The outline of a typical masala-revenge story can broadly be defined thus: a hero without responsibility or aims in life lives with his family (he is mostly the child of a single parent, most often a mother), engages in petty fights and leads life without direction till something bad happens or he comes to know his family was wronged, decides to take revenge, learns new skills to overpower the wrong-doer, acquires a purpose and direction in life, becomes powerful and complete and happy in the process, and finally vanquishes the villain.
All masala movies from the 1960s to the 1990s bore a similar outline, and the most successful ones are more often than not, smartly done variations of the same arc, with an exciting MSV/KVM/Ilaiyaraaja soundtrack to boot. I use the 1992 Suresh Krissna–Rajnikanth classic Annamalai to examine how a film can stick to the same template, yet produce exciting variations, some of which are quite difficult to achieve within a mainstream-blockbuster format.
An unlikely friendship
Annamalai’s story is strongly built on the Kane and Abel premise that involves two men of different social strata taking on each other. Hence the fulcrum here is the Annamalai-Ashok (Sarathbabu) relationship which ‘consummates’ within the first 30 minutes of the story, and there is no detailed insight into how this bond was formed and developed, apart from the mother hen-like warm influence Annamalai’s mother Sivagami (another Manorama role of the 90s played by Manorama) had in bringing the unlikely boys together.
The relationship is cemented further as the story progresses, and the most anticipated rift at mid-point transforms the child-like hero Annamalai into a superman. Annamalai is shattered at the avarice and ruthlessness of his long-time friend Ashok who had ordered the demolition of his house, which, in many ways, is treated as the virtual abode of his long-deceased but ever-present father. Annamalai issues a strongly worded challenge to his friend that he will someday become rich like Ashok, build big hotels and earn himself fortunes and do everything in his power to demolish the house that Ashok lives in.
From here, you expect the rise of Annamalai, played by the Superstar, who outdoes his arch-rival in all possible ways and attains a coveted position, completely unimaginable to him and his family. That happens yes, but what sets the film apart from other masala films of its time is the rare and deep focus on how the revenge process impacts the hero’s psyche and that of his family.
Self-contented Annamalai, in the process of settling scores with his friend, is all set to destroy himself and his own internal peace.
In quest of peace
Annamalai earns his fortunes within half-an hour of screen-time and even manages to equal Ashok in terms of stature and social position without obstacles or trials. But the man, portrayed as guileless and perennially happy till he was a milkman, begins to show signs of brooding and inner turmoil.
He soon stops spending time with his family, loses all his ability to feel and spread happiness and focusses all his energies on his ‘compulsory’ revenge.
‘Oru penpura’, the beautiful Deva melody marks the point where his inward rankling has reached a peak and the line ‘En Devanae thookam kodu, meendum andha vaazhkai kodu’ expresses Annamalai’s uneasy coexistence with his avenging impulses, which suddenly hold very little meaning for him.
In almost all masala movies, it is always the fate of the villain or the bad-guy to suffer on account of the avenging hero. Here, the villain too suffers, but the effects strangely spill over to the hero as well. The rage that exploded on the rainy night when Annamalai found his home demolished by Ashok appears to have dissipated slowly, owing to multiple factors such as his age. Most masala films tend to operate within shorter time frames and the revenge functions are usually completed even before the hero loses what you call ‘the prime of his youth’. But this film compresses the ageing process of the hero within a song and a few mass scenes and allows the revenge to happen only when the hero is well past his prime. This, in turn, we learn has led to a considerable mellowing down of the hero’s aggression. Coupled with his innate aversion to luxuries and riches, it has virtually turned the proverbial ‘sweet’ revenge into an inescapable torment.
Unlike other masala films, the hero here doesn’t acquire a new purpose or a happy direction in life thanks to his revenge, but is shown to steadily lose all the simple joys and satisfactions of his already well-rounded, carefree life.
Another nice aspect of Annamalai is its focus on peripheral characters and the influence they have on the protagonists — Annamalai and Ashok. Ashok is portrayed as a rich kid brought up by a single father Gangadharan (played by Radha Ravi) while Annamalai is fathered by a poor, single mother Sivagami. Here, the story similar to other masala films of yore, assumes a feminist angle, where the influential female/mother is shown as stoic and compassionate while the male at the other end of the social ladder is ruthless and cunning. Ashok is throughout the film shown to be as guileless as Annamalai, but turns into an unlikely villain only on account of his father’s bad influence.
In many ways, the clash between Annamalai and Ashok could also be interpreted as the clash between the rapacious Gangadharan and the harmless Sivagami whose children are unwittingly caught in the middle. It is to the credit of Suresh Krissna, the writer-director, to have given so much importance and space for these characters to mould the course of the story without taking the easy route of placing the entire onus on the hero-character.
Even mass scenes like the hugely implausible Annamalai- Ekambaram (Vinu Chakravarty) conflict are written not only with a view to worship the hero but to also to give a glimpse of what the apparently-docile hero is capable of, on the rarest of occasions when someone messes with him and his ‘hallowed’ property. This property tussle that is settled immediately when Ekambaram apologises to Annamalai is the very conflict that later comes to dominate the rest of the movie played among different stake-holders under even more difficult circumstances.
Masala film-makers of today, in my opinion, can take notes from these little nuances and imbue even the mandatory first-half hero-worship scenes with substantial meaning to turn them into portents of crucial things that might come to occupy the later portions of their movie.
When Annamalai reaches the point where he takes hold of Ashok’s house to demolish and settle the score finally, all hype and interest surrounding the climactic act are already defused. When Annamalai declares his intention to let go of Ashok, Sivagami is the first one to congratulate him and showers him with all her happiness and warmth. She is overjoyed to find that her son has finally been restored to his previous, lovable, guileless self. And when Annamalai, just before the credits returns in his milkman avatar swaying to the memorable ‘Vanthenda Paalkaaran’ the audiences too are pleased just like Sivagami, awash with gratitude to the hero, probably for the first time ever in their days at the cinema hall, specifically for not carrying out the sometimes, extremely ‘over-rated’ act of revenge.