I like to keep my Valentine Day's watching horribly dark and so thought-provoking my head is spinning, so I opted for Naan Kadavul, a 2009 Tamil film directed by Bala. Name sound familiar? I've talked about his filmography before. This one he won a National Award for and I can certainly see why. Naan Kadavul is an incredibly powerful cinematic experience, though one I never want to rewatch.
The film is titled "I am god" for its depiction of an Aghori ascetic Rudra (Arya) whose father abandoned him in Kasi, and later came to find him again, only to discover Rudra utterly emerged in the Aghori sect, distant and unable to form human connections. Regardless, his guru allows Rudra's father to take the ascetic back to their Tamil Nadu home, where the mother is understandably distraught at the sight of this creature. Slowly the movie shifts towards telling the story of a group of beggars with various disabilities, one of whom is a blind girl Hamsavalli (Pooja Umashankar). They beg outside the temple Rudra eventually takes residence in, wasting away his days smoking ganja.
The cast of characters being so underprivileged, begging for a ruthless boss, is quite hard to watch, but Bala's depiction of them never feels downright exploitative. These are characters with humor, with agency, with courage to challenge even the ones they ask money from.
The movie is full on Bala, with a constant sense of hopelessness hanging over the story-telling, but even with this, I wanted to see these characters, especially Hamsavalli come out on top. Somehow. I wasn't sure how. I wasn't sure why. But I wanted it to happen. Even though I knew full well it wouldn't.
Rudra's character is somebody who I couldn't quite figure out until I read a thing or two about the Aghori ascetics. Like most Bala main characters, he is essentially an outsider without his own choosing. He is completely removed from society in the traditional sense, and from human relationships; he has enveloped god and has become Kala Bhairava (fierce manifestation of Shiva). He is extreme in every manner imaginable, in his talk, in his stance, in his lifestyle. He acts not like how I'd imagine a god would, but certainly with the bravado of one. I'm glad the story shifts away from him because he's not at all relatable as a character, though he is fascinating.
What is God? Well, Rudra claims he is God, but he is also a very particular sort of God. What struck me as weirdly radical was the absolute lack of care he has for humans, or human suffering. He is detached from all this to the point of absurd, and since the film doesn't really doubt his deity (though characters in it do), one is left to ponder, is this what God is? Blind to the suffering of his worshippers?
Contrast this with the incredible human, vulnerable Hamsavalli, in a performance that surely was more award-worthy than Priyana in Fashion. Her story allows the viewers deeper into the lives of the beggars, and this really becomes the center of the story; it's rather unheard of that the most human characters in a film are this much in the margins of society. The cast of characters is nicely varied, and one particular stand-out is the "keeper" of the beggars, Murugan (Krishnamoorthy), who feels absolutely terrible about the job he has to do, and feels he is sinning every day by working for the dreadful man who makes these beggars beg for him. There is something really interesting about this life he's gotten himself into, half-befriended all these disabled beggars, half-contributing to their suffering.
The soundtrack is a hauntingly beautiful one by Ilayraja, and the film is also punctured by Tamil oldie songs popping up every now and then during the first half, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though it harkened back to one scene in Pithamagan a little too much.
I hesitate to call Bala's films realistic, because the word has so many meanings. Is realism what could happen in real life, or what does? I feel like that no matter what awful based-in-real-life things he rolls out for people to see, the undercurrent is always a little fantastical and melodramatic. At the same time, I can only really blame my own psyche for thinking that the more grim and horrible Bala's films become, the more grounded in reality they actually are.
If you're a fan of Bala's, like I am, you've probably seen this by now. It's a tough film to recommend, but it's also a tough film not to recommend. Definitely won't be everybody's cup of chai but I liked it a lot. It's rare to see film-making this potent, or stories of this kind, period.
And since I feel like I can never quite do justice when talking about films of this sort, some further reading for those interested: The Hindu review [spoilers for the film] - Qalandar's review [note: contains spoilers for another Bala film, Pithamagan]
*** Photo note: The first picture is a pre-shooting promo still. The latter two are more representative to what the film looks like. But I liked the first picture so much I had to post it anyway.