Kamal Haasan's Indian set benchmark for special effects, art direction — How will the sequel fare?
In the last scene of Indian, Kamal Haasan's character Senapathy says, 'I will be back whenever evil returns'. Will that be the take off point for the sequel?
I saw Indian (1996) repeatedly in the theatre upon release; not as a critic, but as a fan of Kamal Haasan. Growing up in the 1990s in Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu with no exposure to world cinema, I was able to idolise Kamal in a way no longer possible for me.
I was just 10 when Nayakan was released, but 19 when Indian hit the screens. The movie’s grip on my youthful imagination was unparalleled. I remember walking out of the hall that first time, my heart racing, convinced that they would never ever make a better commercial movie in Tamil. I was wrong, of course.
That said, I remember telling my younger brother that the older Kamal’s acting was brilliant; he shot back saying both roles — of father and son — had been played by the same actor. I guess that goes to show the success of the illusion.
Director Shankar, who helmed Indian, was already casting a spell on the masses when AM Rathnam signed him. Shankar’s debut Gentleman, and then later Kadhalan, had gained him a huge following among the 18-25 crowd. Kamal, who had earlier turned down the lead role in Gentleman, was now aboard for Shankar’s third. The actor didn’t regret it; he ended up winning his last national award till date for his dual roles in the movie.
Now, after 21 years, Shankar and Kamal will be back together to recreate the magic. On Saturday, it was announced that Indian 2 will be hitting the floors after 2.0 is released in January 2018. The film, produced by Dil Raju, will be a bilingual in Tamil and Telugu.
Indian runs to just over three hours and includes two flashbacks, one set in the pre-Independence era and another in modern times. The film, spanning several decades, deals with corruption in the country as told through the tale of a family. An extremist, who fights for Independence by joining the Indian National Army, returns to weed out corruption after his daughter meets an untimely death. When his son turns corrupt, he shows no mercy. The terrorist father and corrupt son are both played by Kamal. The movie may have been much better if both characters had negative shades, but no such luck; Shankar has us rooting for the father.
The film begins with a low angle shot of heavy machinery being used to clean streets, a shot that has an obvious metaphor thrown in. A torn page of a newspaper gets caught up in the gate of the corporation office, the headline referring to the war in Jaffna.
Seventy-year-old Senapathy, played by Kamal, confronts the commissioner in his office and stabs him to death. During the investigation by Crime Branch officer Krishnaswamy, played with a cool head and sharp wits by Malayalam actor Nedumudi Venu, we learn that this is the third murder of a government officer using the same modus operandi. Interspersed with the story of Senapathy is the tale his unscrupulous son Chandra Bose (named after Subhash Chandra Bose), also played by Kamal.
Kamal’s makeup, especially for the part of the father, was designed by Academy award winner Michael Westmore. Kamal had to sit through hours of painstaking makeup ahead of every sequence featuring Senapathy as a vigilante. The other big news when Indian was released was that it had Kamal dancing again; he hadn’t done so in a while. This killed the rumour that he was getting old. As the younger Chandru, Kamal is handsome and charming.
The rest of the ensemble was impressive — Manisha Koirala, Urmila Matondkar as the ‘other girl’, Sukanya, Kasturi and Manorama, apart from the comedy pair of Goundamani and Senthil. The success of Bombay and Rangeela, both released in 1995, had landed a part for its female leads in Indian. The two gorgeous women are even in a catfight of sorts in a shot, before one concedes the romantic space to the other.
AR Rahman scored the music; the songs including ‘Telephone Mani Pol’, were all that one heard for months, blaring from tea shops no less. The special effects for the songs were a new benchmark back then, with S T Venky winning a national award for his efforts. Thotta Tharani too won a national award for his art direction.
Kamal Haasan was in his element in many a scene. The thrilling minutes set at a TV station where Senapathy stabs to death a hospital dean, played by Nizhalgal Ravi, is superbly enacted by Kamal. But what also stand out are the dialogues; the late writer Sujatha making his mark felt in this scene. The faceoff between father and son during the minutes preceding the climax is also a sharply written play on words. At other times, Sujatha delights in making throwaway references to 1955’s Seven Year Itch and Schindler's List.
Shankar’s direction is a standout effort. The black and white flashback portion set during the Quit India movement has a disturbing scene in which women are molested by the British, forcing them to jump off a cliff and kill themselves.
The way Shankar cuts this scene is an exercise in kinetics. Also note, Kamal’s bone-chilling glare around the room as his stabs Balasingh’s character to death by pushing the knife further into his torso, again and again. The props – the knife in a belt (it furthers the story too) and the ancient wristwatch — are put to apt use. (Just watch Kamal with the watch when Venu confronts him for the first time).
Shankar is also a commanding director of large crowds, especially during song and fight sequences. Some credit for making songs into lavish set pieces or on-locale extravaganzas, keeping audiences from stepping out for a smoke, must go to Shankar.
There is always a fantasy element at work in Shankar’s movies. Can corruption be ended by murdering a few corrupt babus? Not likely. But Shankar makes the commercial elements work in a way you don’t care too much for hard logic. The director has us believe that the Indian thatha (grandpa) begins an anti-corruption wave; even his dressing style is all the rage among the young. These sequences barely seconds long are quite weak. The bits about ‘Varma Kalai’ work well commercially, but I found it difficult to swallow these sequences hook, line and sinker.
Some of the special effects don’t work at all as well. Kamal saluting Subhash Chandra Bose, just a similar scene in Forrest Gump, didn’t work. The sequence where he is jumping over cars at the GoKarting place were abysmal. Also, the songs take up 30 minutes of the movie; ‘Maya Machindra’, though imaginatively composed and shot, slows down the post-interval phase considerably.
In the last scene, Senapathy (now sporting a mustache that he took off so that he could kiss his son as child without hurting him) makes a promise to Krishnaswamy. I will be back whenever evil returns, he says. He sounded a bit like Lord Krishna in the Gita then, but now will that be the take off point for the sequel?
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