I’ll begin with a disclaimer before I proceed, lest I (accidentally) draw any ire from the angry horde of Ulaganayagan fans: This is just a rant, it might be flawed (in your eyes obviously) and no, I don’t hate Kamal for whatever he does. I just like picking on him when he thinks he’s being too cool for film school — but he isn’t and is actually being reduced to a parody of his former self.

I’ve always questioned myself why this schadenfreude for this man has generally been on the upside in recent times (yes, a lot of us feel happy when his attempts at creating a magnificent spectacle of film-making fails spectacularly). We know it is not healthy but it is also representative of a cinema-going society with reduced tolerance for bullshit, who are willing to call it so without fear. Uttama Villain, in this sense, was nothing short of a cinema scam. Papanasam is Kamal’s immediate saving act. But here too, one can’t help but notice the unhealthy hangover of a man inebriated (and overflowing) with cinema occasionally creeping into what is otherwise a very well-made remake of the Malayalam original.

Uttama Villain was nothing short of a cinema scam. Papanasam is Kamal’s immediate saving act.

I tried my best to avoid reading detailed reviews of Papanasam but some collisions were inevitable. Almost all of them seemed full of praise and certainty that the movie stands out on its own (90% true). After sitting through roughly a couple of hours and 45 minutes, certain realisations dawn on you. The lead character is a man who has learnt everything in life from watching cinema (who else but Kamal could be the real-life personification of this?). So trust Kamal to take it an extra step forward: not only is his knowledge of cinema encyclopedic, but the character himself was born in a theatre while his mother was watching a flick in the 1970s. First cringe moment.

His wife (Gauthami, who’s actually done a very decent comeback to the big screen) asks him whether he thinks of himself as a kaadhal mannan. I’ve lost count of how many times that reference has popped up in every Kamal film. Cringe moment number two. That moment sort of makes a haunting comeback after a breakfast scene, when Kamal and Gauthami — both visibly aged — are lost in each other’s deep, loving gaze; two pairs of eyes resting on puffed-up sacks, locked into each other. And our kaadhal mannan winks in slow motion, thinking he’s still exuding his charm from the late eighties. More cringe.

papanasam-tamil-movie-asha-sarath-pictures-00220There’s the usual subtle reference to the groin region, in true Kamal style: he asks the corrupt constable to zip his pants up (“Neenga modhalla moodunga … zip ah”), and later mocks the same person as one who truly resolves itches, anywhere on the body (“Avare solraaru la, arippa theerpaaru nu … enga arippu irukku nu sollunga, avaru aripaaru”). The second one can be slotted into the classic Kamal “dirty joke” category, and has appeared in an almost similar form in Virumaandi.

Drishyam-movie-new-stills-(18)8355In Drishyam, Mohan Lal eschews all this and sticks to his cool self. No fuss, no additional self-references from previous movies. The composure with which his character handles tense situations is brilliant to say the least, only because Lal underplays it. There is this genuine dollop of childlike innocence to many of Lal’s onscreen characters. He just needs to give that sheepish wide display of his pearly whites clenched together (its all the more funny when he’s got a thick mustache) and we really feel like smiling along. And he doesn’t need to even to try hard if the goal is to achieve a tear-jerker of a scene.

Why is it, by default, assumed that mainstream Tamil film scripts would not click if they are subtle?

The argument that both Kamal and Lal approach their characters in different ways has been used to death. Shouldn’t it basically work the way the director (Jeethu Joseph, for both Tamil and Malayalam versions) envisioned his script? Here’s where Joseph readily admits that it is Kamal who best knows the pulse of the Tamil audience and hence agreed to make it more “emotional” for that sake.

Now we really need to address this question: Why is it, by default, assumed that Tamil film scripts (mainstream ones at least) would not click if they are subtle? Why is it that we always need to overdo things to achieve impact? Why is that in Manichitrathazhu, when Dr. Sunny Joseph (the ever-subtle Mohan Lal again) plainly manages to knock off a cup of poisoned tea from Suresh Gopi’s hand, Rajinikanth’s Dr. Saravanan has to leap and fly in slow motion before he does the same in Chandramukhi? Why, as an established director such as Mani Ratnam has often asked, can’t subtle realism be applied outside of artsy movies? The answer: it can.

Trust me, the best parts of the movie lie in scenes where Kamal really underplays himself — whispering to the roadside hotel owner about approaching the sub-inspector before clearing his throat and saying it louder, folding his palms and giving an acknowledging goodbye nod to the police after they question him at his house, a small confirming grunt when Gauthami asks if she goofed up during the interrogation and coaching the family to maintain their cool in times of danger.

The best parts of the movie lie in scenes where Kamal really underplays himself

All this momentarily goes for a toss during scenes where his character guffaws or suddenly decides to let tears flow. This effort is more pronounced just before the climax when he meets IPS Geeta Prabakar and her husband for one last time. All of Kamal’s facial muscles automatically twitch into motion; he channels his inner Velu Nayakan and Krishnanswamy (from Mahanadi) but stops before they pour out as wails. Thankfully. He, in fact, is not even subtle when he indirectly confesses about his guilt. Almost the entire point of keeping a secret and getting roughed up with his family is lost.

Ah, yes. That reminds me. Okay, so the roughing up scene in Papanasam was more brutal than in the original one, especially when Kalabhavan Mani cracks Kamal’s thumb in a way so cruel only the Kamal of Kuridhi Punal or Aalavandhaan could’ve conceptualised it. And when his younger daughter makes contact with it while hugging him, Kamal goes into his “aaaaahhh!” (it hurts but it’s okay darling) mode.

In conclusion, I’m not going to blow this up into a “Lal is better than Kamal” debate for two reasons: a) Because I know he is and b) The Malayalam original is always better. You can watch it right here, legally. You decide for yourself.