Excuse me for a moment while I ponder over the reality of the situation: Last week I walked into a theatre to watch a little movie called Eeram with a relatively unknown cast and crew, only to come away stunned and satisfied that Tamil cinema could still surprise me with such variety sans any masala. This week I went to watch Unnaipol Oruvan, which admittedly had an all-star cast and was already a proven hit in Hindi, so there was considerably more expectation than in the former case. What surprises me about this scenario is that we can have two very good (and meaningful, especially in the latter case) movies in two vastly different genres within the span of a week. But that is exactly what Kamalhassan has provided with this film which, along with Eeram, provides the one-two punch that Tamil cinema so badly needed.
Having not seen the original Hindi film “A Wednesday,” I will refrain from commenting on how faithful this remake is. (Though two of my friends who had already watched the Hindi original acknowledged that this is a frame-by-frame remake, which is certainly good news.) Taken on its own, Unnaipol Oruvan is definitely one of the best films of the year so far and while it would be right to classify it as a thriller, to pigeonhole this movie into a particular category is to ignore what Kamal (and, to a very large extent, the director of the original Neeraj Pandey) has achieved with it.
The film begins on a seemingly casual note as it tries to establish the main players in this convoluted plot. Commissioner of Police Raghavan Maraar (Mohan Lal) is having as boring a day as any other, trying to answer queries relating to a police protection request from superstar Aravind (Sriman, in a role which has a very obvious resemblance to ‘Ilayathalapthy’ Vijay). Natasha Rajkumar (Anuja Iyer, who appeared as the whitely ghost in Sivi) is a trademark Indian journalist conducting a TV satire on Former Pakistani and American Presidents, General Pervez Musharraf and George Bush. All this (and more) happens while we also see the prime character of the movie (Kamalhassan) move around the city placing black bags in common places like trains, buses etc., and set up his comfortable perch on top of one of the city’s under-construction buildings. What happens afterward should be known to most people who have seen the trailer; the Commissioner receives a phone call from said character stating that he has placed in various locations across the city, all of which are ready to blow unless his demands are met. Watching the movie without knowing the rest of the plot is one of its biggest pleasures, so needless to say it one of the best edge-of-the-seat thrillers in recent memory.
Much of the first half is spent in a similar note to how the film starts. A host of more characters is introduced, from the Chief Minister’s Chief Secretary (Lakshmi) to a rough-and-tough cop Arif Khan (Ganesh Venkatram). Although the film moves ever-so-slowly in these sequences, they are absolutely necessary in making us relate to these characters, given the breakneck speed at which the plot moves post-intermission. As the movie reaches its final quarter of running time, we are hit in the face with a genuine twist. I would advise anybody to read as little about this movie (or “A Wednesday!”) as possible before watching, because knowing certain aspects of the movie may lead the viewer to accidentally guess (sadly, this happened to me) what happens in this key moment. However, having said that, this pivotal moment will definitely have such an impact on anybody that there is no danger of its effectiveness being diluted by accidental guesses. The twist more or less only acts as a means in making us understand the very powerful message the film is trying to convey, which is certainly very effective.
When somebody assembles a cast of this calibre, it is going to be very hard to speak about how they go about their roles, but I am going to try and do that anyway. As Raghavan Maraar, I had my own doubts about how effective Mohan Lal will be with his Malayali accent (his talent, I have no right to question). But, he comes out with a very understated and dignified performance that I could not help but vent at myself for my initial fears. His verbal trade-offs with Lakshmi are such a pleasure to watch, both within the context of the movie and in India’s political system in general, that it is now hard to imagine anyone else coming with such a subtle portrayal. Kamalhassan returns to being himself rather than being buried under sheets of make-up (though, here he is buried under a somewhat unkempt beard). Initially, he is quite soft when making his threats and demands, and remains so for much of the first half. His passion and rage constantly build up during the second half, and he peaks in the final sequences with a stunning monologue that will make everybody in the audience sit-up and listen intently. Much has been said about Naseerudin Shah’s superlative performance in “A Wednesday,” and although comparisons are unfair, I can safely that Kamal has definitely provided for a Tamil person what (I have been told) Shah did for a Hindi one. Lakshmi never fails to impress me even in small appearances and her role here is nothing more than a glorified cameo, but one she pulls off perfectly. The rest of the actors are perfectly cast (of note is Ganesh Venkatram as Arif Khan) as is required for this movie to hit all the right notes throughout.
Cinematographer Manoj Soni and dialogue writer Ee. Ra. Murugan are two of the film’s biggest strengths. The former provides some stunning shots of the entire city as seen from Kamal’s top-level perch and hardly puts a foot wrong during the entire running time. The impact of the entire film hinges on the latter, who (one would assume with inputs from Kamal) writes some of best lines I have heard in Tamil recently. Much of the impact the later sequences have on us is as much due to the dialogues as the person delivering them and for that, Murugan deserves high praise. Shruthi Hassan is making her debut as music director with this movie. The first time I heard the entire soundtrack, I was genuinely induced a headache. I am not a big fan of Indian music trying to imitate western rock and that is what Shruti tried to do. Thankfully, the two songs remain largely in the background, heard only in bits and pieces. She also does not try to upstage the onscreen happenings with her score. Neither does it make us notice her as the next big thing, nor is it too subpar that it brings down the quality of the presentation, which is a good sign.
In the end, Unnaipol Oruvan speaks with the same voice “A Wednesday” spoke with. The impact here may not be the same because we Chennaiites have been living in relative obscurity when it comes to our position as one of the top Indian cities. However, in a post 26-11 era where the whole of India is trying to come to grips with the terror threat facing the nation, that voice is very powerful. The film leaves no stone untouched with its constant thought-provoking comments. It makes us wonder why Ajmal Amir Qasab is allowed to make a public mockery of the Indian judicial system when he was obviously one of the perpetrators of terrorism in India. Also present is an obvious swipe at the headlines grabbing nature of Indian journalists which will be similar to anyone who watched any of the major news channels on that horrifying date. (Kamal also takes a thinly veiled jab at the Electoral system, which is sure to bring a smile out of anyone who followed what happened in the city on Lok Sabha Election Day.)
Whether that voice will be heard is largely in doubt. One thing that is of no doubt is the quality of this movie. Kamal has efficiently adapted for the Tamil milieu, what has been heralded as a modern Hindi classic to begin with. And, with a star-studded cast, dialogues that hit the nail on the head and a very meaningful message, Unnaipol Oruvan is a must-watch for any Tamil viewer.