15 Years of Shankar’s Anniyan: A Nine-Year-Old’s Thoughts On Watching, What He Thought Was, A Murder-Mystery About An Onion

It is hard to watch a film today that you distinctly remember watching 15 years ago. The same thoughts come back, some have evolved, and some new ones have come too. Why is Shankar so fatalistic? Why are his action sequences so engrossing? Why that open-ending?
15 Years of Shankar’s Anniyan: A Nine-Year-Old’s Thoughts On Watching, What He Thought Was, A Murder-Mystery About An Onion

Memory is ridiculously elusive and overpowering. Elusive because memory is never complete, and overpowering because, like a palimpsest, there's always a faint hint of what-was in what-is. I can never, for example, watch and articulate my feelings about Anniyan (meaning stranger in Tamil, pronounced as it is written), without referencing the first thoughts I had about the film. I was nine years old, under the impression that I was going to the the theater to watch a murder-mystery unfold, centered around a very mysterious onion. And oh-boy, was I in shock. 

It has been 15 years since Anniyan released. This Shankar film, starring Vikram and Sadha, centers itself around a character who has multiple personality disorder that stems from societal corruption, and unrequited love. 

It was 2005, and we had just moved to Chennai, so my Tamil wasn't hip-and-happening (still isn't), and I was not much of a film person. (During an open air theater screening of Munnabhai MBBS I formed a 'cult' with the other kids and played hide and seek as adults kept shushing us out of their view.)

My Sidney Sheldon-gulping elder brother, a huge fan of violence, horror and gore, had found out that a magnum opus violent-horror-gory film Anniyan was releasing soon; the songs and the budget were the talk of the town apparently — I couldn't care less. He insisted that he wanted to watch the film in the theater. Mum was not interested and didn't want him to go alone, so she sent me, the then Vivek-Oberoi fanboy (a lot has changed over 15 years), to accompany him. I did so reluctantly, and off we marched to Sathyam Cinema with enough extra cash for rose milk for a post-film indulgence. Like I said, I had no idea what the film was about, and was quite shocked when within the first half hour there was a buffalo orgy culminating in the death of a selfish man. It only got worse.

Vikram plays Ambi aka Rules Ramanujan, the tight-ass lawyer who is dejected both personally and professionally. His lover, Nandini (Sadha), jilts him, and society scorns his rule-adhering gait. His frustrations lead him to develop two personalities — Rampwalk-Remo and Anniyan — the former to tackle his love, and the latter to tackle an increasingly callous and indifferent society. 

Remo makes Nandini fall in love with him, and Anniyan punishes all those who use illegal or immoral (there is a distinction here, one I wouldn't understand back then) means to navigate their world. The murder sequences are as innovative as they are disturbing. Using leeches, boiling oil, snakes, the aforementioned buffaloes, and a fear-inducing baritone, Anniyan goes on a rampage. Using roses, parakeets, and an accent and lingo that are neither American nor Indian nor tolerable, Remo goes on his ramp-age. (After a moment of confrontation, when he asks if Nandini is finally ready to have sex, he asks, "Yoyo?" and she says "Yaya". Cue 'Kannum Kannum Nokia'.)

Kannum Kannum Nokia, when hunh? meets hanh!
Kannum Kannum Nokia, when hunh? meets hanh!

Of course, back then Remo seemed the coolest of the lot. This man has eight wardrobe changes in a six-minute song where he references everything from Mohenjodaro to Nagasaki, from King Cobra to babycorn. Here was the worldly wise man I was in search of. I mean, this is a director who took his cast and crew to the Machu Picchu, in Peru, to sing a song about Kilimanjaro, a mountain in Tanzania. It's simultaneously exciting and exasperating. Somewhere between hunh? and hanh! Shankar resides. 

Anniyan in that sense, is Shankar's universe entirely, where a Brahmin in love imagines his jasmine-wearing lover among Danish tulips and decorating European cobblestones with kolam, while his mrudangam-wielding manjira-miming friends background him. But, of course, when the love is felt, and is no longer unrequited, it is celebrated as a folk dance. This folk-classical dichotomy is very obvious in Shankar's films. But which nine-year old would think of this? 

Of course, much later, when I would re-watch the film, either in Tamil or the awfully Hindi-dubbed Aparichit on television, the caste hegemony, police brutality, the shoddy take on alcohol consumption (you're either a teetotaller or an alcoholic) and the free pass to vigilante violence would make me deeply uncomfortable. The central moral conclusion of this film (even that of Shankar's latest 2.0) is: People will be good citizens only if the fear of death as punishment is instilled in them. 

This comes from Shankar's fatalistic assumption echoed in so many of his films: Human beings are inherently awful, and, therefore, need the fear of death or the fear of a great, macho force to be something we inherently aren't, i.e. orderly. If you read closely, this is a dangerous slippery slope towards rationalising fascism. 

But here's the thing, for the action-film cynic that I was (and am), Shankar's films always had an allure. I absolutely adored Shivaji: The Boss. His Nayak was always playing on television as a vacuous background hum, him jumping through terrace rooftops to get justice for his citizens. Even when I was showing my college room-mates, a Mexican, a Korean and an Irish, the Mersalaayitten video from I, they laughed hysterically. I thought the video was quite charming, a bit odd, but charming nonetheless. And I didn't have the words then to explain  Shankar's capacity for awe in even the most mundane human reaction. His love, like his action sequences were not just about love or violence but about innovation. How many ways can two people strangle each other? Shankar's playbook leaks into the hundreds. When Vikram as Anniyan falls from the first floor of a martial arts training center, the shot is paused, and a 360-degree view is taken before he falls onto the ground. (Apparently 120 cameras were used to get this shot) Martial arts students jumped from various corners of the room onto their teacher, ready to destroy Anniyan, looking like the hood of a snake. 

But as all the violence subsided, and the film seemed to have come to its logical conclusion, and you think Ambi is cured, something happens. He isn't cured — he just threw another man off the train! Now, my brother and I were both unused to open-ended films. (This might have been the first we watched) So we waited for a bit to see if there's more. But then the credits rolled, and the audience started leaving, and the cleaning staff told us to leave, but we waited in the foyer, wondering if this was a second intermission and Ambi, this time will be cured entirely. We stood for a while, looking lost, and none of the faces with us in the theater showed up. We dejectedly moved on. Here were two people so used to closure in cinema, we didn't know what to do with an open ending. Cinema wasn't life, and so unlike it there must be a final resulting moment of catharsis. What happened here? Nine-year-old me was vexed. 

After re-watching the film, I asked mum her memories of that time and why she didn't come with us? All she remembered was how my brother would, in the dead of the night, switch on his Anniyan-baritone to scare me sour, Dei… Naan Anniyan, and then plonk back to sleep, and this continued till his tenth standard when I was banished to the god's room so my brother could concentrate on his board exam preparation. Just last summer when he visited, and we had to share the bed, around midnight he struck, Dei… Naan Anniyan. Though I dismissed him, a part of me was startled, and did a little cartwheel of fear. I guess some parts of that nine-year-old never grew up. 

The film is streaming on MX Player and SunNXT, without English subtitles. 

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