Several years back, I remember watching a programme on Doordarshan where celebrities were given an opportunity to question Kamal Haasan.
I remember this well, because being a school student anywhere in the 1980s and 1990s can only mean you were either in the Kamal camp or in the Rajini camp. I was a Kamal loyalist.
And the reason why I remember this question pretty well was both because of the question itself and the questioner.
Balu Mahendra does not minces words. I have experienced this first hand when I interviewed him just before his demise. But let me not digress here.
What he asked Kamal stung because it was so straightforward, and very nearly an affront to those who were his fans.
“Why do we have to wait so long for the good films from you? Why do you make some garbage in between?”
I particularly remember the manner in which he pronounced the word for garbage in Tamil. “Kuppai,” he said. The Srilankan born auteur had a very unique way of pronouncing words, laying stress on the words a bit differently. I don’t remember the exact answer that Kamal gave, because, let us face it, more often than not it is quite tough to remember Kamal’s answers because of the roundabout manner in which he spins them back. But I do remember him telling that his “fans” would be upset because of the use of the word “kuppai”. (I will try to search for this video on YouTube and post a link if possible.)
Kamal’s loyal legions have always been a bit kind towards the icon for they know that he works on a bit of a formula, that goes something like “two for the box office, one for the art form”.
The dichotomy has always been evident, and in his own indulgent manner, Kamal himself has always referred to it. “Kadavul paadhi mirugam paadhi” or “Uttama Villain”.
Even if the fans know that something like a Vishwaroopam is not really what is expected of him, they still try to nurture it in the hope that the incredible actor will come up trumps with something unique.
So far, 2015 seems to be the year that Kamal is redeeming himself for some box office experiments over the past few years. After what I reckoned was his best performance purely as an actor in the past decade with Uttama Villain, he has come up possibly with a career-altering best in Papanasam.
And whilst there were some failings in the script and screenplay of Uttama Villain, which found itself guilty of overplaying the lead character especially in the second half, there are no such trappings in Papanasam. The script and the screenplay is so tight that all the actors needed to do was to follow it.
The tried and tested screenplay by Jeethu Joseph has not been altered much, and Kamal Haasan has proved that he can shine by just being a director’s actor. His performance as Suyambulingam brings in some subtle nuances that differentiates him substantially from Mohanlal’s masterly performance as George Kutty in “Drishyam”.
Though Papanasam succeeds almost on par with Drishyam, which is in itself saying a lot, where it really exceeds is in bringing that Kamal to the fore, the one to whom Balu Mahendra appealed so much in a voice of angst more than anything else. Balu Mahendra was a fan of good cinema like no one else.
I still think Uttama Villain was a bit of a watershed moment in Kamal’s career, where he finally shrugs with a bit of self-deprecation the trappings of commercial cinema, but Papanasam truly could be the start of another glorious chapter. In Uttama Villain, there were still several instances of Kamal playing himself, which was justified because of the largely autobiographical tone.
With Papanasam, there is proof that probably the actor is preparing his final chapter with a keen eye on the legacy he leaves behind. One just hopes that the Dasavatharams and Vishwaroopams are a thing of the past.
For the first time in a long time, Kamal Haasan has just acting credits in a movie. And more importantly, the script and the screenplay has not been altered. The infusion of Tirunelveli dialect (Nellai Tamizh) is the only localisation attempted, and key actors reprise their role.
The last time Kamal Haasan played a common man similar to this was in Mahanadhi (1993). Most of his characters in the past decade have all been highly sophisticated characters, and there has been a bit of a fatigue factor seeing him speak in THAT English accent and justifying his sobriquet ‘Ulaga Nayagan’.
Suyambulingam, in fact, is easily the first character he has played in several years with none of the mannerisms or smart alec behaviour that he has himself brought in. (I can’t remember if there has ever been another Kamal film in recent times that does not feature a mini debate or a passing reference to rationalism/ atheism.)
Papanasam, in the end, is a director’s and a writer’s film, but by metering his performance well within the confines of the script and raising his performance exactly to the right amounts needed, Kamal has made it a must watch film, almost as good as the original.
The movie is also not all about Kamal, even if this blog post might be.
A stellar cast has delivered just what is demanded of them. Gautami Tadimala is adequate as Suyambulingam’s wife Rani, thought I kept thinking why the hell did they not get Revathi for the role. Won’t it be something else to see Kamal-Revathi on screen again? Gautami somehow has an air of being well groomed and self-aware than what probably a rural character would be.
Asha Sarath, to me, was a stellar performer in Drishyam even more than Mohanlal. It is rare to see a woman character in Indian cinema that is not over the top while playing the antagonist. She is spectacular in Papanasam too, mixing the pains of a mother searching for her missing son all the while maintaining the body language of a stern police officer not shy of using extra-judicial methods.
Kalabhavan Mani plays the role of the corrupt police constable with the sort of vigour that Tamil audience has gotten used to seeing him in.
But to me, the one that takes the cake in Papanasam over all else is Anant Mahadevan, who is the perfect foil to the brilliance of Kamal in the climax.
A bit more on Kamal in Papanasam: I did have my doubts on two counts when I heard they were remaking Drishyam in Tamil. The last time, he was featuring in the remake of an already popular film was in Unnaipol Oruvan (remake of ‘A Wednesday’) where I felt that he did not quite live up to the expectations of matching Nasseruddin Shah. While Nasseruddin Shah effortlessly combined the vulnerability and the angst of a middle class man, Kamal’s posturing as an intelligent man outsmarting the police became a bit over the top. In the climax especially, it was tough to imagine Kamal as being the underdog to Mohanlal’s Commissioner.
And the second worry has to do more with what will be long debated in social media forums: whether Kamal’s Suyambulingam matched or bettered or could not better Mohanlal’s George Kutty.
The second doubt answered first: In my opinion, Kamal has completely owned Suyambulingam, leaving absolutely no reason for the question of Kamal vs Mohanlal.
But more importantly, the first question: Kamal’s portrayal of Suyambulingam ticks all the boxes possible. He brings all the nuances possible in a character that is more layered than meets the eye. And he has underplayed it so well almost right until the last scene, where, at least for me, it felt like a deja vù of ‘Moondram Pirai’. The moment that the actor himself has been waiting for, along with the audience, and where he grasps that moment to bring all his skills to the fore. When he is acting like that, he is in a league of his own. And that is precisely where Kamal’s fans want him to be, and consistently too.
I don’t know all the differences between Kamal’s and Mohanlal’s portrayals, but if I am right, at least in one particular scene in the sequence before the climax, both of them have approached it differently. Interestingly, I think Mohanlal was more animated that Kamal.
Papanasam, in the end, is a total triumph for the director and the writer, and here it is important to include the names of writers Jeyamohan and Suka, who have tutored the actors in the nuances of the Tirunelveli dialect.
Among other actors, I felt that M.S.Baskar, though being really good as the tea stall owner, did not quite come across as naturally as the actor who played the part in Drishyam. (But of course, the familiarity could be a curse in this.)
One hopes there are more Jeethu Josephs around to provide fodder to Kamal … and others actors too should take a cue from him. Especially the likes of Suriya, who seems to be of late making such horrendous movies that do absolutely no justice to his talents.
The cinematography by Sujith Vaasudev and editing by Ayoob Khan (both worked on Drishyam too) are top notch.
M Ghibran once again proves that he is a talent to watch out for. Papanasam seems to be another learning curve for the youngster, who is in my list of two bright music directors to watch out for.