Let me begin by saying how intensely jealous I am of those of you who haven’t seen Drishyam, the Malayalam movie that inspired Papanasam. Most times, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve seen the original film or read the book the screenplay is based on – because, as the cliché goes, there are only so many stories, and most of what we see involves permutations and combinations of the elements in those stories. And we watch these remakes for, say, the freshness the new cast brings to the material, or what the director does with it. But once in a while, you get a premise so gobsmackingly good, so fresh and audacious, that nothing anyone does can recreate your first time. I experienced that when I watched Gone Girl after reading the book. Something similar happened with Papanasam.
But those of you who haven’t seen Drishyam, I’d imagine, are in for a white-knuckle treat. Jeethu Joseph, who directed Drishyam, is in charge of Papanasam too, and, wisely, he doesn’t try to fix something that ain’t broke. The film opens with a shot of a lake whose smooth surface is interrupted by ripples – the image prepares us for what’s to follow, the increasing turbulence in the placid life of Suyambulingam (Kamal Haasan) and his family (wife Gautami, daughters Niveda Thomas and Esther Anil). But first, we see what a placid life it is. The early portions are leisurely paced – the scenes seem to be cut to the rhythms of a small town. It’s like strapping yourself to the time machine from Indru Netru Naalai and setting the dial to an era when cinema meant more than breakneck editing and the conviction that every audience member is a three-year-old suffering from ADD.
The details (save for a bafflingly fake-looking moustache that Kamal sports) are pitch-perfect. On top of a TV set, we see a model airplane – we know instantly what kind of household this is. And again and again, we’re shown what a loving, tight-knit family this is. We see them frequently around the dining table, and no one is staring at a smartphone. Suyambulingam chats with his wife, his daughters. He chats with the owner (MS Baskar) of a restaurant he likes to frequent. These aren’t plot-oriented conversations. They’re the kind of things people talk about when they have a long history, when they’ve exhausted every topic on earth and now muse about earthworms and agriculture. Suyambulingam’s father-in-law (Delhi Ganesh) speaks of selling his house. Suyambulingam doesn’t want to hear about it. Suyambulingam is a mite too careful with money – he’s the kind of person who keeps switching off the lights in the house. This annoys his wife. That’s about the extent of conflict in these lives. We’re being shown paradise – before it is lost.
The fall comes about when… no, I won’t tell you. With most thrillers, the suspense is based on what happened or who did it. Here, the question is: Will he get away with it? He, of course, is Suyambulingam, and we’re on his side, of course – but the director is canny enough to muddy our emotions, by showing us another set of parents (Asha Sarath, who plays an Inspector General, and Anant Mahadevan) who love their son as much as Suyambulingam loves his daughters. At one point, you may feel the IG is going too far for the sake of her son, but then you remember that Suyambulingam has possibly gone further for the sake of his daughter. It’s no surprise that, by the end, we hear the word kuttra unarchi (guilty conscience) from both families – there are no winners. It’s a masterstroke to make Suyambulingam’s adversary a woman, a mother. Papanasam is one of those rare films in which the amma sentiment doesn’t make you regurgitate your breakfast.
Another thrill is watching the good guy do the kind of things the bad guy usually does. Lying. Covering up. Manufacturing alibis. Tampering with evidence. It’s a spin on the classic Hitchcockian scenario of an innocent man on the run. Only, Jeethu Joseph is no Hitchcock. We watch the latter’s films over and over, without tiring of them, because of how cinematic they are. Once we know who did what to whom – that is, the basic plot, which is what grips us the first time we watch a movie – we observe, during subsequent viewings, the elegance of the filmmaking. We notice the camera casually eyeing, from the upper floor, the guests at a party, and then craning in to peer at the key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand. We notice a murder as reflected in a fallen pair of spectacles. Set to carnival music. Joseph, on the other hand, relies on reaction shots to tell us what to feel. I haven’t seen this many cutaways to “pointed” expressions on actors’ faces – we might as well be staring at subtitles saying things like “this man is afraid he’s caught in a lie” or “this woman is suspicious.”
Still, that plot is so strong that all this, ultimately, matters little. Plus, there’s the leading man. Suyambulingam is a cable-TV operator. And a cinema fanatic, like… Kamal Haasan. This seems to be the season for meta reflections on the actor. Uttama Villain was practically a meditation on the Kamal Haasan persona. Here, we get a reference to his 1975 release Cinema Paithiyam, as well as a reminder of the actor’s indifference to politics. And let’s not forget that, like Suyambulingam, Kamal Haasan has two daughters and is starring in this movie with his real-life Significant Other.
And like Kamal Haasan, who’s often accused of ghost-directing his films, Suyambulingam watches films and offers commentary on what he would have done with the scene. Later, fittingly, he actually turns into a “director,” recreating a day in his life with “props” and (unwitting) “actors.” Cinema is a running subtext in Papanasam, which employs cinematic tools like the zoom-in (every time Suyambulingam thinks back on a movie) and the flashback (the entire film is one). Even Suyambulingam’s emotions are dictated by the movies. Pasamalar makes him cry. A song from Siraichaalai makes him hurry home to his wife and enact what he jokingly calls a “rape scene.” Elsewhere, the wife, fed up with his talk, accuses him of spouting the same “dialogue.” There’s a scene of “filming” on a phone. There’s a discussion about film versus digital. And like in the movies, a moment of high drama occurs just as rains break out. Earlier, there was non-stop sunshine – now, thunder and lightning.
My favourite bit was a reference to Padikkadha Medhai. At first, it’s just a pun, a Crazy Mohan-lite joke. Later, we see that it’s an allusion to Suyambulingam himself, someone who’s hardly educated and yet has the street smarts to… no, I won’t tell you. Kamal takes a cue from Sivaji Ganesan in that earlier film. Not only does he say his hairstyle is like Sivaji’s, he also pitches his performance at a more “cinematic” level than Mohanlal did in Drishyam. Future film scholars are going to tie themselves up in knots about who is better, which approach is better, but for now, let’s just say Kamal Haasan is terrific. And it’s terrific to see him play a “normal” part, something that doesn’t ask you to view it through special Subtext Revealing Glasses. As fun as that is, sometimes, more of this, please.
- Papanasam = the name of the place (see here) where the characters reside; though also used for the literal meaning of the word (papa + nasam = destroyer of sins)
- Gone Girl = see here
- Indru Netru Naalai = see here
- Padikkadha Medhai = An uneducated genius
An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2015 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.