Alert: Spoilers ahead!
As a suspense-thriller, Andha Naal is pretty ordinary. Before watching this movie, I knew that Rajan plays a traitor and that Usha kills him. Even with this viewing disadvantage, one can still conclude that the movie wasn’t smart enough in using its red herrings. The suspense is lost after the first half hour when the order starts revealing itself. This, in a movie where CID Sivanandham – the one who finds the story for the viewer, looks down upon imposing order – “ஒழுங்கு மனசுல இருக்கு”. But to hold these two disadvantages against the movie is a disservice to it.
On the suspense disadvantage – While this may have been intended as a suspense movie, it kept my interest throughout even without the suspense by using quirky characters as part of a narrative in the first half and through the context of patriotism and betrayal in the second.
On the order disadvantage – The structure in the first half is not a gimmick. It serves an important purpose which Sivanandham makes clear near the end of the first half. The story of the six blind men feeling the same elephant partially and judging without doubt what they felt. This is precisely what all these quirky characters have been doing – building upto this fable. All of them are so sure about who killed Rajan. Being arrogantly certain and not allowing for a faulty perception are indeed, really common human faults. One is reminded of the Rashomon effect except this is subjective extrapolation instead of recollection and the execution is simplistic compared to Rashomon.
For me, the movie worked wonderfully as an Indian version of film noir (the first?) with the spectre of the Japanese bombings hanging over and connected to the tale at hand. The noir visuals themselves find use only when Rajan, the morally challenged monster is around and as such play in synchrony with Rajan’s sinister actions. Some of these are extraordinary visuals and remain unique even today in Tamil cinema. (which is sad) There are other morally ambiguous characters in the movie but they are just reflections of the imperfections that we are and the state of the society. On the other hand, Rajan is opportunism, depravity and betrayal, themselves and must be destroyed. This is a character that says, “கேவலம், பொய், பித்தலாட்டம் இவை தான் வாழ்க்கையில் முன்னேற ஊன்றுகோல்கள். வாழ்க்கையில் வெறுக்க வேண்டிய ஒரே விஷயம், தோல்வி”. In the traditional grammar of Indian cinema, such personified evil doesn’t deserve to exist. (Elsewhere, an Anton Chigurh can escape with just a chance encounter with Nature, while a Daya has to be destroyed)
The second half plays out as a battle between patriotism and betrayal enmeshed with the dark personal story. The college scene to decide whether students should strike when the nation’s leaders were arrested, was well written and convincing. The movie also throws in some connections to Silapadhigaram and Tamil culture. Its common in morality tales of that era to suggest these connections and there’s nothing much to write about this except the obvious.
Sivaji is his usual pioneering self in some of the scenes. A scene in the park when Ambujam breaks the news of her pregnancy – Sivaji complements the stylishly shot scene with his own style of the sinister man lighting a cigarette. There’s another scene in a park where Sivaji eyes his catch, Ambujam’s sunglasses, and alternates his leery look at the objective observer, at the catch and the victim. This same leering look, I have seen Rajini use in 16 Vayathinile or some such villainous role. Just awesome! If there are some overacting sequences, they fit this manic role he’s playing.
Sivanandham provides a lighter view of things and with that, helps establish some perspective. A clear, rotund, radiating face to fit this role. Pandari Bai as Usha doesn’t get much screen space in the first half but when she does in the second half, she brings a sincerity to the patriotic role that she plays. Usha wins against Rajan three times over – first, in the college scene cutting through his distortion, then winning an argument over the nature of freedom & self-reliance defending Indian philosophy when she gets to know of his betrayal to the Japanese, and finally daring to kill Rajan when it gets too much to bear. Here, Rajan’s character gets to its opportunistic and cynical zenith when he talks her out of shooting him and doesn’t believe her when she says she will give the revolver back, effectively triggering the shot to his death. Thus, the movie lets Rajan voice a justification for his actions, but doesn’t accept the justifications. We also get to know twice about the couple’s dead child. Is this just a coinicidence? Is this because of a wish to have no more Rajans? Note that Rajan’s creative child, his radio also gets destroyed. Usha describes it as a ராட்சஸ radio and Rajan describes himself as எமன். Usha responds saying she is எமனுக்கு எமன். And so, it happened.
In all, a convincing tale of the victory of patriotism over betrayal, Kannagi over injustice with the noir visuals and the narrative style fitting the movie’s content. An update of this as a period neo-noir is in order.🙂