In this series we look at films that deserve another look with fresh eyes
Kalimuthu (Rajinikanth), the do-gooder younger brother of a village chieftain (VS Raghavan), is engaged to Mangamma (Rajalakshmi). But he marries her best friend, Seetha (Revathy), who's blind. What begins as a wholly domestic drama takes a turn when Kalimuthu and Seetha leave their homes and begin to live in a neighbouring village, whose chieftain, a Zamindar (Ranganath), is a notorious womaniser.
Rajinikanth and director Mahendran had delivered a blockbuster – a masterful one, too – in Mullum Malarum. But that was in 1978, when Rajinikanth was still an actor/star. By 1984, he was a star/actor – the huge success of all-out commercial entertainers like Billa and Murattu Kaalai (both 1980), Pokkiri Raja and Moondru Mugam (both 1982), and Paayum Puli (1983) had taken Brand Rajinikanth to the stratosphere. Besides, Mahendran – after a series of flops – was a shadow of his former self. So this delicate drama – an adaptation of a segment of Puttanna Kanagal's Kannada anthology, Katha Sangama (1976) – fell in a no-man's land between a star from whom the masses expected a certain kind of "entertainment" and a director not really known for massy star vehicles. It was a failure.
The brief for this series was "movies that were ahead of their time… essentially films that were too smart or took too many risks…" Kai Kodukkum Kai is hardly a "misunderstood classic", or some such thing. It was a confused film with a theme that needed an actor of far-lesser wattage. It's not that Rajinikanth couldn't pull off the role. Of course, he could. Just look at the tenderness he projects in his scenes with Revathy – there's still an actor in him. But when your fandom grows, commercial considerations creep into every choice you make – and that was this film's undoing.
So why am I picking this clearly flawed film? Read the last part of the brief again. Kai Kodukkum Kai "took too many risks". For almost thirty minutes, the film is about relationships: the friendship between Seetha and Mangamma, or the dynamics between Kalimuthu, his brother and sister-in-law (Sowcar Janaki). Also, the underlying themes are established. The people in this village are good people. When Kalimuthu decides to marry Seetha against his brother's wishes, the villagers pitch in to conduct the wedding.
They are also peace-loving people. When the neighbouring village's Zamindar sets a farmer's crops on fire and Kalimuthu sets out on a revenge mission, his brother stops him. He says: It's your fault. You provoked him. And how? By defeating the man in a one-on-one at the village festival. This is the first action scene, and it's not even a "proper" fight. It's just part of a competition.
Rajinikanth cooks. He washes dishes and clothes. In short, Kai Kodukkum Kai brings out a "feminine" side of the hero
But you can only rein in a star for so long – so when Kalimuthu and Seetha move to the neighbouring village, whose people are neither peaceful nor good, the "proper" action sequences begin. For instance, when Kalimuthu is out at night, he sees a bunch of men assaulting a woman. He fights them off. The grateful woman likens him to a god. Regular "hero stuff", right?
Wrong! While Kalimuthu is saving this woman, Seetha is being raped by the Zamindar. A hero unable to protect his wife, a hero reduced in an instant from a god to a mere "man" – this has never happened before, or since. Tamil cinema is notoriously skittish about issues of a woman's "honour". A Lakshmi may be able to get away by playing varying shades of a rape survivor in films like Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal or Sirai – but these are "heroine-oriented" dramas. Kai Kodukkum Kai is hero-oriented, narrated entirely from the hero's viewpoint. And for a rising "mass" star to be unable to protect his woman on screen… It's the very definition of "risk".
Why is this important? Because it says the story is what's important, and no hero is above it. Like I said earlier, there are compromises to accommodate Rajinikanth – say, the tune of one of the star's greatest hits, Podhuvaga emmanasu thangam from Murattu Kaalai, being played during that competition fight. But this is a small price to pay for the other things Kalimuthu does for Seetha. He cooks. He washes dishes and clothes. (When she feels embarrassed that he is washing her blouses and petticoats, he says: Haven't women been washing men's underwear for ages?) He draws a kolam outside their home.
In short, Kai Kodukkum Kai brings out a "feminine" side of the hero. Even the way he discovers Seetha has been raped is by accident. He happens to overhear a conversation — a most passive development for a star with such an aggressive screen presence. Kalimuthu doesn't even end up killing the rapist. He spares the man. Then, standing beside a picture of Sri Raghavendra (Rajinikanth's spiritual guide, whom he would play in a biopic released a year later), he assures Seetha that she has done nothing wrong, and she is pure. And they leave the village towards an unknown future.
This delicate drama fell in a no-man's land between a star from whom the masses expected a certain kind of "entertainment" and a director not really known for massy star vehicles
I like to imagine what might have happened if Kai Kodukkum Kai had become a hit. It might have paved the way for a change in the way karpu/virginity is addressed in Tamil cinema. It might have reduced the overt misogyny in a lot of Rajinikanth's future outings. But the film flopped, and it's now a footnote in the star/actor's career: one of his least-remembered films, but also his bravest.