If they were to announce a period film today directed by a respected filmmaker like Vasanthabalan with music by AR Rahman, starring Prithiviraj and Siddharth, and talking about the rivalry between two theatre actors, I'd still be as excited as I was in 2014 when Kaaviya Thalaivan was going to release. The film itself didn't really live up to expectations and was a colossal box office failure, but I form a part of the minority that enjoyed the 'what if' exercises that followed, recreating the film in one's head to match the vision Vasanthabalan must have dreamt of.
For a lot of people, Kaaviya Thalaivan never went beyond an Indian version of Christopher Nolan's Prestige. The Amadeus hangover was another factor one couldn't easily shrug off, given how Kaaviya Thalaivan too chose to tell the story from the "villain's" point of view. You could see Ayn Rand's Fountainhead in it too. You can find traces of Peter Keating in Prithviraj's Gomathi. Siddharth's Kaali, individualistic and radical, felt like a distant cousin to Howard Roark. And if the former preferred to stick to his classical style, the latter experimented, rewrote the rules of the time and charted his own path.
In a lesser film, the central emotion that drives such a premise might have been revenge. On paper, Gomathi seems like a better person. He is hardworking, a better student, more disciplined and committed. Kaali is an alcoholic, a womaniser (the film's words) and we hardly see him try, so is it fair for him to get ahead in every way, just because he's naturally gifted?
It is natural for any actor worth his salt to pounce on the role played by Prithviraj. It has so many shades and almost all of the film's great scenes. If this could get a recast today, I'd love to see someone like Dhanush or Vijay Sethupathi play this role. Because the real emotion that drives this film is jealousy, which, to a committed actor, is a goldmine. In regular films, narrated from the point of view of the 'good guy', visually representing jealousy is limited to one or two closeups of the bad guy smirking or staring slyly as good things happen to the better person. But in such a film, the emotion is like a cancer, slowly corroding the person from inside, destroying everyone around him.
It's also a film that could have really gone to town with its style of acting. Given the theatre setting, every performance had the space to be heightened or stylised to represent the period. Which is why I loved the idea of casting actors such as Thambi Ramaiah, Singampuli and Masoor Ali Khan in main character roles. Re-watching the film today, I feel they somehow got the tone of the performance better than even its leads, because subtlety or realistic acting is very hard to balance with the theatrical acting the film revolves around.
For me, THE scene of the film is where both Gomathi and Kaali act out the role of Surapadman. Gomathi plays it loudly, like the acting of that time. He huffs and he puffs, but it doesn't impress his Guru (Nassar). Kaali chooses to play it subtly, with the role's arrogance coming from within. Again, this is a scene that's great, but only on paper. If you watch it today, I suspect you'd find Prithviraj's performance far more appealing than Siddharth's, which is the absolute opposite effect the film aspires for. Because, it becomes increasingly difficult to accept Kaali as the better actor when the proof isn't a part of the pudding.
Yet it's still a film I admire for its ambition. Beyond the rivalry between Gomathi and Kaali, the film tries to look at it as the story between two students of Dronacharya. Earlier on, Kaali gets a dialogue where he describes himself as Ekalavya. Gomathi, on the other hand, becomes Arjuna. If you look closely, we find many scenes with either a statue or a picture of Krishna in the background forming a part of Gomathi's world. The mirror scenes too are wonderful, especially when we find Gomathi struggling with what's happening within him.
At the end of the day, it's still a film you have to make up in your head as you go along. Apart from Gomathi, we find it impossible to get into the head of any other character. Sub-plots, such as Kaali's involvement in the independence movement and the transformation of theatre from mythology-based dramas to social plays are not dealt with depth. And for a film that talks about so much about acting and it's 'real' meaning, you find it ironical that the team cast someone like Anaika Soti who barely gets a single line right. Of course, AR Rahman's music in the film never got its due, and neither did Prithviraj's performance, but I'm guessing it will be educational to sit down with Vasanthabalan to understand what really happened to this film during its execution. Or maybe, this is the exact film he wanted to make. At times, the idea of a film is so good you wish it were more than the film it eventually became. Kaaviya Thalaivan may not have been ahead of its time or a cult classic, but there was certainly a film in there somewhere that could really have been one for the ages.