Anbe Sivam

Posted on March 2, 2003


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Is the lack of masala the only reason for Anbe Sivam not doing well?

MAR 2, 2003 – AS POSTERS SPRING UP AROUND THE CITY celebrating 25-day runs of the Pongal releases, you can’t help thinking how unfortunate it is that Kamal Haasan’s best film in quite a while, Anbe Sivam, had to duke it out with the box-office behemoth that is Dhool.

Vikram’s release is, of course, the ultimate feel-good masala fest. (You’ll probably have to go all the way back to Agni Natchatiram to see such awesome technical prowess and youthful energy put in service of such a non-existent story.) When the camera swoops and swirls around the dancers in the impossibly-catchy Koduvaa Meesai Aruvaa Paarvai, it’s your spirit that soars, and when Paravai Muniamma belts out her gaana underscoring the thunderous climactic fisticuffs, the exhilaration factor is through-the-roof. Audiences, understandably, are tearing into this cinematic equivalent of a triple sundae with every imaginable topping.

In comparison, Anbe Sivam has come to be seen as that tall glass of milk your mother made you drink every morning. You know it’s good for you, but something about it, not just the quick-sugar-fix competition from Dhool, has made moviegoers resist its charms and elicited mournful discourses on the future of good Tamil cinema.

What is it, other than the obvious lack of heavy-duty masala? It cannot be the story, about spoilt yuppie Anbarasu (Madhavan) who tries to shake off well-meaning leech Nallasivam (Kamal) while travelling to Chennai. This framework, after all, allows lyrical drama (arising from Nallasivam’s social activism) to coexist with hilarious slapstick, along with the embarrassment of riches you’ve come to expect from Kamal’s serious films.

Throwaway moments like Anbarasu whining about wading in knee-deep water, while a child gleefully jumps into this very flood. Dazzling dialogue from Vikatan Madhan – Anbarasu calls himself A.Ars because enakku Anbu pidikkaadhu! Touching tragicomic sequences like the aftermath of a fellow-activist declaring her love for Nallasivam. Heady romanticism as when a couple paints a mural, him suspended from a rope that she directs to the lilting strains of Poo Vaasam Purappadum Penney. A beautifully-staged piece of street theatre.

Even without these bits, there’s the attraction, after ages, of a superb Kamal performance. We’ve seen him act for so long now that everything – his laughter, his cries, the softening of his face in the romantic passages – is familiar, but Anbe Sivam contains one of those obsessive makeup-makeovers that results in a persona that’s different, yet familiar. With thick glasses and facial scars, a dislocated jaw and paralysed limbs (you even see a toe sticking out when he’s lying down), Kamal appears a grotesque version of his Mayor in Indiran Chandran, and it’s an amazing transformation!

Such efforts induced ticket-buyers in droves to Indian and Apoorva Sagotharargal, so why are they staying away from Anbe Sivam?

Could it be due to the excess that’s increasingly crept into Kamal’s screenwriting? In Aalavandhan, as if abstractions like good and evil being joined at the hip weren’t enough, there were hints of voodoo, suggestions of necrophilia. Every single idea that crossed Kamal’s head seemed to have found its way into the writing, with sometimes scant regard for fitting in with the rest of the film.

This happens in Anbe Sivam too. When Kamal’s writing is in top gear – Thevar Magan – you are so drawn into the film that it’s only later you comprehend the density of ideas within. Here, time just seems to stand still, especially with silence ruling the soundtrack, when trademark Kamal musings – about globalisation, MNCs, pharaohs, the nature of divinity, Adobe software – come to fore. (The superb lyrics in Vairamuthu’s title song say more about the central themes in less time!)

The writing has also begun to feel overly familiar. You see scenes staged in other states featuring languages particular to that region (Orissa/Oriya here, like Calcutta/Bengali in Mahanadhi), distracting morphing sequences (as in Hey Ram), the sympathy-grabbing flashback and railings against the Indian Condition (as in Mahanadhi), the tragic public accident with graphic shots of dismembered victims (like in Thevar Magan), and big names wasted in minuscule parts (Seema here, Hema Malini in Hey Ram).

And Kamal the writer being in service of Kamal the star, there’s a much-longer-than-necessary flashback, detailing Nallasivam’s romance and involvement in communism, and featuring a lengthy action segment, with Kamal using an umbrella the way he used a book and stool in Thoongaathey Thambi Thoongaathey some twenty years ago. With all this, we completely lose track of Anbarasu for a while and his changes in character, post flashback, don’t impress as they should.

Stronger collaborators could have brought in some fresh air. (Director Sundar C’s inputs here are as invisible as Suresh Krissna’s contributions to Aalavandhan.) They could have disabused Kamal of his notions of catering to fans, suggesting perhaps that these admirers would only be too happy to see their idol age on screen in ways that do not involve fights and duets. They could have seen that Anbe Sivam, while leagues ahead of the average Tamil – why, even Indian – film, would leave the casual cinemagoer unimpressed by its cerebral concerns, the serious moviegoer struggling with these other issues.

But while the spirit of collaboration shines through in Dhool, Anbe Sivam is clearly Kamal’s latest solo attempt to bend, twist, shape-shift Tamil cinema into forms never-before seen. An impressive and necessary goal, no doubt, but how will he go about it after this debacle? Will he reinvent himself with fresh blood from the industry? Or stick to his own ideas hoping that one of them is bound to become another Thevar Magan?

Whatever, now that, with Dhool, the mantle of song-dance-sentiment-fight heroism has emphatically been passed on to the next generation, let’s hope Kamal finds his way back to a moviegoing public that’s increasingly cold-shouldering his ambitious efforts. He should. He will.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil