Director Sundar C`s inputs in `Anbe Sivam` remain as invisible as Suresh Krishna`s contributions to `Aalavandhan,` for it`s Kamal Haasan`s fingerprints that loom largest in his latest attempt to bend, twist, shape-shift Tamil cinema into forms never-before seen.
Who else would think of including in a film a beautifully-staged piece of street theatre? Conceive such imaginative supporting roles as the motorcycle-riding tomboy, incisively played by Uma Riyaz Khan? Conjure up romanticism as heady as when a couple paints a mural, him suspended from a rope that she directs to the strains of Vidyasagar`s lilting `Poo Vaasam Purappadum Penney`?
Taking the barest idea sketch from the comedy `Planes, Trains and Automobiles,` `Anbe Sivam` tells the story of spoilt yuppie Anbarasu (Madhavan), whose attempts to travel to Chennai are interrupted by well-meaning leech Nallasivam (Kamal). Naturally, in this combination of `road` and `buddy` movie genres, the at-odds souls begin to get along over the course of travel. And the political overtones -- Nallasivam is a social activist -- allow lyrical drama to coexist with some hilarious slapstick. (Madhavan impresses much more in the comic scenes than in the serious passages.)
Like all of Kamal`s `serious` films, `Anbe Sivam` throws at you an embarrassment of riches. Tiny moments like Anbarasu whining about wading in knee-deep water, while a child gleefully jumps into this very flood. Dazzling dialogue (courtesy, `Vikatan` Madhan), like Anbarasu calling himself A.Ars because `enakku Anbu pidikkaadhu!` Touching tragicomic sequences like the aftermath of a fellow-activist declaring her love for Nallasivam. And, after ages, a superb central performance by Kamal Haasan.
We`ve seen Kamal act for so long now that everything -- his laughter, his cries, the softening of his face in the romantic passages -- is familiar. However, when one of his obsessive makeup-makeovers works, the actor succeeds in projecting a persona that`s different, yet familiar.
That`s what happens here. With thick glasses and facial scars, Kamal appears a grotesque version of his Mayor in `Indiran Chandran`, and his body language projects the effects of a dislocated jaw, paralysed limbs, and you even see a toe sticking out when he`s lying down. It`s an amazing transformation!
But -- and this is why `Anbe Sivam` is merely a good, not great, film -- while makeup can camouflage Kamal`s familiar acting mannerisms, it cannot do much for the other role he`s taken up over the past decade, that of screenwriter.
There`s a lot that feels overly familiar. Scenes staged in other states (Orissa) with languages particular to that region (Oriya), much like Calcutta and Bengali featured in `Mahanadhi`. Distracting morphing sequences, as in `Hey Ram`. The sympathy-grabbing flashback and railings against the Indian Condition, as in `Mahanadhi`. The tragic public accident -- Arthur Wilson`s cinematography and M. Prabhakaran`s art direction are standouts -- with graphic shots of dismembered victims, like in `Thevar Magan`. Big names -- Seema is wasted here the way Hema Malini was in `Hey Ram` -- in minuscule parts.
Things get more troublesome when Kamal the writer is in service of Kamal the star, with a much-longer-than-necessary flashback detailing Nallasivam`s love (for Kiran, looking touchingly innocent without makeup) and involvement in communism. Why not give us such details about Anbarasu too? We lose track of the latter during the flashback, so his later changes in character aren`t convincing.
When Kamal`s writing is in top gear -- `Thevar Magan`, `Mahanadhi` -- you are so drawn into the film that it`s only later that you comprehend the density of ideas within. Here, time just seems to stand still, especially with silence ruling the soundtrack, when trademark Kamal musings -- about globalisation, MNCs, pharaohs, the nature of divinity, Adobe software -- come to fore. (The superb lyrics in Vairamuthu`s title song say more in less time!)
It`s touching to see Kamal`s faith in the moviegoing public that has more often than not cold-shouldered his serious efforts, but it`s gotten to a point where he`s both the biggest strength and the greatest weakness of his ventures. As writer, he has his own notions of catering to fans, while I suspect that these fans would only be too happy to see their idol age on screen in ways that do not involve fights and duets. (Surely that lengthy fight, using an umbrella the way he used a book and stool in `Thoongaathey Thambi Thoongaathey` some twenty years ago, was avoidable!)
These displays make you feel that one part of Kamal wants to grow up, act his age, while another wants to keep doing cool things for on-screen heroism. As good as `Anbe Sivam` is, let`s hope that the next time Kamal makes a serious film, he sticks to either writing or acting. We`ve seen him as `sakalakalavallavan` one too many times by now!
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