Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anegan… beneath the tree where I died

By sheer coincidence, just a few days before I saw Anegan I happened to watch the X-Files episode titled “The Field Where I Died.” In the episode, Agents Mulder and Scully try to stop a doomsday cult from committing mass suicide while Mulder is confronted with evidence that he and one of the cult members may have known each other in a past life. What I enjoyed about this episode--and in many of the best X-Files episodes--is that the viewer is left to draw her own conclusions. Was it two souls meeting again in a different life or does Mulder just believe every crazy idea that wanders in his direction? The evidence goes both ways, depending on how you look at it.

K.V. Anand pulls off that delicious X-Files-ian sense of unresolved mystery with aplomb in Anegan, the third film of his I’ve seen so far. Anand has a knack for melding masala and mystery with deeper issues. These aren’t just mindless entertainers. Ko tackled political corruption while, also, featuring some really great song sequences. Maattrraan was about the dangers of genetic engineering and Surya’s amazing--and more touching than it had any right to be--performance as conjoined twins. Now, we have my favorite Dhanush in a film that melds mystery, drama, filmi nostalgia, and… complex thoughts on the nature of our fantasies.

The film begins in Burma just before the expulsion of the Tamil population in 1962. Dhanush is Murugappa, a poor Tamil laborer who saves the peppy, wealthy, Sadhana-fringed Samudhra (Amyra Dastur) from certain death. Samudhra is smitten with her swarthy rescuer and, quite understandably, pursues him with all her might. The two fall in love over a very nice travelogue song but all is not well in Rangoon. The military seizes power; the Tamils are expelled; and Murugappa and Samudhra are forcibly parted, to tragic effect.

Or are they? Burma fades away to reveal a psychiatrist’s office. Samudrha is really Madhu, a peppy, wealthy, modern girl who works in the upper echelons of an IT company. The previous 40 minutes were all in her mind. A past life! With romantic dreams of Burma still filling her mind, Madhu latches onto Ashwin, one of the computer tech drones in her building, who happens to look just like her Murugappa.

The next section all takes place in the modern era. Ashwin is alternately annoyed at Madhu’s fantasies and attracted by her openheartedness. He finds himself falling for her almost despite himself. But a tragic accident once again sends the film careening into the past--this time Chennai in the 1980s.

Dhanush is Kaali, a 1980s hero with 1980s hair, and he’s introduced to us in a big, old-fashioned hero introduction song. There’s violence, gangsters, kiln-fired gods, and a beautiful, beatific, peace-loving heroine, Kalyani (Amyra). Again the lovers are forcibly separated, to tragic effect. But this time the consequences spill into the present. Madhu instinctively knows where to find two bodies buried under a tree. How? Why? And what does the scar-faced Inspector Gopinath (Ashish Vidyarthi) know about it?

Anand gives us four settings--mythological film, modern Chennai-set trendy film, 1960s style film, and a 1980s mass film. Each setting is treated exactly like the films of the time, down to plotting, characters, costuming. Anand does it all straight. I don’t know enough about older Tamil films to pick up specific references but having seen quite a few Hindi films of the 1960s and 1980s, I can recognize the determined, powerful 1960s heroine; the macho, forceful 1980s hero. Each was done to perfection. Amyra was delightful as the plucky 1960s protagonist, her eyes aglow with mischief and Dhanush was divine as the swaggering 1980s Kaali. And Anand picks the best of each era for the song picturizations. A 1980s hero introduction, a 1960s falling-in-love-with-flowers, a mythological sequence in nature, and a cheeky, modern club song featuring the droll lyric “YOLO,” as in “you only live once.” Ahem.

But at the heart of Anegan is this idea of fantasy. The fact that Madhu and Ashwin work for a video game company selling prefab ideas to us, that Madhu’s visions of past lives all take the form of films we’ve seen before, what does it say about us? Are we content to sit and gobble up what’s served, dwelling inside our own heads, or should we be out interacting with the world? As Madhu gets more stuck up in her own fantasies, the less appealing she becomes. It’s the Madhu who is kind to and engaged with people that is the Madhu we like. But, on the other hand, Ashwin’s complete dismissal of Madhu’s visions is also extremely unappealing. To be frank, he’s kind of a dick until he starts to see things her way… at least a little bit. Without the idealism, the peaceful “fantasy” of 1980s Kalyani to temper the 1980s Kaali, he’s nothing but a swaggering, 1980s dick. Without the romance, the emotional “fantasy” of 1960s Samudrha, the 1960s Murugappa would be just be nothing but a manual laborer. And without the spiritual element, the dreamy “fantasy” of 2010s Madhu, 2010s Ashwin has nothing but his graphics card to come home to. We can’t let fantasy dictate our lives but we can’t live without it either.

(And I couldn’t find her name but a huge shoutout to the actress playing Dhanush’s very practical younger sister. She was hilarious.)

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