Subject of much controversy during its making for its similarities to real-life events and its graphic depiction and alleged glorification of violent village rivalries, Kamal Hassan’s latest film Virumaandi (the film was originally to be called ‘Sandiyar’ before the controversy) only fleetingly appears to make any serious political statement, but concentrates on producing a spectacular story that confirms Kamal’s reputation as the most exciting, adventurous and versatile of Tamil filmmakers.
Angela James (Rohini) is a television reporter and filmmaker, who is making a documentary examining the death penalty and the inadequacies of the whole Indian justice system. Investigating the irregularities at one prison she is granted an interview with Kaathala Thevar (Pasupathy), who tells her the story of the events that have led to his life-imprisonment for involvement in a feud between his small village and Nallama Naicker’s vilage that led to the bloody massacre of 24 people at the hands of Virumaandi (Kamal Hassan). Virumaandi has received the death sentence for his part in the massacre, but he has an entirely different version of the story to tell the reporter.
Anyone unfamiliar with Tamil cinema will find Virumaandi a difficult film to categorise – a violent action blockbuster, which attempts to make some social comment about the nature of the justice system and the death penalty, and its a musical too. The film however is completely accessible to western viewers and its very idiosyncrasy in fact makes it a refreshing change from its Hollywood equivalents. The film moves at a frantic pace that makes light work of its three hour running time – the structure, editing and photography creating a dynamic and kinetic piece of work. The film rattles through an early bull-taming sequence that introduces us spectacularly to Virumaandi, who has just returned from Singapore to his hometown. After the death of his grandmother, Virumaandi becomes the owner of valuable lands that are being disputed between Naicker and Thevar. The film then follows the explosive interchanges between the rivals and the inevitable violent outcome (it’s extremely violent for a 15 certificate), split into a two-part Rashomon-style retelling of events within the framework of the events going on in the Chennai prison.
Also measuring out the pace of the film are some superb musical pieces by Illayaraja – heavy on rhythmic tabla arrangements and almost North African tribal beats and melodies, it is a perfect accompaniment to the frenzied action on the screen. The songs however are just as effective during more contemplative moments, including the haunting, melodic, arrangement Unna Vida for the Virumaandi and Annalakshmi’s wedding. Most of the songs in the film are sung by Kamal Hassan. Indeed it’s the astonishing screen presence of writer, director and producer Kamal Hassan as Virumaandi that must be regarded as the most notable aspect of the film. Kamal Hassan is one of the most important and influential producers and actor/directors working in Tamil cinema and his reputation is well-deserved. Despite his short, stocky, almost comical appearance and exaggerated swaggers and gestures, he is nevertheless thoroughly convincing and brings a strange sincerity to his character, and while he doesn’t actually carry the film – the film is extremely proficient in all technical areas – his screen presence dominates and allows the film to get away with some of the weaker plot points, less convincing CGI effects and more unlikely contrivances.
The picture quality is reasonably good and occasionally it looks very impressive. The image is clear, sharp, detailed and shows good colours and lighting. On closer examination however faults are quite evident – macro-blocking causing shimmering and instability in steps and horizontal lines and a lower NTSC resolution – but the image is more stable than any other Anygaran Tamil cinema release I have seen and the faults are rarely noticeable during normal playback. There are also fewer signs of marks and scratches and although there are certainly some larger scratches here and there, they never distract too much. The Ayngaran logo is watermarked onto the transfer as an anti-piracy measure, but certainly much more subtly than Kannathil Muthamittal, where it intruded on the image every five minutes. On this release a small logo appears for a few seconds bottom-right during the song routines.
The film is THX-certified and comes with DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes, the DTS mix standing out and being particularly impressive. Some of the dialogue sounds a little harsh and rough in places, but this is probably more to do with the original elements than the mixing. The music score is vibrant and sound effects are given full scope to work across the 5.1 spectrum – occasionally a little artificially – but extremely powerfully.
English subtitles are included and are optional. There are a few grammatical and spelling errors, 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.
Virumaandi is another Tamil blockbuster with high production values, superlative songs and musical arrangements, and features a charismatic central performance from Kamal Hassan. There are a few flaws in characterisation, performance and plot development, but this is fine film that deserves to break beyond the confines of Tamil and Indian cinema into an international arena. The DVD presentation is similarly flawed, but presents the film well.
Virumaandi can be purchased from Ayngaran International.