Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Mahatma in Madras

So I saw Naam Iruvar.

Mr&Mrs 47: Sukumar and Kannama
Smoke break for Hanuman and Hanumantha
This movie was released in the January of 1947 when feelings of nationalism presumably ran high and independence was imminent. Judiciously, AVM took a play on estranged brothers and social ills, added a dash of Bharathi by way of songs and smothered the whole thing in Gandhi worship to come up with Naam Iruvar (We Two). 1947’s patriotic masala pichar unfolds thus. Note: The links are to film clips (the entire film is on youtube) - not to the songs.

Yippee, straightaway CYCLE SONG! Sukumar (TR Mahalingam) and Kannamma (T.A. Jayalakshmi) are pals. Sukumar is an adorable cherub of the kind girls chastely kiss at sixteen and Kannamma is the kind of girl whose sari is carefully in place and she is wearing sensible shoes. When they part, they say JAI HIND! Ah 1947 lovers!

Sukumar then meets his sister, Kamala (Kumari Kamala) and they are off to a Subramanya Bharathi felicitation. DANCE! CHARKHA FLAG! PATRIOTIC SONG! SPEECH! Mr Bharathi is great and Mr Gandhi is super great! JAI HIND!

Meanwhile Sukumar’s brother Jayakumar (B.R. Panthulu) is aghast at his rich old man (A.K. Sarangapani?) who wants to marry a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. Since the Dad is bent on his lecherous ways and won’t listen to Jayakumar’s voice of reason (albeit a very dull one) they soon part ways. Sukumar and Kamala are also all "Appa, this is too much I say!" and throw in their lot with the very uptight and very honourable Jayakumar. Soon they are all nicely settled in a new house and young Kamala has even set up a shrine for Mr. Gandhi.

Enter Vishwam who is Kannamma’s maama and hoping to marry her. He is a thoroughly bad sort because he is in vellakaran suit boot and hangs out with a gang in English suits one of whom egads has a very fluffy white dog (such symbolism, remind me to keep company only with brown dogs!). Vishwam is trying to convince Kannamma to marry him.  Clever and witty Kannamma gives him the slip - but not before saying JAI HIND, Maama!

Jayakumar and Sukumar are like Raam-Laxman. That is Sukumar has little to do and lives on allowances from his brother. Mrs Jayakumar is a bit unhappy with this but that hardly deters Sukumar from his evening fun. His idea of fun is to sit in parks with lakes and ducks and sing at the top of his voice with the utmost ease. Soon he is joined by Kannamma and they are singing a sweet ditty. January 1947, swing, love duet, Sukumar of the melodious voice. HEAVEN! And Kannamma’s sari ornaments – hearted!

Now time for Kannamma’s parents. Kannamma’s mother wants her to marry her brother Vishwam, her dad, Mr Shanmugham Pillai (V.K. Ramasamy) is no way am I getting my daughter married to that good for nothing rascal living off me! Plus the Dad is worshipping at the shrine of MONEY and is contemplating a marriage proposal from a Mr. Ramaswamy Pillai. Who is none other than the dad of Jayakumar and Sukumar. The parents quarrel, the maama behaves inappropriately and is thrown OUT! So off he goes to meet his Gang but not before exposing Kannamma’s dalliance with Sukumar. Poor Kannamma now has her movements restricted though Sukumar does appear from time to time in her dreams. Though he is not making violent love just singing songs (any resemblance to ankhiyan mile ke purely umm coincidental).  The dilemmas of romancing a singer!

The Maama and his Gang are now in need of easy money and Sukumar is the idiot they choose to fleece of his wealth. This however requires his estrangement from Mr Purse Strings aka Anna Jayakumar. Sukumar shall no longer be a su-kumar! Watch Sukumar’s slow corruption! Here is Sukumar smoking! Here he is in a club! Here he is drinking! Here he is watching a dancing girl! And now he is agreeing to finance a Mr Hanumantha Rao’s film! Never trust the Gultis!

Now everyone is singing “There is no greater BROTHER than a FRIEND” which is what you do when you fall into English ways and call everyone Brother. And sucks to tightwad Tamil Annas who dole out allowances!

So Sukumar returns home and tries to steal money for the film but is caught by Jayakumar who misguidedly gives a high minded speech. At which Sukumar is sod it, he is a moralising freak with devious intentions and totally wants to keep my share. He then drinks some more, slaps Kamala, misbehaves with Jayakumar and demands the splitting of their wealth. And Jayakumar cries and speechifies but Sukumar stands firm in the midst of brotherly histrionics and takes away his share. Oh Sukumar you are a very bad boy.

Meanwhile Mr. Ramaswamy Pillai’s proposal for Kannamma is not all smooth sailing. Kannamma’s Dad, the Greed is Good guy, is holding out the carrot of marriage but not delivering - all the better to divest Mr. Ramaswamy Pillai of his wealth. And Kannamma herself is all sadface now that she can no longer meet Sukumar but this is soon remedied when she confesses all to her mother and her mother is all ditch Vishwam, you go girl and marry Sukumar. But Sukumar is too busy being bad.

Time for Sukumar’s film venture! Mr Hanumantha Rao is going to make a mythological called Veera Hanuman! The Gang goes berserk with Hanumantha-Hanuman jokes, Vishwam hires a top shot actress who is a bit of a diva and has a Telugu prompter, 1947 style.  No Telugus were offended in the making of this film! Soon the diva has walked off and its pack up!  Now Sukumar calls the Gang for a meeting for he is in deep shit as he is over budget and way behind schedule. The meeting is disrupted by his creditors and he is soon in prison and all Woe is Me, my "brothers" have deserted me and now let me sing I want my Anna!

Sukumar’s Dad fixed on his pursuit of Kannamma as his wife couldn’t care less about Sukumar’s fate. But all is well on the Jayakumar front for he gets Sukumar out of prison and his little bro  is all Anna Jayakumar you are a GREAT SOUL who I have utterly wronged! And Kamala is yippee three cheers to Karuna Murti Gandhi Mahatma for reuniting us and let’s sing another song!

The gang disperses and the Maama resumes his pursuit of Kannamma who is all sadface about Sukumar not having bothered to meet her ever since he turned bad. But still feisty enough to ward off the Maama. Meanwhile Kannamma’s mother, sick of the sadface encourages her to write to Sukumar. Sukumar in turn confesses all to his brother and everyone is ta da MARRIAGE! Except Kannamma’s father who obsessed with money making schemes turns away Jayakumar when he arrives with a proposal. 

There is also the small matter of Mr. Ramaswamy Pillai pressing his suit, unbeknowest to all. Soon he figures out that Kannamma’s father is leading him on and is Tamil Nadu ka No. 1 blackmarketeer and has no intention of arranging a marriage with Kannamma. He walks away furious and hell bent on revenge.

Now everyone is getting their just desserts! Kannamma’s father loses his money! Now he has been shot by Sukumar's Dad! Kannamma finds the body! Sukumar sees her with a knife in her hand! Both get arrested for the murder! COURT CASE! Both want to hang for the murder! But so does Mr Morals, Jayakumar, who is busy emoting "I am the murderer and such a saintly prick!" But just then the boys’ father, Mr. Ramaswamy Pillai, arrives and confesses to the murder and is dispatched to the Andamans but not before like reforming completely and blessing Sukumar and Kannamma. And soon everyone is at a Gandhi felicitation, spinning charkhas, donating to Harijan welfare etc. And just like that, rather randomly, we get treated to a long Kumari Kamala performance tacked on to the end of the movie. JAI HIND!


Nam Iruvar is a film with its eye very firmly on the Box Office but engaging enough as a social drama. Its theatrical origins are quite clear though the dialogue is a lot simpler and cleaner than the high, pretentious language of later Tamil films. It reinforces sentiments dear to the middle classes but none of this is mockable though the virtuous elder brother shtick drags down the film at times (it doesn’t help that there seem to be different styles of acting at play in the film with Panthulu/Jayakumar delivering his lines in a rather archaic manner). It’s cast is presumably drawn from the stage and they are all on good form. TR Mahalingam is in it of course for his singing – I had never heard him before but he is very good and seemingly at ease even when singing a difficult song (though perhaps he is not to the taste of modern audiences).  And in spite of its populism, the movie does capture something of the feel of the country on the eve of independence.

Two things struck me about the film. First, how normal the women are in the films I have seen from the 40s. There is little hint of excessive coyness or reinforcement of notions of servility and the like. Sukumar and Kannamma (by the by the Kannamma name seems to be a nod to Bharathi)  for e.g. are like a modern couple, their relationship playful and equal. Kannamma’s mother is pragmatic and encouraging.  Kamala is a normal teen (well apart from her propensity to dance and sing but her devotion to Gandhi is much like any impressionable teen embracing causes). Second, to almost everyone in my family familiar with the Tamil language Subramanya Bharathi is God. My Tamil is inadequate in the face of poetry but you need to know just a little to understand that Bharathi is a writer par excellence, his verse lends weight to this film. His life is complex and tragic in itself but this was the only interesting account I found (damn google, its search function is hopeless these days) of a poet who inspires hagiography - and the odd bit of scorn in the caste divided Tamil Nadu of today.

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