Aboorva Sagodharargal was re-watched yesterday and as always it led to a discussion where I promised to pen down why I thought this truly is the greatest Tamil film made for the pleasure of mankind. So here goes.
It is interesting to note that this film was the second script after the first one was discarded by Kamal and this itself was majorly toned down for violence because Ilayaraaja and Panchu Arunachalam did not approve of the amount of violence there initially was. Now this in itself seems like an ode to Sam Peckinpah. One wonders how the unadulterated violence would be in the original. This film is the biggest ode to Tamil cinema itself. I say this because this film was conceived in April 1987 (as detailed in this blog by a Bollywood filmmaker). In a conversation recently on twitter, @dagalti mentioned how Kamal and Rajni following on Sivaji and MGR respectively is a misnomer and went on to make a case that Kamal’s films are replete with hat tips to MGR (Sakalavallavan being a rehash of Periya Idathu Penn, references to Vaathiyar in Kaakkichattai and in the song Singari Sarakku Nalla Sarakku, Kamal and MGR being trained fighters, whereas we see Rajni experiment with roles early on and do a clutch of films with Sivaji too, Justice Gopinath, Naan Vazha Vaippen, Padikkadhavan and later Padayappa, both Rajni and Sivaji being rather limited fighters) and we associate Rajni with MGR today because of certain mannerisms only they can pull off and Kamal with Sivaji because he did experiment with characters after MGR’s demise. I find it eminently worthwhile a thought for we have MGR’s debut film called Sadhi Leelavathi, MGR acting in a 1939 film, Maya Machindra, a 1951 film of his called Marmayogi (Kamal planned but shelved a film of the same name) and Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu being an MGR song. The title Aboorva Sagodharargal itself is rehashed from the 1949 MK Radha starrer which MGR remade in 1971 as Neerum Neruppum. The case is most definitely made.
In that context, I would place Aboorva Sagodharargal as Kamal’s ultimate ode to the legacy of MGR, written immediately before and after MGR’s demise in 1987. The basic story is about the villain(s) killing the heroes’ father, twins separated at birth, as Manorama exclaims “innA da idhu, tentu kottAiyila VaathiyAru padam pAkkura mAri double actu!” (they are suggested to have been born in 1960 when Appu asks for papers later on in the library), the kids growing up to be the respective heroes, Appu telling Kaveri, his mother, that he is an “Ulagam Sutrum Valiban” on top of the globe in the circus, the heroine being the daughter of (one of) the villain(s), Appu twirling his fingers on his nose a la MGR in Nadodi Mannan in Pudhu Mapillaikki and heroes eventually extracting revenge on the villain(s). It’s a template; formula driven Tamil masala film with MGR peppered everywhere. But what mastery within this genre that overflows with original genius in every frame!
The film brims with irony everywhere. Right from deliciously naming the villains Dharmaraj, Anbarasu, Sathyamoorthy and Nallasivam, Kamal the writer seems to be sardonically peering over every scene. Right from Raja and Janaki dancing, singing and romancing with a dead body on a truck, Raja nearly making love with Janaki as her father is murdered, policemen setting off the burglar alarm (Janakaraj’s bumbling Pink Panther-esque ways eventually nabbing the culprit (can’t help see Kamal the writer as a pale shadow in a poor Dasavatharam where a bumbling Balram Naidu eventually nabs Fletcher) adds to the already brilliance-bursting-at-the-seams film), Raja wanting to remain in the jail but the policemen driving him out of jail (!) and the extraordinary murder of Francis Anbarasu by Appu in KuLLanchavadi, dark irony (black humor?) explodes throughout the film beneath the surface but once you notice it, it is extremely hard to miss out. With Kamal, it is eminently admissible to read into every frame. You often come away feeling rewarded. One such moment that had me gob smacked was when Raja is on the run from the police, he is on the road and there is graffiti on the wall which reads ADMK Janaki (this right after MGR’s death mind you) and points to a direction where Raja runs to. What understated humor, playing on Crazy Mohan’s fad and the heroine’s name! I am justified in using the phrase genius in every frame here.
The film uses animals to great effect and that is apparent on its surface when we see animals used for killing the antagonists, playfully and also in macabre ways. Peering beneath the surface also we can see more references. The first frame of the film is a duck. When the villains try to kill Sethupathi and poison Kaveri, Sethupathi tries to save her and while doing so, almost covers her and their child(ren) in a near motherly animal embrace, applicable to every single animal mother in duress, including humans. Dharmaraj as to impress on what would follow, exclaims, “kiLi koovudhu” to refer to Srividhya and “Saadhu meraNdA, veedu koLLAdhu” to refer to Sathyamoorthy instead of the conventional kaadu koLLAdhu. It most definitely makes a case for Kamal the writer subverting habitats intentionally.
Appu uses animals to kill 3 of the 4 antagonists and while using the tiger to kill Nallasivam, he oddly reminds one of Ayyappan as he sits on top of the tiger which carries him giving an appearance of tiger-man. Just when the irony of an Ayyappan reference while killing a character named Sivam sinks in, Janaki rubs it into Raja asking if he is a “Deiva Piravi” when he is in prison as a tiger-man denying he has ever seen his dad. Well, make your conclusions. As Appu kills Dharmaraj, one can quite easily imagine Kamal murmuring, “Feed him to the lions” The attention to details. Flies flying over Nallasivam’s corpse. David’s pant stained with blood above his buttocks as Sethupathy drags him out of the car breaking the glass as he drags David on to the field outside in the initial scene. Muniamma telling Kaveri “un puLLa kolagAran illa” suggesting an anxiety of letting the true mother know that she has not been a bad foster mother. The sequence comes across beautifully.
Appu’s character is the piece de resistance. A midget, suffering from an inferiority complex and ridicule from the world outside who doesn’t mind joking with his mother, “nee pAthu naa yEn vaLarala?” is completely shattered when his mother belittles him in front of the circus owner and the rest of the circus. What is more is she indirectly suggests that she herself would disapprove if Mano married Appu. And how easily the rest of the world treats him with Mano telling him that he and his friends would be the “entertainment” for her Reception night (to be fair to Mano, she only tells Appu “kalyaNam paNNikka pOrOm” while giving him the ring and not a word more), Vincent’s friend Kannan poking fun at Appu in the most obnoxious way and a learned magistrate also sharing a laugh at Appu’s real age. It would all sear the midget. His poignant dialog with his mother after he attempts suicide where he says “nee edhu sonnAlum enakkadhu pathu madangu ma” holds interesting parallels to the kid in Mumbai Xpress telling Manisha Koirala, “nee solradhu dhAne ma naa serious aa eduthuppEn” while attempting suicide (almost tempted to write down anga kozhandha, inga dwarf. Aana prechanai ellAm oNNu dhAn). When Kaveri tells her son it could be her fault that he is a dwarf because she consumed poison, he buys it. She only suggests “naa vesham kuduchadhunAla dhAn unakkippidi AyirukkumO?” and how could quickly he takes it lock stock and barrel, making a case for a scorned midget simply looking for a reason to let lose all the pent up frustrations and anger in a legitimate way than a conventional case of revenge. We however would never know. But the masterstroke is when Kamal makes us buy his anger as ours, that beautiful word called அறசீற்றம், as Kaveri looks on with Appu throwing Dharmaraj to the lions with Ilayaraaja’s adrenaline pumping background score lifting the rage in the scene several notches.
To conclude, I can speak on every scene forever but it just cannot praise this film enough. Mind you, this was a blockbuster across languages. It subverts the genre of masala in the most outrageously brilliant way and still entertains heartily without compromising on any masala element that I will go out on a limb and say that if this does not qualify as Tamil cinema’s ode to the Indian cinema tradition of entertainment, nothing will.