Monthly Archives: August 2015

Thoughts on Virumandi

Virumandi was rewatched recently. As with all the great Kamal films (as director and/or script writer), this is a film that never ceases to grow. நண்பர் @dagalti often remarks that “Kamal rewards the re-watcher.” I second, third and fourth that opinion. Where do I even begin with Virumandi? A few of you may have read a twiltonger I posted on the film more than a year back and bits of this piece might evoke a thirumba thirumba pesare nee feeling in you at places. But do go on.

Veerapandiya Kattabomman

Kothaala Thevan hates Naickers, driven by the fact that his dad was killed by Nallamma Naicker. This is evident from the very first dialog he has in the film after Angela asks him to speak; “Thirumalai Naicker kAlathirukku munbAgavE, Sundara Pandiyan Atchi…” and Angela stops him there. Pertinent. Because Sundara Pandiyan was possibly the final Pandyan King in the early 1300s and the Pandya rule was followed by the Madurai Sultanate, which was followed by the Vijayanagara Kingdom whose Kings placed as chieftains certain Nayaks, who slowly grew into the Madurai Naicker Dynasty (Thirumalai Nayakkar, Rani Mangamma, etc.).

Also, Panchalankurichi was ruled by a chieftain (chieftains are not Kings. They rule provinces in Kingdoms, collect taxes and give a share to the Emperor, whether the Emperor is a Chola, Pandya, of Vijayanagara descent, a Madurai Naicker or a Nawab. சிற்றரசர்கள் aka குறுநில மன்னர்கள் in Tamil). This chieftain was one Jagaveera Pandiyan, who claimed descent from the Pandyas. He did not have any issues and let his minister succeed after him. That minister who hailed from Andhra, and was a warrior whose ancestors migrated during Vijayanagara Empire’s times (1400s and 1500s), was called Bommu. Being strong, he was called Gettibommu. That in Tamil became Kattabommu and eventually Kattabomman. In his lineage came Veerapandiya Kattabomman. His full name? Veeramaraja Jagaveera Pandiya Kattabomma Karuthaiyya Nayukkudu. He would have spoken a Telugu-Tamil, which, as an aside, makes Sivaji’s larger-than-life portrayal a pretty outstanding brave heart re-imagination. He had the name Jagaveera Pandiyan hidden in his name out of reverence for the chieftain who passed the throne to his lineage. Why I give all this dry context is because Kothaalan wants to claim descent for his lineage from the Pandyan Kings. He sees Nallamma Naicker’s lineage as usurpers. This nuance is brought out in a single dialog without being explicit!

Also, the film does have a Veerapandiya Kattabomman reference in the bull taming sequence, paying homage to the bull taming sequence in the old classic and also introducing one of the bulls as Veerapandiya Kattabomman. Quite explicit. Also, giving women in marriage was a tradition practiced with bull taming. The bull tamer Virumandi does get the bull’s owner Annalakshmi like how Gemini got Padmini in a direct play on Veerapandiya Kattabomman. However, what is not explicit is another legend behind Kattabomman’s adversary Ettappan. Ettappan happens to be the family name of the lineage that ruled Ettayapuram, giving the town its name. The title owes its origin to one of their ancestor chieftains, who with his brother, was challenged to a duel by one Mallan (wrestler). They kill him and realize he has 8 kid brothers, who the chieftain adopts and gives succor to, getting the name ‘Ettappan’ (ettu perukku appan). His real name? Nallamma Naicker! [1] Now consider this. Nallamma Naicker says in Panchayat that he went to arbitrate a fight between Kothaalan’s and Virumandi’s fathers, got provoked by Kothaalan’s dad and killed him. He says he vowed never to use a weapon again and eventually gives succor to Virumaandi. This is already outstanding and beyond the grasp of average filmmakers. But wait till I get to the end of the post.

Details

The film is all about detailing, local nuances which never stick out but immensely add to the mann vaasanai, with the warts and moles of human lifestyle there. I doubt if there is a film rivaling this that gets so many local nuances right and yet none ever intrude into the story. For instance, Nallamma Naicker tells his mother okkatti ledhu when Kothaalan comes to investigate. The proper Telugu word for that is Emi ledhu. Okkatti ledhu is the direct Telugu translation of onnum illai. Like everyone from one culture integrated into another, he speaks his native tongue but thinks in Tamil. The film’s dubbed version in Telugu was named Potharaju, referring to a caste in Andhra whose members gain a livelihood by flagellating themselves. That defines Virumandi’s character in a nutshell! (if I remember right, these 2 details were mentioned by Plum in Bala (Karthik)’s blog. Hattip).

Again, Peikaaman asks Angela if she is proper Tanjore. She says Keezhvenmani. This is further underlined when she says Angela James’aa mArina nAn thirumba Angela Kathamuthu AyttEn. I find this nuanced because when I last read (correct me if the proposed legislation is now a law), till further legislation would ensure Dalits retain their Dalit status upon converting to Christianity (rightly so because conversion to another religion doesn’t automatically mean a change in socio-economic status), they’d be considered OBCs.[2] Now read the Keezhvenmani hyperlink, connect the dots to Peikaaman telling Kothaalan he prides their caste association more than him working in Nallamma Nayakkanur and Peikaaman’s visible contortion when Angela asks him to wait outside after getting to know her origin. How did Kamal get away (film is unimaginable in today’s scenario) with this? Virumandi, Annalakshmi, Virumandi’s appatha, Ganthimathi; pivotal and admirable characters all, are the same community as Kothaalan and Peikaaman.

When Peikaaman takes Angela around initially, he not-so-subtly takes a dig at the jailor when he says adhellAm IPS paritcha ezhudhi varravangaLukku varAdhu. ennaya mAri cadres lerndhu varravangalukku dhaan irukkum. Quintessentially everyone who thinks their higher-ups haven’t worked as hard as they have to get to a superior position professionally. In a single dialog. Also, when Virumandi bemoans his appatha’s loss while drunk, he invokes the 5 elements. So like Kamal (especially when Virumandi mentions sAmikki sonnA pOdhum’nu nenachen in the court when asked to prove his marriage). But while doing so, for kaathu, he swipes his hands behind his ass and for neruppu, he blows an imaginary beedi. Uncultured, but that is exactly how that character, when intoxicated, would behave. Again, how mainstream is this film! Hero gets a heroic introduction (subconsciously so, even while his story is being narrated by his adversary!), tames a bull and breaks into an intro song. But nothing is out of place.

Note when Peikaaman investigates Nallamma Naicker, and Virumandi escapes, there is an event and a dance which is a foil for the escape and the drama around it. I used to think it was Oyilaattam. Turns out, it is Devarattam, a preserve of the Naicker community, preserved by the descendants of Veerapandiya Kattabomman. The 2 dance forms do look similar but a key differentiator is Oyilaattam’s rhythm is provided by thavil [3] whereas Devarattam uses urumi and thappu [4]. The background score for that sequence uses urumi! This can be endless but again, note when the judge (who sentences Virumandi to death) is not too keen to hear details of the alleged rape (a subtle reflection of the general insular Indian mindset); Lawyer: “Matching accused Virumandi semmen…” Judge in an அத இப்ப சொல்லியே ஆகணுமா tone: “found in Annalakshmi’s body…aahn seri seri.” down to the வட்டார வழக்கு English, just like when Kondarasu speaks Telugu itself in a Kongu accent while Nallamma Naicker speaks it in a Madurai accent. Incredible. I also love how the poosari lies taking the ring granted by Annalakshmi in court. That’s how one places a knife inside the viewer.

Lesser details, but equally interesting; Annalakshmi is close to her pets, from the bovine to the avian variety. When she is assaulted by Kothaalan and left to rot, the first ones by her side are her pets. When Kothaalan’s tries breaking the door with his left arm, he flinches in pain and asks OAK Sundar to break it. He tried cutting his left shoulder to prove a point to Virumaandi long back in the film. It would hurt him, right? Now not showing all this does not lessen the film in any way. But showing them is what adds to the film and makes Kamal the writer/director who he is.

Folk Story

However, all of this aforementioned brilliance pales (with the exception of Nallamma Naicker story origin) in front of what Kamal and Raaja pulled off with 3 specific songs. All other songs are enjoyable, appreciable, aid narration (as Maada Vilakke does. Andha Kandamani is from Kothaalan’s perspective of a villain Virumandi who has soon gotten over his appatha’s death and drinks unrepentantly and Maada Vilakke from Virumandi’s perspective who is still mourning his appatha. Both are apt musically and mood wise for the exact same events. Stupendous). Eventually in the grander scheme of things, all songs except the 3 are red herrings. The 3 songs here are Karumathur Kaattukkulle, Andha Kaandamani and Garbageragam Vittu. Now there is a folk story revolving around village deities.

Vishnu is Mayandi, Shivan is Muniyandi, Parvathi is Pechiyamma and Brahma is Virumandi in Tamil village folklore around Madurai. The story goes like this. Pechiyamma, Shiva and Virumandi head down South from the abode beyond the Himalayas to search for a new haven. Virumandi, Pechi’s brother in local lore, makes his peace in Kerala and Pechiyamma settles down in Karumathur, a forest near Madurai. Peikaaman is a demon deity in the forest who harasses everyone around and does not like the poojai Pechiyamma does and approaches her with the offerings of a garland of liver and intestines of cow. Shiva is a vegetarian God and hence Pechiyamma turns those offerings into flowers but Peikaaman’s harassment persists, Shiva is powerless and so she searches down Virumandi from Kerala, requests him to help her out and after much deliberation, promises him a padayal (sheep offerings in this case) 6 times every day. He accepts her request and comes to fight Peikaaman. They battle. People around offer a solution; i.e. for Peikaaman and Virumaandi to go to a nearby peak and return and whoever does so first shall be the winners. Peikaaman, the demon lord of the jungle, offers Virumandi a horse whose leg is broken to win easily but Virumandi manages to eventually win. Now Pechi is bound by her promise but realizes an offering 6 times a day is not practical to sustain in the longer run and drops her ring into a well and requests Virumandi to take it out. He enters the well but Pechi locks it. He cries out against the injustice at what has happened to him after helping her out and she reasons with him and offers another deal. Every Aadi, the last Friday would be his when people offer 3 sheep with pongal as padayal and the tradition continues to this day.

This story is detailed in the Karumathur Kaattukkulle Oru Kaalathil song:

This song does not appear in the film completely. The first couple of lines make an appearance before Virumandi is hacked initially but it stops. Now consider this. Angela, new to the jail, is the Pechiyamma equivalent. Nasser is the powerless Shiva equivalent who is the new jailor. Virumandi belongs elsewhere but is brought to the jail with a false offering (false case in a subversion here). The jail is Peikaaman’s den. Narayanan, the death row inmate, initially complains Peikaaman tholla thaanga mudila.

Virumandi, it turns out, *IS* trapped in a well. Quite literally, it is the well in the land owned by his appatha. He bemoans to Annalakshmi en appatha kenathula vesatha kalakka vittutten. Why else would a well have to be a bone of contention? Of course, water, a resource, is a valid superficial plot point. But again, *these layers legitimately are what* Kamal is all about.

The song Andha Kandamani is all kinds of awesome now when we place the context and listen. It appears just after Virumandi (Kamal) is done burying his appatha in his well.

Pandi (Madurai), Malayalam (Kerala), Kasi (North as they hail), Rameswaram (South as they rule from Madurai) Adakki Alum Andiyappa…

…Peikaamana adakki vechcha Virumandi’ya Pechiyamma kooppudurA (justifying lore and also foreshadowing what would eventually happen).

The foreshadowing ain’t done yet. Virumandi and Peikaaman are shown in 2 frames as the prayer goes on.

AK 1

VK 2

Odhava karankodutha sAmiyE onnathAn adakki oduchadhu pAvam (justifying lore and foreshadowing Virumandi (Kamal) who would try mediating between Kondarasu and Kothaalan and would end up convicted for no fault of his).

SaNda prasandangAmen marubadi ezhundhA thanjamA nAnga enga pOvOm? (need I say anything?) All the songs except Unna Vida have been written by Raaja and Muthulingam.

Also, in Kamal’s love for mirrors, well archived here, truth and lie lies divided by a simple mirror. It places Virumandi and Peikaaman on the 2 sides. Not a coincidence from placing them in Andha Kandamani, says me.

Mirror Mirror On the Wall

Angela requests him to cooperate with her. He initially refuses. From the standpoint of stranger meeting stranger perspective, what Kamal pulled off is mind boggling (read this right away). Factor in the folklore, you are lost for words. Multiple layers, each with its own phenomenal depth exist side-by-side without affecting each other in the same sequence!

And when, in the climax, before the fight, as Peikaaman, in a subversion, offers a broken promise (broken horse to ride) in giving Kothaalan to Virumandi in return to receiving Angela for himself (going as far as to literally say “onakku naan pali tharEn da en Virumandi chaami!”) when in reality, he aligns with Kothaalan. As a weakened Virumandi (stabbed in the back by Kothaalan) heads out with forces, knowing not how to hold a gun, as against forces of Peikaaman, fully armed to the teeth, we get the denouement with Garbageragam Vittu Saami Veliyerudhu. The film’s narrative merges with the folklore in an awesomesauce (words don’t do justice) new age realization of the old as the Lord breaks out of his ‘jail’ to battle the dark forces.

As an important aside, how awesome is Raaja with his voice made gruff in both versions? Climax’s impact without music is 0. The primal rage, retribution, அறச்சீற்றம் (I love this word) is magnified several fold with the music. Never more than here have 2 versions to one song made more sense. Never more than here has divine justice and Karma been realized *this* viscerally on screen.

Again, how effective is the theme music itself? The darkness and tragedy around Virumandi (both the deity and the mortal) is reflected in the theme. Themes as abstract as they come find a phenomenally precise vent in the theme music. Even in the epilogue, the tragedy of the character holds. Like the deity, the mortal, even if he is physically freed, is likely to be jailed in a pointlessly unhappy future. The theme plays.

PS: The folklore to be honest is not Kamal’s knowledge. It is the knowledge of our கிராமிய மரபு. But it takes a Kamal to bring it to life in a modern art medium like cinema and place a commentary around the death penalty, flaws in a justice system in how the truth itself is perceived by it. That (commentary) is the most important takeaway on a superficial plane. But what Kamal has hidden in layer after layer in a way to say புரிஞ்சா புரிஞ்சுக்கோ இல்லாட்டி சொரிஞ்சுக்கோ (phrase hattip @dagalti) is beyond the scope of whatever that is which passes as mainstream Tamil cinema. Now I am a fanboi of Kamal and Raaja (as if that needed any saying) and what I say may come across as clouded by bias. But to me, they are the greatest filmmaker-composer collaboration that I have seen from what I understand as mainstream Indian cinema.

PPS: I hope all the details I have provided are accurate. If anyone spots any error, do let me know. I shall edit it.

Edit (On Aug 28, 2015): A few more pointers from Twitter and conversations. A mayyam post (original poster untraceable. If recognized, kindly mention, shall credit him) argued a couple more village deity based things here: http://goo.gl/Mw4o2r

For those who don’t read Tamil, the summary is here. There was this book by one Tho Pa which was the basis for the folklore in this film (acknowledged by Haasar himself in an interview). The author of that book also speaks of a couple more stories. One is the famous Annamalaiyaar story which had Shiva burst out as an unending flame and Vishnu and Brahma search the respective end and origin. Both fail but Brahma lies and gets cursed to never be worshiped. In the film, Virumandi lies in the court of law and gets asks by Nallamma Naicker inime nee nimmadhiyA thoonguvayA? Also, there is the folklore about Vellore’s Jalakandeswarar Temple to Shiva where the lingam was found from a well and there is also the tale of Pazhayanoor Neeli who is supposed be a guardian Angel from inside a well. Virumandi cries out that it is his appatha‘s blood and not water. His appatha‘s well to him is a நிரந்தர ஊத்து. The unnamed person argues Virumandi sees his appatha as his Pazhayanoor Neeli. The well, apart from literally and metaphorically trapping Virumandi in the film, is also the meeting point for him and Annalakshmi several times; to romance, confide, repent.

Also, Virumandi twirls his mustache after crying in front of the camera in the TV station. Might seem like an over-analysis, but what the hell. It is a subconscious reference to a நீ ஆம்பள. அழக்கூடாது. மீசைய முறுக்கு sentiment methinks.

Something that strikes me now. Pechi in the folklore drops her ring and traps Virumandi. Here, Annalakshmi offers her ring to the poosari who takes it out (apart from being a brilliant moment), hides it and lies and traps Virumandi. Virumandi trapped in the well guards over Karumathur is the belief. Virumandi in the film is trapped in a jail (the ‘ring’ connecting both the deity and mortal being trapped) and hence, Virumandi is a sort of Guardian Angel for the jail. Garbageram Vittu Saami Veliyerudhu is now not only very apt, the final climax cries for the battle and the song! And how does Raaja deliver. The song with Pandi Malayalam begins as they break the outer wall and the prelude of running to the gate goes with Viru Virumandi refrain. Raaja begins his Garbageragam Vittu exactly as the outer gate (Garbageram) is broken and Virumandi steps out. The timing, flow, control over medium, how Raaja and Kamal merge is nothing short of phenomenal. A friend was telling me yesterday that the film without Raaja is still a Giant. True, for cinema is a director’s medium. But with Raaja, it becomes a demon. Is this the greatest Tamil film ever? Yeah, the level of internalization and usage is insane here. Along with Hey Ram, yes, there is a convincing case to consider this right up there.

References:

  1. http://tamil.chennaionline.com/tamilcolumn/newsitem.aspx?NEWSID=5f5906ee-866b-4455-9429-66ba1a17afd3&CATEGORYNAME=Seeta
  2. http://www.legalservicesindia.com/article/article/conversion-and-reservation-christian-dalits-and-the-obstacles-to-social-mobility-1385-1.html
  3. http://beautyspotsofindia.com/oyilattam/
  4. http://www.india9.com/i9show/Devarattam-26478.htm

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