Unnai Pol Oruvan -A fan agonizes

September 20, 2009

If you are reading this opinion piece, you already know something about the movie Unnai Pol Oruvan (UPO), remade from A Wednesday (AW), a critically acclaimed Hindi film.

At the outset, Kamal must be applauded for taking up the challenge of remaking this particular story. The original story is so intertwined with Mumbai and its unique cultural identity, it is a huge challenge to replicate the same in ‘peaceful park’ Chennai.

This is one of the two things that Kamal needed to get straight in order to improve upon the original. I am ignoring debutante director Chakri here, as Kamal has shadow-directed most of his movies in the last 10 years, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe because I watched the Hindi version when it released, I find it irresistible to compare the tone, pacing, characterisation and other things that made A Wednesday a powerful, hard-hitting movie. This is the second thing that Kamal had to get straight in order to emulate the one-tight-slap that AW succeeded in giving the ‘system’.

For example, the role of police officer Arif, played by Jimmy Shergill in AW, and Ganesh Venkatram in UPO. In a movie where the only point of action and movement is Arif (the other characters are mostly immobile), the role needed a raw intensity, a simmering violence bordering on psychosis backed by complete unquestionable faith in the system, in order to speed up the film and sustain audience interest. Arif is the pariah police officer, a man whose violent ways make bad guys pee at his sight. This is sadly missing from Ganesh Venkatram’s portrayal. He looks positively uncomfortable in front of the camera in the first scene where he talks to his informant. His chocolate boy looks dont help, and his cultured upper caste Tamil screams Iyer and not Muslim.

In the months leading to the release of UPO, I couldnt help but wonder how Kamal would change the whole media angle. Media in the north has grown wildly, a thousand news channels sprouting like mushrooms on the bark of a wet tree. Media in the south is still wholly controlled by our political masters, with public interest stories always approached with the sole notion of achieving political mileage. This is such a joke among the educated people of Tamil Nadu, that we can easily predict how each news channel will spin any particular story. Of course this setup has a self correcting mechanism built into it because of the equal mindshare enjoyed by both the major Tamil political parties, but one yearns for an apolitical media that gives unbiased coverage.

The TV reporter in AW is initially reporting about a Lightning Baba, a drunk who survived electrocution when he fell into a ditch and has become a celebrity in his neighborhood. Something like this is unseen in a Tamil news channel. In such a scenario, how can the Tamil media be portrayed like the Hindi newshounds who sensationalize every piece of news they can get their hands on. Maybe a different solution to the problem of confirmation/feedback for the unnamed terrorist would have simplified things. An informant in the police station maybe? At the end of the movie, Naseeruddin Shah calls the reporter ‘Beta’, something that a father affectionately calls a daughter. This simple word says more about the ‘stupid common man’ than the page of dialogue he spouts with emotion. A small touch which goes a long way in characterisation.

There are many such small things that make AW great. For example, when Anupam Kher asks the room of police officers at the start of the crisis whether they want to call home and the answer is a resounding no, or when he asks Jai, a police officer, about his family before sending him to find a bomb in the police station and Jai replies that he is not afraid to die. The feeling of a strong knit team of disciplined and principled police officers comes through overwhelmingly. The audience knows most police forces are not like this, but wants to believe that this is the kind of police force every city should have. This is called willing suspension of disbelief and makes emotional connection with the movie message easier. The whole police camaraderie is glaringly absent in UPO.

And last but not the least, the final speech by the Common Man. Intended to be a punch to the solar plexus, Designed to shock and awe, and the same time make the audience empathise and agree with the message conveyed. Nasseeruddin Shah digs deep to show the anguish and anger of a man who feels emasculated and powerless by terrorism. It is hard for a Chennaivasi to fully comprehend the pain of losing people you only knew by face and the design on their lunchbag. In the fast moving city that is Mumbai, people have a whole new set circle of friends they call ‘train friends’. People they meet on their way to work and back home on the local trains. They spend 1/6th of their day on the train and form a weird deep bond that is again unique to Mumbai. Mumbaikars understand this feeling and the anguish and survivor guilt that is bound to arise when you find that none of those people you traveled with for 5 years is alive when you get on the train to work the day after the blasts. When Shah says “We are resilient by force, not choice’ it resonates deeply with everyone who has seen the media babble away about Mumbai’s resilience after every terrorist attack.

But (un)fortunately, Chennai has never borne the brunt of a terrorist attack, so the Common Man’s motivation has to be changed. This is where Kamal strikes a low blow. Using the most brutal of all crimes thinkable to wring emotion out of an audience that is enjoying a joyride action thriller, is not what I expect from a master of cinema.

The only bright spot in the movie is Mohanlal, whose role has been expanded and rewritten to better show the challenges of a senior police officer while performing his duty. He emotes with finesse. His verbal sparring with Lakshmi forms the highlight of the movie.

Lessser said about the technical aspects, the better. Camera and editing are average. Why did this story require RED cameras? Technology for its own sake is never fulfilling, and I thought Kamal knew that.

In summary, a most disappointing show from someone who is considered to be the light of Tamil cinema, the man who carries the Tamil hope for an Oscar. Kamal himself has said multiple times that the audience must never be underestimated. He has done just that with UPO. As I have said before, in Hey Ram and Aalavandhaan, Kamal was looking up to the stars. In Dasaavatharam, and now Unnai Pol Oruvan, he is looking down into the gutter.