Tuesday, August 25, 2009
KANTHASAAMY (Tamil; 2009)
Vikram's has been an unusual career path, attaining stardom in Sethu (1999) after nearly a decade of struggle, but apparently not content to simply keep churning out the sorts of hits -- Dhill (2001); Saamy (2003); and Dhool (2003), for instance -- that had propelled the man to the summit of post-Rajnikanth Tamil stars by the time he essayed the title role in Shankar's Anniyan (2005). Since that release, over four years ago, Vikram has only had two lackluster releases until Kanthasaamy hit theaters earlier this month. Some of that sparsity can be laid at the door of producer troubles (that delayed Bheema (2008)), but not all: it has increasingly become hard to shake off the feeling that Vikram has been paralyzed by his National Award for acting in Pithamagan (2003). More accurately, the fact that his roles in films like Bala's (the maveric behind Sethu and Pithamagan) led the Tamil audience to take him seriously as an actor seems to have led to a kind of malaise, almost as if Vikram could no longer justify the triviality of a Gemini (2002) unless it was in the service of outsized projects like an Anniyan. In fact, the strange thing about Vikram's films since 2005 -- both, Majaa (2005) and Bheema (2008), relatively scaled to normal-- has been the disinterest that seems to shine through in Vikram's performances therein. These aren't bad films, but Vikram is undeniably flat in them.
Susi Ganeshan's Kanthasaamy is in the Anniyan mould, and as such, the film has had no trouble keeping Vikram's interest engaged. He owns this outsized, outlandish, and utterly fun film with the sort of cavalier ease and screen presence most actors -- even most stars -- can only dream of. And, to the credit of Ganeshan's team, he looks more dapper here, as the nattily dressed CBI agent Kanthasaamy, hot on the trail of crooks like PPP (Ashish Vidyarthi) and Rajmohan (Mukesh Tiwari), than ever before. Whether it is rowing a boat, sitting at his desk, or romancing PPP's now-she-hates-him/now-she-doesn't daughter Subbalaxmi (Shriya Saran), Ganeshan and Vikram are clearly targeting a younger, hipper audience. Based on the prior evidence of Vikram's Remo in Anniyan (in a nutshell, all misfire, all the time), I had my doubts as to whether this was the right way to go for a leading man who isn't getting any younger; I was completely wrong. Vikram underplays the CBI agent, displaying the sort of reserve more reminiscent of Samurai (2002) than Shankar's 2005 Vikram trifecta. His bemused look and guarded body language (leaving aside the songs, that is), bordering at times on stillness, underscores that while Vikram might not be an actor of great range, he is an intelligent performer, learning from and improving upon past outings and conscious of his limitations. And possessed of that je ne sais quoi that makes the camera love him, he can, and does, get away with much.
So much for the CBI agent. There is, however, the small matter of a second Vikram here, a masked vigilante who has a habit of fulfilling the petitions of desperate devotees at a Lord Muruga ("Kanthasaamy") temple. This Vikram, dressed in a black and red suit, a bird-like mask, and -- no, I am not making this up -- crowing like a rooster and bobbing his head from side to side, is the most surprising thing about the film. This Kanthasaamy passes the laugh test, his outlandishness rendered plausible by the strange derangement Vikram infuses into the role. He's crazy, but he's also disturbing because he's crazy in a way that comes across as other than human. If pressed to rank the costumed weirdos Cheeyan has played, I'd have to pick this clucker over the murderous pedant of Anniyan.
Another, more interesting, way Ganeshan renders his vigilante plausible is by showing his audience the artifices underlying every one of the superheroics: over the course of the film, we not only learn just what makes Kanthasaamy's heroics super, we see them in action in a significant, and thrilling, action sequence in some corn fields. We are vouchsafed backstage passes to a magician's show, and see the ropes and pulleys, the parlor tricks and audio-visual devices, that make the masked man who he is in the eyes of his enemies, at one stroke rendering Kanthasaamy more human, while inoculating the film against the disappointment of a generation weaned on the unmatchable special effects of Hollywood. Nevertheless, Ganeshan never forgets his masala genealogy: the plausibility referenced above does not foreshadow meaningful realism, but simply enables the film to take all liberties (having provided an "explanation" for all such license). Kanthasaamy begins and ends with the Muruga temple, and in the final analysis the film operates squarely within the realm of mythic signification common in Tamil masala cinema. Cheeyan Vikram is unconquerable, a saamy ("god") on earth -- a linkage never more explicit than in his blindfolded action sequence in Mexico. Even sightless and outnumbered 7 to 1, the outcome is never in doubt. But if this is the most operatic of the film's action sequences -- and that's saying something, given that this film seems to feature fights in every imaginable location, including a bar, a row-boat, a bus, and open prairie -- the best one is the back-to-basics first action sequence involving the CBI agent, as he thrashes half a dozen hoodlums without breaking a sweat or spoiling a crease. [One wishes Vikram would (re-)learn to have such fun in "normal" films too: every film can neither promise the accolades of a Pithamagan, nor the spectacle of a Kanthasaamy, and there isn't anything wrong with doing a few bread-and-butter films.]
But not even Vikram conquers all -- not when Shriya Saran is in her element. As Subbalaxmi, she has more footage than almost any actress does in a Tamil actioner, and justifies it: while I prefer the long-tressed, sinuous Shriya of films like Sivaji (2007), it is refreshing to see this hard-edged, sexually assertive woman, her short-haired glamor-turn a far cry from the insipidity that far too often passes for a female lead in Tamil masala cinema. The Shriya-Vikram pair sizzles, but one only wishes Devi Sri Prasad had come up with better music to showcase the actress' dancing skills: only two songs pass muster, and neither is set around Saran: the addictive "Kantha Kantha Kantha Kantha Kanthasaaaamy" and the thoroughly derivative-but-catchy "Meena Kumari/Kanyakumari" sleazefest picturized on Mumait Khan and Mukesh Tiwari's villain Rajmohan. Two veterans also feature in the film as cops: while Telegu film veteran Krishna has a small role (as Kanthasaamy's boss) principally notable for the glimpse it affords us into what his son, the Telegu superstar Mahesh, might look like decades later; Prabhu's turn as a police officer on the trail of the vigilante is depressing. One can only dimly discern the hero of Agni Nakshitharam (1988) in him, and he looks like he could give the marshmallow man a run for his money in the girth sweepstakes.
In sum, this film works, albeit despite a script with some rather large holes. In particular, Ganeshan is unable to coherently tie the worlds of the two Kanthasaamies together, and in time the costumed hero virtually drops out, leaving the entire movie to the cop playing cat-and-mouse with the vengeful Subbalaxmi, out to get even with him for foiling her father's plans (I can't say much more about the film's plot without spoiling the fun). But the director (who himself plays the part of an intelligence operative, Ganeshan, in the film) can be forgiven much for what he gives us in exchange for removing the superhero from the scene, namely, a plot twist that takes Agent Kanthasaamy and Subbalaxmi to Mexico. To, that is, a foreign sequence as transporting as any in years, and reminiscent of the likes of Sangam (1964) and The Great Gambler (1979) -- what Ganeshan's segment shares with the work of directors as diverse as Raj Kapoor and Shakti Samanta is the ability to transport the viewer to someplace in particular, not just to a generic foreign destination represented by a shopping mall or a luxury resort; but simultaneously, not to a particularity denoted solely by means of the iconic (for instance, the shots of San Francisco's Golden Gate bridge ad nauseum in the recent Love Aaj Kal). Ganeshan's Mexico might be a cliche, but it isn't a postcard. It is also striking, memorable, and shot with especial attention -- evidence of a director who has taken his film out of India for a reason, and not simply as a result of a reflex.
Through it all, and despite the foreign locales and high-end settings (the lush song sequences are typically followed by shots of contemporary urban Indian realities), Kanthasaamy preserves its populist connection, made explicit in Agent Kanthasaamy's display, to the corrupt industrialist Rajmohan, of images of the desperate poverty that is seemingly omnipresent outside the luxury bus Rajmohan seems to spend his life in, watching film songs and private dances. By film's end, Kanthasaamy has torn down the walls of the bus in a memorable sequence, literally laying the mobile palace bare to the eyes of the multitude. As a symbolic indictment of our collective indifference to the problems around us, this is, of course, heavy-handed (and par for the course where the Tamil vigilante genre is concerned) -- but it is a welcome change from the exclusion of any such considerations from most Hindi films these days, often shot in the anodyne locales of shopping malls, luxury resorts and hotels -- hardly any of them in India, of course, irrespective of whether the script demands it or not. Films like Kanthasaamy do not purport to offer realistic solutions to India's social problems -- the audience knows that -- but they do not stage the spectacle of secession from India's realities. The result is a fantasy, but one of catharsis and cleansing, not of escape.