“We might be two commandos, but Nandu is a full battalion,” Kamal Haasan describes his deranged brother in a telling line to his NSG commandos and the audience that has gathered to watch a matinee show of this action film erupts in whistles. The atmosphere in this Bangalore theatre, and the restored 4k print might just be enough for anyone to forget that the film they were watching was 22 years old.
The re-release of Suresh Krissna and Kamal Haasan’s Aalavandhan has been a shot in the arm to the movie, which was a box-office failure at the time of release. But the misfire stung for fans of the actor and genre fans itself because it was a film that dealt with gothic horror and violence with a level of ambition that not many films dared to go. “This is probably my 25th time watching the film,” Vikram, a fan of the film, tells us with a laugh, pausing to speak in between all the noise of the ads during intermission. “We enjoyed the film even back then when it was a flop. I’m so happy we got to watch the film in the theatre.”
Based on Haasan’s own novel ‘Dhayam’, Aalavandhan follows the life of a set of twins, Vijay and Nandu (both played by Kamal Haasan), upon whom a painful childhood has left different impressions. One grows up to become an National Security Guard with repressed trauma, while the other becomes a ravenous killer who has embraced his inner animal. The film was also released at a time when excessive violence didn't go down well with the audiences. So, an unhinged Haasan swinging about murdering people around the streets of Delhi (under the influence of LSD no less) wasn’t exactly the ideal film for 2001.
Sathish, a fan in the theatre recalls how difficult it was to get permission from his parents to watch the film. “I watched it for the first time in 2002 on DVD. It is an adult movie, so back then, they would play it at 8.30pm on TV. So, to take permission from our parents to watch this film was a big deal.”
Cinematographer Tirru acknowledges that the film was quite ahead of its time, attributing its collapse in the early 2000s to the lack of a concept we’re quite familiar with today: social media. “Those days, if you wanted to learn about crimes, political crimes, drugs in the society etc, it had to be through reading a book. Intense readers were knowledgeable. Aalavandhan was a study on the effects of drugs on society, which was prevalent, but only among the top layer at the time. This wasn't exposed as much because we didn’t have social media. We had already depicted a form of contemporariness back then. Kamal sir is a well-versed reader, so the script was properly researched. So the same concepts that people weren’t familiar with back then are being celebrated today.”
The film was an outlier in various aspects in 2001. At a time when dual roles only meant a mere costume change, Haasan really put in the work to present two distinct characters in the form of Vijay and Nandu. “One is a very lean and fit Kamal and another a very bulky, muscular and bald Kamal. It was not just putting a cap on and doing a double role kind of thing,” Tirru recalls. This also meant figuring out a way to capture this on camera. Tirru remembers the one question Kamal asked him when he jumped on board: “How are we going to pull this off?” A motion control camera seemed to be the fitting answer.
“We had to shoot the same sequence in different timelines. At that time itself we got motion control, which is what they're calling mocobot today. We did this 20 years back,” he says, going on to explain how this camera helped in a stirring scene such as the jail sequence. “The camera moves from Nandu's side as he bites the stone off the wall, travelling along with the stone until it hits Vijay on the other side. This is what the mocobot does today. Motion control had another capability. We could shoot two sequences in different timelines.” So, they first shot with Haasan in Vijay’s look and waited about 6 months for his transformation into Nandu to shoot his parts. “Today, people often talk so highly about using mocobots, and other such camera techniques. We didn't have any platform to talk about this at the time. We wanted to achieve whatever we could in a different way.” Since motion control wasn't available in India back then, they found the cheapest machine in their nearest country, which happened to be Malaysia. “It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out too well at the time. But I’m happy it’s being celebrated at least today.”
While the film tanked at the box office, despite winning a National Film Award for Special Effects, one of its pick-me-ups came in the form of a 2016 screening at the Fantastic Fest, an annual film festival in Austin, which had a lot of love to give for the film. Josh Hurtado, a programming consultant at Fantastic Fest and the founder of film marketing and distribution company Potentate Films, recalls hunting the rights for the film for almost a year. “I heard a lot of "no '' and "You'll never get that film", he remembers. He then got through to Sanjay Wadhwa, the owner of AP International with some help from subtitlist and friend Rekhs HC. “ There was no theatrical print or DCP available, and the film had only ever been available on standard definition DVD, which wouldn't suffice for a theatrical screening. Sanjay doesn't like "no" as an answer, though, and he arranged to have the film negative scanned in 2K especially for us, and had it approved by director Suresh Krissna.”
Audiences in the West want something new, something we've never seen before, Hurtado adds. “It's the same reason that RRR was such a huge success last year. Every five minutes RRR presented the audience with a sequence that no one had ever attempted to capture on screen, and it woke us up. Aalavandhan does the same thing, just with a different, darker tone. Indian film is still so under-explored, even by the most hardcore film fans in the west, that when something like Aalavandhan gets put on someone's radar and they finally see it, their head explodes.” There's something visceral about the film that connects in an action landscape today, where much is left to computers to recreate the experience of reality, he notes. “There's a lack of palpable danger in those films, but Aalavandhan feels dangerous which is exciting.”
Like India, the film was re-released in the US, too, last weekend, even if it was mostly aimed at the NRI audience. “With very limited screens and show times, it was a challenge to find showings in some cities. Looking through Letterboxd, I didn't see any reviews from non-Indians as a result of this event, but with a bit of focus and advertising, I do believe it could find a different, appreciative audience,” says Hurtado, who fell in love with the film for all its over-the-top flourishes, when he watched it after having read about the film in Variety's old Kaiju Shakedown column. The film’s use of VFX to depict Nandu’s frenzied state of mind is a big part of the film’s swank, something that ended up inspiring Quentin Tarantino to stylise O-Ren's story in Kill Bill (2003) with animation.
The animated portions were not only a way to inject freshness into the film, but also to evade the censor board. “It was Kamal sir’s idea,” says Tirru. “To show that much violence those times wouldn't have been allowed. At the same time, the character progress also needed to be shown. So, we did a motion capture of Kamal sir and other characters to put it into 3D vision and recreated the action. I have been very keen on VFX since then. So it was actually fun. The VFX part was done by an Australian company, which was also a first for an Indian film. I was in Australia for nearly a month for the film’s post-work.”
The animated portion is just another amazing element in a film full of wild stylistic flourishes, Hurtado points out. “The way Krissna uses that sequence to highlight Nandu's dissociation from reality in that moment is genius, and the execution is so psychedelic and kinetic that it makes my jaw drop every time. The Fantastic Fest audience went crazy for it, and it's easy to see why.” Genre films in general are better understood today, he goes on to explain. “Even twenty years ago these elements were seen as cheap and unworthy of serious discussion by mainstream audiences, but today's filmgoer has the benefit of the internet to help them scour the dark corners of the world to unearth even the most obscure gems.”
Madhusoothanan, who watched the film first at the Devi Theatre in Chennai during its release, enjoyed the film with the same relish over 20 years later. He attributes the film’s timelessness to Haasan’s foresight. “Many of the Kamal Haasan films are ahead of their time because of the technical aspects and the supreme quality he strives to achieve in his films. The current audience may be able to appreciate the film better than fans of 2001 due to the advent of technology that has been dominating our lives of late,” he says. And then there are fans like Sudhan, a 22-year-old who watched the film for the first time this week. “A lot of shots made us think how they pulled off such technicalities back then,” he wonders.
If such is the reaction now, how did the crew react to the film’s tall ambition back on the set in the early 2000s? “The energy was such that nobody knew what was happening on set,” Tirru laughs. “We were using motion control for the first time so nobody had seen such machines. It was a preliminary time for VFX too. The rest of the crew was a little taken aback but that's normal with any new technology. But we had so much fun.” Would the film have conquered the screens had it been released in 2023 instead 2001? Tirru thinks so. “It would have been one more Vikram.” Aalavandhan’s time has perhaps finally come. Who cares if it’s 22 years later?