Aadhavan (2009)

Over the course of a fairly high-profile career, K.S. Ravikumar has helmed a variety of entertaining features and, in the process, created a basic formula that he adheres to. This formula is fairly straightforward – lots of laugh-out-loud funny sequences, a few decent action scenes, songs inserted wherever required, and just a pinch of emotion to keep things moving. With Aadhavan, he follows the same template to a certain extent and also proves he can keep up with the latest trends with some energetic action and modern, impressive CGI work. However, while the first half has enough to hold our interest in the proceedings, starting from the beginning of the second half – where things start going downhill – he loses control and the movie moves too far into melodrama toward the end that any interest generated initially is all but lost.

The film opens with the Damakku Damakku... song followed by Aadhavan (Surya) taking out his high-profile target from underwater, leading to a variety of similar targets, making him one of the best assassins around. Aadhavan’s gang consists of mentor and father, Ibrahim Rowther (Shayaji Shinde) and elder brother, Tharani (Anandh Babu making his first big-screen appearance in quite a while). Abdul Kulkarni (Rahul Dev) approaches them with another prominent target in Judge Subramaniam (Murali), who has been poking around in the former’s business involving the kidnapping and murder of children across eastern India. Surprisingly, Aadhavan misses his target and is forced to move into the Judge’s household – which includes Bannerjee (Vadivelu), Thara (Nayanthara), Subramaniam’s mother (Saroja Devi) and the rest of the family – to finish his job. But, his reactions suggest that he wants the latter dead on a more personal level, and is not only in it for the money.

Like Ayan, Aadhavan hits its highest point, in terms of generating adrenaline, in the initial sequences itself. The foot chase that follows the failed assassination attempt is definitely as good as the African one in Surya’s blockbuster from earlier this year. Though it shows an obvious inspiration from the first sequence inside the under-construction building in Casino Royale – the fact becomes more obvious when one notes that the location is of the same type –, Surya performs most of his stunts which enables the level of awe to be maintained on our part. Since I said that this is the apex as far as stunt sequences are concerned, it should follow that the rest of the movie’s action is fairly ordinary and generic failing to involve us like this one.

It should also come as no surprise that Aadhavan is best when in comedy-mode because, time and again, Ravikumar has proved that making people laugh is his forte. This movie also gives Vadivelu a chance to redeem himself after the disappointment of his track in Kanthaswamy, and he doesn’t disappoint. Nearly every scene in which he appears succeeds in making us laugh and though it is fairly standard in terms of what we expect from the comedian – the slightly stuttered speech to show his fear, for example –, it is impossible not to laugh as his attempts at proving Aadhavan’s real identity become increasingly futile. In fact, it would be easy to argue that without Vadivelu many people might have been heading for the exit doors in the first half itself, which they might anyway be doing as we proceed into the second half.

As far as Ravikumar is concerned, I have been entertained to a variety of degrees by each of his movies, but never have I been as bored and disinterested as I was towards the end of this one. The CGI effects used to depict Surya as a 10-year old are definitely high standard for a Tamil movie, in spite of the gimmicky nature of their appearance. (Couldn’t the same sequence have been told with “any” 10-year old in it?) Though not awe-inspiring because we always “know” this is Surya (he also voices these portions), the fact that a lot of effort has clearly gone into integrating it makes us overlook the obvious flaws. However, the flashback sequence itself is so dragging that even the special effects cannot force us to think of it any differently. The amount of people sneering in the theatre when this sequence ended should be proof enough of how languid it actually is. And, the movie drags on for quite some time in order to tie up a lot of the loose ends, eventually culminating in an action sequence that makes us laugh for all the wrong reasons (including a “sticky” rocket launcher, if there is even such a weapon). It wouldn’t be any stretch to say that, by the end, I wanted to forget the entire experience.

With the career path Surya is taking, it is obvious that he is trying to emulate Kamalhassan; which is the reason for Ayan, and now Aadhavan, after the heavier Vaaranam Aayiram. The problem with Surya is that he has not yet perfected the art of “acting” in these kinds of casual, formulaic roles. So, even though he can make the comedy portions work, he fails in the serious sequences because he always wants to “act” instead of simply going along with the flow of the movie. It also doesn’t help that the respect built up for his off-screen image takes a hit when Vadivelu compares him with yesteryear greats ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan, M.G.R, Rajinikanth, and Kamalhassan.

The supporting cast is mostly expected to run through the motions. Nayanthara looks very simple and jaded, and is expected to play the standard Tamil cinema heroine, which she can adequately. Shayaji Shinde and Murali (in what sadly turned out to be his last role) are veterans in their own right and are solid, with the latter being especially impressive. Rahul Dev joins the long list of generic Tamil cinema villains. With all the hype surrounding Saroja Devi’s return, she is more or less only used as a tool for comedy, with her now famous tendency to wear too much make-up providing a lot of mileage. Anandh Babu’s return definitely did not generate as much interest as the former’s; and with good reason, because it is definitely not noteworthy. Ramesh Khanna, whose story this is, appears as Nayanthara’s would-be, and proves a decent sidekick to Vadivelu in his comedy.

Harris Jeyaraj’s songs have become very popular, but almost all of them fall into the forgettable category. Hasile Fisile... and Yeno Yeno Panithuli... are great to look at by virtue of the breathtaking locations of South Africa and Iceland on display. Vaarayo Vaarayo... and Maasi Maasi... are largely at fault for the movie’s pacing problems, though Saroja Devi’s decked up appearance as a tribal at the end of the latter will evoke a lot of guffaws. Ganesh’s cinematography deserves some mention for the former two song sequences and also for the initial action sequences.

Usually, any K.S. Ravikumar movie has a certain charm that makes it worth for television viewing, if not for a visit to the theatre. However, it is hard to imagine Aadhavan joining that category. The comedy is certainly laugh-out-loud, but is only prevalent in the first half, and what makes up the rest of the movie largely veers into the “unwatchable” territory that even a TV viewing is hard to recommend, let alone paying money for a theatrical viewing.

Thiruvilayadal (1965)

A.P. Nagarajan is mostly famous as the director of various epics based on historical/mythological characters or Hindu Gods that are often characterized by riveting performances, spellbinding music, and by virtue of them being based on well-known history/religion. Arguably the most popular of his movies, certainly the most entertaining, is Thiruvilayadal, which provides an account of Lord Shiva’s grace in helping his devotees through a series of episodes. Starting with ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan’s arresting performance, K.V. Mahadevan’s timeless music, and Nagesh’s legendary comedy to name a few, I would be amazed if there is an aspect that can be used to qualify film masterpieces absent here. The film has been telecasted on TV every now and then, but it has still lost none of its charm and remains one of the greatest movies in Tamil cinema history.

As the director kindly informs us through a background voice heard during the beginning, Lord Shiva’s benign and kindly nature toward his devotees has been widely written about in the form of various epics, ithihasas, and puranas. This film borrows some of the most prominent episodes from such writings and tries to recapture the same playful nature of the Lord on-screen, and is entirely successful in doing so. Throughout the course of these four episodes, which see Lord Shiva appear in various forms, the film is highly entertaining, while also conveying a variety of messages through each of them.

The film opens with an introduction for Lord Shiva (‘Sivaji’ Ganesan), followed by the fabled “wisdom-fruit” sequence. The ever-mischievous Naradha provides the God with what he calls a unique “wisdom-fruit.” The God, playing along with the former, hands it over to Goddess Parvathi (Savithri), who decides to test her two sons and give the winner the prize. The test is who can complete a round-trip around the world first. Lord Murugan takes his trusted peacock and “actually” completes the task, while Lord Ganesha completes a circle around his parents and equates it to completing a trip around the world, thereby winning the prize. Murugan gets angered on his return as he sees this as his parents favouring their first child, and abandons them without heeding calls from his mother or avvaiyar (K.B. Sundarambal) that this is also one of his father’s playful acts.

If there is a single downside in the entire film, it is that these initial sequences can be inordinately slow by any standard. The elaborate set-design and dances that accompany the Sambo Mahadeva... song which introduces Lord Shiva are good, but this sequence itself is quite long and drawn-out. And, three songs immediately follow the “wisdom-fruit” sequence, further slowing down everything to a degree where we want the actual episodes to start. However, once the “movie” itself kicks off, with Parvathi recounting Lord Shiva’s playfulness to a very furious Murugan, it never flags and keeps things moving at a decent pace.

The first episode will be the most instantly recognizable to even people who have not seen the movie. The King of the Pandya land, Shenbaga Pandyan (Muthuraman), announces a flattering amount of gold to anyone who can solve his puzzle relating to the scent emanating from a woman’s hair (in this case, his wife, played by Devika). Inspired by the prize amount, a poverty-stricken poet, Dharumi (Nagesh), does what any person in his situation with his level of talent would: pray to God - who as usual solves his troubles by appearing in humane form. The highlight of this episode (or the movie, for that matter) is of course the verbal duel between Sivaji and Nagesh which has become the stuff of legend, with many a modern movie paying homage to it in its own way. And the “Nettrikkan Thirappinum Kuttram Kuttrame” dialogue is probably one of the most famous quotes in Tamil cinema and popular culture. Notwithstanding the other episodes, the movie touches its apex inarguably in this sequence.

The second and third episodes stand to be the weakest of the four, not because they are not entertaining (which they certainly are), but because they obviously lack the visual energy that pervades both the other episodes. The former sees Dakshan (Parvathi’s father) start a yaagam without inviting Shiva, which angers his daughter. Parvathi doesn’t heed Shiva’s calls and still visits her father requesting him to put an end to this madness. When it proves to be futile, she returns to her Lord, but the difference of opinion still remains. This is probably the only episode which doesn’t have any noteworthy aspect except, possibly, Lord Shiva’s “thaandavam” which serves the singular purpose of highlighting Sivaji’s weak dancing capabilities.

The third episode, in comparison, is definitely much stronger, and sees Parvathi forget her origins and be born as a fisherman chieftain’s daughter. Though it starts off slowly with another song, Sivaji’s reappearance as a fisherman provides some much-needed energy, and the episode itself concludes with an imaginatively picturized fight sequence in water, as Sivaji fights off and defeats a killer whale to win back Parvathi.

Finally, the fourth episode has Lord Shiva return back to Madurai, this time under the rule of Varaguna Pandyan. Hemanatha Bhagavathar (T.S. Balaiah), a carnatic singer of worldwide fame, has finally made his way to Madurai to sing in the King’s presence and prove his superiority once and for all. He poses a challenge to the King that if somebody from Madurai can defeat him, his voice and talent will be laid at the city’s feet and he will never sing again. However, if that person loses, then every man in the Pandya kingdom should henceforth refrain from singing. After everybody in the King’s court refuses to oblige, Baanapathrar (T.R. Mahalingam), who sings devotional compositions in the temple is chosen. The latter, realizing that he is no match in a straight battle with the famous out-of-town singer, prays to God to find a way out of this trouble. Of course, Lord Shiva appears as a woodcutter and rewards his devotee, while also teaching a lesson to Hemanathar.

Regardless of all the movie’s minor problems or for that matter its high points, it can be watched and re-watched any number of times just for ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan’s acting alone, whose radiant screen presence and majestic voice are aptly suited for such a role. Ever since its release, much has been written and said about this portrayal, so I would like to highlight my personal favourite sequence from the movie in order to demonstrate just how good a performance this is: The Paatum Naane, Baavamum Naane song.

Sivaji was one of the very few actors who could make us believe he was actually singing the song. Though T.M. Sounderarajan’s voice and its resemblance to Sivaji’s had a big say in this, the actor’s lip movements and genuine throbbing of the throat are the main reasons. The aforementioned sequence is the perfect example of both this fact and Sivaji’s acting talent. The twinkle in the eye as he gives a fleeting look at the room in which Hemanathar is staying when he sings “Paadum Unai Naan Paadavaithene,” or the rolling of the eyes accompanied by the inimitable smile when he utters “Naan Asainthal Asaiyum Agilam Ellame,” or even the ease with which his various forms handle the Veena, the Flute, and the Mridangam – all provide ample proof as to why he is arguably the greatest actor in Tamil cinema history and why this is decidedly one his best ever portrayals.

With such a commanding performance, the only other actors who make any sort of impact are Nagesh and Balaiah. As Dharumi, the former creates what is easily one of his most memorable on-screen characters. A variety of accolades has already been heaped on the role, but what I find most impressive about it is the consummate ease with which Nagesh accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us take our eyes of Sivaji and fixating them on Dharumi. A hard task in any of Sivaji’s roles, but to achieve it in this movie, and to a degree where we find ourselves incapable of removing our eyes off Dharumi, is proof enough of the late character actor/comedian’s greatness. Balaiah can generally be considered as a much underrated supporting actor who can leave a mark in any movie. As the egoistic singer who thinks the whole world is beneath his talent, he puts in a terrific shift, which injects a lot of energy to the movie, especially after the slower middle episodes.

With the exception of Sivaji, Savithri has the largest amount of screen time. However, this is definitely not one of the actress’ memorable performances, though she is quite suited and adequate for the role. (It has to be mentioned that this owes a great deal to Sivaji, with whom she shares much of the screen during the movie.) Director A.P. Nagarajan makes a cameo appearance as Nakkiran in the first episode and delivers the one critical dialogue with enough zest to firmly etch the role in our minds. Muthuraman, Devika, and Manorama all have minor appearances which further serves to the highlight the significance of the lack-of-ego argument I mentioned in my review of Saraswathi Sabatham.

As is a given in all of A.P. Nagarajan’s movies, the combination of K.V. Mahadevan’s music and Kannadasan’s lyrics stands him in good stead throughout, delivering a truly outstanding soundtrack. The standouts definitely are Paatum Naane Baavamum Naane..., Isai Thamizh Nee Seitha..., and Indroru Naal Podhuma..., all from the last episode. Of special note is the latter in which Balamuralikrishna’s voice and Balaiah’s expressions contribute effectively to craft an all-time great song. The other songs that have become very popular are Pazham Neeyappa... and Gnana Pazhathai Puzhindhu... from the first episode, which sing Murugan’s praise. Podhigai Malai... is also a very melodious number, while Sivaji has a lot of fun in Paarthal Pasumaram. The other songs work well within context of the movie, but are definitely not suited for casual listening on the Ipod.

Looking back at the history of Tamil cinema, few movies would come close to providing the same level of entertainment offered by this one. In a career that has seen him direct such movies as Kandan Karunai, Thillana Mohanambal, Thiruvarutchelvar, and Saraswathi Sabatham, just to name a few, this movie can be argued to be A.P. Nagarajan’s greatest movie. If not, then it is certainly close to the top. And, combined with what can be undeniably termed as a tour-de-force performance from Sivaji at the height of his craft, Thiruvilayadal is certainly one of Tamil cinema’s long standing masterpieces.