The year 2016 – Vikram K Kumar's time travel fantasy 24 releases. The film's promotional posters, which flaunt Suriya as the film's antagonist Athreya, place him along with other iconic villains of Tamil cinema. Raghuvaran's Mark Antony finds a place and so does Rajini's 2.O. Of course, there's also Sathyaraj's Amavasai aka Nagaraja Cholan from Amaidhi Padai. Just like 24, the same actor plays both the hero and the villain in Amaidhi Padai too. But this wasn't the first time Sathyaraj played the villain. He started out as the villain's sidekick with the Kamal Hassan-starrer Sattam En Kaiyil before being promoted as the 'main villain' later on, in films such as Thambi Enna Ooru and Vikram.
Amaidhi Padai (Peace Force) released this day; 13th January, 25 years ago. Written and directed by Manivannan, who is known for his sarcasm or "lollu", he cast his Kovai college buddy Sathyaraj, with whom he had a great rapport, to play the two roles.
Before teasers, trailers and promos, the film was promoted as a masala flick. So, when the early birds flocked to the theaters, they would have been thrilled to find out it was not "just another masala movie".
Watching it today, it's not a film that stayed clean of the clichés of the times – it is mildly misogynistic, it uses over-the-top expressions to show extreme emotion and 'telepathic hearing' is employed to enrage our hero into saving the damsel in distress. That apart, the political statement the film makes was quite ballsy for the time and it has remained relevant even today.
It is pretty easy to understand Manivannan's spiny situation back then – you want to make a film which rips apart prevalent socio-political (mal)practices; but it must also be "commercial", with jokes, romance, songs and "amma sentiments". But, how does one do that? Enter Amavasai aka Nagaraja Cholan–the antagonist who embodies qualities and "ideologies" Manivannan wants to tear down. But he doesn't make Amavasai a one-dimensional wall of brute force (something that many contemporary films are guilty of). He gives him a quality that has come to be associated with the actor who stepped in – "Lollu" and boy does Sathyaraj have a blast with it.
On one hand you have a revenge story of a police "hero" Thangavel who wants to kill his politician "villain" father Amavasai for he had raped Thangavel's late mother (cue amma sentiment) and later unsuccessfully attempts to marry Thangavel's fiancé (cue romance and songs). On the other, you show a wisecracking politician and his growth to power through treachery and crime.
It won't be wrong to state that the film is more about Amavasai than Thangavel, making the former more of an anti-hero than villain. Probably, in an ideal world, sans commercial cinema, Manivannan would have made a film with Amavasai as the protagonist, but in reality, calling him the "villain" helps to reel in the black or white MGR-Nambiar audience. However, the younger lot who have come to appreciate irony, slapstick and sarcasm, would take in the "message" better this way than when it is preachy, and this audience has grown larger over these years.
And now, that probably explains why today, after the rise of social media, we see so many memes from this film, especially those of Nagaraja Cholan. The scene mostly subjected to this meme-ification is the one where Amavasai grows confident with each announcement of his increasing margin of lead. As a reflection of his confidence, he sits progressively comfortably in the chair: from the tip to fully laid back with one leg on another.
You don't break into laughter yet, just amused, because that happens when Manivannan's character Manimaran, under whose support Amavasai lived off and contested in the elections, says "Amavasai, kaal paduthu." (Ammavasai, your leg is on me) and the exchanges that follow with Amavasai's counter is gold!
If you see it once it is easy to identify why it works so well even today. All of the politically-charged sarcasm it feeds us remains relevant because it is based on the fundamental nature of the hypocrisy of mainstream politics.
Scenes such as the one where Amavasai meets Manivannan's character, who gets impressed by his wit involves Amavasai saying "naama munukku varanumna aprom naai enna-nga? Manushan enna-nga? Eri medhichittu poikitte irukka vendiyadhu dhaan-nga" (if we want to prosper, it doesn't matter if it is dog or a human, you just got to clear them off) or the one where Amavasai talks on women safety on-stage while it is inter-cut with him raping a girl. Even the scene where he confronts his son and says "Politics pindriye da mavane… namba naatu arasiyale avlodhan; hussu-hissu".
All these scenes have very basic dialogues, one you probably can find in the book – "Villain 101". So, what elevates these ordinary dialogues is the carefree, "I-don't-give-a-heck" smirk with which Sathyaraj delivers them. This exemplifies the cruel hypocrisy of the political system. Be it Mudhalvan (1999), Ramana (2002) or other films from last year such as Bharat Ane Nenu, NOTA and Sarkar; all of these films acted upon that fundamental established in Amaidhi Padai. In fact, the film's 'insensitive politician' has remained a better personification despite many films which followed that used a similar character as merely a villain.
All of us relate to the heroes of such political fantasies right off the bat, because our own lives have had instances of being affected by one such Amavasai. This is something you can find in Shankar's films – the student who isn't able to study what he aspired to because of capitation fees in Gentleman, the people elected CM who busts the malpractices in a ration shop in Mudhalvan, and the righteous man who is forced into bribery in Sivaji – all because of the existing system.
This surfaces in our tendency to make and consume such movies and content, with increasing frequency now. So, it is important to remember that Amavasai was one of the first characters who showed us the now-inherent hypocrisy we have come to associate the insensitive political class with. This is not to state that the alternatives suggested in Amaidhi Padai was right, far from it, for those parties which followed are the ones in turn to be ridiculed and questioned in contemporary films now. However, the realisation of the potential of films to exercise democracy, to speak, to question and demand change is something Amaidhi Padai achieved, peacefully yet with force.