Aalavandhan Review

Having already seen Kamal Hassan’s latest 2004 film Virumaandi, a virtually uncategorisable violent action musical blockbuster that wasted not a minute of its three-hour running-time, I had high expectations from one of Tamil cinema’s top stars playing dual roles in an earlier Suresh Krishna directed $7 million blockbuster Aalavandhan, which came with a Kamal Hassan script and similar credentials. I wasn’t disappointed.

Without any preamble whatsoever, Aalavandhan opens with a news bulletin reporting that six European tourists have been taken hostage by ruthless and deadly Kashmiri terrorists. To the rescue – Ta-da! – Kamal Hassan as Vijay, commander of an elite SAS-style anti-terrorist squad, proving to be every bit as dangerous and ruthless as the terrorists. The news presenter is Vijay’s fiancée, Teju, who reveals to him in hospital after his return from the mission, that she is pregnant. This news isn’t taken terribly well by Vijay’s brother, Nandu (played also by Kamal Hassan), a hugely intelligent but criminally-insane schizophrenic-paranoid, kept locked-up in the prison asylum. He threatens Teju and feels that it is his duty to save his brother from the clutches of the woman he is about to marry, seeing in her the image of the evil stepmother who blighted their lives. Escaping from prison and faking his own death, Nandu is on the loose and after Teju, who he has vowed to destroy – if he can overcome the bizarre hallucinations he is subjected to now that he has taken drugs to replace his medication.

Yes, Aalavandhan is every bit as over-the-top as the above outline of the storyline suggests (and then some!) and is actually as criminally schizophrenic as Nandu. A little bit of Hong Kong actioner, a little bit a camped-up version of Silence of the Lambs, a comedy, a musical, a romance, with game-play computer graphics and violent animated sequences. It sounds like a horrendous blend that couldn’t possibly work within the same film and, running to three hours of this kind of madness, suggests that the director hasn’t known when to cut back meandering sequences and enforce a consistent tone to the film. Incredibly though, this is not the case. This is first an foremost a Kamal Hassan vehicle, the actor taking on both leading roles as well as writing the film, and if anyone can pull-off such a film it’s one of Tamil cinema’s leading stars and most adventurous filmmakers.

Each of the sequences and genre-types is well-handled with flair and the customary visually-spectacular cinematography, but this wouldn’t be nearly enough if the film didn’t have a unifying force to bring them all together. The unifying force is of course the versatility of Kamal Hassan, adept at comedy, romance, dance-routines, action heroics and just having the kind of presence on a cinema screen to keep an audience enthralled and along for the ride. The director also knows just how far to let Kamal Hassan go – how far to push the campness, how far to push the cartoon violence, pushing the right buttons at exactly the right moments. Within seconds a scene can develop from a playful romance and song routine to a cartoonish, animated battle to CGI horror effects, yet retain a thrilling and chilling wholeness.

There is no question that the effects are over-used, the film missing no opportunity to use computer graphics to enter into the paranoid delusions and graphic hallucinations of the psychopathic killer, to create spectacular action sequences and even to enhance musical dance numbers. In a Hollywood film, there is no way you could get away with such reliance on effects for such long periods, nor could you risk such eclecticism within one film in an industry that insists on easy categorisation, fearful of disorienting or alienating viewers. Such expectations make western viewers uncomfortable with Aalavandhan, (and to be honest, I’m not sure what Indian audiences make of the film), but it is the film’s surprising ambition – not to make anything new or extraordinary – but to simply entertain on every level possible. Some of the CGI effects are quite ropey, cartoon sequences are a little simplistic and crude, the storyline somewhat risible, and the pacing…well, let’s just call it “unconventional”, but Kamal Hassan’s performances as Vijay and as Nandu – creating such distinct personalities that you forget it is the same actor – fully commands your attention and your suspension of disbelief – as long as you don’t take it all too seriously.

As usual there are quite a few marks, dustspots, lines and scratches on the print used for Ayngaran’s DVD of Aalavandhan, but they are relatively minor problems. There are less artefacting problems here also, and while the film is not entirely free of macro-blocking compression artefacts, they are less visible during normal playback – slowing down the film’s speed or examining the transfer on a large screen will however reveal those kind of problems. By and large though, the film looks great – clear, sharp and colourful, good brightness and contrast tones allowing the detail to come through. There are no watermarked logos on this release that can be seen to varying degree in some other Tamil films produced by Ayngaran.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix is strong and clear, coming to life during the many action sequences throughout the film – perhaps a little artificially – but much more effectively for the music and song sequences in the film. The songs aren’t particularly outstanding, but are generally well integrated into the film’s storyline and contribute lyrically to the characterisation and story development.

English subtitles are included and are optional. There are a few grammatical errors and curiosities of phrasing, but the meaning is always clear and appears to be accurate.

There are no extra features, just chapter selection and the ability to go directly to songs or play all songs. Some trailers are offered for other titles.

In a genre that relies on cliché and formulaic storylines, Aalavandhan is an extraordinarily entertaining film that is quite unlike anything else in the world of cinema. It’s true that there’s nothing particularly new here – a psychopathic killer, mistaken identities, computer graphics – but rather like the uncategorisable Korean film Save The Green Planet, it’s in the way that the film draws together disparate elements and incompatible genres to create something quite original and surprising. Watching Kamal Hassan’s films reminds me of the freshness that was once there in Hong Kong movies and John Woo action films – a striking and fresh outlook on genre filmmaking filtered through the sensibilities of an extraordinary talent that creates its own rules about what can and can’t be done in a film. There are the customary technical failings in the Ayngaran DVD of Aalavandhan, but they don’t spoil for one second the enjoyment to be offered by this extraordinary movie.

Aalavandhan can be purchased from Ayngaran International.

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