The “road movie” genre – where two men with little in common are thrown together on a trip, by the end of which the younger, more callow of the two has learned something “about life” from his older travel companion – is an old one in Hollywood, and perhaps in other film industries as well (one thinks of The Eighth Day from France). In India the genre hasn’t found all that many takers (Kachche Dhaage or Hum Dono might loosely be considered as such; Bunty aur Babli and Honeymoon Travels are distant cousins, and perhaps Andaaz Apna Apna and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge too bear a faint kinship in bits), but Anbe Sivam is as pure an example of a “road movie” as one is likely to find in India. “So what?” I hear you say. But the older man here is Kamal Haasan a.k.a. Nallasivam, with a slightly disfigured face and a powerful commitment to communism and trade unions, cheerfully irrepressible despite the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the discrediting of socialism among the Indian middle and upper classes. His younger partner Anbarasu (played by Madhavan), is nothing if not a representative of the latter demographic, politically and socially every inch a product of the “new India” ushered into being by the 1991 economic liberalization – but this is no Guru, and thus Anbarasu is also, when the film begins, unsympathetic, narcissistic, and thoroughly unlikable, in the tradition of Tom Cruise’s character in Rain Man. The occasion that brings them together: torrential rains turning to floods, stranding both men in Orissa with a bus ride together their only way back to Chennai. And get back to Chennai Anbarasu must, if he wants to get married to his fiancée Bala (Kiran Rathod). Bala – you see this coming, don’t you? – is of course Nallasivam’s one time lover, the daughter of powerful industrialist (and wonderfully named) Kandaswamy Padiyachi(played by Nasser) who does not look too kindly on Nallasivam's trade union activities, and who is responsible for Nallasivam's disfigurement, and the end of his relationship with Bala. The film’s end is gently affirmatory: Nallasivam decides not to reveal to Bala that he is alive, Anbarasu gets married, and the killer Padiyachi sends to dispatch Nallasivam sees the error of his ways in the face of the intended victim's Gandhian outlook.
Anbe Sivam is the sort of film that could have been a classic had Kamal Haasan directed it. Sundar C., however, is no Kamal, which might not be a problem if the film in question were Rendu, but caused this viewer heartburn given that Anbe Sivam purports to offer something more than mere masala. Don’t get me wrong: it's quite an enjoyable film, and well worth a viewing (Tamil Nadu apparently disagreed, and the film did not do well at the box office), it’s just very far from the classic it could have been. For unlike other road movies, this film had the potential to offer a meaningful commentary on where we are as a society and where we are headed, all while entertaining us in grand style. Unfortunately, what we get is no more than a nod to any “deeper” concern, and done in such a superficial way that it is no more than a mere gesture, the memory of a concern as it were. The film suffers as a result: we are supposed to be impressed by Nallasivam's commitment to the cause, by his agitation for better pay and working conditions for Padayachi's workers, and by his courage – yet the first two of these are never more than slogans (and the last is a staple with Tamil cinema heros, and is hardly specific to Nallasivam), draining the representation of Nallasivam's struggles in the flashback that reveals his past to the viewer of any force whatsoever. Individual sequences – such as Nallasivam rousing a crowd by means of street theater – are engaging enough, but seem strangely empty, devoid of wider resonance. In the absence of the sort of heft that characterized Virumaandi, Anbe Sivam falls between two stools, neither merely timepass, nor with something especially important to say. Is it any surprise that as the film progresses one finds oneself beginning to root for the superficial, materialistic Anbarasu?
If, despite all of this, the film is very watchable, credit must be given to the two male protagonists. They certainly make for an incongruous cinematic couple: for some years now, Kamal Haasan has been nothing if not “The Actor,” every twitch and getup seemingly calculated to remind the audience that it is in the presence of no mere performer but a veritable Cinematic Treasure. Madhavan, on the other hand, is almost improbably easygoing, and so unaffected one might be forgiven for thinking acting comes as naturally to him as breathing to the rest of us (indeed this onscreen demeanor is the single biggest reason his acting tends to get underrated so often; far too many, it seems to me, prefer the sort of preening artiste who takes himself too seriously, draining most of the joy, the ”play”, from the craft of acting). Yet together, Mr. Chalk and Mr. Cheese make for a great couple (even if Maddy’s role borders on the puerile, and is definitely a supporting role to Kamal’s Nallasivam), propelling the film forward. One keeps watching, not because one gives a damn about what will “happen” in the end, but because one wants to see and hear what Maddy and Kamal will say to each other, how the actors will play the inevitably sentimental denouement, how they will have their characters part. And one waits not simply because both of these are fine actors – Kamal might be overbearing, but he is never not up to the mark – but because they are so unlike each other (Maddy, like most Tamil actors of his generation, bears Kamal’s influence to an extent, but his true creative father remains Kartik), making a weirdly compelling couple in the process.
As far as the other main performances are concerned, Nasser is solidly authoritative as always, and Kiran less annoying than usual (likely not her fault, given the state of roles on offer for Tamil film heroines).
Technically, the film is first-rate, although the cinematic imagination on display is rather functional. Nevertheless, a few sequences stand out: Nallasivam's street play scene is kinetic, with a velocity the rest of the film generally lacks; Anbarasu's bewildered wandering through the site of a train wreck is also effective, reminding us that even in an era of terrorism and “spectacular” crimes, more Indians are felled by the mundane tragedies of train and road accidents. Finally, with the exception of Mani Rathnam, few Tamil or Hindi directors “do” rain as well as Sundar C. has done here. For anyone who has spent time in the subcontinent during the monsoons, the flooded Bhubaneshwar streets and chaos of the first thirty minutes of Anbe Sivam will be powerfully evocative.
The music by Vidyasagar is rather situational, and the title song in particular is a little too ponderous for my liking. But all is not lost: “Yenna Maachi Maachi” is the sort of catchy, semi-rustic number that makes me want to load up on bhang and dance in the back of an open truck. Evidently Nallasivam and Anbarasu had the same idea; and why not, for a damn good one it is. Maybe Sundar C. needed more of the good stuff too, so he could have made the sort of film he seems cut out for, as opposed to the sort of film he apparently felt obliged to in the face of Kamal’s formidable reputation (maybe what he needed was to be locked up in a room with the director of Thenali: Kamal can still do crazy stuff, and I am sure he would relish more such opportunities!). Aim low people: sometimes there is no shame in it.