Kamal Haasan’s films suffer sometimes because they end up looking like vanity projects, but Uttama Villain, directed by Ramesh Aravind, couldn’t be anything else – for this is the story of a vain star named Manoranjan (Kamal Haasan). This is cinema about cinema, and because Tamil cinema is really about the hero, the film begins with a shot of a projection booth (in a theatre screening Manoranjan’s latest release) and it ends with the image of the star frozen on screen. Kamal has often called himself a limelight moth, but here his wattage is increased a million-fold. He’s the sun of his universe, everyone else a mere satellite in obeisant orbit. I’m not just talking about the fans who throng malls (what a perfect location, given that Manoranjan is, in a way, a consumer product; just like you go to a sports store to buy a pair of sneakers, you go to the multiplex to buy three hours with Manoranjan), waiting for a glimpse of their hero. I refer, also, to the Kamal Haasan repertory company (Oorvasi, Jayaram, Andrea Jeremiah, Pooja Kumar, Nasser, K Viswanath), who have to make room not just for Manoranjan and Uttaman (the character Manorajan plays in a movie inside this movie), but Kamal Haasan himself. It’s possibly the most head-spinning triple role in cinema history.
Has any Indian star bared himself – and bored into himself – on screen the way Kamal has in Uttama Villain? The closest cinematic cousin is probably Fellini’s near-autobiographical 8½, which was about a director grappling with a creative block. Here, we have a sixty-year-old actor contemplating his legacy, his mortality. At least part of the fun of watching Uttama Villain comes from that legacy, as we play spot-the-reference. Early on, we catch the name of Manoranjan’s new film, Veera Vilayattu. Is that title a nod to the film Kamal made with Gautham Menon a few years ago? We see a song with Manoranjan prancing about in foreign locations with a much-younger actress (Pooja Kumar). Isn’t this the complaint we had of Kamal in his overtly commercial films from the latter half of his career? Isn’t that why the song carries the word “Singaravela”? Like Kamal, Manoranjan specializes in the step where he leaps and taps his toes in mid-air. In a season of meta films, Uttama Villain is possibly the meta-est of them all.
Hello, old lady at the 2:30 mark with mortar and pestle!
After a while, I began to see Kamal movies everywhere. That point where he barks an order (“Sit down!”) to his female costar – is that from Punnagai Mannan? That point where he appears with a shaved head and fearsome face makeup – is that from Aalavandhan? The big man who lifts, with ease, Manoranjan’s long-suffering secretary Chockalingam (MS Baskar) – is that Bhim boy? That point where we see a minor character using a mortar and pestle – surely that’s not a nod to a beloved song from Meendum Kokila? But at least some of the nods are unambiguous. Manoranjan’s PRO is played by Chitra Lakshmanan, who handled the promotions for a lot of Kamal Haasan’s films in the 1980s and also directed him in Soora Samharam. Better yet, Manoranjan’s guru – allegorically named Margadharisi – is played by K Balachander, and like the legendary filmmaker, he finds it difficult to make movies with this star, who was a mere “actor” when they made a series of hit films together. We see a picture of K Balachander with ‘Chaplin’ Chellappa, in that bowler hat, and there’s a lump in the throat. The collaborations of this actor-director duo are so much a part of our growing-up years, their history feels like ours.
And do I need to say that there are many women in Manoranjan’s life? When his son asks him if he’s going to leave his mother for another woman, it’s like reading the headlines in a gossip rag – you have to wonder how much of this is real, how much fiction. Still, it’s clear that there’s room for only one great love in the star’s life: cinema. (Again, remind you of someone?) The rabbit hole gets deeper when we see that the film Manoranjan begins work on, playing the character of Uttaman under Margadharisi’s direction, is also named Uttama Villain, and it too has music by Ghibran. And this is when the real beauty of Kamal Haasan’s conceit kicks in. (He wrote the screenplay, but then, by now, you’ve guessed that.) Manoranjan is dying, and Uttaman cannot die. It’s one thing that actors never really age, let alone die. Every time we watch Kalathur Kannamma, Kamal is five years old. But Manoranjan will not be around forever, and playing Uttaman is the ultimate kind of wish-fulfillment. It’s Manoranjan’s ticket to immortality. (It’s no accident that Uttaman is an actor too.)
Uttama Villain – the overall film, that is, not the folklore-ish film that’s being shot within the film (and which is set in the eighth century) – now begins to play out as a series of contrapuntal scenes. Manoranjan has a tender moment with his doctor, named Arpana. (Rani Mukerji’s character in Hey Ram! was called Aparna. Just saying.) And we cut to a love song enacted in the film-within-the-film, the lovely Kaadhalaam kadavul mun. Manoranjan collapses. We cut to Uttaman singing about saagaavaram, the boon of immortality. Manoranjan spies his children from outside his house (for a change, he’s the spectator). We hear, on the soundtrack, En udhirathin vidhai (my bloodline…), and we cut to another father-son scene, between Prahalada and Hiranyakashipu, played by Uttaman. Both stories – the one about Manoranjan, the one about Uttaman – feature love triangles, and both feature scheming. The niggling doubt whether a star like Manoranjan, in this commercial climate (all the press wants to know in a scene is whether Veera Vilayattu will make a hundred crores), would make a movie Uttama Villain is pushed aside when we remember that Manoranjan may actually be Kamal Haasan, who has been at war with the definition of “commercial cinema” for quite a while now. Consider this: the movie Manoranjan was attached to earlier was about the life of Adi Shankara.
Apart from a typically solid lead(s) performance, Uttama Villain has a lot of what we’ve come to expect in a Kamal Haasan movie – from reclaimed archetypes (the vidushika) to pet phrases (satyameva jayate). There’s the expected mix of languages – Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, English. And there’s the play with language. A character is named Yamini simply so that a letter written to her can feature the words “yaam ini…” A line toys with the rhymes edai / idai / udai. That’s worth at least a small smile. But there’s a big laugh in store when the Tenali Raman-like Uttaman mounts a tiger and exclaims, “Ayyo… appa,” and an onlooker yells back, “Ayyappa!” I don’t know if I laughed at the scene itself or at Kamal’s cleverness, but there are many humorous bits in the portions with Uttaman. Even the production company formed by Manoranjan carries the whiff of wordplay. It has his name fused with his mentor’s: Manomaarga, the way of the heart. If that doesn’t define Kamal’s career, I don’t know what does.
But despite all this – all this appreciation for Kamal’s writing; all this acknowledgement of his (personal and professional) past; all these questions about his future – Uttama Villain is just a series of discrete scenes. It just doesn’t come together as a cohesive whole. And at least part of the problem is the people Kamal has chosen to help him bring his vision to screen. Pooja Kumar is pretty, and I was impressed by her athleticism when bound in chains (it’s not what you’re thinking, I assure you), but she’s a shrill presence. I didn’t buy her for a second as an eighth-century princess, not in that pixie-bob. Andrea Jeremiah, too, is incapable of pulling the weight her role requires. As for good actors like MS Baskar and Nasser (in Rasta hair and a Thai crown!), we see them in scenes that should have us laughing and crying, but we don’t do any of these things. There’s always a beat missing. There’s always some dead air. There’s a scene where Chockalingam reads out a letter in a screening room. We can practically hear the stage directions. He unfolds the letter. The room is dark. He squints. He gets up and walks to the screen and begins to read by the light of the projected image. In other words, what we’re seeing is the screenplay. Where’s the direction?
Kamal Haasan’s writing is so dense and allusive and overstuffed and layered and indulgent that it’s always a question whether even the best actors and directors in the world can come up with the kind of wit and timing needed to fully make the transition from page to screen – in other words, the best Kamal Haasan movies are probably locked up inside his head, where they reside in the most perfect possible manner. But with some of the lightweight cast and crew he’s been working with of late, this material doesn’t stand a chance. I saw a version of Uttama Villain that ran close to three hours. I hear it’s being trimmed to two-and-a-half hours, but that doesn’t change much except maybe save you a couple of leg cramps. From what I heard, the portions being chopped were from Uttaman’s story. I can’t say I’m surprised. This track is staged like a school play – the pacing is just off – and it doesn’t mesh easily with Manoranjan’s story. (Ghibran’s stirring orchestral passages are lost in this friction between the two narratives.) Even the much-hyped Theyyam sequence (why Theyyam in a Tamil kingdom?) plays like an afterthought – it isn’t organic, it’s just another cool thing we now know Kamal Haasan can do. The glass-half-full guy in me says I should be thankful that a film at least gives you so much to think about, but this film isn’t that kind of glass. It’s really a looking glass. How I wished the entire film had been a mirror on Manoranjan, about what it is to be a star of a certain age, at a certain stage, about what it means to be Kamal Haasan.
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