Tamil cinema and Tamil Nadu politics have always been intricately weaved into one another, with MGR being the poster-man of this complex tapestry. So, when an “artsy” filmmaker functioning in mainstream Tamil–cinema decided to make his second political film, with a star like Suriya, whose primary audience are families, what you got was a film which had a bad-run at the box office, but over time gained an audience in the next generation and is now called a “cult” film. This was Aaytha Ezhuthu by Mani Ratnam, also starring Madhavan and Siddharth in lead roles, which released on 21st May 2004. Now spin the wheel of time to 15 years and 10 days later, you have a Suriya-starring political film by another “artsy” but mainstream filmmaker—NGK by Selvaraghavan. And of course, Selvaraghavan too had made Pudhupettai earlier, which was literally, bloody political. Moreover, Pudhupettai also shared a similar fate to that of Aaytha Ezhuthu, being a box-office dud and later gaining widespread following among the next-gen. This has so far been the fate of grittier political films, unlike those political fantasies of Shankar’s Sivaji or Murugadoss’s Sarkar which enjoyed a great commercial run. So, this newly found appreciation for these grittier, layered films is what makes the arrival of Nandha Gopalan Kumaran (NGK) into the world of political films very captivating.
But how different can they be? “How different is Aaytha Ezhuthu to NGK?” is an interesting question to ask. Firstly, there are a lot of similarities in the film’s treatment. Particularly, to do with the use of colours thematically. Aaytha Ezhuthu assigns three colours (Red, Green and Blue), and three elements of nature (Fire, Earth and Sea) to the three lead characters of the films (Inba, Michael and Arjun) who embodies each of them respectively. Michael Vasanth, an influential student leader, played by Suriya, exudes the qualities of Earth (represented by the colour Green)—ambitious, beaming with enthusiasm and enabling growth. Nandha Gopalan Kumaran too, is distinctly characterised by a lot of “green” lighting in the earlier portions of NGK the time when he is an organic farmer who is doing is best to uplift his neighbourhood through small good deeds.
The difference? It is that in Aaytha Ezhuthu the “greening” had more to do with the colour of costumes of Michael, the colour of his house walls and later towards the end; the colour of the curtains and leather seats of the Legislative Assembly, into which Michael gets elected. Extending this idea further, Aaytha Ezhuthu has those buildings, which are under the control of the corrupt politician, to have shades of red. The university where Michael studies, which later under the minister’s order threatens to kick him out, is a colonial red brick structure! However, NGK’s colours are all about lighting, which aptly changes from green to more red shades, as Nandha Gopalan Kumaran transforms from the joyous, innocent do-gooder to the cunning, power-hungry fiend by the end of the film.
The Cult of Personality
Nandha Gopalan Kumaran quits his corporate job, for he feels it is mind-numbing and restrictive like a “jail” and prefers the freedom of organic farming. He likes extending a helping hand to those in need, but when he sees that he is not endorsed with anything close to the power, that even the lowest of the party-worker wields, he feels increasingly dismal and powerless. Through a series of events, Kumaran finds himself to be reduced to an “adimai”—“slave” of an MLA who makes Kumaran clean his “kakkoos” —“toilet”… just like in a “jail”.
Michael Vasanth is a bold, strong and confident student leader who is equally brainy (gets a scholarship invite from a Nobel Prize winning professor). He, just like Kumaran, helps out his mates and other youngsters who need his help. One such event is when he tries to keep (corrupt) politicians away from influencing their college elections. This leads him to facing off and eventually making enemies out of those politicians. However, Michael neither gets intimidated nor is mentally unprepared for the obvious challenges like rustication from college, threats on friends and an attempt on his life. But unlike, Kumaran, Michael had “visible” support of the masses, i.e. collegemates and other youngsters.
The 500 Men
Kumaran is asked by the MLA to join him, with his supposedly 500 men strong team of co-workers in return for a favour. Kumaran after just a brief hesitation agrees on-spot for the deal. The film neither shows Kumaran consulting with his 500 men nor informing them later about the on-the-fly decision he made for all of them collectively. Kumaran is autocratic.
Aaytha Ezhuthu on the other hand, features so many scenes where Michael is consulting with his friends at every juncture of their journey; right from scene one where he takes on the corrupt-college student in Mayajaal, to the scene where he debates with his friends on whether they should contest the Legislative Assembly elections. In return, whenever Michael takes a call, he gets support which is “visible” (to us) from his “500 men”. Be it the scene where they all walk along with Michael, to file a complaint on themselves, that too in hundreds or the goose-bumps scene when Michael announces “Ivanga ellaarum enkoodavaraen nu solraanga” – “All of them wants to leave with me”, when Michael is threatened to be kicked out of college. Michael is democratic.
The Love Affair
Nandha Gopalan Kumaran loves and marries Srivilliputhur town-girl Geetha, with whom he seemingly has a sweet relationship in the beginning. But as the greens turns red, Kumaran initiates an extra marital affair with Vaanathi, a top-dog political analyst who is smitten by Kumaran. Kumaran sees an opportunity in Vaanathi, who can boost his popularity by influencing trends and put him up with corporates to fund him, all in exchange for sex. Kumaran is an opportunist and his thirst of power becomes greater than any of his earlier values (and his Geetha).
On the other hand, Michael Vasanth, though he mansplains to his lover named… Geetha (another similarity!) that marriage is something which humans conform to for societal acceptance and love is just a result of hormones in our bodies, he is loyal to her and only her in the frame of the film. Michael therefore holds his values, say loyalty, towards his Geetha, higher than material compulsions.
The politics that Michael and Kumaran take up is very different, leaving them at different places of power by the end of their films, MLA and CM respectively. Michael, had earned the honest, deep-rooted and “visible” support of tens of thousands, while Kumaran had the volatile emotion-based support of tens of lakhs, but in the process lost his own moral codes, and (incidentally…?) his own parents and friends get murdered.
Aaytha Ezhuthu ends with Michael saying “ini oru ini oru vidhi seivom, vidhiyinai maatrumvidhi seivom”—“We’ll make a law, which changes the destiny (for the better)”, while NGK says with a smirk: “kaththukaraen sir” – “I’ll learn (to become further powerful)” and then follows the card “ini NGK aatchi” – “Henceforth it is NGK’s rule”. Aaytha Ezhuthu sheds light on the optimistic possibility from a common law and revamped system, while NGK warns us of the pessimistic future of being ruled over by a single man’s hunger.