G Vasanthabalan’s Kaaviyathalaivan transposes the barebones of Amadeus into the world of Tamil theatre in the pre-Independence period. In that film, we saw the court composer Salieri as a hard-working musician who did things by the book, and he could never transcend mediocrity – and when he laid eyes on the preternaturally gifted Mozart, to whom composing came as easily as breathing, he couldn’t accept the “injustice,” as he saw it. He vowed to destroy Mozart. Here, Prithviraj (as Gomathi) plays the Salieri part, which means that this is really his story – and once again, in what seems to have become a recent, generous habit, Sidddarth plays the lesser role. His Kaali is the Mozart equivalent. He sees a senior actor (Bhairavan, played by Ponvannan) mugging on stage and remarks, contemptuously, that the performance isn’t any good because it’s about projecting the actor rather than the character. (Gomathi, unsurprisingly, is awestruck by the performance. He doesn’t know any better.)
In a poignant moment, we see Gomathi pressing his guru’s (Sivadasa Swamigal, played by Nasser) feet after he’s been passed over for a lead role, which goes to Kaali – the latter, of course, isn’t going to be seen doing anything this… servile; he probably doesn’t need to. Gomathi asks his guru – the way Salieri railed at God – why he seems to prefer Kaali, and the guru (like God) remains silent. He doesn’t have any answers. He just walks away. Kaaviyathalaivan, in a way, is the story of the transformation of a decent man into a monster, simply because fate has dealt him a bad hand, and making things worse is the fact that Kaali’s presence is a constant reminder of what he can never be. (In many of Gomathi’s scenes, he’s facing a mirror, which lends itself to all sorts of readings.) The foundation, thus, is in place for rock-solid melodrama – and this is the kind of film, and the kind of period, where melodrama actually fits in. With films set in the present day, we wince sometimes when things get too loud because we sense a clash in sensibilities. But here, we accept, easily, the huge crescendo of a scene where a heartbroken Kaali curses his teacher.
But Kaaviyathalaivan doesn’t come close to fulfilling its potential. For one, the period setting isn’t terribly convincing, despite a lot of nifty little touches. The opening credits appear, as in the old movies, against a proscenium arch – we see the curtains parted to a side. AR Rahman is credited not for the “isai” but for the “sangeetha iyakkam,” and the Tamil alphabet is used the way it was used then. (Later, we see this again in the way “Varanasi” is spelt.) But these flourishes, perhaps understandably, remain on the surface. You probably cannot be too truthful to the era when you are making a movie for an impatient modern-day audience. A key scene has Kaali demonstrating his involvement with his work by correctly interpreting the meaning of a verse by Arunagirinathar, but on stage, we don’t hear this kind of Tamil – we hear colloquial-sounding couplets with easy rhymes. It’s the same with the music. The film opens with a dedication to legends like SG Kittappa and KB Sundarambal, but a soundtrack filled with those kinds of voices would be booed off the screen today. The singers sound lighter, more contemporary, even while rendering bits like Kaayadha kaanagathe, which was immortalized on screen by TR Mahalingam – again, a voice that would most likely make the audience collapse into giggles.
But the flip side to this “modernization” is that we aren’t pulled into this period. We could be watching one of RS Manohar’s famous stage productions from the eighties. (Indeed, one of the plays staged is Elangeswaran.) Still, this wouldn’t have been a problem had something else drawn us in: the emotions, or the overarching drama. But the characters keep us at a distance. With the exception of Gomathi, to an extent, we never really get into their heads. Almost always, we are asked to accept what they do because it’s happening before our eyes and not because this is what the characters would have done had they mulled over the “what is my motivation?” question. We don’t get any scenes of Kaali and Gomathi interacting on a personal level, so the latter’s increasing animosity and the former’s relentless niceness come to feel contrived. And instead, we are handed a lot of filler – like a bland romantic track between Kaali and a zamindar’s daughter.
The questions keep coming. Why isn’t the arc of Vadivu (Vedhika, who’s surprisingly effective) falling for Kaali more convincingly traced out, and how does she reach the point in her worship of him – and it really does seem like worship – that she’s willing to bear his child after he’s insulted her? Why not devote a little more time to the revelation that Bhairavan is a womanizer, so that this development effectively informs the scene where Kaali is practically kicked out of the troupe, owing to his love affair? Why not show a few Britishers on the roads? (Or is this a conscious decision, to tell us how hermetically sealed off this world of theatre was?) Was Kaali always a nationalist? And even if that is the case, why not go into more detail about Kaali’s decision, while in prison, to stage nationalistic dramas instead of the regular mythologicals? (Some prisoners make this suggestion, and… that’s it – a major development is effected through a couple of lines of dialogue.)
Siddharth and Prithviraj have their moments, but they struggle with ill-defined parts, and with events that are predictable in the extreme. Vasanthabalan sets up these prolonged scenes that are intended as nail-biters – who will get the plum role when Bhairavan departs in a huff? Who will be brought in as a substitute for the ailing Gomathi? – but everyone in the audience knows the answer. After a point, we even know how things are going to end (though there is a small twist in store). There is no denying Vasanthabalan’s desire to make “good cinema,” but like his other films, Kaaviyathalaivan makes us give him an A for effort, even as we rummage down the alphabet when it comes to aspects of the execution.
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