As you may have picked up from my Aval Shanmughi and Ambe Sivam posts, I have a hard time with Kamal Haasan. Yes, he is a brilliant actor. Yes, he has movie star charisma. But it just seems like his characters have to be so perfect and so wonderful, that no one else is allowed to do anything. But this Kamal Haasan movie, this one I liked!
Partly it worked for me because it was less a Kamal Haasan movie and more a Mani Ratnam movie. I don’t think anyone besides Kamal could have played that main character, certainly the movie rose and fell on his shoulders. But on the other hand, the “auteur” of the film was distinctly Ratnam.
The feel of the characters, the flow of the narrative, the look of the film, it was all Ratnam. And so was the squishy moral message at the end. I say “squishy”, because it’s not a simple moral, right? Not a basic “obey the law!” or “violence is bad!” But also not a simple “by any means necessary is a-okay!” kind of message.
Also very Ratnam, such strong female characters! Strong, complicated, flawed and sinning, but not condemned for it. I love it!
And of course the final Ratnam touch, the idea of of the Tamilian within the larger State. I just re-watched OK Kanmani, another movie set in Bombay about Tamilians, and even though it is a happy modern romance, not a massive historical crime epic, the same theme appears, the strength of the Tamil community within the larger society, the importance of those bonds above all else.
But what I keep coming back to is the “by any means necessary” concept. It’s one that every society struggles with, at what point does injustice become so powerful, that it is acceptable to work outside of social boundaries? This film starts out with a very simple moral, Kamal’s foster father tells him “nothing is bad if it helps others”. But then later we are confronted with the idea of perspective, an action you see primarily in terms of helping A, can be seen by someone else primarily in terms of how it hurts B. But does that mean “everything is bad if it hurts others”? How are we supposed to live our lives between these two extremes? Is it up to the state to decide where the balance lies, between over all good and over all harm? What if the state doesn’t consider the harm it does to you and yours when it is making those judgments? Does that mean you are allowed to make those judgments yourself for your own community?
That’s what Kamal’s character believes, that the state has abandoned him and so he is allowed to make his own decisions of mercy and justice. And we never really see him do anything “wrong” with those decisions. It’s not a situation where he brings in illegal alcohol and people die from it, or he believes the wrong person and kills an innocent, or anything like that. His only sin is thinking that he has the right to make those kinds of decisions for himself. So the sin of hubris, I guess?
That’s the big moral quandary hidden within this gangster story, but it’s also a pretty neat gangster story! A classic tale of the rise from nothing to King, with a heavy smattering of native intelligence, outside of the box thinking, forgiveness, and love for and from the people.
What felt really weird to me was having seen this same story in Deewar and Once Upon a Time in Mumbaii, but loosely based on the perspective of the real life gangster Haji Mastan, not the real life gangster Vardhabai. The southern gangster in the formal lungi is supposed to be the friendly-enemy guy! Not the hero! And the smooth Muslim gangster in a suit is supposed to be the good guy! So confusing!
But again, that gets at the Tamilians-in-the-larger-state issue. They are so often ignored, relegated to tiny cameo roles, their contribution and problems barely mentioned. That’s why this film made a hero out of the man who championed them. Oh, and SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
We open with Kamal’s character as a child, witnessing the death of his father, a union worker, killed by corrupt police. Kamal responds to his first brush with injustice by stabbing a the police officer who killed his father, and then fleeing. This moment is so interesting! Was it the death of his father which changed his life, or was it his decision to stab the police officer, to take justice into his own hands? The image of a child witnessing his own father’s death, and then killing a man, is certainly shocking. But using a child here is also a choice, there is no one with less power in society than an orphan. Taking vengeance into his own hands, or giving up and accepting fate, those are his only two choices. There is no higher power beyond himself that he could turn to for assistance, and actually expect assistance.
And then there’s the arrival in Bombay, just like in Deewar and Agneepath (both versions) and Once Upon A Time in Mumbaii and even Bombay Velvet. It would feel trite, except all those other films were just imitating this one, either the film itself, or the real life story of the man it is based on. A small boy somehow making his way to the city with nothing, and finds friendship and support in the slums. Notice, in this film, he gets that support not because he is a helpless child, but because he is part of the Tamil community. The gang of boys who start to abuse him are stopped when he speaks in Tamil, and instead he is invited home to live with one of them, a fellow Tamilian. Who is also, significantly, Muslim. In this film, religious barriers are easily broken down, but regional ones matter.
Blah blah, growing up, his foster father is a leading figure in the slum community, the one everyone goes to with problems. But his foster father is big-hearted but has limited vision. He seeks to fix the side-effects of injustice, the poverty and the sickness of the slum dwellers, but he isn’t willing to take the fight further than that, to try to build up an alternative power system which can protect them from further abuse. Or is it that he doesn’t feel he has the moral right to do so? That he can take on little sins for the sake of others, but no more?
One night, when his father is to ill to go out, Kamal volunteers to take his place on the smuggling boat. His father protests, that it is wrong for Kamal to do it. And later, when Kamal has successfully taken control of the mission, and bargained for a much higher rate than usual, his father protests against taking the higher amount of payment as well. He may say that “nothing is wrong if it is for the good of others”, but there is a higher moral as well, an idea that it isn’t wrong if you do the bare minimum required for other’s good. But to want more than that, to do more than that, then you get into a tricky moral area.
When the police come to tear down the slums at the behest of the wealthy landlords who want to build on them, and Kamal stands up to them, that is good, his father approves. Taking punishment on his own body, first in the form of the fire hoses aimed at him, later in the blows he receives in the police station, good! But when his foster father is then killed in police custody, and Kamal tracks down the officer who arrested him and kills him, would that be acceptable by his moral standards as well? Who’s immediate good does this action serve? Is this doing the bare minimum needed for others to survive, or is this going a little bit to far?
But then you have the question of, is Kamal’s father’s morality even right? Was the old man so blinded by years of struggle that he couldn’t see the greater possibilities, the greater good? This police officer is corrupt, he has indirectly or directly caused the deaths of dozens of people. He is found lounging in a brothel with prostitutes, he isn’t even a good husband to his wife. The only person who seems to sincerely mourn him is his mentally ill son, who can only see the simple facts of life, that his father was his father, and his father was a police officer. His widow, while sad, seems slightly more concerned with the practical matters of life, her grief touched by relief. Kamal has freed the entire community through the death of one man who is scarcely missed. Isn’t that “doing good for others”?
Kamal’s romance is scattered into this early sequence, the coming into his power sequence (successful smuggling, standing up to the police, killing police in vengeance for his father, being recognized by the community as their savior). It partly feels like Ratnam having a gun to his head and being forced to add in a romance and songs. But the way he does it, also gives a slightly different perspective on the need for a champion for the Tamilian community, and the reason it has to happen like this.
In gender studies, there is a lot of discussion of male versus female bodies, and how they are abused by those in power. We see through Kamal’s character how the men are abused, turned into beasts of burden, not expected to think for themselves but just to follow orders, and beaten when they disobey. But what is happening to the women?
Our heroine, Saranya Ponvannan who was ADORABLE, and also the doctor in Anjali, is a prostitute. Not a classy elegant prostitute like Rekha, or an explicitly abused and miserable prostitute like Nagma in Baaghi, but just a boring everyday prostitute. Kamal’s foster brother brings him to the brothel, and then to her room. She is a little shy, but asks if he minds if she studies after he is done, as she has a test in school the next day. Kamal is naturally touched, and sleeps in the chair and tells her to study all night. Later, he tracks her down on the street, and at first she doesn’t seem to want to talk to him. But finally she admits that she doesn’t want to talk to him, because if she does, she will cry. And he gently pulls her head against his chest and tells her to go ahead and cry.
That’s it, that’s as much detail as we get to fill in her life in a brothel. She isn’t obviously abused, she is able to leave to go to school every day, but she is deeply miserable with this life. She is just trying to get by and get through it, just like Kamal, only with scars that are less obvious.
This is the fate of the Tamil immigrants, men and women, to be used for their bodies and ignored by society at large. It is only when they join together that they can find their strength and their identity. Which brings me to Kamal and Saranya’s totally adorable marriage and love song! Kamal brings her to a temple, and while she is praying, he asks his friend to quickly arrange with the priest to give them a marriage ceremony. He ties the sacred thread around her neck and blesses her almost before she realizes what is happening. It could feel yucky and assuming if it was done differently. But instead, it feels like he knows she would never feel able to ask for this herself, and he knows within himself that they are equally damaged people who can heal each other, and so he wants the marriage to take place as quickly as possible. And they can get to know each other later (which is what we see in the love song).
(Did you know Dayavan was a remake of this? And this love song was a remake of the adorable love song above? And yet somehow in the remake it is less adorable and more HORRIFYING?)
It’s this kind of story that you can see Ratnam is more interested, the personal struggle and pain, not the big gangster tale. Sure, he throws in a few scenes, Kamal going to meet Karim Lala and Haji Mustan, Kamal successfully smuggling the impossible item that they always have to smuggle in these movies, but Ratnam is much more interested in what Kamal’s success means for his community. Now, when a woman’s baby is dying and the doctor won’t treat it, she has somewhere to go and someone who can help.
(Rahman also manages to squeeze in an item, when Kamal’s friend invites a naach girl to join them on a smuggling run)
The most important part of this sequence is seeing that Kamal works out of his house. His small children and wife are roaming around at the same time that police officers and leading local businessman are coming to him begging for assistance. Being a “gangster” isn’t just Kamal’s job, its his whole life, and the way he runs his territory permeates every part of his life.
That’s the second half of the film, asking if he has any right to try to protect some part of his life from his “crimes” and violence, if he has already brought it all in. It’s sweet and endearing that he discusses his decisions with his wife and lets his kids answer the door. But it also means that when a business rival wants vengeance, Kamal’s wife might be gunned down in his place. He may say that she was “innocent”, but he was the one who brought her into his life so fully, was she really innocent at all?
That is what the second half of the film is dealing with. Where does it end? Even if Kamal did what was right for himself and the needs of his community, does he have the right to make that decision on behalf of his children and others that he brought into his circle?
I am fascinated that it is his daughter who finally stands up to him. And that she is neither right nor wrong when she does so, just as he isn’t fully in the right or wrong either. In the earlier generation, the two genders were suffering separately one used for sex, the other for violence. Only by coming together and respecting each other were they fully able to heal, with Saranya giving him a reason to fight, and him teaching her to fight back and have hope. Now, it is the male figure who is trapped in a cycle of violence, unable to stop fighting. While it is the female figure who can see beyond that, who can move on and question the status quo, asking if there isn’t a better way? If we shouldn’t stop fighting for just a moment?
The sequence in which she finally confronts him is brilliant. Kamal’s daughter, Karthika (hey! I saw her in Adiverukal! That movie was NOT GOOD!), was sent away after her mother’s death to keep her from her father’s life. She returned a carefree and confident adult, who didn’t like her father’s methods. But they hadn’t had a direct confrontation up until now, when she saw her father’s goons, lead by her adopted uncle, beating up a boy until he was near death.
What Karthika doesn’t know is that they were delivering this beating at the behest of a police officer who’s daughter had been raped by the boy. The boy was politically connected, and so the police could not touch him. And the officer, in desperation, had come to Kamal for help, speaking to him as a fellow father of a daughter.
Kamal is directly acting to protect Karthika and girls like her. It is a completely justified action in his mind, it even has police approval! But all Karthika sees is a bunch of bullies beating up a defenseless young man. And she confronts Kamal with her perspective, refusing to listen to his excuses or explanations, asking him simply when it will end, what will be enough? Kamal won’t listen to her, he snaps at her that it was right what he did, and Karthika responds by slapping her uncle, which gets Kamal to immediately respond with a hard slap against her face, the marks of which stay on her cheek for the rest of the scene. Kamal gives an impassioned speech, stumbling around their courtyard, about how he can’t stop until his father comes back to life, his wife, his foster father, until there is no more injustice in the world, basically. And Karthika just listens with the red mark on her face.
The point is perspective. Karthika points out that, to her, hitting her uncle was justified. But to her father, it wasn’t, and he hit back. Kamal can give all the speeches he wants, but the evidence is on her face, the bright marks showing his over-reaction and use of power against someone weaker than himself.
And notice Kamal’s argument is only secondarily about the injustice of society, and the inability to use the law to punish certain people. His first reaction is to list off all the reasons he has to fight, all the “injustice” he has suffered. Yes, maybe he is doing the right thing in the only way possible. But is he truly doing it for the good of society? Or has he lost track of the difference between society and himself?
In the hands of a less skilled director, this would feel like a tragic scene of martyrdom, he has sacrificed so much for his community and now his own daughter is turning against him because she doesn’t understand, blah blah blah. But instead, it feels like a confrontation between two equally valid points of view. He wants her to understand that sometimes there is no other solution than violence, and she wants him to understand that sometimes it doesn’t have to be violent.
And the end of the film, I think, supports her argument. Kamal loses his son, when he lets his son follow his path of violence. He loses his daughter when she walks out on him. Only to find her again years later, married to the police officer who is tracking him. In the end, Kamal realizes he has to turn himself in, it’s the only way to protect his community from the police tracking him. He turns himself in peacefully, and his daughter and son-in-law bring their small child, his grandchild, to meet him before his trial. The family is reunited not through a big scene or a violent act, but through slow steady compromise, what Karthika was trying to get him to acknowledge all along.
It is violence that tears them apart again, violence delivered by the echo of Kamal’s first violent act. The mentally retarded son of his first victim, the police officer, has been mentored and cared for by Kamal. And only now, as a grown man, has he learned the truth that Kamal killed the father he still idolizes. His mother, who remembers his father more clearly and has a greater capacity for abstract thought, protects Kamal from the police, letting them know that she feels more loyalty towards Kamal for killing her husband and then taking care of her family, than she does towards the police. But the son (Tinnu Anand, who looks EXACTLY the same today as he did in 1987!) can only understand black and white, right and wrong, not the nuances of a situation. He dresses himself in his father’s old clothes, takes his father’s gun, and shoots Kamal as he is leaving the courthouse, free due to lack of evidence.
When I read the wiki summary of the movie, I thought this would be a moment of “oh, the childlike wisdom, the punishment from the innocent he had wronged!” But, no! It’s not that at all! It’s more a matter of “short sighted people only see the simple version of a situation, they miss the nuances.”
And that’s a lesson for both Kamal and Karthika/society in general. Kamal as a small child killed the man who killed his father. Was that the right thing to do? Probably. Probably that was a corrupt cop who killed his father just because he was a union organizer. But do we really know? Do we know if that police officer regretted his actions, if he swore to do better? Or if Kamal’s father deserved arrest/death for some reason that Kamal didn’t know about? You can watch this movie as the rise of a “hero” and never doubt any of Kamal’s actions, but I think this ending is questioning that. Are we just seeing him as the Hero because that’s how he is positioned in the film? Are we being as simple and short-sighted as Tinnu, who believes his father was a good man simply because he was a police officer?
But, at the same time, what about Karthika? Who believes her husband is right and Kamal is wrong simply because her husband is the police and Kamal is a criminal? Has she been falling into this same trap, looking at the position a person has more than what they do with it?
That’s, I think, what the movie wants us to come away with. The idea that situations change, and people change, and we can’t trap ourselves in one opinion or one perspective on anything. We have to learn to let go and movie forward. Maybe back in the 1950s Bombay when Kamal first arrived (love the subtle period touches, very small things like the fit of the pants or the sari blouse, and the style of car), Kamal really did have to do what he did. But maybe he needs to be aware that times have changed and things are better now. And maybe Karthika has to understand that her father had to do what he did in the times he lived, and his actions are part of the reason things are better now. And it is only a childish simple mind like Tinnu’s that can’t grasp this.