It is a period film dealing with the important events around the time when we gained independence narrating the events set in motion by the ‘Direct Action Day’ (a.ka. Great Calcutta Killings) on 16 Aug 1946 and climaxes with the assassination of the Mahatma on 30 Jan 1948.
It is a fictionalized account and Kamal is quoted as saying that it does not attempt to repair the damages caused, but only remind us that it can happen again. It is possibly one of Kamal’s personal favourites as he dons the hat of actor, writer, director and producer of the movie.
It was a bilingual movie simultaneously released in Tamil and Hindi worldwide in Feb 2000, but it did not quite fare well on the Box Office. With a run time of 3 hours 20 minutes possibly such a serious subject couldn’t hold the attention span of the average audience. Over a period of time, it seems to be acquiring a new audience and is likely to be included among the select few movies that depict Kamal’s oeuvre.
The first thing to notice is the way the movie brings to life the period – trams, cars, clothes, club, the house in Kolkata, the typical agraharam set up in Kamal’s native as a Tamil Brahmin in Srivilliputtur are just perfect. The attention to detail merits a word of appreciation but Kamal could have made the movie more viewer friendly by providing a voice-over or subtitles as the dialogue flows into Bengali, Tamil, English, Marathi (including a Lavani song that suddenly metamorphoses into repeat of lyrics in Tamil in the second part). It is artistic and a strain of naturalism to depict multiple languages but quite often the viewer can’t follow what’s happening and it adds to the tedium of already long movie.
The gore and violence is there to be seen – it is not episodic, it runs through the movie with numerous flashbacks and Kamal often shows the difficulty to live with the past and deal with a chaotic present. The period shown is of strife and grief – there is no attempt to soften the blow or gloss over the everyday brutalities that eventually leave you feeling numbed. Kamal has taken this route in other movies as well – in particular Virumaandi and Thevar Magan are classics today but they are full of gore and violence as well.
Shahrukh Khan, the King of Bollywood, plays a nice cameo as a fellow archaeologist Pathan (Amjad Ali Khan) who is thick friends with Kamal (Saket Ram) as they explore the ruins of Mohenjo Daro. He reminds us of SRK younger days particularly in teleserials like Fauji and Circus – there is no hamming or mindless mannerisms. He really acts well and fits the character of a peace-loving man who is pained at the violence that surrounds them all. SRK was very happy to be able to work with Kamal and apparently didn’t even take any remuneration for the same.
The support characters – Girish Karnad, Hema Malini, Vaali, Naseeruddin Shah, Vikram Gokhale – all do justice to their pieces but it is worthwhile to mention Atul Kulkarni for stealing the show. As a firebrand rebel, Shriram Abhayankar, he gets the tonality right and is at equal footing while performing key sequences with Kamal. Even Kamal plays the actor and also the right dynamics in such scenes – so there is no grandstanding that sometimes has to come cast a shadow in his recent movies. Rani and Vasundhara Das add the lighter moments and share a great chemistry with Kamal, though I think many people would end up feeling that the newcomer Vasundhara stole the thunder here as well.
As is his wont, the movie is full of allegories and meta references. For example the movie begins with a young Kamal working in the tunnels of the excavation site and he ends his life in a similar underground shelter. You are likely to miss them the first time you watch the movie – they eventually grow on to you and you can then spot the connection. So its interesting enough provided you can stand the time and are keen to learn about the revolutionary moments of modern India. The message is salient as well and to quote George Bernard Shaw, “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience”.