Director: Rathish Ambat
Cast: Dileep, Siddharth, Murali Gopy
Rathish Ambat’s Kammara Sambhavam (Kammara’s Event, a play on the title of the Kalidasa epic) begins and ends with a quote attributed to Napoléon: “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” Napoléon certainly popularised this adage, though he denied coining it – but in the context of this film, the (intended?) misattribution may be entirely appropriate. The story is about how history is nothing but a series of “lies,” and how these lies, over time, become calcified as “truth.” It sounds like a thesis topic for a philosophy major, but the film, slyly written by Murali Gopy, is pretty entertaining – even if it takes a while to get going, and a longer while for the whole picture to come together in our heads. At interval point, I was still unsure, but soon, Gopy’s design becomes clear. The first half is the (actual) history. The second half is the lie that becomes history.
The film begins in the present day, as liquor barons belonging to the Indian Liberation Party (Indian Libation Party may have sounded better, no?) express their frustration with the frequent bouts of prohibition. They hatch a crazy scheme. They will produce a movie about a long-forgotten Kerala hero – as in, a real-life hero, from the British era – and project the film’s protagonist as their party’s flag bearer, thus rebranding their identity in the eyes of the public. They approach a Tamil filmmaker named Pulikesi (Bobby Simha). Why Tamil? Because Malayali directors are too Left or Right. Is this a jibe about the strongly political leanings of Malayali filmmakers, or the perceived lack of politics in the Tamil filmmaking community? Questions like these are what make the film fun. Wait till you get to the digs on dynastic politics, about “Pappu” as well as his great-grandfather’s rumoured closeness with Lady Mountbatten.
It sounds like a thesis topic for a philosophy major, but the film, slyly written by Murali Gopy, is pretty entertaining – even if it takes a while to get going, and a longer while for the whole picture to come together in our heads.
The real-life hero, named Kammaran Nambiar and now aged 96, is played by Dileep (in top form). The actor playing Kammaran Nambiar on screen is… the actor Dileep. In other words, the off-screen Dileep plays himself on screen, an actor who plays a movie character based on Kammaran Nambiar, who’s played by… Dileep. And the meta games begin. Was Bobby Simha cast because he was in Jigarthanda, another movie about a man whose story makes it to screen as a series of “lies”? A similar case could be made for Siddarth (in the most forceful performance of his career), who plays Othenan Nambiar. The actor was not only in Jigarthanda, but also in Rang De Basanti, which was about… a movie being made about events from the British era.
Kammara Sambhavam runs three hours, and the problem is mainly with the slack first half – the set-up takes too long. The scenes about Othenan’s grandmother are extraneous. I suppose the idea was to flesh out characters with backstory, but the scenes with Othenan’s love interest, Bhanumathi (Namitha Pramod), and her mother give us the same information in half the time. (The duet is another mistake.) The scenes with Othenan’s villainous uncle, Kelu Nambiar (Murali Gopy), also seem stretched and rather generic. He has no inner life. Even his impotence comes off like a “touch,” a shade that gives a black-and-white construct a bit of colour rather than a problem that affects the man and informs his behaviour. Another “touch” is found in a Britisher (played by a really bad actor): he listens to MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar songs. Has he “gone native”? Who knows? Again, it’s just a bit of surface colour. Take it off, and the man wouldn’t be all that different.
But I enjoyed the eerie touches like the sage who answers our question: “But why should Kammaran Nambiar tell his life’s story to a filmmaker he doesn’t know?” The sage also prophecies a Macbeth-ian, Birnam Woods-like moment – it’s a splash of surrealism in what might otherwise have been a routine action sequence from a revenge drama. For that’s what Kammara Sambhavam, finally, is: the story of a man who invents a series of “lies” in order to take revenge. (Now think about the fact that this man is played by Dileep, and reflect on how much more meta the movie just got. The first half calls Kammaran Nambiar a villain, like MN Nambiar. The second half resuscitates him as a hero, like MGR. Could you get more reel/real than that?)
In other words, the off-screen Dileep plays himself on screen, an actor who plays a movie character based on Kammaran Nambiar, who’s played by… Dileep.
And once we are on to Kammaran, the pace picks up. The pre-interval cross-cutting between three sets of events really works, and then comes the surprise of the second half. The actors from the first half play different roles in the “movie” shown in the second half. Characters named Himanshu and Maheshwari turn into very different people, with very different destinies. Events – a hanging, Gandhi’s visit to Madurai, the way a character loses a finger – are echoed in new ways, and the detailing is marvellously dense, right down to the identity of the person who likes to chew betel leaves in the first half versus who it is in the second half. The dialogues merit a close listen, too. First half: “This country is my mother.” Second half: “This country’s destruction is my bride.” And the latter line is uttered in Hindi.
The movie version of Kammaran’s life is a commentary on a different kind of “lie,” the kind sold by our macho masala cinema. (And because nobody reads anymore, and because what’s on screen is readily believed, cinema becomes… “history.”) The fights become more unreal, the performances more camp, the dialogues more heroic, and the music (Gopi Sundar) larger than life. In the first half, we meet Kammaran as an old man in bed. In the movie version, his character gets a hero-introduction scene, riding a bike and chomping on a cigar. I thought I saw a couple of nods to Iruvar, another movie about the potent cinema/politics mix — in an elaborately choreographed song where the hero is hailed as a friend to the poor and downtrodden, and in a scene where he’s on the terrace and raises his hands before an adoring crowd below.
The cinematography (Sunil KS) and production design (Banglan) are outstanding — the real-life sequences don’t look like period sets, and the reel-life scenes resemble the prettified reality of a certain type of mainstream production. But Kammara Sambhavam is really the writer’s triumph. I could have lived without the political commentary, like the reason a character feels the British should never leave India: “If we get freedom, people will fight against each other in the name of pork and beef.” This feels too pointed, too real in a meta-masala movie. I was happier chuckling at the lower-hanging fruit. Ennu Ninte Moideen gets a sharp nudge in the ribs when Kammaran says he wants to watch the movie made on his life, and someone asks, “Do you think you are Kanchanamala?” Well, in a way, he is, isn’t he? Real life passes on. A movie, on the other hand, is forever. It’s… history.