Following post is about the Tamil movie “Uttama Villain”.
I wouldn’t call “Uttama Villain” a must watch, but if you are into comedy-dramas and like the sort of philosophical movies Kamal Hassan’s mind cooks up then it’s a must watch! It’s not for everyone as it’s not a typical commercial movie; at the same time it’s not dry either. Think “Inception” but less special effects and a but more viewer involvement required.
The movie has layers. And it plays upon comparing and contrasting these layers. Each layer is good on its own but the movie is about the whole picture. It’s like having a “gajjar ka halwa / gulab jamun – ice cream” combination. The sum is larger than the parts.
To begin with: the title itself isn’t what you would expect it to be. I thought “Uttama Villain” meant “Ideal Villain” – I expected “Uttama” to be the trait, such as in “Uttama Purushan” (“Ideal Man”), and “Villain” to be the English word. But that’s not correct. “Villain” is actually “Archer” – it is from the word “Vill” (“Arrow”), as in “Ambum Villum” (“Bow and Arrow”), and “Uttama” is simply a name “Uttama” short for “Uttaman”. Hence the title really is “Uttaman the Archer”.
That said once you watch the movie I think the title has a double meaning. I think the misleading title “Ideal Villain” (which makes you think this is some action flick) isn’t entirely misleading; in a sense the movie is also about the ideal villain – death (and it’s counter part immortality) as well as Kamal Hassan’s character (Manoranjan the actor) who is a villain (sort of: supposedly dumped the girl he loved, broke off with his mentor director, unhappy family relationships, extra marital affairs) but by the end everyone loves him.
I am not really explaining it well here because I can’t find the right words and partly because I am still processing it. This is one of those movies which you watch again just to enjoy and glean the subtleties.
At one level “Uttama Villain” is about a dying actor who realizes he has screwed it up. He is popular in public thanks to his commercial, movies but he knows that that doesn’t mean anything of substance. Once he dies people who’ll forget him. He is just a fad, hollow, there’s nothing of worth in his life. Added to that he discovers he had abandoned the woman he loved and their daughter (whom he wasn’t aware of). His family relationships aren’t going great. And he has broken off and is fighting with his mentor whose movies had initially made him famous. All said and done not a good life, and one that’s ending soon.
On that level he is a villain (a bad character). As with villains they have a great public life but a sucky private life. Not loved by anyone. And easily replaced by the next villain that will come along.
On this level he too has a villain – death. The perfect villain. He wants to beat that by achieving immortality. You can’t do that in the physical sense of course, but you can be immortal in the sense that there are people who love you and will miss you after your death. Making amends in his personal life will help that. And in his public/ work life he could make a movie of substance for which people will remember him even after he is long gone.
Now we get to the next level (it’s a parallel level really). This is the movie Kamal Hassan the actor (his name’s Manoranjan, I should just start calling him that) wants to make. This is a comedy – he wants to go out making everyone laughing. This movie is also called “Uttama Villain” – in the second meaning of the title, “Uttaman the Archer”.
On paper this inner movie is simple. Uttaman is an actor (not an archer!). He practices a form of the Kerala theyyam dance form (also known as kaliyattam) fused with Tamil koothattu. The movie begins with Uttaman enacting the story of Arjuna and Shiva – where Arjuna is asking Shiva for the pashupati astra. (This is the sense in which Uttaman is an archer). The play breaks up when some incidents happen, and through a series of incidents after that everyone begins to think Uttaman is immortal. (Notice the juxtaposition – a dying Manoranjan playing an immortal Uttaman – while trying to attain immortality in a different sense himself).
At the same time there’s a king – who became king through treachery (akin to how Manoranjan became popular) – and is expected to die according to his astrologers). He wants to become immortal and gets Uttaman to his court so he can learn the secret of immortality from him. In a sense this king – the villain of this story – is a personification of the villain element in Manoranjan, while Uttaman is the idealness that Manoranjan aspires to be. Eventually the idealness wins over the villainness (by the end of the story) when Uttaman kills the king.
This story also has a princess – daughter of the previous king – whom the villain king wants to marry. She hates the king and is thus imprisoned. She helps Uttaman appear immortal (by helping him escape from a tiger) and aids him in defeating the king. I see her as a personification of Manoranjan’s daughter. She hates him (the villain side of him) but eventually starts to love him after she sees how much he loved her mother but was tricked (which plays along with Uttaman starting to love the princess and she liking him in return).
In addition to these two levels the climax has a third story which was really cool. That really blew me away! In this one Uttaman tells the king he needs to make a play to attain immortality – sort of how Manoranjan is making a movie to attain a different sort of immortality. The play is about Hiranyakashyapu – an interesting choice coz (a) he is immortal and (b) the story is usually told from Prahalad’s point of view. In this story Uttaman is supposed to play Narasimham and the king Hiranyakashyapu, and in the finale Uttaman would kill the king with his poisoned claws. In a change of plans however, the king decides to play Narasimham as that character has no dialogues and is the one that doesn’t die, so Uttaman ends up being Hiranyakashyapu and likely to end up really dead because of the poisoned claws. But in a turn of events the king (Narasimham) ends up scratching himself and dying with Uttaman (Hiranyakashyapu) surviving. This is a twist on the real story of Hiranyakashyapu and Narasimham but it works well here coz in this context Evil has died and Good has triumphed. And Uttaman escapes unharmed – once again he seems to be immortal – and the movie of Uttaman turns out to well (the director and everyone else likes it) implying Manoranjan will be immortal, while in reality he dies.
I liked how the climax chose the Hiranyakashyapu story. I can’t place a finger on why I liked it very much just that it feels very “meta” and I like how it is twisted around. It is in line with everything else in the movie – a layer within a layer, meta of a meta.
One part didn’t make much sense to me though. Once Uttaman kills the king it is revealed that he is the neighboring kingdom’s king. That doesn’t make much sense to me, especially considering how Uttaman was introduced and also because it seemed like a waste of time going to this lengths just to kill the king. It probably has some meta significance that I am not getting.
That’s all for now. Check out “Uttama Villain” if you think you like such movies.
Update: Came across this blog post that goes into further detail about the plot and the movie within the movie. A must read!
Update 2: A special mention to the music by Mohammad Ghibran. I read somewhere that he took a year and half to come up with the music. Am not surprised! It is very well done and the music, lyrics, and singing are a huge part of the movie.