Probably the most depressing movie ever made, "Mahanadhi" is a motion picture that is nearly impossible to watch and yet, almost paradoxically, is not a film to be missed by anyone who appreciates sensible, gut wrenching cinema. In bringing forth some of the atrocities pervading the nation and showing us how the lovable protagonist (played by Kamal Hassan) is affected by them, this is a movie that will open our eyes and fill it with tears. Kamal Hassan (who wrote the story, screenplay and co-wrote the dialogues with Ra.Ki. Rangarajan) in one of his great, most controlled turns as an actor, creates a character of astounding conviction. With fine support from the secondary players, he makes this movie one of the most powerful, affecting dramas that stays etched in our hearts. I was not surprised by the movie's commercial failure -- admittedly the movie is 'too' heavy. But I couldn’t care less about the movie's box office numbers. This is a movie that has been ensconced in my senses ever since I saw it the first time 8 years ago.
“Mahanadhi” is the story of Krishnaswamy, a widower, who leads an idyllic life in a village with this daughter, son and his mother-in-law (S.N. Lakshmi). Falling to the wiles of a crook (Haneefa), he moves to the city along with his family to start a chit fund company. All hell breaks loose as he is swindled of all his money and is left bankrupt. He is sent to jail on charges of chit fund fraud. In jail, he befriends an inmate Panchapakesan Iyer (Poornam Vishwanathan). In one of the genuinely pleasing developments in the story, he falls in love with Iyer’s daughter (Sukanya), who had earlier replied to his ad in the Matrimonial column. But when he is in jail, his mother-in-law passes away and he lands up in an unbearable situation where he knows zilch about his kid’s whereabouts. The rest of the movie is about his search for them and his actions against the scoundrels who were responsible for the pitiable state of his family.
“Mahanadhi” is not an entertaining movie that moves along snappily to a feel good finale. The theme is tackled head-on with staggering temerity, thus daring us to an unflinching portrayal of reality. It is as though the filmmakers want us to see the filth and smell the stench of the society. This is true in the case of all the antagonists of the film. Haneefa, his boss and Shankar are the very personifications of iniquity that we find Kamal’s suffering at their hands impossible to digest. And, “Mahanadhi” is too stark and realistic to make Kamal a superhero, demolishing the villains. Instead it goes to the other extreme in making him suffer endlessly at the hands of these criminals. By choosing this ‘no light at the end of the tunnel’ approach, the movie succeeds and fails—it succeeds in getting our unwavering empathy for the protagonist and make us view his sufferings as our own (I’ve not had this much empathy for any other movie character. Even Cheeyaan from “Sethu” comes a not-so-close second). But it also alienates a sizeable chunk of moviegoers—it is one step from impossibility to see a man (the ‘hero’ no less) a victim of one atrocity after another. The concluding feel good scene is just a minor consolation.
The movie’s greatest success though is its portrayal of Kamal’s relationships with his close ones—his kids, his mother-in-law, Sukanya and “Poornam” Vishwanathan. His love for his kids is conveyed in a sweet, gentle manner; with Sukanya it is dreamy yet subtle and sensitive, achieved in an economy of scenes. But the best of the lot is his relationship with S.N. Lakshmi. One of my Mom’s friends told me once that the impression he got from the first few scenes was that S.N. Lakshmi was playing Kamal’s Mother—this is the ultimate tribute to the screenplay writer (Kamal) because that is how charming and good-hearted the two characters are. There is a poignant scene set in the early hours of the morning where S.N. Lakshmi gives Kamal some nuggets of wisdom. The way she talks about Kamal’s remarriage illustrates the simple innocence and guileless nature of these characters. Rounding off the supporting cast is “Thalaivasal” Vijay, in a small, brilliantly etched role of a slum dweller. He makes a lasting impression in his few minutes on screen.
Now, to the greatest asset of this movie:
Kamal Hassan immerses himself into the role of Krishnaswamy with his trademark dedication and understanding. Within the first 30 minutes, we get to see the vulnerable, gentle side of the character that we completely identify with him and not just see his troubles but 'feel' his privation. There is a small, wonderfully enacted scene where his hungry daughter (who skipped her dinner because he came back late from a party), who has the habit of talking in her sleep, says "Paati innum konjam urlakkazhangu podu." The way Kamal reacts to this is so simple yet so endearing.
The nearly unwatchable sequences in jail are rightfully underplayed by Kamal-- the honesty and the indignity being conveyed effortlessly [The scene where he is beaten by Shankar (now known as 'Mahanadhi' Shankar in a terrific villainous turn) is one of the most realistic violence scenes in the last decade or so]. The most tenderly heartbreaking scene of the movie is the one where his daughter visits him in jail after having attained puberty. Kamal's pause and the subsequent facial expression after saying, "Ennadhidhu..Pottu..Dhaav..." (having seen his daughter clad in a dhaavani for the first time) are deeply poignant moments.
The sequence at the prostitution house in Calcutta is a dark, depressing and harrowing piece and it is Kamal Hassan’s masterful emoting that makes us stay glued in our seats in spite of the unimaginable things shown on the screen. Portraying a father rescuing his daughter from a place like this could’ve been impossible for a lesser actor but Kamal Hassan brings in his immeasurable talent into play and takes us right into the wrecked heart of Krishnaswamy. This whole sequence has a stirring point of termination in the scene where his daughter, in her sleep, shouts out the atrocities meted out to her in Calcutta. Kamal's cry of anguish here is one of the most heartfelt emotions ever brought to life on the silver screen. This scene has a tremendous, hard-hitting effect and finds a permanent place in the viewer’s memory.
Illayaraja gives us a soothing melody in “Srirangaranga naathanin paadam,” rendered beautifully by SPB and Shobana (the kid playing Kamal’s daughter). His background score is evocative in the emotionally charged scenes, yet in a style so typical of him, only adds effect instead of being obtrusive. The aforementioned scene with Kamal and his hungry daughter is a case in point.