Sunday, August 29, 2010

Indian Film Classics II: Karagaattakaran (1989) Tamil

“Karagaattakaran” is one of the greatest romantic comedies in Tamil film history. In Indian film history for that matter. It is one of the most formulaic films ever – it has a good-hearted hero, beautiful heroine, side-kicks, villains, misunderstandings, fights, song and dance, mother-son sentiment, and a climax that resolves everything and ends with multiple weddings. But calling this film formulaic is like calling the rain in monsoon formulaic – yeah, it is the monsoon season and it is supposed to rain – water droplets leaving the clouds and reaching the earth – but, such a description totally misses the point and the poetry of the rains. If rain in the monsoon season is formulaic, then “Karagaattakaran” is formulaic as well.

And the same team has tried over and over again to re-create the magic- only in vain. It happens only when it happens – that is why it is called magic – not when you desperately want it to happen. Gangai Amaran, the director, has directed countless films before and after this, with the same hero, Ramarajan, with the same technicians, but lightning struck only once- but, what a day it turned out to be. Actually, “Karagaattakaran” itself is a sort of remake of the old Tamil film “Thillana Mohanambaal”, but the remake is way ahead of the original in entertainment value and pure fun.

Muthaiyan (played by Ramarajan) is a Karagattam dancer (a folk dance form of Tamil Nadu, for the non-thambi people), who travels with his troupe to a village to perform in the temple mela. Kamaatchi (Kanaga) is the lead dancer in the local Karagattam troupe and she is denied a chance to perform at the same mela. (She rebuffs the indecent advances made by the village head-man (Santhana barathy) towards her with a slap, and the head-man punishes her by snubbing her troupe and inviting Muthaiyan's troupe from a nearby village to perform in this year's festival.)

Kamaatchi's manager who is also her brother-in-law confronts Muthaiyan during his performance, riles up the atmosphere, and arranges for a match-up between him and Kamaatchi. Inspite of the strained atmosphere, Muthaiyan and Kamaatchi slowly but steadily fall for each other. Each, guarding their professional terrain, teases the other, exchanges playful banter, and ever so gently falls in love. The villains intervene and complicate things, and misunderstandings and sentimental blackmail intervene and complicate things, and in the end, with God's blessings, and after dancing for an Amman song, things fall in place, and love and peace and a "subham" ending prevail.

What makes this film work? The Goundamani-Senthil-Kovai Sarala comedy track. Ilayaraja's blistering soundtrack and a simple story told competently. Let's start with Goundamani-Senthil comedy track - both being part of the same Karagaattam troupe, (Goundamani being the senior) and Senthil trying to be subversive and sight-adhichufy and route-vuttufy (or in other words, woo) Kovai Sarala and ending up crossing Goundamani. Goundamani is a comic genius. One of the best comedians in the world. (Yes, I said the world.) There are some comedians whose comedy works when the material is good. Some people make scenes funny just by being there, irrespective of the material (think Goundamani). Him saying things in English is funny, his dancing is funny (Ullathai Allithaa anyone?), the way he looks at Senthil is funny, and let's not even get into the insults he hurls at Senthil - if a poet can think of so many ways to describe anyone's head, he would be lauded as the most imaginative poet ever. And Senthil plays perfect counterfoil. See him head-down, giving sheepish, guilt-laden glances when Goundamani corners him. He is the silent notes in between Goundamani's musical notes that make this symphony a symphony.

The film starts with the director approaching Ilayaraja requesting him to sing the title song for sentimental reasons. The title song is a lot of fun - where the entire cast and the crew are introduced, sans make-up. One thing you notice is that, almost the entire crew is clad in veshti-shirt. It's a movie made in a different time - the time when there were a dedicated team of junior artists (some of them are good, but some of them just ham-up the dialogues and look dutiful and inert in the background) and back-up dancers, before the time of TV serials and foreign-location songs. The time when films started with a shot of a temple or idol, with a character saying "Ellarum nalla irukkanum thaayee…" (let everyone prosper, mother goddess…).

And Ilayaraja was at his peak and produced a scorching soundtrack. One of the songs is so good (Maanguyile Poonguyile) that it is used twice in the film (and once more wouldn't have hurt the film - when the film was first released, many theaters did play it one more time on audience demand). And Ramarajan is the hero of the film - for all the flak that he gets for being immobile during songs in other films, he is the most convincing dancer in this one. He emotes well, and fights well- in my opinion, he was an underrated hero, banished to serve the B and C centers. Yes, he wears lipstick and some "jigna" on his face, and has a mustache that looks pencil-drawn -so what…he is a very functional hero and can deliver when required.

There are two objects on earth that are visible when seen from the moon - the Great Wall of China and Ramarajan's shirts. He wears shirts that have so many bright eye-popping colors in them, they make you wince and wonder about the possibilities of nature. His shirts make Govinda's wardrobe look like that of a conservative banker. And, if you scrape the make-up off of Kanaga's face, you can probably apply make-up for a town of 300 women for a year (the fact that she looks good in spite of this paint-job is another point).

The film came out of nowhere and stayed in theaters for over a year. People were wracking their brains about what this film has that makes it work big time. I don't think we know the answer yet. The film moves in a brisk fashion. The dialogues capture the nayyandi-loaded (playfully taunting) banter in villages, interspersed with the world class comedy track. Even the villains know that it is a breezy fun film - they appear, do their job of creating havoc- but don't linger around - they get their punishments from hero/God/circumstances and move on.

The film hasn't aged a bit. It is just as fresh today as it was when I saw it first. This film will never appear in the Time/New York Times 100 best films of all time, nor will it ever be praised by world famous critics (who wouldn't have watched it). It never had any chance of winning an Oscar when it was released. But this film will be watched by Tamilians world over for a long time to come (and there are Tamilians in pretty much every country on the map), and it will provide entertainment and spread joy in those households. For me, that speaks volumes about the success of the film- more than any award could ever mean. Maanguyile…Poonguyile...


Anonymous said...

Sure, Karagaattakaran is a clean , fun-filled entertainment.
The success owes to its excellent script, realistic and fast-moving.It is so realistic that one feels like experiencing a slice of Tamilnadu's village life.The folklore touch in music is honest and the comedy doesn't stick out even in one shot, no wonder both the urban and the village audiences embraced the film.

Anonymous said...

A scientific review!

The Visitor said...

Seeing a clip from karagaattakkaaran brings a smile.
Thinking of karagaattakkaaran brings a smile.
And reading about karagaattakkaaran also brings a smile.

People were wracking their brains about what this film has that makes it work big time. I don't think we know the answer yet.

-there is no doubt about it. And I dont think that we'll ever find the answer.

Loved reading this review - it brought a smile. :)

Pipa said...

Haven't seen this one either :-).

will give it a shot -- I like "village' subjects sometimes.

manguil, poonguil nice song..

GB said...

I think Kovai Sarala is quite a performer too. Though she's a bit too loud for me in most films, she's done a good job here. Also one of the few fair-skinned female actors who've escaped being sexualized and itemized though she performed when she was young. She carved out her own niche without losing her dignity (present day female comedians like Aarthi in Tamil cinema are dependent on their size for comedy).

magesh said...

@ Anon - agree. The comedy doesn't stick out - and the music has an authenticity that helps the movie tremendously.

@ Anon - A very legal opinion.

@ Visitor - so does reading your comment.

@ Pipa - you should, definitely. When the song appears at the end of the film - it packs in so much energy - it is like getting a Vitamin B shot.

@ GB - Karagaattakaran through a gender lens! I liked her too -in her earlier films like this and Sathi Leelavathi -but now she is just too loud, obnoxious and too-stuffed (have you looked at her close-up recently?). But point taken.

Gillion said...

Have you tried dumplings and roast ducks? They are the famous and traditional Beijing dieshes. And also bird's nest soup? Its a delicacy in China.

Enjoy your days~~~


Anonymous said...

What about the immortal Vazhaipazham joke? :D That deserves a mention if not a para :)

As well as the background score, truly awesome

magesh said...

@ Vinay - the vazhaipazham is possibly the most famous missing fruit in the history of fruits. Many theses could be written on the topic. Goundamani's many efforts to uncover the truth. Senthil's stubbornness at reinventing the concepts of truth and logic. But that wouldn't be enough.

Anonymous said...

I never comment on blogs, but this one is awesome! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Nothing formulaic about the review whatsoever! :) Must thank you for it as it has given me an opportunity to peek into this film (not among my favourites) with a new perspective if nothing else.

Your description of the Senthil-Koundamani comedy, especially with the analogy of musical notes and silence thrown in, is sheer poetry! :) Making my late night reading a fulfilling one, your blog!


magseh said...

@ Uncle Srini: I am glad to campaign for Karagaatakkaran, to get a convert.

Priya said...

I seldom read blogs - and this one sure is to be followed

<<here are two objects on earth that are visible when seen from the moon - the Great Wall of China and Ramarajan's shirts.

Can't stop laughing... words well chosen

Anonymous said...

Wow all I can say is that you are a great writer! Where can I contact you if I want to hire you?

magesh said...

@ Priya - glad you enjoyed the post.

@ Anon - Thanks. Will be glad to. It will be difficult to work for an anonymous editor though :-)