Saturday, October 10, 2009

Movie Review: Unnaipol Oruvan vs. A Wednesday

It's hard to have to pit my favourite film icon against my favourite stage actor. Kamal and Naseer have always brought credibility to their roles - they make you forget it's them in a role, and make you empathise fully with the characters they play. And both of them fit seamlessly into the role of the ordinary middle-class family man who goes to the market and picks out vegetables for the wife. I had the advantage of watching A Wednesday with absolutely no clue about the subject of the movie - and watching Naseer try to file a complaint about his wallet being stolen made my heart go out to him, and hope he would get it back. With Kamal, though I knew the story, I felt the same pang of sympathy.

The movie opening in the Tamil version was more credible, in that the setting was timeless. In the Hindi version, the hoardings and traffic are a bit of a giveaway that not much time has passed since 'that Wednesday'. But the song at the beginning of 'Unnaipol Oruvan' gives the movie a rather religious bias. With the Hindi version, the religious identity of the Common Man remained secret, while the Tamil version seems to have a slant, although that's open to debate.

That said, the scripting in the Tamil version is brilliant. Realising it's hard to localise a series of events that happened in Mumbai, the writers have chosen to focus on the 'it-can't-happen-to-me-bomb-blasts-don't-happen-here' attitude. For a state that witnessed the assassination of a former Prime Minister, Tamil Nadu was, perhaps is, delusionally confident. The dialogue steers clear of cliches, which can't be said for the Hindi version, and the idea of using the numbers of blast victims brought in an added poignancy. There's one shot which threatens to descend into maudlin, but Kamal Haasan just about manages to recover from the moment in which he wells up. But the segue is less smooth than it could have been.

The dialogue in 'A Wednesday' is rather cliched, though. There was no foil to the bravado, and the geek's language and accent are a little more putting off than necessary. In 'Unnaipol Oruvan', Mohanlal's dialogue is set off by asides like, "Tamil-le pesu. English-leyaa solleetruppey? Chief Minister TV parthuttuppaaru" ("Speak in Tamil. Why are you speaking English? The Chief Minister will be tuned in to TV") and a reference to the alienation of a Keralite in the Tamil Nadu Police Force.

The handling of the Chief Minister's role in 'Unnaipol Oruvan' was a riot. From using Karunanidhi's residence for the shoot, to using a mimicry artist who had people wondering if the man had chosen to make a guest appearance, to making digs at the Tamil agenda of the DMK, Kamal's fidelity to reality in this particular aspect is no-holds-barred. While it could be argued that the Chief Minister might take a terror threat more seriously in Mumbai, it seemed to make more sense for the Chief Secretary to come over and put up bureaucratic roadblocks all over the place than for the administrative head of the state to come over.

But one of the disappointments of 'Unnaipol Oruvan' is that there is too much frame-by-frame fidelity. What could pass for a Mumbai chawl doesn't translate well into a Madras slum. The actor who wants police protection works as comic relief in the Hindi version, but comes across as rather silly in the Tamil version. It isn't funny, it doesn't fit in with the plot and it doesn't contribute to the film in any way. The vernacular channels in Hindi and Tamil don't do the same kind of stories or programmes. Yes, the one in 'Unnaipol Oruvan' was a different show, but no Tamil news channel has a retarded programme with two mannequins talking. The fact that every Tamil news channel has some political affiliation if not agenda, affords a lot of plot-play, and it's surprising that the filmmakers didn't exploit that for circumstantial comedy.

The TV reporter bit was one area where neither film scores. Why call up a single vernacular channel instead of creating a sensation? While both reporters are suitably annoying, the lines are way too cliched in both is the police's bizarre decision to trust them with information. Since the reporter's role didn't amount to much in the end anyway, it could easily have been done away with.

The end in the Tamil version in terms of what happened to the Commissioner of Police is rather more credible.

As for the acting, there's very little to choose between Kamal and Naseer. Kamal Haasan came across as more erudite for the literature he quotes and the self-consciously educated accent he uses, which stands in contrast with Naseer's usage of the usually fake 'Indian English' accent theatre has unfortunately adopted as an inherent characteristic. This makes Kamal come across as rather eccentric, while Naseer plays the meticulous planner. What I don't get, though, is why the Common Man's wife has to sound so unpolished in the Tamil version. She has a nasal voice and drags her syllables and sounds more like someone who has grown up in a shantytown than someone who would be married to an idealist who's gone off his rocker.

Mohanlal looks rather young for a top cop set to retire, but given that the actor himself is close to the government's retirement age, I let that pass. He does a great job of making the role his own, and plays it very differently from Anupam Kher. Where Anupam Kher brings in a hint of indecisiveness, Mohanlal brings in an edge of frustration that portrays India's tedious layers of protocol that restrict officials' powers even at a time of crisis.

Jimmy Shergill's portrayal of Arif was flawless, and he became the character in the film. While relative newcomer Ganesh Venkatraman doesn't do a bad job, some of his actions are a little too conscious - putting his necklet with the qibah on display, for instance, or making a show of listening in when the Commissioner has a private talk with the Inspector. The other characters didn't really have much screen time, though perhaps the Inspector's wife, who's on a train with a kid, should have ideally had even less.

The music in the Hindi film is in sync with the story - it pumps up your adrenaline when the action calls for it, makes you reminisce when the script calls for it and alerts you that you are supposed to mourn for blast victims. The music in 'Unnaipol Oruvan' is extremely unremarkable. A film like this needed the genius of a Raja or Rahman. The final track, which has verses from the Bhagavad Gita, is both out of context and jarring - it's best described as Kula-Shaker-meets-Himesh-Reshammiya.

I suppose every fan of Kamal Haasan or everyone who hasn't seen 'A Wednesday' is bound to think 'Unnaipol Oruvan' is out of the world. But if it hadn't been Kamal Haasan in there, would the film have worked for me? Not a bad film by any standards, but 'Unnaipol Oruvan' could have been a better film if it had chosen to iron out the kinks in the Hindi version rather than replicate most of it.


Praveen said...

Well said Nandini!
same thoughts here.

Nandini Krishnan said...


Sreenivas Raman said...

Sorry I read this so late. This is quite possibly the most intelligent and honest appraisal of an Indian movie I have come across. Great writing. Generally, I have not much patience for critics of Tamil movies. Too much hero worship and unwarranted starstruck effusion. (Kamal-sir, Thalla, Superstar, etc).

Nandini Krishnan said...

Thank you, Sreenivas. :-)

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