Last week, chatting with a group of friends (equally mad about old cinema) on Facebook, I was stumped by a quiz question posted by one of them. Which was the first Indian language feature film to be made without any songs? Most of us who attempted to answer that question could only think of Hindi films, and the earliest Hindi non-songs film we came up with was Kanoon (1960). That wasn’t the answer—the correct answer was the Tamil film Andha Naal (That Day), made six years before Kanoon, and (like Kanoon) blending suspense—in the form of a murder mystery—with weighty issues about society and politics.
[Edited to add: According to blog reader and blogger AK, of Songs of Yore, the correct answer to that question is actually the 1937 Wadia Movietone film Naujawan].
That quiz question made me remember that I had Andha Naal sitting in my to-watch pile of DVDs, and it was all the impetus I needed to finally get around to watching this film.
Directed by S Balachander, Andha Naal begins with a voiceover, the gist of which is that the story is set in 1943. It is night, and Chennai [yes, it’s actually referred to as Chennai, rather than as Madras] is being bombed by the Japanese.
The actual action in the film starts off very dramatically: a man (Sivaji Ganesan), looking straight into the camera, stumbles at the sound of a gunshot. He looks shocked, surprised—and falls to the ground, dead. His murderer (whom we do not see) flings the revolver down next to the dead man’s feet. The camera zooms out, to show the corpse lying on the carpeted floor of a posh-looking home.
We next see a short, balding little man (PD Sambandam) race down a flight of stairs and run onto the road outside, looking terrified. He is soon stopped by a passing police patrol, and Inspector Naidu (?) asks him what the matter is. It emerges that the man is named Chinnaiah, and that he is running to the police station to report a crime—the murder of his neighbour, a radio engineer named Rajan.
Chinnaiah realises, now that he’s calmed down [only slightly] that he is, after all, talking to a cop, so he takes Inspector Naidu and the jeepload of constables to Rajan’s bungalow, to show them the body. It’s on the first floor of Rajan’s house.
Naidu makes a quick round of the place, all the while getting one of his men to note down the inspector’s observations: there’s a large, open [and, significantly, empty] box (which looks rather like a safe) in one wall of the room. There’s a generator nearby, and on the table is a suitcase full of clothes and bundles of currency notes. Near the table lies the corpse, and beside the corpse’s foot is a revolver.
Chinnaiah, who had been sent off by Naidu to find the other members of the household, enters to say that they’ve gathered downstairs and are waiting for the inspector. Naidu instructs one of his men to get things under way—take photographs, send the body for a post-mortem, etc—and follows Chinnaiah outside, to where the other members of Rajan’s household are waiting.
These include Rajan’s tearful widow Usha (Pandari Bai); his younger brother Pattabi (TK Balachandran), Pattabi’s shrewish wife Hema (Menaka), and Pattabi and Hema’s little son (? A cute little fellow, who I wish had more screen time).
Naidu, after a while, returns to the scene of the crime—only to discover that the revolver has disappeared!
[Which, as it turns out, is just a brief ‘huh?’ moment, since it allows us to be introduced to a new character, the detective, who now emerges from behind a drawn curtain. Why his trousers look as if he’s preparing for the floods is anybody’s guess].
The detective—CID officer Shivanandam (Jawar N Sitaraman, who, besides having written the screenplay of Andha Naal, was the writer of some popular Hindi films, including Bhai-Bhai, Do Kaliyaan, Suraj, and Aadmi)—has come in response to the murder’s being reported. While Naidu’s been talking to Rajan’s family, Shivanandam has been looking around the room, and at Rajan’s corpse. He’s picked up the revolver, and has discovered that there aren’t any fingerprints on it. The murderer, obviously, is no fool.
The two police officers discuss matters on their own; Shivanandam gives Naidu instructions to obtain the fingerprints of everybody present.
On their way out, they come across Chinnaiah, and decide to have a chat with him. Chinnaiah is willing, and has his own theory about who did Rajan in.
Chinnaiah goes on to elaborate. It seems the two brothers were quarrelling over the division of their inheritance. Rajan had appropriated all the wealth after the death of their father, and even though Pattabi had been demanding his share, Rajan hadn’t done anything about it. Now Pattabi had reached the end of his tether, and in a fit of rage, threatened to kill Rajan if Rajan didn’t hand over Pattabi’s rightful share of the money.
Chinnaiah now proceeds to give his version of how Pattabi might have murdered Rajan. Even the cops have seen that Rajan’s suitcase was packed, with his clothes and lots of money. Rajan, seeing Japanese bombs begin to rain down on Chennai, must have decided that this was the time to flee—with the money, including Pattabi’s share. And Pattabi, suddenly entering the room and realizing what was happening, must have tried to stop him and demand his money…
There, case solved. At least as far as Chinnaiah is concerned.
Shivanandam and Naidu, however, are more circumspect. They collar Pattabi and confront him with the eye witness’s account of the quarrel in the garage. Pattabi does not deny it; yes, there had been such a quarrel. But he had never really meant what he said; it was said in the heat of the moment.
Instead [and this may come as a surprise to those who think families should stick by each other], Pattabi has his own ideas about who killed Rajan: Pattabi’s own wife, Hema.
Hema, says Pattabi, is very hot-headed. Following the quarrel in the garage, one day at the dining table, Hema confronted Rajan and accused him of trying to cheat Pattabi. Rajan had arrived early for the meal, so Hema—serving him his thali—was the only one around; neither of them knew that Pattabi, in the next room, could hear their conversation.
Hema lost her temper, and told Rajan that she would do anything to ensure that her little son wasn’t cheated out of a bright future because of an avaricious uncle. Rajan’s reaction was that of the proverbial duck with water on its back: Hema’s rant poured right off, leaving him seemingly unaffected.
Pattabi now presents his theory to Shivanandam and Naidu: Hema must have come into the room while Rajan was busy packing up to leave Chennai after the bombing. She must have realized that Rajan was going to decamp with all the money, and in a fit of anger, she must have killed Rajan. That’s what must have happened. [What a fine, upstanding citizen Pattabi is. Not a very loyal husband, but still].
So Shivanandam and Naidu go off to question Hema. And, while she agrees that she did get very angry at Rajan at the dining table, she denies that she killed him. In fact [and why does this come as no surprise?] she is certain she knows who did.
Hema tells the two police officers that four days earlier, she had been out, walking past a park, when she saw Rajan in the park with a woman. Hema was curious and stopped close enough to overhear their conversation. From it, she gathered that the woman’s name was Ambujam (Suryakala), a dancer—and [horrors!] Rajan’s pregnant mistress.
Hema overheard Ambujam arguing with Rajan, begging him to make an honest woman of her by marrying her before her baby’s birth—but Rajan, other than a weak “Do you think I will desert you?”, did not show any inclination to accede to Ambujam’s wishes. Finally, angry at his obvious reluctance, a desperate Ambujam gave Rajan an ultimatum: three days, that was all the time she’d give him. Marry her within three days, or else.
That, thinks Hema, is why Rajan was killed—by Ambujam. Ambujam must have come to the house that morning, once the three days were over [Shivanandam interrupts to ask how an outsider could have entered the house without anyone else knowing, but Hema has no answer to that]. Ambujam must have discovered that Rajan was planning to leave Chennai, and in her desperation—and her anger at Rajan’s desertion—she must have murdered him.
Which basically means that Rajan could’ve been just as easily killed by Pattabi, by Hema, by Ambujam—and someone else? Everybody has their own idea of who would’ve had a motive for killing Rajan, and everybody has their own version of what would have happened. But who, actually, killed Rajan—and why?
I’d begun watching Andha Naal with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’d read good things about it: it had won a certificate as the 2nd Best Tamil Film at the National Awards; IBN Live had listed it on their 100 Greatest Indian films, and it had been highly acclaimed, both by critics and by the public.
On the other hand, I’d read that it was inspired by Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon (1950). From previous experience, I’ve seen that films inspired by (no matter to what extent) earlier, landmark, works end up being poor copies of the original.
Fortunately, Andha Naal—while it may employ the Rashomon Effect to some degree—is by no means a copy of Kurosawa’s film. It is, in fact, very different film. The setting and the plot are completely different. And (unlike in Rashomon, where different people who were present at a death give their own version of what happened), here it’s people surmising about what happened, even though they were not present. Chinnaiah, Pattabi, Hema, et al, were not [if you go by their testimonies] present when Rajan died. All they are giving Shivanandam is their own theories of what happened, based upon incidents which they had earlier witnessed. They are only guessing, not recounting what really happened on the night of Rajan’s death.
What I liked about this film:
The suspense in the first half. It’s fast-paced, and the twists and turns are very interesting: the film seems to be headed one way, then suddenly changes tack and goes off down another path, with one motive after another, one suspect after another, coming into the limelight. The fact that there aren’t any songs to dilute the pace and feel of the film adds to the experience.
The cinematography, by Maruthi Rao. The lighting and the angles are dramatic, the extreme close-ups very effective.
Incidentally, another small detail that I liked was the repeated death scene of Rajan. For each person who comes up with a theory about how and why Rajan was killed, the theory is acted out in what would amount to a sort of ‘noir dream sequence’—and in each sequence, the focus in the final frames is on Rajan, the surprise in his face as the bullet hits him and he crumples over, dead. It’s a memorable set of frames, even seen again and again—because it’s well filmed and well acted, and because till the end, you don’t know which of them was the actual death scene. Or even if it was one of them.
What I didn’t like:
The acting of some of the cast. While Sivaji Ganesan and Pandari Bai are mostly good, some of the others—especially TK Balachandran and Menaka—overact to the extent of being laughable. Even when it comes to Sivaji Ganesan and Pandari Bai, their acting is somewhat spotty: restrained in most places, but going over the edge and into the realm of hammy at times.
The second half of the film, which is given over to some very long and boring speeches (I will not say about what, since that might constitute a spoiler). It’s apparent that these speeches are here to firmly and without any room for doubt establish a plausible reason for Rajan’s death. The result, sadly, is that the speeches are far too protracted (which makes them a little unconvincing, thus defeating the purpose). Plus, they dilute the taut, fast-paced feel of the earlier half of the film.
The plot holes, regarding the murder itself. For example: with that much happening—shouting, much noise, etc—how could the other people present in the house (even if they had been downstairs) not have suspected something was happening? And how was it that a gunshot—heard by Chinnaiah in the next house—wasn’t heard by the members of Rajan’s household?
Still, Andha Naal is a decent suspense drama, and worth a watch if you like to see noir in different forms and languages.
Little bit of trivia:
While the film is songless (and mostly with no background music either), the instrumental versions of two popular Hindi film songs—Yeh zindagi usi ki hai and Chup-chup khade ho zaroor koi baat hai—can be heard in two scenes where Rajan and Ambujam meet.