When Kamal Haasan wrote a mind-scrambling swansong in ‘Uttama Villain’

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Balu is on the cusp of slipping into the other world when he is brought in a wheelchair on the stage, when they introduce him as the master who groomed Sailaja to perfection, in Sagara Sangamam (1983). Tears come gushing, as if the floodgates have opened, upon hearing the rapturous applause for his towering contribution. He pauses, glances at the onlookers and gestures asking for more — an external validation that was robbed off, despite him being a remarkable artiste; a dancer to be precise.

All that Balu yearned for was: applause.

This appears to be the de facto principle that Manoranjan, the ageing superstar from Uttama Villain (2015), seems to profess and advocate, on being asked what drives him. What is exceptionally novel about applause when you have a Bentley parked outside your house? To begin with, you never know when an artiste would get the next applause —whether or not (s)he would be alive to witness. These two movies have no similarities, barring the fact that both characters were played by Kamal Haasan, resulting in a delicate peep into their vulnerabilities and insecurities.

Manoranjan is arrogant; his self-obsession pales before Balu’s selflessness. But behind this obsessiveness, there resides an artiste who is extremely earnest and at times, indulgent about his craft: acting. Tomorrow, for him, exists only as a theory and something that is far in the future until he is humbled by Nature, when news strikes him like a thunderbolt: he is diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and is counting his final days — you cannot help but wonder how much of this ostensibly-ordinary story mirrors with actor Irrfan, who left us recently and whose loss we felt deeply personal.

As if to cause more damage, Manoranjan comes to terms with the news of his biological daughter. What would his redemption be, in the face of death? How would he right the many wrongs, given the villainous life he has led? What would be his parting gift for fans? What are the remnants of art, in the light of an artiste’s death? And what is life without a fitting conclusion?

Five years ago, Kamal Haasan wrote what could possibly be one of the boldest, riskiest and complicated screenplays in Tamil cinema. In the sense that Uttama Villain is a genre synthesis that is more mellow-drama than melodrama, and a semi-autobiographical account of an artiste’s (Kamal) illustrious career, capturing the glitz and glamour, and dark and ugly side of filmdom and stardom. You could also argue that it was one of the rare occasions when Kamal nearly-made an art cinema.

“The best Kamal Haasan movies are probably locked up inside his head, where they reside in the most perfect possible manner,” reads the review from The Hindu. This article shares a similar train of thought and argues why the individual parts of its screenplay are fascinating, if you take them at face value.

Self-aware or self-indulgent?

There is a devastating stretch in the middle portion where Manoranjan’s daughter, Manonmani, unmasks her father’s ‘real’ face when she reads out a letter written by him to her mother. She finds him intently listening, standing next to what he calls ‘the tree of life’, a collection of photographers of his dear ones. This is exactly what Kamal, the writer, has done with the screenplay structure; a collage of memories with people who have been instrumental in his life, starting with the legendary filmmaker, K Balachander. Uttama Villain is Kamal’s most personal movie yet and as usual, it is all about himself — as in, he pays tribute to his own career, replete with references, dry humour, and supposed digs at his body of work.

A screengrab from ‘Uttama Villain’

A screengrab from ‘Uttama Villain’
 
| Photo Credit:
YouTube

For instance, a character describes Chokku (MS Bhaskar) as “in-house alcohol supplier”, reminiscent of ‘whiskey supplier’ gag from Sathi Leelavathi. A Thevar Magan-styled passing-on-the-legacy scene finds a place where Margadarsi (K Balachander) asks Manorajan to take his ‘chair’. There is another nod to Thevar Magan when Chokku says “naan poren” — which is what Sakthivel said to Periya Thevar. Chokku’s character, in fact, seems to be written after Esaki from Thevar Magan. And both movies are dead without these two characters who were responsible for changing the narrative gear.

Tamil cinema’s oldest trope — death by a deadly disease (read: cancer) — is used to poke fun at Balachander’s movies, particularly Neer Kumuzhi. Balachander’s “badava rascal” from Ethir Neechal is passionately inserted to attest to the Mr Perfectionist image that Kamal has. K Viswanath is credited as the “kaaruvi” that helped Kamal climb up the ladder.

A screengrab from ‘Uttama Villain’

A screengrab from ‘Uttama Villain’
 
| Photo Credit:
YouTube

The movie opens with a projection of another movie called Veera Vilaiyattu, where you see its star and the protagonist of Uttama Villain, Manorajan, romancing a relatively younger actress in ‘Loveaa Loveaa’. Is this a vexation against commercial cinema? Is Kamal mocking himself for having been part of a brand of cinema? Is this a subversion of our masala tropes? You never know. But what we do know is that Manoranjan’s son, who bears half his name, Mano, is representative of the love-hate relationship audiences have with Kamal Haasan. Because, right after the preview show, Manoranjan eavesdrops on a conversation Mano has with his girlfriend — “It’s a clichéd masala movie. He does wheeling and all with the actress. I don’t understand how people celebrate this stuff.”

Later on, Manoranjan has a quiet, heart-rending moment with his son who wants to pursue screenplay writing because he wants to show Kodambakkam “who his father is”. “What if I’m not there or what if there comes a better actor,” asks the father. It is one of the many fourth-wall-breaking scenes that Kamal has with fans, purportedly pondering about his own legacy.

Bending realities

Uttama Villain’s narrative is as sprawling and fascinating as it is frustrating. In other words, it has three realities; the 21st Century centering around Manoranjan and the emotional associations with his family; an 8th Century folklore dealing with Uttaman who is a counter to Mano; and the film’s outward reality which is Kamal, the star; that bind the film together, distorting the lines of reality and fiction. Ambition screams out of every scene, every dialogue that, perhaps, might put Alejandro G Iñárritu’s Birdman to shame.

Let us consider Manoranjan and Uttaman, the twin characters who are diametrically and morally different from each other. In his final movie, ironically titled Uttama Villain, Manoranjan plays Uttaman, an artiste who has defeated death and is blessed with saagavaram aka immortality.

A screengrab from ‘Uttama Villain’

A screengrab from ‘Uttama Villain’
 
| Photo Credit:
YouTube

To put in context, it is about a dying artiste who writes a swan song about another artiste who cannot die, to be etched in memory. Confusing much? Mutharasan (Nasser) is equally confused when Uttaman says the secret to wisdom and immortality is to become an artiste, to be people’s favourite. And what is the drama that they stage? The ballad of Hiranyan, the asura king who worked out a deal with Lord Vishnu about his death. Try peeling off its narrative structure and the layers just keep coming.

Themes, allegories and subtexts

It is hard to critique a creation like Uttama Villain, merely on the basis of binaries — good or bad, watchable or unwatchable, tolerable or intolerable. What could you say about the shot of fishes writhing in pain written as a subtext to convey the emotional state of Manoranjan’s fish-out-of-water life?

A screengrab from ‘Uttama Villain’

A screengrab from ‘Uttama Villain’
 
| Photo Credit:
YouTube

What about the scene where Lord Narasimha is used as a metaphor on Manoranjan’s duality (kadavul paathi, mirugam paathi, in Kamal’s lingo)? Why is Uttaman singing praise for the Big Bang Theory and impermanence in ‘Saagavaram’?

Even the Sun, our perpetual source of light, would perish one day.

But life would emerge out of the remnants of the burnt Sun.

The individual parts, as I said, are fascinating to pause, look beyond the obvious and to draw your own conclusions. But as they say, a thousand rabbits won’t make a horse.

Art, life and illusion

The gulf between the hero/villain has engulfed Kamal’s life and has been a recurring motif in all his movies, even in something as sweet as Panchathanthiram, ever since Mani Ratnam wrote that closing line in Nayakan. Is Kamal Haasan a villain in his personal life, or a hero? Is that why he wishes to be a hero at least in this story? Is he projecting himself a martyr for art? Is Uttama Villain a heartfelt apology or a stubborn justification? Is the movie a plausible solution to the raging debate on art and artistes?

Let us take the climatic scene, for instance. What is left in the closing shot — which is a pan from the projector, mirroring the film’s opening shot — is Manoranjan as the charming Uttaman, the artiste within the film. Is this how Kamal wants to be perceived? Through art? We do not see the real-life Manoranjan in the film’s closing portion, but what we see instead is the artiste who has attained a sort of eternity — a hint that can be found in these lines:

What is imperishable are art and poetry.

What is perennial are love and intellect.

Even if the artiste dies, the art lives on. That seems to be the underpinning statement that Uttama Villain wanted to convey, that seemed to have lost in its ardency to construct a narrative system.

Manoranjan selflessly wished that the world remembers him with a smile. He wished that the audience, who has come to watch his final performance, exit the darkroom with smiles, instead of burying their faces in sorrow. But those of us who watched Uttama Villain, which, if I am not wrong, had a delayed release, left the hall with a heavy heart.

For, there is a part of us that dies along with the artiste, right?

Uttama Villain is available on YouTube

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