<Spoiler alert. You’ll be able to put the whole story together at the end of this post.>
For an action thriller about terrorism arising out of Afghanistan, Viswaroopam is tad too rooted in Tamil (the language) Nadu (the place) – for its own good. Kamal Haasan is a master story teller – he tells you a story and leaves you to build a few hundred ubakadhaigal depending on your value systems. While you are already gagged by the overload of imagery and meanings, you reach out to every bit of energy left to consume some more.
Nothing above Godliness
While the most propagated aspect of Viswaroopam is religion, it is the most understated. For a film that is about crime/ terrorism in the name of religion/ God, Viswaroopam cannot talk enough of it. There is some reference to religion in every sequence and for one to remove religious scenes would be to ban the film entirely. Oh wait.
A good number of characters in this film are Muslims, they dress like the Muslims we’ve seen on TV, they cover their heads, they sport beards and guns, they speak Arabic and are fighting a J!hadi war. The women cover their faces, are subservient to their husbands and carefully bring up their children. As a community, they are also friendly, trusting, loving, intelligent, driven and political. At one point Wisam (alias Viswanathan alias Viz – Kamal Haasan’s character) and Omar (Rahul Bose’s character) mirror each other – as if they are both looking towards the same end only through different means.
Talking of religions stereotype, the scene where Dawkins convinces an antique store owner that he is a Muslim is clever. Instead of sending someone who looks Asian or African – easily identifiable as a Muslim – they send Dawkins, a Caucasian male. He goes there and identifies himself as a <insert Muslim name that I forget now>. The store says “are you the guy?” and he confidently and hastily replies “yes yes. I converted. Allahu Akbar.” In fact, just before this scene, the FBI let him go from a locality without a word – note that they’ve surrounded the area suspecting terrorist activity!
On the other hand, when Viswanathan, Dr. Nirupama (Viswanathan’s wife) and Ashmita (Viswanathan’s ally) get caught by the FBI, there is a rather philosophical conversation that Dr. Nirupama has with the investigating officer (who happens to be an African American woman).
Investigating officer asks Dr. Nirupama: Who is your God? Allah?
Dr. Nirupama: That is my Husband’s God. Not mine. (So nonchalantly as if that does not contain any deeper meaning at all)
Investigating officer: Then who is your God?
Dr. Nirupama: My God is one with four hands.
IO: Then how do you crucify him?
Dr. N: We don’t.
Dr. N: We dunk him in the sea.
Caste-ing the wounds
While it would have been easy to write characters that are neutral to everything else, Kamal fills them with an identity that real people would be made of. Viswanathan and Nirupama are a Brahmin couple – Nirupama engaged in oncology research while Viswanathan is a home maker (?), dance teacher and cook. They speak the language – in fact, while Nirupama goes back and forth between pannindrukkel and pannindrukkinga and I was going back and forth about calling that callousness or a subtle representation of her identity crisis. There is not much show that she is indeed Brahmin – no prayers, no vegetarianism, no madisaar.
In a rather unimportant scene, Kamal Haasan takes a dig at Brahminism when he says “vaama paappathi. Idha rusi paathu uppu kaaram sariya irukka nu sollu” and feeds meat to a Brahmin girl – who, mind you, tastes it with utmost enthusiasm. (While all of you who want to take offence to this can, I believe it is a very strong political statement and its welcome.)
Manavaatiye manaalanin baagiyam
The film begins with Nirupama seeing a psychologist about her unhappy marriage (or the guilt about her affair because of her unhappy marriage). She calls it a marriage of convenience that she agreed to because she wants to run away from the middle class life in India and pursue her PhD. She explains that she was found this groom and she agreed because he was also in the US (adding to my understanding that she is also a Brahmin and she had been found a groom who is Brahmin). While all these sound like random statements, I believe they add such cultural context to the story which (I started this post by saying) is essentially Tamil.
Nirupama goes on to get attracted to her boss (who is also Tamilian – only rich) and employs a detective to follow her husband in the hope that he’d have an illicit relationship too. He, on the other hand, proudly claims that he’d cook meat for his wife because she likes meat and he likes her.
Men must be men
In that conversation with the psychologist about why she isn’t attracted to her husband (where she also claims that she doesn’t sleep with her husband – “naan avar kitta sollitten. Naan inge padikkadhaan vandhirukken. Enakku paduthunde padikka pidikkaadhu”) is the scene where Viswanathan is introduced as this effeminate Kathak dancer.
The scene is played out in a way to say: as a solution to her lack of attraction towards an effeminate man, she falls for Deepak (her boss). As if he is the man that her husband is not. While you are chewing on it, Kamal Haasan plays that back on your face a few scenes later. When Viswanathan and Nirupama are held captive, they slap her and she asks Deepak to man up and save her. He, in response, asks her to get Viswanathan (calling him idhu – as a dig at his unmanliness) to help her. She then tells the captors, “ipdi katti pottu adikkarele. Katta avuthuvittu adingo” and the response that Viswanathan gives for it is priceless! Just while you are charmed about it, Viswanathan mans up (goes to masculine body language) and saves her indeed. Sigh.
In the end, she accepts Viswanathan as her husband and sleep with him only after she learns he is a quintessential man – bravery, righteousness, masculine body language and short hair in place. In fact, Kamal Haasan goes that extra mile and rubs it in your face when Nirupama says “he is my husband” one too many times in the last 20 minutes. She goes on to tell his she is sorry for her behaviour earlier on. Sigh. The unbearable oversimplification of s3xuality and the glorification of manhood – in tact!
War and Peace
This film is about Jihadi warfare and it couldn’t have been made without the debate on war and peace. Of course there is. In some places it is subtle, for example when Wisam, Omar and a few others go to a village that was attacked by the Americans, they meet an old lady who says “modhalla englishkaaran, apram Russian, apram American, ippo neenga….munnaadi vaal molaicha korangunga” and walks away as if a small child stole a few fish from her basket and she does not want to venture beyond cursing.
Omar has this mannerism where puts his two fingers on one’s forehead (like a gun) and makes a boom noise when he means to forgive someone for an act of friendly defiance. He does that to his own son (who wants to become a doctor but Omar wants him to be a warrior) when the boy is seen playing doctor-patient with his mother. The son picks up the gun-with-fingers-shooting-noise gesture and runs out doing it. Other children in the village join him along with a few elderly people and they run around enacting their state in a war torn land as if it were a silly game.
In a few situations, it is also melodramatic, still meaningful. This scene where Omar loses his family and sheds a few tears, he asks if they weren’t God’s warriors and fighting for the sake of Allah: Wisam simply says your question has the answer. We are warriors we have no time for tears, only for blood. Suicide bombers who love playing the swing, people who expose themselves to radiation and are ready to die a slow death, children who want to be doctors, Pakistan!s who bring in information from the !SI, opium sellers who are hanged for a genuine mistake, the film is filled with messages of injustice and inequality, which almost empathises with Jihadi feeling, rightfully so.
Death, guilt and the extra baggage
When he is not shooting horses to death to relieve them of their pain, Kamal Haasan fills every little gap with dialogues. In the scene where Obama is talking about Osama being captured, he goes, “oruthar saava ippadiya kondadradhu Deepavali madhiri”. Ashmita says, “asurargala irundha appadithan”. The Sir/ Mama (played by Shekhar Kapoor) goes, “idhappoi andhe asuranoda uttraar uravinar kitta sollu”.
When Wisam realises that the opium seller is going to be hanged because of a mistake Wisam’s accomplice did, he says, “idhukku allah nammala mannikka maattar”. His accomplice says, “unga Allah nu sollunga sir. Enakku idhu punaipper mattum thaan”.
In a not so serious occasion, the scene where Nirupama tells Viswanathan she isn’t coming home for dinner (while she is away with Deepak) and takes offence at every question Viswanathan asks about it, the guilt reference is masterfully done.
The feminine soft power
In spite of all the layers of meanings that Kamal Haasan adds to the film, he sticks to basic stereotypes about femininity – perhaps an attempt to make a realistic film (?). Ashmita is a strange (mis)fit into the film. I can’t much recollect what she does in the film except agree to the accusation (?) that she is a smart ass. Working so closely with Viswanathan and his boss, I am presuming she is also some kind of a RAW agent (that Viswanathan is). Oh wait. She stitches up Viswanathan’s wounds. Ya. She does.
I spoke about the effeminate man and a woman’s inability to be s3xually attracted to him just a few lines earlier. Nirupama is this quintessential woman (albeit some nuclear oncologist) – she seeks to be protected, wants to close her eyes (quite literally) at the sight of trouble, is ready to ‘die’ with her husband. She is shocked at the mention of the word bra (which she gets used to when practically everyone in the scene has said it – another brilliant scene). In spite of all the high talk of philosophy, Nirupama is an ordinary person.
In the end, Viswanathan does all the physical fighting, while Nirupama waits in the Police vehicle for the bomber to be murdered, runs with a microwave oven to save New York City from a disaster! Handsome men, pretty women – don’t ask me what’s there to change!