Disclaimer: I haven’t watched Katha Parayumbol. I plan to at the earliest available opportunity. However, I plan to evaluate Kuselan on its own terms.
Literally everyone I spoke to who had watched Kuselan told me the same thing: It’s not a Rajni movie. Most of their voices were laced with a tinge of disappointment. Apparently, the box office agrees with that assessment. While it is entirely possible that ticket sales will pick up over time, the fate of the movie, I hear, is not so promising thus far.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want it to be a Rajni movie.
Now, I enjoy Rajni’s brand of entertainment — insofar as I am treated to an undiluted product, such as with Baasha. And I can see why Rajni would be the perfect choice for this story of a poor barber and his childhood friend who became a superstar. Given the sort of adulation the man enjoys among the masses in Tamil Nadu, you pretty much couldn’t have cast anyone else in the role. But the way I see it, the only way this movie could possibly have worked is if Rajni’s involvement had been kept a secret until the release date.That way, one might have been able to minimize the Rajni Movie expectations, and also make a movie whose center of gravity isn’t skewed by his presence.
Which is a pity, because Kuselan is a fairly good movie about the barber, stuck inside a half-hearted attempt to be a movie about the superstar as well. The former is about how the barber’s already impoverished life changes, and not quite for the better, when it becomes known throughout the village that he is a childhood friend of the superstar who is filming a movie nearby. Just about everyone around him wants a favour (meeting the man, getting him to attend a school function, making a movie with him), and is willing to trade favours for it. The barber himself is loath to accept or dole out favours.
His fear is that the star may not recognize him, or even if he did, might think that he is there asking for a favour. Without really being in-your-face about it, Pasupathy portrays the barber Balu as a self-effacing yet strongly principled man who is suddenly faced with a dilemma not of his own making. The scenes that detail this conflict are interestingly done — they concentrate so much on other people’s perception of the friendship (and what it can do for them), that you never really get a sense of how well the barber knew the star. There is also the usual quota of skeptics who believe that the barber is trying to hitch his wagon to an infinitely more famous one. And as the hangers-on begin to find that Balu is not going to be able to do anything for them, they turn against him.
That the superstar would finally recognize his old friend was a no-brainer. But I was surprised by how much it moved me. I attribute it to two things: Pasupathy and my grandfather.
The former is easy to explain. Over the years, Pasupathy has grown into a fantastic character actor. I loved him in Virumaandi, despaired when he was reduced to playing generic villains shotung Aaeeii at heroes every five minutes, relieved when he did movies like Majaa (otherwise unremarkable) and Veyil (much better choice)… Kuselan represents probably his best work to date. The movie is painted in broad strokes, and the material feels overwritten and overplayed for the most part. But there is never a moment when he isn’t believable. His performance elevates the movie.
As for the latter, it was my grandfather who told me the story of Kuselan when I was a kid. He used to draw it out in loving detail, and although I knew how it ended, it delighted me every time. Maybe Arundhati Roy was right: the secret to the great stories is that there are no secrets.
I have not spoken of the superstar so far. He is named Ashok Kumar in the movie, but it is obvious that Rajni is playing himself, or at least the version of himself that people want to see. There are all kinds of self-referential quips and inside jokes. (My favourite is a scene featuring a photograph of Rajni from his debut movie, while the title track from Aboorva Raagangal plays in the background. At that point in the movie, the words shruti bhedam come to mind automatically.) There is even a sort of interview where he responds to a lot of questions that people have about him — his visits to the Himalayas, his veiled statements about his political aspirations…
The good thing is, his performance itself comes across as relaxed and refreshing. You see a man at ease with both his stardom and his humanity. There is a moment right at the end when Balu tells him that he felt, in some way, inferior because of his obvious lack of success. The way he responds to that statement surprised me — it was unexpected, yet absolutely perfect.
What derails the movie a little bit is all the baggage that comes with him being in the movie. There are a few song sequences that have no place in the narrative. That they feature a gorgeous-looking Nayantara is something of a bonus. But much of that material could have been trimmed and the movie would have been all the better for it.
However, while these things made me want to go at the celluloid with a pair of scissors, on the whole, I quite liked the movie. The trick, I guess, is to read the title carefully. Look for Kuselan and you will find enough to like.