Virumaandi was making news even prior to release, its working title, "Sandiyar" not going down well among certain Dalit outfits, and presumably their constituents, for the implication that Haasan's film was glorifying notions of caste pride and an ethos that Dalit activists held responsible for violence against Dalits in rural Tamil Nadu; the protests and outcry led Haasan to change the title, but some of his critics were not appeased, and calls for a boycott dogged the film even subsequent to release (it's unclear if these adversely impacted the film's box office performance, and at least one critic has suggested that they might have helped). Once released, the film garnered good reviews, mainly from liberal and left-leaning sources for its anti-death penalty stance, but in general from cinephiles happy to see a quality film that by any yardstick was one of the more notable films India had produced over the course of the ongoing decade. Amid all the discussion it was easy to forget that underneath the story that Virumaandi became lay a masala film, and one of the most intelligent and hardhitting ones in recent years.
The film begins with television reporter Angela (Rohini) who is making a documentary on conditions inside a jail, where something truly appears rotten, what with a sleazy cop, mysterious prisoner deaths, and protesting families. In short order the reporter focuses on two of the jail's more notorious inmates, Kothalla Thevar (Pasupathi) and Virumaandi (Kamal Haasan), the latter sentenced to death, the former to a life term, for their roles in the massacre of twenty four people. Thevar gets to tell his side of the story to the reporter first, the story of two villages with a history of enmity between them, degenerating into violence despite Pasupathi's best intentions, mainly due to the vainglorious and ultra-violent Virumaandi, who even rapes and kills Annalakshmi (Abhirami), Thevar's neice -- or so we are told. But there are as they say two sides to every picture, and when Angela coaxes Virumaandi to speak, a second, "true" flashback results, and Thevar is revealed in all his villainy, as is the tragedy of Virumaandi, cursed by virtue of owning the only plot of land in the area with access to a ready supply of water, and by film's end left bereft of his only living relative and his lover. The second flashback culminates in a jail riot in the film's present-time, and an opportunity for Kothalla Thevar and Virumaandi to settle scores amidst general mayhem, and some of the most superbly shot onscreen violence I have seen in an Indian film in recent times.
Much has been made of the film's supposed structural similarity to Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, but the parallels are overblown. Director Kamal Haasan gives us a nod to the Japanese master's classic, but no more; and this is as it should be, given the very different philosophical perspectives of the two films. In Rashomon the truth is unknowable, an epistemological problem that is the condition of (our?) existential derangement; in Virumaandi the Janus-like structure -- which ultimately privileges the version of reality offered by the film's hero, to the extent that the initial story told is revealed to be a lie proffered by the villain -- dovetails with the film's avowed aim of arguing against capital punishment. Haasan's point is not that the truth is unknowable but that there are truths the law cannot begin to fathom, or -- at a minimum -- that the law is an imperfect instrument for determining the truth. Cinema might well be a better calibrated instrument to that end (better not only than the law but also than other institutions that purport to present truth), and the film's overture offers a number of visual cues to make the point, as the viewer is led to see the world through the TV cameraman's lens, the editing room monitor, and even through the gate's sighthole at the jail where Thevar and Virumaandi are being held. The director's camera, of course, at one step removed, takes it all in, and as a cinephile it is hard not to be seduced by this vision of cinematic omnipotence, so very in keeping with Haasan's tremendous self-regard. The man has never been known to be lacking in chutzpah, and in the blustery world of the Sandhyars in rural Madurai district, Haasan has finally found a setting that fits his instincts like a glove.
Virumaandi is not without its flaws: in particular, the director tries to ride two horses, striving to do justice to both Haasan's anti-capital punishment ideology and to the bloodsoaked revenge drama that every masala instinct in the film strains toward. The task is a difficult one, never more so than when Muthulingam's epic lyrics pace Virumaandi's jailbreak to words evoking the imagery of a god emerging from his cave to wreak vengeance, a deity who may not be restrained by any law. How does this wanton bloodfest fit into the anti-death penalty schema? None too seamlessly, but it's so enthralling one ends up not caring in the slightest. For make no mistake Haasan is a gifted director, and holds the viewer spellbound not only by virtue of his thorough knowledge of the conventions of masala filmmaking but also by his ability to evoke the world of the rural Madurai district. The attention to detail is impressive, as is the casting of virtually all the characters, especially of Pasupathi as Kothalla Thevar, who makes for one of the most memorable villains in years; Abhirami too shines in her spunky portrayal of Annalakshmi, and in her Haasan to his credit gives us that celluloid rarity, a spirited young rural woman. Kamal is himself earthily enthusiastic and authoritative in the title role, although his acting solidity cannot make up for the fact that he is just too old to essay this role, and I found myself wishing for the lesser acting talents (but voracious screen-hog persona) of Vikram -- I suspect that change might well have helped this film at the box office, although Virumaandi apparently had a welcome run at the box office by the standards of Haasan's recent fare. Finally, Ilaiyaraja's music is superb here, rustic and addictive in several tracks, and melodious in the love songs.
I don't mean to cavil: for this is a fine directorial effort, and Kamal Haasan is to be commended for his willingness to take risks, and for his uncompromising insistence on taking Tamil cinema to new frontiers (with Kamal himself cast in the role of messiah, of course). All in all, this film means that I eagerly await the man's next directorial offering: for Virumaandi is one of the best Indian films I have seen in the last two years, and one of the few that takes the intelligence of its viewers for granted. That alone makes Kamal Haasan part of a select group of mainstream filmmakers; may the man continue full steam ahead.