During Pongal 1994, The Kamal Haasan-Starrer ‘Mahanadhi’ Tackled A Number Of Philosophical Questions

When released in 1994, Mahanadhi was considered a Sivaji Ganesan-type tearjerker, and it met with a very mild reception. After close to 25 years of the film’s release, I decided to revisit it, owing to a very intense epiphany I experienced during a morning commute to office.

As an upright citizen of this country, typically raised in middle class ethos, the contrast between what my parents taught me during my formative years and how the world ultimately turned out to be when I grew up, is something I have been grappling with for a while. I was taught to never lie, never covet something that belongs to another, never underestimate the ubiquitous influence of God, and so on.

When I entered into my twenties, the world seemed to work on completely different principles. I felt that most children were programmed with morality and ethics so that a ‘dominant minority’ could make a living solely by not adhering to those values. In other words, when most are programmed to not steal, the majority is eliminated from the race, and it becomes easy for the dominant minority to make a killing out of the situation.

During Pongal 1994, The Kamal Haasan-Starrer ‘Mahanadhi’ Tackled A Number Of Philosophical Questions

I remember a very powerful scene in Mahanadhi, when Panchapakesan (Poornam Vishwanathan) advises Krishna (Kamal Haasan) to not worry about the state of affairs in the world, since there is a God above who knows exactly how to deal with criminals and wrongdoers. But Krishna scowls in response, ‘Could you please keep quiet, Sir? Both God and the Law are silently looking at what is happening to me’ (Neenga konjam summa irunga Sir! Nindru kolra deivamum summa irukku; andru kollum sattamum summa irukku)

Krishna’s response is befitting, given that he has lost everything central to his life, including his own children, for no fault of his, and here comes an old man trying to pacify him with sermons about the grace and infallibility of God. Mahanadhi is a great tale of personal tragedy, but a line that challenges the very notion of God was something I felt did not belong in the typical sentimental tearjerker. This incongruity struck me as an epiphany and so, I decided to revisit the film. And, this essay happened.

Let us first examine the story. Krishna is a rich widower living in a rural village Tirunageswaram with his mother-in-law and children. He accidentally meets Dhanush (Hanifa) a businessman from the city who invites him to invest in his business to quickly multiply his earnings. Krishna aspires for an urban lifestyle and sells his property in the village and entrusts all the money to Dhanush, who is actually a broker of a bigger businessman in the city. Krishna is soon cheated by Dhanush and lands in jail for defrauding the public who invested in his company. Krishna meets fellow prisoner Panchapakesan, whose daughter Yamuna (Sukanya) turns out to be his prospective bride. Krishna suffers in jail while his children are separated. Dhanush sells the daughter Kaveri to a brothel in Calcutta while the son Bharani joins a band of street performers. Back after a three-year jail term, Krishna traces his children, finds Dhanush, kills him and his boss.

The story, as you can see, appears too long to be narrated within a span of 150 minutes, and the effort to compress the narrative shows up on screen quite often. There is no proper arc on how a stranger like Dhanush manages to win the trust of Krishna so quickly. The machinations by which Krishna is defrauded are also not properly dealt with.

Similarly, in the second half of the film, the search for the  children is not prolonged. All of these would have been called out as ‘problems’ in the film’s pacing had Mahanadhi been intended and written purely as a revenge drama. But, it is not one.

The film has more than five scenes where questions on law, morals and God are openly debated. In the scene between Panchapakesan and Krishna described above, a police constable Muthusamy (Rajesh) also joins in to give his own view. He contends that every individual in this society is a criminal, and, hence, no one possesses the right to accuse the other.

The scene ends there, but Krishna takes the discussion forward later during a walk with Panchapakesan on the Cooum bridge. Krishna compares society to the river, where everything is stinking; as a result, individuals have no qualms in adding to the stench by defiling it further, he says. Panchapakesan tells Krishna that the stench of the (literal) Cooum is unbearable, and requests him to walk away; he reluctantly complies. No other scene in the film talks explicitly about the title Mahanadhi as much as this one.

Later, after Kaveri (Sangeetha) has been rescued and brought home, she talks in her sleep about her gruelling life in the brothel. The scene turns melodramatic, but not in ways one would expect. Krishna and Yamuna wail over the sorry state of affairs in ‘society’ rather than just brood over their predicament. Their conversation dwells on the sad absurdity of the human condition of the poor and the honest being victimised time and again by a society on whose backs the rich and the unprincipled latch themselves on to move to greater heights without suffering even the smallest consequences of their actions.

These scenes, I believe, are the reasons why the film exists in the first place, and it is fair to conclude that the story has been written around these philosophical questions, marking a strong departure from the conventional method of exploring the moral periphery around a pre-written story. Therefore, the film’s pacing appears to be a very conscious decision that befits the structure of the content in question.

The film, essentially, is a deep meditation on the question of God. The first time the film touches upon this is when Panchapakesan asks whether Krishna is religious, as soon as they become fellow inmates. Krishna implies he is agnostic, but his flashback and the song ‘Sri Ranga Ranganaathanin’  shows he was once a believer. 

When Krishna lands in a minor scuffle with Dhanush the first time they meet, some villagers rush to his rescue. Kamal the writer emphasises Krishna’s divine place in his village through a series of shots of opening doors and gates that remind us of Vaikuntam, the heavenly abode of Vishnu. Krishna’s ability to drum up so much support among villagers is contrasted by the way he is precariously cornered and manhandled by the swelling mob of cheated depositors in the city.

When Krishna lands in jail, we see that the hapless inmates are continuously being harassed by the jail warden and badly await a saviour. Krishna soon fills the void, and the iconic interval shot where a weapon-wielding Krishna towers over the large multitudes and is lit by a ray of shimmering sunlight shows his ascent back into divine immortality.

After his release from prison, the nods to God and his Bergmanian ‘silence’ are visible throughout the film. After rescuing his daughter, when he is confronted by the pimps and other inmates, he carries her in his hands and runs backward, dashing against a wall that bears a picture of Kali.

Towards the climax, just before Krishna breaks into the house of the villain, we see temple trustees who request the presence of businessman Venkatachalam for the Kumbabhishekham, and thank him for his generous donation. This, I believe, exposes the nexus between the custodians of religion and the accumulators of capital, who feed off each other to make a healthy living.

Returning to the discussion among Krishna, Panchapakesan and Muthusamy, Krishna accepts the constable’s argument that most people in society are criminals who differ in just varying degrees of criminality. He makes a statement in the subsequent scene that even when society is subjected to a large-scale nuclear attack, he wouldn’t bother too much about it, since a majority are criminals who deserve to be killed that way.

In a revenge drama, and in such a rare moral conundrum, you would expect a morally disillusioned Krishna to embark on a killing spree to avenge his fate, akin to Kattradhu Tamizh‘s Prabhakaran. But that’s precisely the point of inflection where Krishna’s transformation from an incipient sociopath to a rational humanist begins. If you observe, the argument of the police constable is something typical of our middle classes. Equating a commoner’s act of bribing a government official for obtaining a community certificate with the act of a rich pervert exploiting young girls to satiate his libido is a foolish argument. This fallacy is what the rest of the film intends to expose.

During Pongal 1994, The Kamal Haasan-Starrer ‘Mahanadhi’ Tackled A Number Of Philosophical Questions

In the very next scene, Krishna spots his son among a band of street performers led by a platform dweller Mannangatti (Thalaivasal Vijay). He’s cared for Bharani for two years, and breaks down when Krishna takes him back. Not just that, his astonishing refusal to accept money for the act of kindness is nothing but a solid strike at the heart of Muthusamy’s argument.

Later in Calcutta, when Krishna is surrounded by sex workers and pimps when he’s escaping with Kaveri, a senior lady beseeches other the women to compensate the pimps for the losses incurred due to Kaveri’s sudden departure. She takes it upon herself to formally initiate her release by offering her contribution first. Others follow suit, while a friend of Kaveri’s rushes to mark her forehead with kumkum, possibly symbolic of her return into the fold of ‘acceptable’ society. She calls Krishna ‘appa’ and plants a kiss on his cheek, leaving him awash with tears and gratitude.

By this time, Krishna is a transformed man with a refined perspective on humanity. He is able to differentiate between who is evil and who is not. The climax goes on to re-establish his new-found wisdom, where Dhanush, to everyone’s surprise, is dealt with by Krishna quite ‘humanely’, though he’s responsible for all his tragedy. He is finished off with a single blow, and that too only when he senses his intent to sabotage his plans.

Krishna is very very clear about who manoeuvres the levers of power in this grand network of greed and treachery, and focusses on Venkatachalam. When Krishna reveals his intent to kill him, Venkatachalam desperately asks: “Why do you want to kill me instead of taking it out on Dhanush, who is responsible for everything?” Krishna gives the film’s most radical conclusion very succinctly. “Dhanush is innocent, he is just the butcher. You are the one who demands the flesh of children”.

This sequence completes Krishna’s arc from that of a gullible village idol to a radical social vigilante. The film, which initially sets out to place the whole blame of society’s pestilence on all of its members, ends on a radically different note, striking vehemently at the root of empires run by rapacious businessmen and unscrupulous capitalists. The climactic shot where Krishna severs his chained left arm to trigger the fatal fall of Venkatachalam appears to suggest even more vague yet deep implications.

Towards the end, Mahanadhi, which opens with an aerial view of the Cooum, closes with a shot of the gushing Cauvery that runs through the rural hinterland, nourishing the soil with its innate purity and holiness.

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