An enduring aspect of Indian mass movies owes a lot to NTR, the aspect where everyone sees their hero as a divine being.
Sample this: Asia Week’s posthumous story on MGR was titled pretty much the same, a song from Kuselan harps about how cinema was the first to ‘show’ God on screen, it persists even today in the eyes of the people of Mahismati when they see Mahendra Baahubali. (also see Maya Bazar climax)
While the others in the list crafted an image playing heroic characters, NTR played the Gods themselves.
NTR is still my favorite on-screen Krishna (sorry Nitish Bharadwaj), I can exactly pinpoint when the movie Karnan (sorry Sivaji fans) turns into the fun epic that it is, the moment NTR literally walks into the screen as Krishna (a similar scene is recreated in this movie) and of course Maya Bazar; arguably the greatest Indian film ever made (sorry Sholay fans and also looool sholay).
Sadly, NTR’s movies are not the focus points in this biopic.
The movies are just occurrences which pinpoint how great NTR the person was. Most of the dialogue is either a prophecy (which we now recognize as true) or a set-up for the sequel Mahanayakudu, which promises to trace the political life of the screen icon.
Knowing myself, I have already lost interest in the sequel. I am more interested in the man who played God and want to know more about the mythological movies, like how Daana Veera Soora Karna was shot in 43 days.
Balakrishna eases into the life of his father and the performance betters with surprising restraint as the character ages. In-a-only-in-the-cinema-of-India-kind there is a meta moment when baby Balakrishna is born to the real Balakrishna who is playing his father and ends up naming himself!
Vidya Balan makes her Telugu debut, in a nothing much to write about already over played pillar of a support wife that most bio pics have.
While Balakrishna gets to play his father, Sumanth gets to play his grandfather Akkineni Nageswara Rao (ANR); in some portions it does feel like it is a story of these two actors lighting cigarettes, exchanging notes, reworking their careers, and collecting relief together. These are the portions that have stayed with me.
Now that you are here, why not see NTR and ANR in Lahiri Lahiri and wonder along with me, why no one is making a movie about how Maya Bazar was made!
NTR and ANR featured themselves in a late career film called Chanakya Chandragupta, in which one actor called Sivaji Ganesan played Alexander the Great! I mean, yes!
On youtube (and mostly in life), one thing leads to another.
The first thing was a video of Y G Mahendran listing his favourite Sivaji Ganesan films as part of the 90th birthday celebrations of the actor; the video makes for interesting viewing even if you do not know that Y G Mahendran takes pride in calling himself a Sivaji Veriyan.
He throws into the mix, a set of acclaimed ( Deiva Magan, Thevar Magan ), popular ( Bale Pandiya, Navaratri) and overlooked (Motor Sundaram Pillai) but finally settles for a very personal film for his top pick; I guess I’ll leave that in suspense, you can enjoy the video here.
One is more often than one would like, asked to choose the best or favorite among a set.
To choose the best, one must have considerable technical knowledge to compare things on pure metrics. To choose a favorite is to tilt towards a generally accepted work highly endorsed within the community.
YGM does well in spite of the fanboism, because he is a cinephile and deep down-the movie that he reserves for the last is the film that affected him the most, personally. A film, when he watches every time makes him feel as though Sivaji is standing next to him, vacating the screen.
Great movies like great art (I always think before using the word art, because it has already been abused so much) is something that affects the person internally, resulting in some change to the person. This may or may not be the intention of the filmmaker, but the viewer forms a unique relationship with the film and this relationship strengthens on every rewatch. To put it in short, great movies for me are the ones that affect me personally.
Yes, I do not believe that movies are a communal experience; although there is an effect of watching movies in the theatre with strangers, it is not a lasting effect. When someone says that such a film is best enjoyed in such and such format in a specific theatre, it means that the movie takes second place over the medium.
A great movie should stand on its own, irrespective of how and where and to whom it is projected; and with that we have raised the stakes for what a great movie is. Stay with me as I summarize.
My great movie
Brings about internal change
Stands on its own, not dependent on medium/ message
Looking for the greatness of movies internally; gives me a sense of what I truly like and what affects me and this unending quest excites me. Although I would also like to add that this search for greatness is hard work and observations only manifests after a long time.
Part Two: Movies As Public Things
Coming back to the unseen force that makes us conform to a select crowd, that results in fanboism.
As stated earlier one thing leads to another on youtube and the second thing is also a Y G Mahendran video.
This was, as industry people would like to call it, a success meet celebration. Nevertheless interesting, because the movie Karnan was released in 1964 and its digitized re-release had exceeded expectations in 2012, running more than a hundred days.
Karnan is grand in scale, because the story demands it; and yes it has immense re-watch potential not only because it has Sivaji in it but also other appreciable parts.
Karnan is not a signature Sivaji film, like the ones YGM mentioned in his first video. Interesting to note that Karnan is not there in his top 10.
But here, YGM is before an audience, it is his core group, a selection of the choicest of Sivaji Veriyargal (who of course will have their own top 10, when asked to pick) who would do anything for the thespian, in fact one of them did the crazy act of re-releasing Karnan after 48 years!
YGM is in his fanboi-est best, in fact his aggression can be compared to the fanboisms of Thala-Thalapathy that populate tamil social media today.
Utterance after utterance is to establish that Sivaji Ganesan is the greatest actor to have walked the earth and how actors who came after, have ruined the field and hence movies themselves.
It is. by defintion peak fanboism.
When YGM and his group seek pleasure, it is not just the raising of Sivaji’s flag high but also garners relevance when their fandom is acknowledged by successive generations.
In effect, Sivaji’s legacy becomes the life’s work of the Veriyargal, because of course they cannot accept anybody else other than Sivaji.
It is something like that quote from the Jungle book, for the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.
Without the community, fanboism has no meaning; but there is an obvious downside to this as it heavily depends on finding common ground in an individual and not entire works which leads to unwanted superlatives and the time lost in countering or defending them.
The upside is that, their craziness preserves a good part of the legacy.
Part Three: The Conclusion
No this is not a point against fanboism, but it is certainly a post to remind viewers that comments made by people in the fanboi mode should not be taken seriously.
‘Movie-public’ and ‘Movie-personal’ are the modes that we operate in, and increasingly the word ‘great’ as used by fanbois is being mistaken for the meaning that an exceptional film provides, yes there is a difference and it should be noted.
You can also read an earlier Laureate piece on Karnan here.
I don’t have a Sivaji Top 10, but would have put in Gowravam, Moondru Deivangal, Sivandha Mann, Ooty Varai Uravu, Thiruvarutselvar and the such.
But I do have a favourite song from Karnan, thank you for reading.
It is only right that I saw Karnan inside the old world of AVM Rajeswari, the signage of which still displayed the stories of an era gone by, in a time where movie screens are more about six flavors popcorn and sofa seats for couples; this Vadapalani theatre still shows only one film and sells balcony tickets at the rate in which multiplexes sell steaming cups of European coffee.
Nostalgia is a dangerous thing, but a necessary danger. The statement seems like an often repeated school essay topic, Technology: a necessary evil or something to that effect. That brings us to technology which was used in the re-release, the constant buzz about it being digitally re-mastered to suit the audience of now.
But should a movie released in 1964 be processed so that a few scores of the t-shirt wearing dood speaking general public of 2012? Shouldn’t it be watched as it is supposed to be?
I do not believe that an advance in technology does directly correlate with the advancement of film, which belief holds good for ‘Karnan’ as well.
The film used to be showed on cable, not so frequently but on important weekends only to re-instate the fact that Karnan was no ordinary old film, in every Tamil movie watching family there would have been a discussion on the same, at least about the concise Gita or the ‘Ullathil Nalla Ullam’ song.
The screening last Saturday was not my first introduction to B.R.Panthulu’s pain driven epic; I use the four letter word only to signify the relation to Vyasa’s work rather than as a modern adjective used to describe the films of James Cameron.
The Mahabharatha is a known story, at least most Indians are familiar with the outline of what happens and how it all ends in battle and the complexities, numerous windings and characters make it ideal for any kind of performance art and naturally interpretations.
Karna, the first born, the one adorned with armour by default and owing to the Sun being his father, the quality of giving. For it is believed that the Sun gives all and takes none.
Left to drift in the waters, Karna falls in an age where being a Kshatriya was the greatest gift, the mystery of his birth plagues him till he falls by the wheel.
Karna was the hero who never was, the greatest warrior never to have achieved, his only known crime was his friendship with the otherwise fiendish Duryodhana, the main antagonist in the ensemble.
The whole story can be seen as a game of dice, played by opposing players in which Karnan appears to be the dice; rolled by both sides. Duryodhana who injects in him the hatred of Arjuna and by Krishna, who later plays with his emotions of unknown pedigree.
Sivaji Ganesan brings this character whose mind pencils from a supporting friend to a disillusioned warrior to life on the screen, but alas much of that is lost in the movie which tries to make a hero of him, cutting the story in the wrong place.
The character of Karna has no relevance if there are no Pandavas, the social life of the charioteer king seems to be as boring as the love stories of the recent times, and these are the most trying times for the movie watcher, saved only by the songs. Actress Devika portrays Suba, his wife while Asokan and Savithri fill in for Duryodhana and Bhanu in this socially insecure friendship quartet.
The movie only reaches the next stage when NTR comes blasting doors as the ever smiling and easy dharma quoting Lord Krishna, banking on his previous experience from the truly brilliant Maya Baazar(they should consider another re-release)is a joy to watch, the supporting characters: all big names(Muthuraman, VS Raghavan, ‘Javert’ Seetharaman, Jayanthi,Shanmugasundaram) are used adequately, but the point to be noted is the sincerity in the palace settings and outdoor locations( Saraswathi Mahal Palace and the real battlefield Kurukshetra). Many anecdotes are retold on how BR Panthulu made the mammoth of a film and it is fitting that Karnan was rereleased adjoining his centenary.
No work on Sivaji’s Karnan is complete without mentioning Viswanathan-Ramamurthy score and the wonder that is Kannadasan, whatever they did ‘digitally’ did not appeal to me, I liked it better when they played the film on Raj TV. My favorites would be ‘En Uyir Thozhi’ and ‘Iravum Nilavum’. Kannadasan is master, there is no word that could describe the happiness that he brings to songs, here he not only shortens the 18 chapter Bhagavad Gita to minutes but also provides a Tamil version of Adithya Hridayam and a final summing up in the all explaining, ”Ullathil nalla ullam” in which the dice finds its relevance.
Karnan is a classic, re-mastered or otherwise. I liked it because I have always liked it, but I cannot speak for the hundred or so school students who were brought in as an ‘educational’ trip.
It was a happy sight to see a morning show filled, for a movie released 45 years ago; one theatre man said that next show was also booked. Above him the painted face of Sivaji Ganesan looked down magnificently, just like old times.