I was surreptitiously wiping my eyes as I left the cinema, overcome by melancholy. I had just witnessed Kamal Haasan's (KH) exploration into his own mortality and superstardom. I have to provide an unbiased review. I should... but the emotionality is so overwhelming I find myself holding back tears as I reminisce on the utterly magnificent "Uttama Villain" (UV).
The meta-nature of the film strikes multiple chords with KH's own life. Reality and art become so hard to distinguish, they start to merge as one. The narration switches between Manoranjan's life (as he tries to come to grips with his imminent death) and "Uttama Villain" (the film-within-the-film that parallels Manoranjan's life). The following are rather my observations than a review.
Synopsis: An ageing superstar (*cough* *cough*) diagnosed with malignant brain tumour, chooses to act in a film in which the protagonist (Uthaman) inadvertently cheats death and is hailed as a "Mrityunjaya" (immortal).
Note: From here on, I'll refer the film as 'UV' and the film-within-the-film as 'Uttama Villain'.
Mutharasan (Nasser) betrays Sadaya Varman (Ajay Rathnam) to become the king with the help of Minister Sudalai Muthu (Shanmugarajan). Facing imminent death (as predicted by astrologers) he orders Uthaman to his court to obtain the secret to immortality.
Manoranjan, after providing four consecutive, critically acclaimed films with his mentor Margadarisi (K. Balachander), leaves him to make commercially successful films with Poorna Chandra Rao (or PC Rao - K. Viswanath), his father-in-law.
Manoranjan learns, he had fathered a child, Manonmani (Parvathy Menon), with his ex-girlfriend Yamini. Yamini later marries Jacob Zachariah (Jayaram). Manonmani resents Manoranjan for leaving her mother. In her eyes, he is a villain and Jacob Zachariah (Jayaram), her adopted father, a hero. The 'Mutharasan' character, an iniquitous individual, is the negative side of Manoranjan. He drinks and debauches. Faced with his mortality, Manoranjan wants to rid himself of his 'Mutharasan' persona. Furthermore, in naming the protagonist of the film-within-the-film as 'Uthaman' (virtuous one), Manoranjan hopes to turn over a new leaf.
To gain support and admiration of the public, Uthaman proposes, Mutharasan stage a drama - the story of Iraniyan and Prahaladhan. So now we have a drama-within-the-film-within-the-film; kind of a (Christopher) Nolanesque twist to the narration. Uthaman casts himself as Narasimman and Mutharasan as Iraniyan (for those who don't know, Narasimman kills Iraniyan) and plans on assassinating Mutharasan, using poisoned nails and reclaim the throne for the rightful heir, Karpagavalli (Pooja Kumar), Sadaya Varman's daughter. At the last minute, Mutharasan decides he wants to play Narasimman, claiming it to be more heroic.
Only a genius like KH could pull off something like this twist in the narrative. In the Iraniyan (Uthaman) - Prahaladhan (Karpagavalli) story, Iraniyan demands that Prahaladhan call him God, instead of Lord Vishnu, whom Prahaladhan worships. Here, Manoranjan plays out the story between his daughter Manonmani and himself. He wants Manonmani to forgive him and accept him as her father instead of Jacob. Manonmani later realises, Manoranjan is not to be blamed for his abandonment of Yamini, when she reads a letter to her mother from Manoranjan, which was intercepted by Chokku (M. S. Bhaskar), Manoranjan's secretary, at the behest of PC Rao... much in the same way Sudalai Muthu and Mutharasan intercept the carrier-pigeon sent by Karpagavalli to the neighbouring king. Incidentally this is one of my many favourite scenes in the film: as Manonmani reads her father's letter, Manoranjan removes the 'Theyyam' makeup from his face, revealing his true self... he was not a bad person after all. No one is inherently good or bad; circumstances dictate their behaviours.
Later, in the drama-within-the-film-within-the-film, when Mutharasan appears as Narasimman, Uthaman throws an army of ants thus causing Mutharasan to scratch and poison himself eventually causing his death (in this version Narasimman dies; not Iraniyan - take it however you will). Here, Manoranjan finally overcomes his selfish persona and becomes a 'virtuous Uthaman' (I apologise for the tautology).
Kamal Haasan has surrounded himself with absolutely fantastic actors and each deliver an award-worthy performance. One couldn't ask for a better film to be the last in one's career as UV has been for K. Balachander. The scene where he breaks down in his office upon hearing Manoranjan's tumour, made me wonder why KB hadn't acted more in films. M. S. Bhaskar, often underutilised, moved the theatre to tears, where he begs Manoranjan's forgiveness for being the catalyst in Manoranjan's failed relationship with Yamini. Jayaram, Parvathy Menon, K. Viswanath, Urvasi and Andrea Jeremiah all provide fantastic support to Kamal Haasan.
But it's the man himself, Kamal Haasan, who arrests the viewer with his acting that left one speechless and quivering in the cinema.
When Jacob reveals that Manoranjan sired a daughter, KH's face registers a whole gamut of expressions within a matter of seconds that left me speechless and quivering in the cinema. KH has the ability to arrest the viewer with just his eyes. But the clincher for me was the scene where Manoranjan reveals his illness to his disillusioned son, Manohar (Ashwin, a newcomer) who starts to cry uncontrollably. As he holds his son, Manoranjan sees a gaggle of onlookers hanging on the wall waving at him and wanting to be acknowledged. The helplessness of Manoranjan is painfully evident as he motions his fans to give him a private moment with his inconsolable son. KH shows the price of being a celebrity, having had experienced such situations in his own life. There was barely a distinction between Kamal Haasan (reality) and Manoranjan (art).
Death is a fact of life. Manoranjan hopes to live forever in the hearts and minds of the audience to attain immortality. Because being forgotten is a fate far worse than death.
UV is a Felliniesque (8 ½) showcase for KH. And he makes the most of it. Yes, there are certain things that could've been better. But those issues are trivial compared to UV as a whole. Watch it. Cherish it.
- சாகா வரம் போல் சோகம் உண்டோ (is there anything sadder than being immortal?)
- தீராக் கதையைக் கேட்பார் உண்டோ (is there anyone who would listen to a never-ending story?)
Cut to black.