Warning: Potentially lengthy read. May end up boring you to death, putting you to sleep or maybe if your stars are aligned with mine, rivet you. Anyway, jump along.
I happened to re-watch Guna recently and as is the wont with any film of intelligence involving Kamal in the ‘90s, it sent me on a trip. On the surface, this is a film about a person with obsessional psychoneurosis who kidnaps a woman who comes under the influence of Stockholm syndrome, likes him but the plot contrives them to death. But there is more to it than this in my considered opinion. I just feel like archiving my thoughts on the film here. So here goes.
I feel it is up there with other Kamal works like Hey Ram and Virumandi as a master-class in Indian film history. The story and screenplay are credited to one Sab John and the dialogues to Balakumaran, while the direction is by Santhanabharathi. Superficially, there is no Kamal other than the lead actor and occasional singer. But peer closely and there are enough filmmaking signatures which tell me subtly that there is quite a lot of Kamal all over the place (for a broader discussion on the same across many films, hattip: Dagalti). Let me broadly focus on the screenplay, scene composition and the music (Ilaiyaraaja; genius bursting out everywhere) which in my opinion makes this film an insanely great achievement by Kamal and Raaja.
Prologue and its Poetry
The first sequence itself is richly conceived. The film’s first shot after the opening credits is a full moon with a man standing like Lord Shiva on a terrace top.
We are then provided a tapestry into a North Hyderabadi settlement (vote for TDP, vote for BJP graffiti on the wall to go with Charminar shown with the opening credits) which houses a brothel. This is kind of evident when a woman, dressed like a courtesan of yore, dances to Inhin logon ne le liya dupatta mera (these folks have taken my Dupatta off) from Pakeezah, a 1972 film about a courtesan! It is even more evident when, as the song fades to the background, Kaka Radhakrishnan, a quack, assures a person he doesn’t have AIDS, followed by telling a girl, “ரெண்டு மாசம் தானே? கலச்சுரலாம்.” There is Ismail, a local dada, extorting from the folks and taking care of the Police. A corrupt yet thriving settlement is made clear in a single sequence of admirable detailing. The shot pans to Kamal, who is revealed to be the guy standing like Shiva, the longshot zooming to him reigning down on a wedding procession and he goes down to the bride and utters a verse from Abiraami Anthaadhi and gets kicked about. Pause.
Abiraami Anthaadhi was written by one Abiraami Battar. His legend is of interest in context with this film. He was someone who was obsessed with the Hindu female deity Parvathi aka Abiraami, so much so that he was branded a lunatic by the people around him. He was also known to see Abiraami in every woman he saw and went about praying to every girl. One fine day, the King Serfoji of Thanjavur, visits Battar’s hometown Thirukkadaiyur, learns about him and asks him what day it is. Battar answers it is the full moon day, when in reality, it was a new moon day. An argument is supposed to have ensued and the King declares that unless Battar proves that the day has a full moon, he’d be put to death. Battar places himself on a plank strung to a ceiling by 100 strings with boiling oil beneath. He goes on to sing an Anthaadhi, where every verse’s last word is the first word for the next verse and cuts of one string at the end of each verse. At the end of the 79th verse, it is said that Abiraami tossed her earring, moved by his devotion, and the earring manifested itself on the sky as a full moon, stirring the King and everyone around to be thrilled by Battar’s devotion. He went on to sing 21 more, with the 100th verse’s final word being the first verse’s first. Nice symmetry.
The full moon makes vague sense as Kamal gets beaten about, with some cruel irony in there with him uttering “சென்னியின் மேல் பத்ம பாதம் பதித்திடவே” (placing your lotus feet on my head) as he gets kicked around .
This supposed madman, with his doctor in the asylum as he rages, keeps circling with the camera moving with the circle and the doctor standing still on a tangent, in some superbly conceived scene geometry. The theme music, to dominate the film later, makes its first appearance, a leitmotif of the score that sounded with the opening credits, underpinning a troubled mind. Guna, as Kamal is revealed to be, hallucinates about a mountain which provides the chills. Abiraami is மலைமகள், after all and he ends up jamming on a door, opening the film up to full credits as Raaja sings a brilliantly written Sidhar paadal to cap what to me is among the most poetic prologues to any mainstream Indian film.
The film touches upon quite a few themes, handled with varying degrees of finesse, all interesting and some eminently gratifying. To be sure, this is subjective, but with Kamal, it is alright to read in without inhibitions.
The film skirts briefly with effeminate men. Ganesa Iyer, a Guru of sorts to Guna who implants the idea of Abiraami in him and sends him off with a thaali to Kaka Radhakrishnan (Mangalyam Thanthunaane), wears a mark on his forehead and speaks and dances like a woman. The Chithappa, a very engaging Janakaraj, bets on his masculinity, only to immediately flip when confronted by Ismail and unabashedly exclaims he’s a woman. A more direct instance is when an iconic song has the lines, “சிவகாமியே சிவனில் நீயும் பாதியே…”, quite literally invoking the ultimate instance of the effeminate man in Ardhanareeshwara. But the film doesn’t really tell us more than this.
A more evident theme to me was the film dealing with religious patriarchy, which is evident among the characters. Guna is a man of conventional rights and wrongs (“தூங்கறதுக்கு இருட்டு வரலியே”). He can be capable of incredible heart (“அங்க ஒரு குருவிய கொன்னுட்டாங்க குயிலே”). But he also has his shades of grey. He justifies him stealing a car; comparing it with the quasi legitimacy Rosy and his mother receive, indulging in prostitution. To take it up a notch, he chains his woman in his house! This from a man who rages infinitum and even kills another man for a dead sparrow! Why, even his mother, technically Abiraami’s mother-in-law eventually, gags her and throws her into a dungeon initially. Mysskin and Pisaasu anyone? Also, as he lets her bath, he lets us know, “புகுந்த வீட்டுக்கு வந்து பொறந்த வீட்டு பெருமைய பேச கூடாது .” Heck, even the doctor, before the climax, to lure Guna, lets him know that “புருஷனுக்கு பாத்ததுக்கு அப்பறம் தான் பொண்டாட்டிக்கி.” However, quite curiously in a witty subversion, he eats from her plate after she finishes (the reason given is lack of plates. But read with these instances from the film, you know where I’d wager my bet on).
Immortality, Divinity and Music
However, the most obvious and gratifying themes were religious symbolism and immortality. The theme, we think is meant for love, also plays very briefly with a leitmotif registering the first few notes when he rushes to see his mother who he thinks is dead . She says “நான் சாக மாட்டேன்”, assuring to him of her immortality. Janakaraj tells Guna before doping him that he is “பாதி சாமி.” This seems important to Guna, to be constantly reassured of his divinity. There is also a wee bit of make believe and a leap of faith necessary where he borders on possessing superhuman strength, to repeatedly recover after falling from a cliff to being shot, that it’s also plausible that the screenplay thrusts some divinity, outside the scope of his hallucinations, on him. Guna tells ‘Rohini’ “எதுக்கு சாவனும்? நமக்கு சாவில்ல” as she wants to kill herself. In fact, he simply walks away after introducing his name with some delight, oblivious of her perilous state , almost as if he is assured of her divinity that he doesn’t consider death as a possibility! In fact, he takes her to a mountain top, as is the residence of a மலைமகள், worthy of the name Abiraami.
It is impossible to talk about the screenplay without the music and vice-versa. The depth in this film’s music places it right up there among the top of the table in my experience with Indian films. The numerous leitmotifs to the theme come when ‘Rohini’ is seen as Abiraami by Guna and the ‘divinity’, such an abstract thing/emotion, finds vent in the music so aptly that this author is lost for words. I’d say the music is inseparable from the divinity and immortality in the film. In some breathtaking poetry of scene composition and music, it plays when Guna sees her in the halo of the Sun.
It plays when she is dead, in a gory way. It plays when he first spots her, in a temple. The theme gets fulfillment there. That entire stretch is screenwriting/music composing porn. Allow me to indulge. He is goaded by Janakaraj that Abiraami would come, “pippiripippiripee”, and there materializes a beautiful woman he sees as Abiraami. She spots him, casts a benign smile and walks away. He asks himself if she is Abiraami and follows her in the other direction. His head hits the bell, the signboard he hits points him to her, the screen dislodges a veil to shine the Sun on him and even the security Guard points his finger toward her. The stars, with the deities, animate and inanimate objects seem to align to tell him She is his Abiraami. The theme, playing in raga Sarangatharangini, changes scales to Paavani, as verses from Abiraami Anthaadhi begin. At ஆயகியாதி உடையாள், the camera pans to her feet. The line literally means Abiraami’s feet is the origin of everything and presents Battar there. Ilaiyaraaja and Kamal are firmly in fifth gear now.
The song begins. Stunning melody. Paavani, the raga, literally means remover of sins (interesting, because Guna helps steal from the temple the next day and is immediately repentant. Seeing ‘Abiraami’, he follows her, seemingly wanting her to show him the way out of his sins). The rhythm pattern (thaaLam) operated by Ilaiyaraaja is Kandam (beat of 5, tha ka tha ki ta). Kandam is the beat used for Shiva thaandavam. The interlude is a brief reentry to another verse of the Anthaadhi which praises the jewels that stay firm on Abiraami’s breasts (முத்துவடம் கொண்ட கொங்கை – muthuvadam meaning pearl necklance and kongai meaning breasts) and her vagina that is beautiful like a cobra (நல்லரவின் படம் கொண்ட அல்குல் பணிமொழி வேத பரிபுரையே – nalaravam – nallapaambu – cobra; algul – vagina), she being of speech that cools us (paNimozhi), with all the Vedas present at her feet; and Raaja takes a brief detour to a pleasant Kalyani raga exactly as the film rolls to the filmy Abiraami’s breasts at முத்துவடம் கொண்ட கொங்கை, almost asking to take pleasure, and reverts back to Paavani from நல்லரவின், as Guna goes on a hallucination trip into a Shiva thaaNdavam with this Abiraami, ending with the cheNdai pouring its rhythm; a subversion of a devotion bordering on the erotic in the Anthaadhi to divine love here. Outstanding.
Unnai Naan Ariven is a great song too; a picturization of great symmetry, beginning in the brothel where Guna is put to sleep, travelling across the brothel/settlement to ghazal, Telugu folk and back to Guna with his mother putting him to sleep. But before she gets to her son (hattip: the Dagalti post linked above), there is a rich sequence where she peeps over to monitor business between a client and a prostitute working under her, all the while praying to the Gods, seemingly indifferent to the irony! All round brilliance.
Kanmani Anbodu Kaadhalan is set to Shankarabharanam. The raga quite literally means an ornament on Lord Shiva. Was this deliberate too? Maybe not. But will it stop me from reading in? No. After all, this is Raaja and Kamal we are talking about.
Coming back to the divinity minus music briefly, the crooks who assist Guna and his uncle before they are eventually killed are curiously named as Kaasi and Anumanthu (Guna in fact calls him Anumaar!!), names associated with Shiva and Rudra. To make this more evident, Anumaar is killed by a trident which was part of the loot!
As a side note, the police officer after Guna is called Moovendar (meaning Lord of the 3 worlds and Shiva having 3 eyes and a trident and all that. You get the drift). There is also a wickedly ironic moment where the villain SK, the only character with trite and clichéd dialogues (more of a nitpick this), gives permission for Ismail to rape Abiraami inside a dilapidated Church! But then, Ismail refers to her as a देवता as he sees her for the first time in the dungeon.
Above all, there is the presence of Abiraami Battar, his Anthaadhi and legend all over the film. He wants to tie the thaali to Abiraami on Pournami. He is derided as a lunatic. He ends up tying the thaali a day before Pournami, because Abiraami tells him this IS Pournami, a subversion of Abiraami making a full moon when it was not for Battar’s sake.
The end happens when, despite his unshakable belief in their immortality, she dies. Guna’s nemesis is eventually Abiraami’s and his mortality. Not humans, who he disdainfully tosses away. His penultimate statement before dying is stating he is a சாமி, holding Abiraami like the Shiva of lore held Sati.
The final shot of the film is the full moon that eventually arrives that night.
The first shot of the film was a full moon. So was the last shot. The second shot of the film was Guna standing on a terrace top like Shiva. The penultimate shot of the motion picture is Guna standing in a similar pose with Abiraami. Talk of symmetry! Especially when Abiraami Anthaadhi’s final word is the same as its first word.
What do you do when presented with such high art? Kamal and Raaja are great creators. Together, they are just something else. Every film of theirs where Kamal has been involved in significant degrees as a creator has been absolute magic on screen. This simply stands head and shoulders above even among their best.
PPS: Bouquets and brickbats welcome.