Kamal Haasan’s films are increasingly beginning to look like the “circus thuppakki” so memorably showcased in Aboorva Sagotharargal – the kind of gun that fires from both ends. The targets at one end are the general viewers, who just want a good time at the movies. At the other end are the fans who are especially invested in the actor’s mythology (which Kamal Haasan himself has been instrumental in propagating, through his fantastically layered screenplays). Which side of the divide you fall on will decide your enjoyment of the actor’s latest film, Thoongavanam (directed by Rajesh M. Selva, and based on Frederic Jardin’s French thriller Sleepless Night) – but I wonder if there are others like me, who find themselves on the fence. Why does one have to choose? Why not wish for a film that entertains at a surface level, but also invites us to scratch our chins gravely and converse with the actor’s persona?
The general viewer in me just couldn’t see what was so great about Sleepless Night that it had to be remade – at least until I looked up a couple of reviews. (I haven’t seen the film.) Variety said it “starts in high gear and accelerates steadily from there.” That’s certainly not the case with Thoongavanam, and part of the reason is surely Kamal Haasan’s inability to rein in the Kamal-isms, as I like to call them – those little asides that are the cinematic equivalent of daydreaming during a final exam. Something about soya milk. A telephone-cleaner wife. Gay sex. ‘Crazy’ Mohan-style wordplay on the word “kathi.” A comment about champagne. Maybe even something about the machinery that prevents films from releasing as scheduled, leaving fans frustrated about not being able to watch their “nayakan.” By themselves, these scribbles on the margins are fascinating (and myth-building), but not in a film that needs us perched at the edge of our seats, with dry mouths and pounding hearts.
Or maybe the problem is the director’s workmanlike handling (a regrettable recurrence in Kamal’s recent films), when the script demanded the dazzle of a Brian De Palma. There’s one shot from the De Palma playbook, a smooth camera move that takes off from a toilet stall in the ladies’ room, courses through the ventilation duct above, and lands in a stall in the men’s room – the film needed more such showmanship, given that it’s set almost entirely in a nightclub. The story has to do with inspector Diwakar (Kamal Haasan) and a bag of cocaine, and the title, which appears in flickering neon, is perfect. Thoongavanam – an insomniac’s version of poongavanam, which suggests parks and children playing. Here, the game is hide-and-seek. The people looking for Diwakar include cops (Trisha, Kishore) as well as murderous gangsters (Sampath, Prakash Raj).
It’s a revolving-door thriller, with a breathless series of entries and exits. But for a while, the smoothness of the writing (note the “invisible” nature of Sampath’s introduction) doesn’t translate to screen. The rhythms are stiff, the pauses in the dialogues seem a few seconds off, the humour looks forced. Things pick up in the post-interval portions, especially after a superb action sequence in the club’s kitchen. Everything comes together beautifully – the kitchen-sink action choreography, the sounds of things breaking and clattering, the bursts of background score, and the jittery camerawork. This is one stretch that does something worthwhile with the claustrophobia of the setting. From here, Thoongavanam truly takes off, both for the casual viewer as well as the Kamal-watcher, who will surely make a mental note of another “first” from the films of this actor, the unflinching gaze on the contents of a water closet. When lives are at stake, shit happens.
As with Uttama Villain, it’s the latter viewer who wins. Diwakar is yet another grey character for Kamal Haasan – not just in age (an indeterminate middle-age) but also in terms of his morality. (We keep thinking: Is he a bad guy?) And the actor continues to chip away at the Tamil hero’s “heroism.” Even as late as Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu, a cop character still meant a degree of macho posturing. But look at Diwakar. The mission is in the background. In the foreground is family, which he is literally handcuffed to, even after divorce. He keeps calling his ex (Asha Sarath) to reassure her. And while it’s no surprise to see Kamal Haasan being beaten up (by men much younger), have you seen another film whose hero is so preoccupied that he doesn’t swoop in, at once, to save a girl being date-raped? She has to call out to him. Only then does the hero-switch go on. Diwakar even relinquishes the bad-guy-nabbing duties – it’s refreshing who finally ends up with them.
You have to smile at the way the things we expect from this actor – lip-locks, for instance, with the hottest nurse in all of hospitaldom – are sutured organically into the screenplay. By the end, Kamal’s image as a romantic hero is resurrected too – it’s the film’s cheekiest line. And a few new preoccupations make themselves felt. As in Uttama Villain, we have here a work-obsessed father who negotiates a troubled relationship with his lippy son. Diwakar thinks the boy plays cricket; he’s actually a footballer. The real games, though, are the ones Kamal Haasan continues to play with his audience, with teasing autobiographical hints and touches that invite theses.
- thuppakki = gun
- Sleepless Night = see here
- kathi = knife
- nayakan = hero; also this little-known movie
- poongavanam = park
- Uttama Villain = see here
- Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu = see here
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