“People tell me I’m narcissistic but I disagree; if I were to identify with a figure from Greek mythology it wouldn’t be Narcissus, it would be Zeus.”
-Sandy Bates (Stardust Memories)
“If it’s a wedding, I must be the groom. If it’s a mourning, I must be the corpse.”
Prometheus, punished for his transgression of the divine laws of Creation, must be one of the most crucial symbols of modernity and is certainly something of a patron saint for modernist art. In this proto-democrat is incarnated the secular myth of the artist as creator, as opposed to the artist as messenger. The legend that looms over Uttama Villain is that of Hiranyakashipu, the illicit child of Prometheus and Narcissus, in whom the actor-writer of the film, Kamal Haasan, sees an alter ego. Now Hiranya was – or rather is – a special one. He is not only in love with himself, but wants the entire world to worship him. But then, in Kamal’s inverted version of the myth, Hinranya is a hero, the artist figure who cheats death and achieves immortality, the implication being that a profound narcissism must lie at the heart of all artistic enterprise. This is as close to a self-defense from Kamal Haasan as we are going to get.
The film opens with a mirrored image – a reverse shot of a projector in a movie hall – signaling its strictly behind-the-scenes ambition. Kamal plays Manoranjan, a popular star churning out vacuous movies who is jolted out of his passivity by the news of imminent death. He wants to make one last film with his estranged mentor Margadarsi (K Balachander) – the one he wants to be remembered by. There is hardly anything that needs unveiling here. Here’s the sixty-year old actor, contemplating aging, death, fame, relevance and legacy, placing his self squarely in the foreground, without really sliding it behind a curtain of impersonal entertainment like he usually does. This is part of the reason why Uttama Villain falls more in line with European auteur cinema than with the multi-authorial, generic cinema of movie industries.
The other, more surprising trait that situates the film in the arthouse tradition is its narrative construction. Unlike any of Kamal’s recent pictures, the three-hour long Uttama Villain takes its own time to unfold – ironic enough for a film about the lack of time. Scenes breathe easy. Transitions between public and private spaces take place like clockwork. There are no twists, no revelations, no withheld pleasures. In other words: no poisonous vials, no ticking bombs, no safely-guarded secrets. Throughout the film, there is no additional information that the characters know which the audience doesn’t. This atypical lack of any narrative legerdemain is amazing, for it means that there are no big emotional payoffs that await the audience. This is probably Kamal’s riskiest script to date. On the other hand, there are redundant scenes, those whose objectives have been already either established or well understood. For instance, the earliest bits with Jacob Zachariah (Jayaram) or those featuring Manoranjan’s manager (M S Bhaskar).
At a late point in the film, Manoranjan points at a tree of life chart hanging on the wall in his cabin containing the photographs of those close to him. He says it would help him not forget these people. This, of course, appears to be the very intention behind Uttama Villain: a tree of life project of its own that brings together important individuals close to Kamal personally and professionally (barely an actor here who hasn’t worked with Kamal before). More importantly, this is an attempt by the actor to narrativize his own life and to place himself in a personal and professional continuum. When his daughter (Parvathy Menon) hints that he is the villain in her life, Manoranjan quips that he is trying to be a hero in his own. This film is a veritable response to the question “Who is Kamal Haasan?” posed by those around him, sure, but also himself.
There are numerous precedents to this type of confessional cinema – Wild Strawberries (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), 8 ½ (1963), Startdust Memories (1980), Deconstructing Harry (1997), and more pertinently here, All That Jazz (1979), of which a great writer once wrote: “There is something convenient and self-pitying about artists using their works as confessionals, where a modicum of inbuilt repentance tries to fish for unwarranted redemption, but there’s also something irresistibly human and disarming about it.” And there lies the rub. For a work that seeks to bare it all, Uttama Villain is astonishingly anodyne and unblemished. There is nothing about it that portrays Manoranjan/Kamal (there is little reason to doubt the congruity between these two personalities) as anything other than a nice bloke caught in wrong circumstances, none of the honesty and messiness that comes with this type of personal cinema. This is not as much Kamal Haasan opening himself up to us as it is him telling himself the story of his own life. There is certainly a lot of intimately personal material in here, whose truth can only be judged by those very close to the actor, but, for the outsider, the overwhelming impression is that of a martyred saint. One always senses a remove, a separating wall between his true self and the sort of self-portrait he paints here. It is as though Kamal can’t stop acting even in his real life, as though he can’t step out of the character of Kamal Haasan that he is playing every day and kill it, at least a bit. Immortality is indeed tragic.
PS: I realize that I have not even mentioned the elephant in the room: the film within the film. I liked this segment, with its pleasant use of traditional forms and their innate expositional superfluity, and wondered what a full-length children’s movie from Kamal would look like today. The segues into and out of this track, in particular, are fantastic in the way they bridge narratives of vastly varied visual and emotional textures. More interestingly, it presents us a Kamal Haasan we rarely see these days: vulnerable, self-deprecating, less than perfect, pawn of nature and fate. I take it that the story of this section forms a counterpoint to that of Manoranjan in oblique ways and helps posit the various dualities that underpin this project, specifically, and Kamal’s filmography, in general. I find it unrewarding, not to mention to be complicit in stoking the Kamal Haasan cult, to go into the specifics, but let me just say this: The final, downbeat shot of the film – a zoom into the actor’s grainy face on screen strongly echoing for me the last shot of Altman’s Buffalo Bill (1976) – is something I never expected from Kamal Haasan at this point in his career. It is a moment that throws into question both my view of the man and all the sureties that the film has been hitherto standing on. It is the only truly equivocal image of in film in which everything else is set on a platter for academic interpretation. Has Manoranjan indeed conquered death through his art? Is immortality a product of individual enterprise? Is having your image projected on a screen for eternity immortality at all? What does it mean to live on as a shadow without body? Hell if I know.