Tuesday Tamil: Aadu Puli Attam, Even Lessor Tamil Films of the 70s Were Brilliant

This movie is so good that it tricked me into thinking it was a Balachander.  But no, apparently this was the level of camerawork, characters, and acting that was just standard back then!!!  Oh, and Kamal Haasan and Rajni Sir are super fun to watch opposite each other in their youth, that’s another plus.  The plot is not quite perfect, but it’s still pretty darn good.  No Moodru Mudichu, but that’s a very high level to set.

First, this movie is from that era when Kamal Haasan was dead sexy and Rajnikanth was dead evil.  Especially in black and white.  Something about the longer hair and mustache on the young face and slim body and bell bottoms, it’s just really different and appealing.  I kind of quiet confidence implied by being willing to look that odd.  Rajnikanth, he is evil in a dangerous way because he seems to have no hesitation about it.  He just does what he wants and it works, whether it is rape (so much rape from young Rajnikanth!) or flipping a gun out of his sleeve.

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It’s also from the era when Tamil films had stuff like rape as plot points.  It’s no holds barred adult.  Not adult in a titillating way, but in a real way, it doesn’t skate away from the worst things humanity might be capable of.

 

What I really enjoyed was the beauty of the camera work.  There were a few moments, a head looming in the foreground over the action in the background, a shot of the heroine through the bars of her skylight, that were just breathtaking in their ambition.  The Internet tells me that the director, S. P. Muthuraman, was really something special.  This seems to be one of his lesser films, but he won a FilmFare Award south that same year for a different movie, so I wasn’t imagining the ambition in his work, it just didn’t come to full flower in this particular film.

But the camera work and editing and the general way the film is put together, that cannot be faulted.  The problem is with the story.

 

 

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The plot revolves around a gang of thieves.  And the moral question of the film is whether some men turn to thievery in desperation, it is the worst they are capable of, and some men turn to it because it is the best they are capable of, they do it purely for joy.  Kamal is one who turns to it as the worst he can do in order to survive, Rajnikanth for joy and the chance to go even farther on occasion.

The title of the film, and the central image, is a game of goats and tigers.  Can the greater number of good but less powerful people win out over fewer but more powerful bad people?  And what if one of those “bad” people changes sides?

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I thought this might be a Balachander film right from the opening credits because they were done so cleverly.  A series of actors suddenly appearing on motorcycles riding down the road.  It’s a recurring image, them zooming off on their motorcycles, the equivalent of the “tigers” who can jump squares in the game while the goats are trapped moving one space at a time, just like the victims of the robbers, trapped in their cars or houses, unable to quickly follow.

We see a robbery after that.  A robbery where we, the audience, don’t exactly relate with the victims or the robbers.  The victims are wealthy men, drinking and enjoying a dancing girl.  But then the robbers appear, threaten them, and seem to enjoy their fear.  So I don’t much like the robbers either.  Especially when they sit down and scratch a game of goats and tigers into the tabletop and force the dancing girl to dance and gunpoint.  It’s the power you see, they seem to enjoy the power over others.  It’s unpleasant to watch, you can sympathize with the honest police inspector (Major Sundarrajan, you see why I thought it was a Balachander film?) who wants to track down this gang.

But is everyone in the gang the same?  Perhaps not.  One member wants to get married to a dancing girl.  Rajnikanth argues that he shouldn’t bother, he should just sleep with her and forget her, but he stands firm against pressure and Kamal supports him.

Kamal proves his own nobility, the waitress at the nearby roadside restaurant counts on him to save her when customers misbehave, and of course he does in a lovely fight scene.  I do enjoy the grace of these southern heroes in their fights, Kamal and Mohanlal, you can see the classical training.

Rajnikanth at this point hasn’t exactly proved his non-nobility.  He has done the same things that Kamal has done, fought and stolen on gone on the run.  The difference comes when their newly married friend is arrested.  Kamal reacts with sorrow, but acceptance.  Rajnikanth with anger and planning as to how to take control back.

I suppose we already knew Kamal was a little different because of his dreams.  He dreams every night of a woman waving good-bye at a moving train and screams so that he wakes the rest of the gang.  There is a torment inside as payment for his bad deeds, a guilt that comes out in these memories.

And so it is not a total surprise when Rajnikanth kidnaps Major Sundurajjan’s small son, and Kamal returns him to the household.  This is the beginning of their push pull, Rajnikanth easily jumps over a line Kamal agonizes over it.  Rajnikanth sees no obstacles to anything he wants, Kamal struggles to see anything but obstacles.

Which is what we see in the flashback Kamal finally receives.  How he felt obstacles were limiting his path.  He received an appointment letter for the police, proposed to his sweetheart, borrowed her gold bangles to pay for a train ticket and left.  Only to be stopped by taking care of a sick friend and miss his interview, and therefore lose the job.  On the one hand, he had the need for money for his friend, and on the other the possibility of honest work was cut off.  And so he turned to thievery.

And now one final obstacle is what sets him free.  Well, two obstacles.  On the run from the police, he stumbles into a church and discovers that his sweetheart has become a nun.  That dream is cut off from him forever.  As is that guilt over ruining her life, she has found happiness in her new vocation.  It leaves him free to explore totally new directions, to finally admit his feelings for the tough and low woman who runs the roadside food stop.  He resisted her, we can read in Kamal’s performance, because he felt wrong for forgetting his sweetheart, and wrong for being attracted to this type of woman.  But now he knows he would not be unfaithful, in fact it would be wrong to still think of her.  And he accepts more fully his new identity, leaves behind his regrets and possibilities, and therefore is able to see that the rough waitress type has a worth hidden inside just as he himself had a worth inside.

To learn that takes the other obstacle, being arrested and put in jail.  Giving up, stoping the run, that is what saves him.  He goes to jail and starts to see his past life in a new light.  First, that his “harmless” companions are not so harmless.  Major Sundurrajan introduces him to a fellow inmate, sentenced to death, whose life was destroyed by Rajnikanth.  And this follows with another lesson for Kamal, that he would never do such a thing, in fact can befriend and help and sympathize with the victims, so perhaps he is less “bad” but rather still “good”.

Let’s take a moment for exactly how Rajnikanth destroyed his life.  He raped and killed the man’s daughter, and blinded his young son so that he could not see his face.  Then lied to the man that it was someone else who did it and tricked him into killing that other person before he could learn the truth.  Now the poor old father is sentenced to death, his young son is blind and about to be orphaned.

It’s a hideous sin he did, but this film does not glamorize it.  We don’t see him being attracted to the daughter, a lingering shot of her attractions.  And we certainly don’t see a “sexy” rape seen,  We see him instead rising from her bed as she shivers in death throws.  The boy is huddled already in a corner, we don’t see the dramatic attack of him which left him on the floor, just the aftermath.  We don’t even see the old man commit murder, just hear him tell of it.  The point is the tragedy, not the violence.

(Versus this sweet love song which is treated in a sexy manner because it is about a woman who wants and loves the man)

The same is true for the other moment of violence in the film.  While Kamal is in jail, Rajnikanth and the gang track down the dancing girl who married the member of the gang.  They lie to her that her husband is out of jail and take her to a deserted area, planning to rape her.  She runs from them to a temple and finally uses Durga’s trident to stab herself just as her husband appears to witness it all.  It’s very dramatic, but again the end message is tragedy.  Not that she was so brave, or the blood is so bloody, but that this poor man has lost his wife, and this poor woman never got the chance to be reunited with her husband.  And Rajnikanth seems the ultimate evil not because he is a rapist, but because he does not care for the emotions his rapes evoke, because of what the threat and the aftermath causes, not merely the act itself.

It is the aftermath that Kamal’s character must cure.  His friend has become catatonic after witnessing his wife’s suicide, Kamal tracks him down and helps him gives him purpose in life by bringing him in on the quest for revenge, bringing in his father as well who is mourning the loss of his daughter-in-law and his son’s spirit.  And Kamal adopts the little blind boy, making sure those sins will not wrongly serve to punish another generation.  In fact, he “erases” as much as possible the effect of those sins, mimicing the fahter’s voice so the son will not even realize he has died.  Okay, it’s kind of a silly and filmi solution, but the meaning works with the rest of the film, trying to set right that which was wrong.

It is not Kamal alone who is trying to set things right.  Major Sundarrajan is as well.  He was the police officer who turned Kamal away for being late to the interview.  Now he is trying to capture him partly to make up for that mistake.  And he does, as much as is in his power.  He cannot make Kamal a police officer, but he helps to make him a private detective, giving him back as close as he can the position he should have had.

And so we end with everything almost right, everyone one space over from the space they should have had.  Kamal is not a police officer, but he is a private detective.  He is not married to his first love, but he is with his second love.  The little blind boy doesn’t have his father, but he has a new father.  All the “goats” have found each other and together chased off the tiger.

(Different kind of tiger)

 

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3 thoughts on “Tuesday Tamil: Aadu Puli Attam, Even Lessor Tamil Films of the 70s Were Brilliant

  1. I must admit to having a soft spot for Rajini as the bad guy – he was so very good at being bad.

    S.P. Muthuraman is something of a major director partly because he directed so many films but also because his films were so varied. He did films like this, comedies, family dramas but he’s probably better known for his later, more commercial movies. I’m so used to his 80’s masala films that I’m always a little shocked when I run into his earlier films like this even though I know his filmography. He was also so instrumental to Rajinikanth’s career. He directed a lot of Rajini’s earlier more performance oriented films – Bhuvana Oru Kelvikuri and Aarilirunthu Aruvathu Varai among others (though both of these are definitely worth watching)- and then his more commercial, ‘mass’ films as well – Murattu Kaalai, Guru Sishiyan. If you ever get a chance, you should check out Mayangukiral Oru Maadhu by him starring Sujatha. Its got some issues but I’ve always appreciated that it was a movie that dealt with a young woman having premarital sex and somehow I found that it was surprisingly thoughtful of her which is sadly rare. Actually, oddly enough, it was remade in Hindi with Shashi Kapoor at some point.

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  2. It may not have been directed by Balachander, but that suicide by Durga’s trident was a pure Balachander moment — though he probably would have had her use it to kill her pursuers. So that’s the difference, I guess. Sounds like a very interesting film. I love those early Kamal and Rajni joint films.

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