about Andha Naal: He talks of the performances, techniques and inspirations of the film here.
While writing about Sivaji Ganesan’s filmography, Randor Guy remarks that he was the third choice for the role in the film. In fact, he goes on to say several nice things about the actor. Here.
S Balachander’s nephew writes a long piece on the Director. Well, there is the entire portfolio of SB there. But for a look into SB’s background and the cultural/ political influences he may have brought into his films, this is an interesting account.