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.


15 thoughts on “The problem with Papanasam

  1. See, actually a lot of whats written makes sense but the core of the argument is misplaced. In acting, there good ways and bad ways but there are no right ways and wrong ways. Kamal’s wasn’t bad, neither was it wrong. I pity you for your cringe moments but thats all I can do, pity. Because another big fan of lal, thats me, was able to enjoy the difference in approach (forget whether it was done for a tamil audience or not) of two actors who stand neck-to-neck in acting skills and at a pedestal unmatched in this country

    1. Thank you for reading the post. I never said Kamal’s approach was wrong, just merely said I find Lal more enjoyable and when you do a remake, you’re bound to have comparisons.

  2. If you have watched a 100 mohanlal movies ( times the repeat viewing ), I will bet you will have cringe moments in Drishyam. You are venting here that your expectations are not met which it appears going forward kamal will never meet. Unfortunately there is nothing mentionable in the tamil industry otherwise when it comes to performances. So for the tamil movie fans, we are fine with kamal’s performance in papanasam.

    1. I can’t claim to have watched a 100 Mohanlal movies but probably can for Kamal. All I’m saying is the latter had set such amazing benchmarks back then itself, that now everything he does seems unsatisfactory (at least personally). I have watched very selective Lalettan flicks, and yes I’ve heard and read about very cheesy flops of his too. But every now and then, Lal makes this amazing comeback and through a simple movie with no fuss — like Drishyam. Kamal on the other hand has gone on this “magnum opus” rampage and overhype for every film he’s making … and they turn out to be anything but. And FYI .. this is coming from an ardent “Hey Ram!” fanatic #justSaying

  3. I’m a huge fan of Kamal, of course, but I also see his “tics” and antics. They are annoying. I also see how underplayed Malayalam films are. I watched A Most Wanted Man yesterday (Hoffmann) and I saw how subtle it was. Almost nothing happens, yet everything happens. It’s the same problem with NDTV interviews, for instance. The noise drowns the real message. Good going, by the way! Keep writing.

  4. Putting a claimer that kamal fans will be up in arms to defend him on itself is a cliche to me. You are in effect branding everyone disagreeing with with your view point in to the defensive.
    Setting that apart, I don’t think you are being fair to him on this one. Subtle is not necessarily better. And to each one his style. In a situation when one is battered to death I would expect any one to break down . if any we could argue lal was more heroic there. I couldn’t resist saying that of anyone thinks saying one is a laletan fan…then nope it is not. Definitely not by claiming Papanasam is cringeworthy.

  5. Even though I’m a Kamal fan, I have been sorely disappointed by almost every single Kamal movie in the last 7 to 8 years. I felt that his obsession with technology, makeup, gimmicks or his need to be in every scene came almost always at the expense of a good story/screenplay. I absolutely detested Uttama Villain. So you can probably empathize why Papanasam came as a breath of fresh air to an ardent Kamal fan like myself. I can understand your point of view. However, I feel that this is mainly a difference in sensibilities. I have read other reviews too where they felt Kamal was overacting in Papanasam and blowing up situations that could have been underplayed. On the other hand, I have watched both Drishyam and Papanasam and, while Mohanlal’s acting is always excellent, I felt Kamal’s portrayal of the character was more realistic given the dire situation the family was in.

    They were concocting a huge lie with many moving parts and even the slightest slip from any one of them could land the eldest daughter in jail for murder. In this scenario, it is natural for the father (and the family) to feel nervous, jittery and at the end of his tether. To play it completely in control, like Mohanlal has done, seemed to me to be a bit unrealistic in this scenario. It was more like what Rajinikanth would have done, if he had played this role.

    Also, I felt the final scene made more sense in the tamil version. They were no longer police and criminal. They were just two sets of parents each with their own sense of loss. Whatever Kamal’s character said at this juncture was not criminally admissible. In any case, the IGs family was almost convinced of Kamal’s guilt anyway. They were just looking for some sense of closure for their son’s death. Given that Kamal’s daughter was responsible for taking that boy’s life (however accidental or justified), it seemed completely reasonable that Kamal would be driven by a sense of guilt to give them that closure. I felt Kamal’s tears were completely acceptable in this situation.

    Anyway, like I said earlier, different people will have different preferences for how this character should be portrayed All I can say is I’m glad I got a chance to see such a superb story released in Tamil as well with Kamal’s portrayal.

  6. True that. Mohanlal – when he want can underplay and win hearts. But – the actual fools are “we” 😀 who analyze movies at an intellectual level, find the nuances, wishing more realism etc. Coz a majority of the film makers atleast 5-6 years back – cater to a ‘theatre going audience’ that comprise of a large chunk of melodramatic crowd who fancy the extra action. you, me and most sensible people around us know and even write endless jokes about rajnikanth’s (gem of a person in his own rights) stupid & logic lacking scenes. Still ..crores flood to the theatre on 1st show of his releases – what does this teach a commercial movie maker? Kerala movie makers – know – like anything – movie will also be criticized. Likewise, tamil movie makers know that like everything hero will be idolised – and the ones who watch it 10 times – will be happier if they get to see just a lill too much of their hero! So…no Kamal is not making a parady of himself from the yesteryears.. we are a fool to think so. He understands the pulse of the audience that matters most – economically and his ‘heroism’ wise. The critical viewer is never gonna set him on a pedestal forever..bt the idolising viewer will!

  7. Good read and well said. I am a huge fan of both Lalettan and Kamal Hassan. They are a among a dying breed of actors who don’t have to hide behind “larger than life” on screen characters to show their acting prowess. Subtlety, which is hugely under appreciated in movies is extremely difficult to pull off and that’s where I rate Lalettan higher.

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