Selva, who became a household name in the form of a cult extraordinaire, following the delayed but much deserved acclaim for his 2006 gangster drama Pudhupettai, was no stranger to having his films poorly received on their first outing. And the verdict for NGK was no different. The topic at discussion, is a comprehensive break- down and decoding of the story of Kumaran.
•The Ballad of Kumaran
Picture a scene from 10 years ago, when actor Suriya was at the top of his game. Fresh off his career defining performance from Gautham Vasudev Menon’s coming-of-age drama, Varanam Aayiram, Suriya was the front man for all the edgy pop-corn flicks of the two years that followed. Action-packed Ayan was Suriya’s launch pad into super-stardom, which was confirmed by the 2010 blockbuster Singham. It was quite a peculiar success graph Suriya showcased from then on as most of his films had divisive criticisms.
Despite the fallouts with his career, Suriya’s stardom was very much intact and prominent. So, a film directed by Selvaraghavan, starring one of the finest actors in the country, had every right to accumulate hype. The starting frame of the film shows Kumaran in a paddy field, digging while it rained. The title card reveals- “Suriya in and as NGK”, was as languid as can be in terms of added on special effects, background music etc. It was more of a confirmation, that the audience is in for a Selvaraghavan movie featuring Suriya and not vice-versa. The film’s golden-brown colour palette along with the dallying pace signified that the film is a Ballad.
A ballad by definition is a slow song that tells a story, and NGK was nothing short of that. The songs composed by Yuvan Shankar Raja were primarily expressions of the characters within the grand canvass created by the director. And Kumaran’s story began with hope, like most other stories. Hope for a land of good, devoid of greed and apathy. Yet despite his aspirations to be a good Samaritan and provide to the community, Kumaran is forced to join a cause he so despised for the benefit of those who relied on him. When his livelihood and aspirations were threatened for the benefit of the local political Nexus, Kumaran had no choice but to submit. He could not beat them, so he joined them. Kumaran enters politics.
•The Journey of Kumaran
From righteous to corrupt. A journey we have seen in most Shakespearean tales and several pop culture instances. Be it Anakin Skywalker turning over to the Dark Side in Star Wars, or Daenerys Targaryen succumbing to her destined madness in Game of Thrones, the idea of the hero turning bad has been iterated several times. NGK does not shy away from a similar premise. The only exception is that a major plot point, involving the character development of the protagonist was merely suggested by tiny nuances throughout the film. As most critics pointed out, it was a bit too much to leave a substantial part of the film for the audience to decipher, considering a Kubrick styled story telling would go over the heads of casual movie-goers and B/C class audience.
The journey starts with Kumaran being a man-servant to a corrupt political leader. His self-worth and pride were put to the test, when he was asked to do all sorts of demeaning chores like scrubbing the toilet to escorting sex workers back home from his chambers. It was on the very next day, sans any point at which it is discussed whether the character is undergoing a severe personality change, Kumaran becomes “part of the crew”. He uses his wits and flamboyant charm to butter up his superior into finally being completely dependent on him. The gist of this event in this movie is to set up Kumaran’s climb to the high table where the proverbial big boys sit.
His advent into the political party’s inner circle begins with the meeting with Vanathi, a clinically precise PR head, played by Rakul Preet Singh, another character whose place in the film is not sturdy on a broader look. The remaining part of the film, is where the Shakespearean tropes come into the picture where the shrewdly devised theatrics put up by Kumaran plays out flawlessly.
•The Dichotomy of Kumaran
The concept of life labours under the assumption, that it is good and bad. Black and White, Light and Darkness, Yin and Yang are other analogies for this concept. A dichotomy or conflict between what’s just and what isn’t is the crossroads ever hero takes.
Taking into account the political based films that hit the screens recently, like the AR Murugadoss political thriller Sarkar starring Thalapathy Vijay, where the hero is righteous man duelling against evil. Or the summer blockbuster Lucifer starring Malayalam superstar Mohanlal, which tells the story of a political leader who is lauded as the devil but is righteous none the less. Selva’s treatment of his hero is different. Between the binary poles that is good and bad, there was the grey where Kumaran dwelled. On paper, Kumaran’s act for what he believed was the greater good, is marked as evil. But in retrospect, how else would a man rid of his sanity behave when the stakes are high and the destination is all he sees. It was Lord Krishna, who talked about the rules of war and in war, there is no justice. It is not the means, but the end that matters.
Kumaran becomes an emoting, explosive victim of political crime and puts up the most effective act in order to feed the political tabloids. One who is a keen observer of Tamil Nadu politics can affirm the fact that most political figures have a flare for the dramatic, when it comes to appearing in front of the media.
Kumaran banks yet again on his wits and charm to pool in sympathy approval ratings from the general public. But, for his scheme to go full throttle and reach its fruition, the unimaginable had to happen. Kumaran had to be the definition of the word “victim”. It was at this moment Kumaran triggered a labyrinth of events that ultimately led him to the Chief Minister’s chair in Tamil Nadu.
The timely murder of his parents in cold blood, the assault on him and his wife in public. All these were merely shown as events happening in the film. The crucial plot points that confirmed that it was Kumaran who organised the death of his parents and the assault were hidden deep within layers. It is like a moment straight out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where a live enactment of grief and frustration draws the commonwealth to Kumaran’s aid.
There is a moment in the film where Kumaran asks his parents to take a nice look at him for the last time, for they may not see him again. This scene was immediately followed by the assault on Kumaran and his wife Geetha Kumari, played by Sai Pallavi, which misdirects the audience into thinking that he was referring to this when he was talking to his parents. A bit of clever writing that was overlooked by critics and the audience.
Another scene is where the death of Kumaran’s parents is established when we see their skeletons inside the burned down house. Another act of misdirection, the audience overlooked. Even the ones who decoded the film to the tiniest of details. Arguments now arise stating that the bodies were also fake as a recently burned body would not reach a skeletal form over the span of 12 hours. This means, Kumaran’s parents are alive but are hidden from society and are forced to live life in exile forever. Either way, it comes to show the lengths the protagonist is willing to go to for the greater good.
The transformation of Kumaran from Samaritan to sinner becomes full circle in one of the film’s final frames, where Kumaran is on his tractor ploughing his rice paddy, while his wife watches him from afar, while fear instils within her. The man she loved and adored is now a monster and she has no choice but to be the faithful wife of the leader who keeps up appearances for the tabloids. The last shot of the film is Kumaran answering a question from a journalist by saying “I will learn”. A subtle hint that suggests that he is here to stay. A line used by most politicians who earn their seat at the high table.
NGK is a ballad of a noble man turned villain. A notable quote on this very narrative was said by Jeremy Iron’s character Alfred from 2016’s superhero blockbuster Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. “This is how it starts, the fever that turns good men cruel.”
NGK is a subjective, yet effective dive into Indian Politics that ends on a gritty note rather than the occasional tinge of hope. A film by Selvaraghavan. Written by Siva Sai ( Film critic, works as an asst: director in Malayalam film industry)