This was before Indra, right? So the similarities aren’t a coincidence? Or else they are both picking up on an older traditional I don’t know about. There are some Mahabharata touches to it, but the jealous overlooked woman and the vengeance in the second generation, that is oddly specific.
Yet another Rajnikanth film! As I mentioned in last Wednesday’s “watching” post, I went to see Baasha in the theater with my parents. They enjoyed it, but they also said on the way home that they just couldn’t understand how Rajnikanth got to be such a big star. He wasn’t appealing to watch onscreen, his voice sounded odd, his gestures were strange, his face was unappealing, why do people love him?
I am happy to say that I have never had that problem myself! Okay, I did have that problem before in a vague way, back when I wasn’t serious about watching Southern films, and I hadn’t seen any of his movies yet. But the first movie I saw, Kabali, did such a great job of showing why he was a star, that it answered all my questions. At least I think that was my first movie? It was either that or Thalapathi, which is another great one. Baasha was one of my early ones, but I am pretty sure it wasn’t my first. Because it’s really not a good “first” Rajnikanth film. And, to finally bring this back to my original point, this is not a good “first” Rajnikanth film either! It really only works if you completely understand and buy into his Rajnikanth-i-ness.
But I do buy into his Rajnikanth-i-ness, more than I realized. As I said in the first paragraph, this is really really similar to Indra. But Indra didn’t work for me at all because I just didn’t “get” Chiranjeevi. Well, and also because I think this film is ever so slightly better structured than Indra.
Oh, and it also has better songs! About song number 4, I found myself thinking “wow, these are really good songs! Even with the kind of standard ‘let’s all look at Rajnikanth!’ choreography, and by the book visuals!” And then I looked it up, and what do you know! Rahman! I wonder why? He was already big enough by 1999 that he could pick and choose his projects, so what made him pick this one? Maybe the director? It looks like he has done some interesting stuff with big complicated plots and ambitious films.
I suppose this film was ambitious at the time. And then within a couple of years, it was already out of date. At the time, a large cast, a plot that spanned decades, multiple huge songs with a million dancers, that would be ambitious. And then Dil Chahta Hai came out, and Jeans had already come out, and a whole bunch of others in Malayalam and Hindi and Tamil that I don’t even know enough to know about. And by the end of all that, some big family melodrama with a lot of chorus dancers just looks kind of dull.
(Fun, but dull)
The other thing that might have been revolutionary at the time but is no longer, was Rajnikanth playing his age. I don’t want to get in to too many details and risk spoilers, but I am just assuming based on the way the plot tries to kind of ease us into an old man version that he was going through something similar to what Amitabh before him, and now the Khans after him, are going through, figuring out a way to gently ease their audience into accepting them when they play their real age.
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This movie breaks very neatly into two parts, each part isn’t that imaginative, but they way they are connected is. This isn’t to say they are bad, the first part is a very nice little romance, and the second is a very nice little epic revenge story.
There is also a bit of a social message. Seeing Baasha on the big screen really made me notice how much of a political statement Rajnikanth is making and why he is beloved of the lower classes. This film has that too, right there in the romance. There are two women, Ramya Krishnan (who went on to be Rani Sivagami in Baahubali) and Soundarya. One is the wealthy and educated lady of the house and one is the maid. And Rajnikanth picks the maid.
In a different movie, like for instance Parijatham, this would be about picking her sweet simplicity and “homeliness” over the westernized confidence of the rich woman. And it’s maybe a little bit that. But it also feels like it is making a statement, the rich woman isn’t bad because she is educated and wants to pick her own husband. She is bad because she thinks she is better than the poor woman. And the poor woman is more deserving because she is poor. Meaning hardworking, humble, aware of her own inner worth. And Rajnikanth, when given the choice between the two, picks the hardworking humble and grounded one over the cruel and proud of herself one.
It’s not just that he picks her, it’s that he truly thinks he has to “earn” her. He doesn’t think that just because she is a poor servant and his family is wealthy landowners she will naturally love him. Or even that just because he is “Rajnikanth”, she will naturally love him. He is scared to talk to her, ecstatic at any sign of approval, acting in every way like a man in love. A man in love who doesn’t even see the gender and class and wealth dynamics which make him “better” than the woman he loves.
Which is what makes Ramya Krishnan such a perfect opposite number to him. At first it looks like it will be the two women are being set against each other. The poor humble maid who doesn’t think she deserves anything versus the proud daughter of the house who thinks she deserves everything. But not really. Just by thinking she doesn’t deserve anything, Soundarya is showing that she believes in the same class system Ramya Krishnan does. It is Rajnikanth who is truly her opposite, because he doesn’t even see the class system, sees Soundarya as superior to Ramya Krishnan, and even superior to himself, because of her inner virtues. And sees Ramya Krishnan as not even worthy of consideration because of her inner flaws.
Going back to the meta part of this with Rajnikanth’s career, it’s fascinating that this was also Sivaji Ganesan’s last role! It was the passing of the guard in a lot of ways. Sivaji Ganesan passing on the torch of the “old head of the family” roles on to Rajnikanth. It’s only too bad there wasn’t a stronger young male hero in the second half so Rajnikanth could send the “young lead” torch on in turn.
But at least he did take a step up and take his rightful place, at age 49, in the father role. The first half is his romance, which culminates in his family (headed by Sivaji Ganesan) agreeing to leave their ancestral village due to a dispute with Ramya Krishnan’s branch of the family, heightened by Ramya’s heartbreak. Sivaji Ganesan then dies of a broken heart and Rajnikanth and his new bride are left to found a new dynasty.
This bit is very Mahabharata, the part when the Pandavas go into exile and end up building up an even better city than the city they left. In this case, it is because the small piece of land Rajnikanth agrees to take ends up to have diamonds in it. And so Rajnikanth and his family grow in wealth and power as the years pass. And meanwhile, Ramya is locked in her bedroom, refusing to come out since the day Rajnikanth broke their engagement.
And now we have Rajnikanth the old man! Grey in his hair, with two grown daughters. The head of a household. Again, I don’t know enough to know if this is the first time that Rajnikanth played his own age. But I could believe it is. And if it is the first time, or one of the first times, it is very well done. The fans get Rajnikanth the young rebel and romantic in the first half to sort of ease them into the mature hero in the second half. And Rajnikanth does an excellent job with his mature persona, still cocky and confident as he was as a youth, but with an added sort of comfort with himself that comes with age.
The second half works much much much much better in this film than in Indra. It’s the same broad outlines of the plot. The daughter of a rival family fell in love with him and he spurned her years earlier. Our hero built up a new life with his family. But now his female enemy has come back to take her vengeance by destroying his daughter/niece by making her be jilted just as she was years earlier.
Only in Indra, our hero and the woman who is his enemy are both supposed to still be kind of young? I don’t know why, it’s much more powerful this way, seeing the pain of those years on Ramya’s face, and how Rajnikanth has aged so far past his youth and all these problems, so far that he has left them all in the past and doesn’t even consider them any more.
But most importantly in Indra, women are just pawns in this whole thing, complete victims of their emotions. The Indra version, her whole revenge fantasy was just because she couldn’t marry him. And somehow in the end she forgave everything and was in love again? But Ramya, it wasn’t about the heartbreak for her so much as it was the wounded pride and the class issues.
And the overriding theme of this movie is that no marriages should be forced. Rajnikanth should not be forced to marry Ramya. And, in a greater sense, Rajnikanth knows that even poor servant girl Soundarya has the right to make a free choice of groom, and therefore he woos her and waits nervously for her answer. There is even a whole little village legend behind it, how the chieftain must ask both bride and groom before the marriage if this is their free choice and they must answer honestly.
And this is Ramya’s evil. To encourage her nephew to seduce Rajni’s daughter, knowing that Rajni will be honor bound to marry his daughter to the man of her choice, no matter who it is. And then forcing her nephew to deny the match and humiliate the family. NOT because their daughter has been fooled, but because it appears that they are forcing a person into marriage, the greatest sin possible in their village.
That makes all the difference! I hate the movies where the plot revolves around forcing some guy to marry the daughter/sister/niece because even marrying a man who hates her is better than the shame of being publically rejected. But in this case, no one cares that Rajni’s daughter has been rejected! They are ready to have her marry someone else if she wants, no harm no foul. The family shame and worry is something else entirely.
And the solution is similarly same-but-different. They kidnap the boy not to force him into marriage, because that would still be the same problem. But to get him away from the other forces that they believe are forcing him NOT to get married. To make him answer truthfully and without fear of consequence as to how he feels.
And in the end, that is the triumph! Defeating Ramya not through violence or force, but through love. Just as Rajni fell in love with Soundarya and she with him, and therefore it was right for them to be married despite any short term consequences, now it is right for Ramya’s nephew to marry the girl he loves, simply because they love each other and for no other reason.
I tell you, Rajni Sir is so progressive! I love him!