Aboorva Sagotharargal: The overlooked apotheosis of masala phillums

Aboorva Sagotharargal is, of course, the very popular Kamal Haasan triple whammy with, notably, the character Apu being a dwarf version of Kamal.  The circumstances in which he becomes a dwarf set up fertile ground for an avenging angel trope, which is what it turns out to be.  No spoiler alerts required here, as a good deal of the movie concerns itself with said trope and there is no great suspense that would be ruined for anybody who still hasn’t watched the film.  If you haven’t, you must.  Even if you don’t understand Tamil, make do with the Hindi dubbing or try to get Tamil with good subtitles (a better choice imo).

The film was undoubtedly a blockbuster in its time and still recalled fondly when Kamal’s achievements are discussed.  So why do I say it is overlooked?  Because most of the attention focuses, deservedly, on Kamal’s essay as the avenging dwarf and not enough, unfortunately, on the film itself which masterfully brings together many elements of masala and yet rises above its weaknesses without morphing into proto-multiplex/art cinema.

The avenging angel theme here is in itself loaded and evokes shades of Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man roles.  From Tall Bombay Star as Kamal sometimes snidely refers to him to dwarf, what are the parallels here?  The parallel is that Appu’s congenital condition (induced by poison forced into his mother’s mouth as she was expecting) leaves him constantly stigmatized, indeed ‘othered’.  Not to get too social engineering on ya, but dwarf could all but be a proxy for Dalit here in that Appu is punished for something that is not his fault.

For a time, he enjoys an impoverished but mirthful existence as a circus clown but this illusory equilibrium is disturbed when he mistakenly believes the circus owner’s daughter has feelings for him.  The predictable disillusionment – and to hear his own mother (brilliantly enacted by Srividya) tell the circus owner that Appu hardly has the stature, socially or physically, to marry his (owner) daughter – does not merely lead to heartbreak for Appu, as it would have for any number of masala phillum heroes.  It leads him to utter despair and disgust with the world he inhabits.  The realisation that his only true friends are his fellow dwarves and as they remind him of all his birth defects, he loathes their company too.  All this depicted in a beautiful passage where Appu speaks not a word and merely reacts with his eyes while Ilayaraja’s outstanding score does the talking. Watch from 6:09 to 7:40:

That is a hallmark of Aboorva Sagotharargal.  Its effective use of visuals and music rather than monologues to convey tons more than said monologues could have.  Another example, moving on, Appu’s mother stops him as he is about to hang himself to death and decides to finally spill the beans on why he is the way he is.  Appu spends time in the town llibrary with old newspaper articles learning of the men who killed his father, Inspector Sethupathi (Kamal senior in a short but effective cameo).  As he reads on, Ilayaraja introduces the ‘revenge theme’ which will make further appearances in the film hereon.  And the clown you saw in both Puthu Maapillaiku and Unnai Nenachen reappears but he is neither ecstatic nor devastated.  Instead, he is angry but, clown that he is, wears his anger not with a scowl but an evil smile with a frightening intensity in his eyes.  By reprising the clown introduced previously in songs, Sangeetham Srinivasa Rao brings us up to speed with Appu’s metamorphosis from gentle dwarf to sinister avenger in one frame.  When this new avatar of Appu first appears as he kills Anbarasan (Delhi Ganesh), we don’t question why he looks so different and yet so similar to the Appu we knew.  Because through a masterful sleight of hand, Rao has already acquainted us with Appu 2.0.

There are many more such scenes as the one where Raja (the other offspring of Sethupathi, a village idiot transposed on the city) stumbles into Appu’s mother and even has to hold a knife to her to ward off assailants chasing him after they see a reward announced by the police for his head (as a murder suspect).  He promptly apologises to her, saying he would never hurt anyone and had no other choice. In this instance, she recognises him as her other son and reacts in disbelief.  Nothing is said except for Raja’s violins seemingly coming in from thousands of miles away (thus evoking a nostalgic memory?).  When the bumbling Clouseau played by Janakaraj shows a drawing of the suspect of Nazar’s murder to Jaiganesh and Nagesh, Nagesh suppresses a gasp of shock as it reminds him uncannily of Sethupathi.  He never says this; the film treats its audience with respect and is largely devoid of the spoon feeding that is the bane of much of commercial Tamil cinema (or its Hindi counterpart for that matter).

Indeed, it required my wearing out the video cassette of this film that I once had and to rewatch it every time I caught it by accident on TV for me as a lay viewer (as opposed to a professional critic) to unpack the myriad subtexts of Aboorva Sagotharargal.  One last such example of an unspoken observation in the film is the denouement itself.  It is staged grandly in the circus (Appu’s own den like those of arch villains like Gabbar or Mogambo) with Nagesh given an opportunity to confess to his crime before he is fed to the lions.  And who all make up the audience at the circus but people roughly of Appu’s own social class?  Maybe slightly more financially able because they can afford the tickets for the show.  But they are certainly far removed from Nagesh’s own stratum.  Or of all the other influential villains who together plotted Sethupathi’s demise.

Note here that they escaped the long arm of the law (in spite of Sethupathi nabbing them and prosecuting them through presumably the state prosecutor) and would have continued to do so but for Appu taking the law into his own hands.  The sub text then is that the underclass has to take the law into its hands to obtain justice while the upper class remains above the law they themselves wrote (and profess faith in its ability to deliver justice).  Indeed, Appu has to surrender to the police after this last epic crime and will spend what remains of his life in prison.  Thus, he has to take a bullet on behalf of everyone else in his class and, more pertinently, his family and friends to bring the culprits to book.  The Indian justice system summed up without much ado, without any grand AB-esque monologues.

I could go on and on about Kamal’s brilliant three-pronged performance and especially as Appu (imo the highlight of his career, especially the second half), about Crazy Mohan’s rip roaring dialogues, about Ilayaraja doing as Ilayaraja does, faithfully providing magnificence in spades.

But most of all, what makes Aboorva Sagotharargal notable and note worthy is the way it appropriates the must haves of masala (romance, comedy, action, villainy, even the time tested Amma sentiment – Nagesh makes a meta reference to it, spot it if you can) and yet rises above them, offering a more mature treatment of these tropes without compromising on the high octane emotion and entertainment we associate with masala at its best.

Perhaps, the film is a victim of the same circumstances that drove Appu to a destructive path.  After all, a dwarf can be entertaining, funny or sad but never iconic, can he? In a way, the everlasting fondness for Aboorva Sagotharargal combined with the inability to engage seriously with its cinematic achievements hold a mirror to our own innate prejudices.  Even the act of rooting for the little guy has perhaps not stretched far beyond sympathy at the end of the day.

 

 

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2 Responses to “Aboorva Sagotharargal: The overlooked apotheosis of masala phillums”

  1. AdhithyaKR Says:

    Excellent analysis! Some of the metaphors seemed like a stretch but the observations regarding the music were spot on.

  2. Madan Says:

    Thanks!

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