Readers Write In #158: Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989)… still the pinnacle of Kollywood masala

Posted on April 19, 2020

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(by Sundar)

April 14 is the Tamil New Year’s day. It does not change every year. And ever since its release on the Tamil New Year’s day of 1989, Apoorva Sagodharargal too hasn’t changed its position as the best-ever Kollywood masala. And here’s why…

It is just a plain old revenge drama with a simple premise – two long-separated brothers come together to avenge their father’s killing. Can it get simpler? The film deploys the usual tools of masala that are available to a mainstream film maker – mother sentiment, pregnant lady sentiment, love tragedy, brutal killings, rich girl-poor boy romance, comedy, deadly villains, funny cops, good songs and stunts, and finally a happy end. The characters are either black or white. There are no grey shades to transcend the script. No unexpected twist anywhere. It is a very straightforward narration. Still what a magic on screen!

The movie has a placid start with a close shot of a duck in an idyllic village, only to throw us onto a racy trajectory with a jeep ripping through a thatched hut like an arrow tearing a tender heart. The action block goes on with the father-police inspector Sethupathy (Kamal Hassan No.1) stealing the limelight – behaving like a roaring lion with the foursome villains and at once turning into a naughty kitten with his pregnant wife (Srividya). Very soon, within a matter of 12 minutes, everything is over: Comedy icon Nagesh gets established as a barbaric villain with a sharp humour, a star from the yester years ‘James Bond’ Jaishankar joins him; the villains are arrested and disgraced by Sethupathy; but court acquits all of them while throwing the upright inspector out of job; it is the villain team’s turn and they ravage the beautiful couple within moments after the couple had shared some lovely moments; Sethupathy is killed mercilessly right in front of his heavily pregnant wife; and the title credits keep rolling as the poisoned, pregnant widow escapes on a boat, with maestro Ilayaraja giving out one of his best background scores.

Only a few other movies have reached this level of screenplay in establishing so much, so tightly, in just about a dozen opening minutes. Even the sheet anchor scenes of Thalapathi (1991) shot in black and white – of a teenage, unwed mother abandoning her just born baby in one of the open bogies of a goods train; the baby being rescued by some kids only to be accidentally let to float in a stream; and soon the baby being regained from the flowing water and he growing up into a dejected, angry little boy with a single question that resonates throughout the movie ‘Why did my mother abandon me?” – that run for the initial ten minutes as the titles roll, and which are equally backed by Ilayaraja’s masterpiece melody, are a shade lesser than that of Apoorva Sagodharargal’sprelude scenes.

Into the story, after lots of fun and a love tragedy, the mother reveals their brutal past to Appu (Kamal Hassan No.2) who just tried to commit suicide; and the dwarf-clown instantaneously decides to take revenge. Bloody scenes of Sethupathy getting killed are intercut here reminding us the brutality. And for Appu it is not just about avenging his father’s killing, it is also about eliminating those who were responsible for his stunted growth which gives a constant reason for others to mock at him. It is just smart writing by Kamal Hassan. But a single thought lingers in our minds – how is this little clown going to hit back at the four villains who were nothing less than devils. May be Raja could have pulled it off. But not this dwarf! Interval is something peculiar to our masala films. It is not easy to break the standard three-part story structure and create an interval block in the first place; and thereafter make it compelling too; riveting enough to make the audience finish their coffee and cigarettes quickly and get back to their seats filled with anticipation and curiosity. Apoorva Sagodharargal pulls it off in style.

The second half is about how the Lilliputian goes about killing the villains – using novel, believable but essentially cruel methods. But the movie carries itself so well that we do not watch those gory scenes through our fingers. We kind of relish them. Sample this: of all things in the world, to kill his second target Appu uses his circus tiger to tear up the man into pieces. (Wait, wait… lions are reserved for the climax.) This scene of an extremely cruel murder transforms smoothly into a peppy number with the car mechanic Raja (Kamal Hassan No.3) performing puli vesham (tiger costume) folk dance. And in between this quick and enjoyable transition is ample humour by Janakaraj, as the investigating inspector and his sidekick constable, Sambandham. Neenga engeyo poiteenga sir! And Kamal Haasan, the ingenuous script writer, in an attempt to achieve the desired scene shift with flair, has also used 2-D animation here. It is funny, it is creative.

In the scenes in and around Appu’s love failure, the actor Kamal and the maestro compete terrifically with each other. These are a set of rare scenes in cinema, that work equally good – without audio or without video. Even when you mute the music and just watch the film, the actor’s sheer brilliance makes you cry for Appu whose soul gets shredded into pieces by the tragic end of his love. Well, you have the same effect even when you close your eyes and simply let yourself get immersed in the heart wrenching melody. It is like two superior players easily winning the match on their own, yet preferring to come together – not just to win, but to create history. But not that the dialog writer ‘Crazy’ Mohan was just a mute spectator here. The humour played out in this very tragic scene is unmissable. The marriage registration officer mocks at the dwarf Appu, only to be sort of defended by Appu saying that he was 27 years of age (basically, a man and not a kid). The officer mocks and laughs out, ‘Yedhu.. andha irupathi aarukku appuram varumey.. andha irupathi yezhaa?!’ What a pain. What a humour. The writing and dialogs puts you in quite a few tight spots like this where you are at a loss to understand your own state of mind. It happens when pain and joy blend, when comedy and tragedy dance together.

Lyricist Vaali’s versatility is legendary. In Apoorva Sagodharargal he proves his worth hands down. Sample this: Andha vaanam azhudhathaan indha boomiyey sirikkum.. oozing with pain, a sinking heart. Vazhavaikkum kaadhalukku jey! Vaalibathin paadalukku jey!.. pumping love and joy, carefree souls. The visuals too match the high quality of lyrics and music. It is quite interesting to see a dapper Raja dancing his intro song in the shop floor of an automobile factory filled with rows of newly minted cars and trendy girls. The biggest dream of a small time car mechanic, possibly. The same goes for vazhavaikkum song that is made a part of the story, rather than just existing in empty space. Perhaps it is the only full-fledged duet song in Tamil film history that features a dead body too!

The movie never loses sight of its 5-song/5-fight format of a mainstream masala. After all the story was by the legendary Panchu Arunachalam, the man to whom Kollywood owes half its wealth. But the film demonstrates the possibilities in store when an A-team decides to create something unique and more importantly – when all of its A-rated members fly in unison. This is not a movie where you can easily point out, “The music is wonderful!” and rest. With this movie, you cannot leave out P.C.Sriram when talking about Ilayaraja; you cannot miss ‘Crazy’ Mohan when mentioning about the scriptwriter Kamal Hassan or the lyricist. The same with the actors like the inspector Janakaraj, mother Manorama and the villain team that includes the Kamal-regulars like Nasser and Delhi Ganesh. That is the beauty of Apoorva Sagodharargal. It is quite a task to dissect a scene and say authoritatively who has excelled. We get a wholesome, new cinema experience. And that is what the team set out to deliver.

But if I were to single out a person who raises above the rest, it is probably the cinematographer P.C.Sriram. Appu looked like a dwarf; he was a dwarf! No animatics, no 3D modelling, no roto. Sheer old-fashioned camera tricks, real hard work and some great ideas. Yes, the DOP had a solid support from the actor and the editor duo B.Lenin and V.T.Vijayan. But the brain of the movie ultimately is P.C. An angle missed here or there would have made the entire movie like a high school stage drama. (Remember SRK from Hero? Well…) Even to this day, the making of Apoorva Sagodharargal awes everyone around, it continues to be enigmatic.

Great movies are made bottom-up and it requires an able hand to weave the individual threads of artistic brilliance into a magnificent cinematic experience. Hats off to director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. It is not easy to manage talent. It is extremely difficult to manage extraordinary talent. Luckily, the project was in very safe hands. Over the years hordes of heavy weight masala films have hit the screens; like the corruption-based Shankar brand of block busters, village-based K.S.Ravikumar creations, P.Vasu class of pictures and A.R.Murugadoss and Atlee style of well packaged super hits. What is a masala movie? It is not easy to define. What is a successful masala? Even tougher to describe. But whatever it may mean, Apoorva Sagodharargal is the most successful masala of Kollywood since its release; the run continues even into the Tamil New Year of 2020.

(Bonus 1 – A deleted song ‘Ammava Naan..’ from the film is on Youtube.

P.S. – It is good for the film that Bahubali was not made in Tamil.