It’s the film that fuelled a thousand acting dreams. For generations, Veerapandiya Kattabomman isn’t the story of a brave king brought down by the British. It’s essentially a single scene – the scene in which Kattabomman (Sivaji Ganesan, who’s beyond magnificent) gives Lord Jackson the chaste-Tamil equivalent of a giant, upraised middle finger. On the big screen, the speech is more resonant than you remember. The speakers aid the illusion that Sivaji’s voice is all around us, and the barely disguised contempt when he gets to “manjal araithu pani purindhaaya” is something to behold. But watching the film all over again, we see how much more there is to it, right from Sivaji’s first words, a prayer to Lord Murugan. There’s the way he spits out the name “Collector Lushington.” There’s the way – when informed that the British have cannons – he utters the word “beerangi,” apparently quaking with fear but actually mocking that very fear. To watch Veerapandiya Kattabomman is to marvel at the shades and nuances an actor can infuse into oratory.
And to realise – if one needed this realisation – how effective dialogues can be in cinema. Show, don’t tell, we’re often told – but when the dialogues are so moving, so effective, it doesn’t matter that the film, for the most part, looks like a photographed stage play. The camera whisks us to the first row, and perhaps even beyond, right by the actors. The scene where the battlefield-bound Kattabomman takes leave of his wife (S Varalakshmi) is stuffed with dialogue and yet as affecting as something we’d call “pure cinema” – though I did laugh once, when he described her thus: “thaen sotta Thamizh paesum thiruvilakku.” Imagine. There was actually a time a Tamil-film heroine was being hailed as a paragon of Tamil speech. And a time actors were chosen for their felicity with the language. Gemini Ganesan, Padmini, OAK Devar, VK Ramasamy as the smarmy Ettappan – there’s not one bad performance in the bunch.
The picture quality – the colours, mainly – is a bit inconsistent. But this may be due to problems with the negative, and it doesn’t affect the three-hour film at all – save for the war portions where we wait for the inevitable, it all just zips by. Veerapandiya Kattabomman, surprisingly, is more watchable than many of the social melodramas of the era. (The film was first released in 1959.) Perhaps it’s because the rhetoric fits right in with the historical (or folkloric, if you believe, as some do, that the film takes many liberties with facts) milieu. We flinch when we hear ordinary people attired in contemporary clothes speak this way, but with these characters no suspension of disbelief is required. That’s needed only when we hear the odd phrase that jars (did you know people said “Idhu en aalu,” back then?) or when we hear the British speaking pure Tamil. Offering Ettappan a drink, an East India Company employee doesn’t say, “To your health.” He says, “Umadhu udal nalathukkaaga.” Then again, we just have to remember that Egyptians spoke English in The Ten Commandments. (Speaking of which, the director BR Panthulu does a Cecil B DeMille by appearing from behind a curtain and introducing the film to us.)
The technical aspects aren’t as impressive today, but the music (by G Ramanathan) is still superb, spanning the range from folksy to light to classical. The highlight, to many, is surely Inbam pongum vennila (sung by P Sushila and a gentleman listed in the opening credits as “PB Srinivasa Rao”) – but there’s also Pogaadhe pogaadhe en kanavaa (reprised a few years later by Manorama, in Ratha Thilagam), and two exquisite numbers by S Varalakshmi (Singara kanne and Manam kanindharul). But it’s not so much these songs as how well they fit into the screenplay. What a solidly written film this is. It begins by introducing us to the protagonist… Then his citizens complain that they are being attacked by bandits – but this isn’t just an excuse for an action scene… These bandits have been employed by the British to terrorise the kingdom, and so we segue to them, as they recruit Ettappan… There’s nothing fancy – say, a narrative that moves back and forth in time – but this is a deceptive kind of simplicity. If it were really so easy, why would we have to endure the screenplays we do today?
- “manjal araithu pani purindhaaya” = did you grind turmeric for our women?
- beerangi = cannon
- “thaen sotta Thamizh paesum thiruvilakku” = the woman speaks honeyed Tamil
- “Idhu en aalu” = this is my guy!
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