Superlative performances especially from the lead actors lift an ordinary tale of revenge to a first rate cinematic experience.
There are some movies which upon release are either hated by critics and audiences or appreciated by critics but hated still by audiences. These movies are generally declared a flop. But these movies do not disappear but linger on until a few years later (or a generation later) till new audiences discover their hidden charm. And then it becomes recognised as a classic or becomes a cult favourite.
One of the most famous examples of such movies is Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane, which he wrote and directed early 20th century. Critics (most of them) and audiences booed it. About 20 years later its merits were slowly being recognised. Today it is always cited as one of the best American films and the American Film Institute declared it the best American film of the 20th century.
Tamil cinema too has its share of such films. One of the earliest examples that come to my mind is Anthanaal released early 1950s soon after Parasakthi. It showcases one of Sivaji Ganesan’s best performances ever. I would go so far as to say it surpasses his performance in the much well known Parasakthi. If one sees the two films side by side today, Sivaji’s acting in Parasakthi looks theatrical but his performance in Anthanaal looks very modern. I would go out in a limb and say his performance here is the first example of realism in terms of acting in Tamil movies. Tamil movie would not see such performances (in natural dialogue as spoken by the people in real life and not as though in a stage which veers to classical Tamil) until more than a decade later. But how many people even today have seen Anthanaal?
The same can be said of Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar. It was a box-office disaster when it came out and very few critics had nice things to say about it. Today it is recognised as one of his finest works and one of the best examples of basing a story on real life characters and declaring it fiction.
The list of underappreciated Tamil movies goes on. Add to this list Rattha Charithiram (RC) which elsewhere was released as Raktha Charitra 2 but in Tamil was released as one movie RC. I did not see RC1 (but I certainly will after having seen RC).
First of all RC works as a complete movie by itself. Ram Gopal Varma (RGV) did a great job in condensing RC1 into the first 20 minutes of RC. Suriya who plays the character of Surya Reddy makes his appearance after 20 minutes – something unheard of in Tamil movies for a hero. But my goodness! What an unforgettable appearance -- in slow motion with his eyes blazing in anger.
I always thought that only Gautham Vasudev Menon could photograph Suriya beautifully. Now he has tough competition from RGV. RGV has captured the emotions of Suriya’s eyes and his physique magnificently. The unusual camera angles for this movie are another plus point. They are also another reason why this movie merits a repeat watching. Watch out for the camera angles in the court scene and in the prison fight scene. The latter is one of the most stunning choreographed fight scenes ever -- all done in slow motion with each sinew of Surya’s muscles lovingly captured by the camera. After watching this scene one immediately thinks of Shakespeare’s line, “What a piece of work is man...in form and moving how express and admirable...”
Then there is the infamous 360 degree camera angles that seemed to irritate some. In the first instance it is used in the movie – right after the assassination attempt on Prathap Ravi (Vivek Oberoi) – it works quite well. It seems to symbolise the world in Anandhapur (and in Prathap’s and Surya’s life) turning upside down after that attempt. Subsequent attempts work less well. The extreme close ups are effective in that it showcases the actors’ ability to signify the smallest emotions just by a look or a tick. As for the screenplay, it was well played out. One does not have to be well versed in Andhra politics to appreciate it as it works well on its own (having read in the internet on real life blood feud between the two characters on whom the story is based I would say RGV has done a great job in marrying fact and fiction to present a story as he sees it). Not having duets to distract us, the director manages to hold our attention by focusing on characters and the plot.
All the peripheral characters have played their part well. Even if their screen time is only 15 minutes, they came and leave an indelible mark. Sudeep, the famous Kannada actor plays a suave police officer DCP Mohan Prasad (suave police officers are a rare breed in Tamil movies. Most of the police officers even the cool but awkward-with-women Anbuselvam of Khakaa Khakaa are all mean killing machines). You wish you could have seen more of him but he comes, he acts and he delivers. The same for the two female protagonists – Nandini (Radhika Apte), Prathap’s wife and Bhawani (Priyamani), Surya’s wife. Although given limited screen time due to the nature of the story (the story is about two men after all) they perform admirably: Radhika with a mixture of vulnerability, devotion and toughness; Priyamani with her rage and absolute belief in her husband’s cause. What a difference from the normal Tamil movie where the heroine appears for 5 songs and numerous irritating scenes without leaving a dent in our consciousness.
The pulsating background score is another major plus. It gives the movie an almost Tarantinoish feel to it. Rarely has background score and slow motion come together so effectively in a movie. Since there are no duets every 10 minutes and only background songs that leads the story forward, it gives hope that Tamil movies can break away from the song and dance routine and just focus on the characters and story to propel the movie forward.
Much has been made of the violence in the movie and how it is not suitable for family audience. Of course this is not a movie to bring kids and its ratings clearly says so. I can understand if the Hindi audience were squeamish about violence since their movies are usually urban and foreign based laced liberally with sex, comedy and glamour. But for Tamil audience, violence in movies is like mother’s milk. One just has to see the trailer of Siruthai to see how much violence in movies that we take for granted. The difference in RC is there are a lot more people killed but in the end it is not as gruesome as some make it out to be.
One cannot talk of this movie without talking about the stellar performance of Vivek Oberoi and Surya. In RC the Tamil version, Vivek stands toe-to-toe with Surya. I have not seen him in RGV’s Company but saw him in Yuva (Siddharth was better in the Tamil version) and the sleep-inducing Prince. But who would have guessed he has such fire and intensity in him? The present generation of Hindi actors except for a few (Amir Khan, Ajay Devgan to name a few) can’t seem to convey the feeling of anger and hatred. Looking at some of these pretty faces one wonders whether they can get violent at a lemon. After languishing in mediocre roles, Vivek finally finds one where he can sink his teeth into and he does a magnificent job.
As for Surya, those of us who thought he outdid himself in Vaaranam Ayiram and would not find a more challenging role, RC is another example as to why he is one of the most talented actors working in Indian movies today. If a picture paints a thousand words, then Surya’s eyes paint 1001 pictures. Rarely has an actor’s eyes been used so effectively in a movie. The way his eyes change from rage to softness is remarkable. Some standout moments: the first time he sees the DCP, he looks at him with anger. The moment he realises that the DCP has actually left Surya’s wife in a women’s hostel for her safety, his eyes soften towards the DCP; the scene where he sees his family’s massacre, the agony in his eyes and the involuntary twitching in his left eye and when the opposition strikes a deal with him he smiles – but it is with his eyes. How does Surya do it?
The scene at the climax when he accomplishes his mission is another masterpiece. There is an equal mixture of joy, rage, happiness and sadness at all that he last and won to arrive at this moment. And in the scene in the jail where the DCP comes to pay him a visit, the way the camera spies on him as Surya slowly looks at the DCP from under his lids – he comes across as menacing and evil. Perhaps he has not realised what he has become, something which the DCP reminds Surya. It is one of the fine examples in Tamil films where dialogues get replaced by facial movements. By right Vivek and Surya ought to get some honours for their work here. But whether or not the film fraternity recognises their work remains to be seen.
In Tamil movies where characters are usually portrayed in black and white, it is a pleasure to see these two main characters shrouded in grey. In the end Prathap and Surya are tragic figures. Though ruthless to their enemies, they are also loving sons and husbands to their women. They were two ordinary men who would have been content to lead a simple life but forces beyond their control force them to go on a wrong path. As in most cases like these, once the wrong path is tread, there is no turning back for these two. Blood begets more blood. In that these two men have our sympathies and they do not come out looking totally bad or good. The movie ends with the now widowed Nandini looking at an interview of Surya on TV. The camera focuses on her baby boy she is holding. Would the blood feud follow into the next generation? (Interestingly, Surya Reddy also has a son). That’s the tantalising question posed by the director.
Is RGV glorifying violence and revenge? Of course not! He seems to warn that revenge is a path that is never ending with tragic results for all parties. And events differ when seen from different person’s perceptive.
Is RC for the masses? The few young men sitting behind me were yawning away, hoping perhaps for an item dance to spruce up their interest. If you can’t abide to watch a movie that does not explain how A gets to D without showing you the B and C parts, then avoid this movie. But if you are tired of watching the same old run of the mill boy meets girl, throw in some plot, interlace it with songs from foreign locale then RC is or you.
A last word on subtitles. This movie in Malaysia was shown with English subtitles. The subtitling was good 85% of the time. During crucial moments in the film it was missing. Perhaps the producers should have paid more attention to this.
Whatever the shortcomings of this film, RC will stand the test of time. I am sure in later years it will gain in appreciation. It would be a pity to miss it.