The last time we saw Kamal Haasan play a common man on-screen was six years ago in Unnai Pol Oruvan. In the film, which was a remake of the Hindi drama A Wednesday, he shared screen space with Malayalam actor Mohanlal, with the former essaying the role of the "common man" played by Naseeruddin Shah in the original and the latter donning the Police Commissioner's part, played by Anupam Kher. It then feels like poetic justice that this time around the common man in Kamal makes a comeback reprising a role played by Mohanlal in his 2013 blockbuster Drishyam. As the small-town cable TV operator Suyambu Lingam in Jeethu Joseph's Papanasam, Kamal finally looks free and real, sans the multiple layers of make-up and special effects, which has by now become almost a given in his films.
To begin with, let me make it clear that I do not think Drishyam was a flawless film or a masterpiece. It had a slow first half laced with some mediocre performances, but what saved the film and made it one of the biggest hits in the history of Malayalam cinema are two things. The first is, of course, the lead actor Mohanlal's unflinching performance as the protagonist George Kutty, and the second reason being the watertight, brilliant writing in the second half. The story of the common man who would go to any length to clean up a crime committed by his family resonated with the audience here.
"Now what is essentially different in Papanasam and Drishyam are the two schools of acting that Mohanlal and Kamal Haasan stand for."
Mohanlal is an actor who built his whole career playing the Malayali "common man". He was the well-meaning man next door who wore a mundu, rode a cycle, had a little paunch, dreamt within his limits, loved his family and fell into trouble almost always because of external factors. George Kutty was no different. He was a Class 4 failed farmer, who dabbled in many small businesses, and tried to make ends barely meet while keeping his wife and daughters happy. An orphan, he was a self-made man who knew the value of holding on to whatever little he had earned to save for the rainy day. Drishyam took the audience back to what is often referred to as the "golden age" of Malayalam cinema--the late 80s, where such protagonists were the norm. The film was, thus, celebrated as Mohanlal's comeback as an actor and even though he had many releases after Drishyam, the film still stands as his last major hit.
Now what is essentially different in Papanasam and Drishyam are the two schools of acting that Mohanlal and Kamal Haasan stand for. There is no doubt that Kamal is an all-rounder. Unbelievably talented, the actor started out as a child artiste, has worked as a dance master, has written films, directed them, sung songs... in short he has done it all. For the last 15 years, almost every film he has been a part of has been written/co-written by him, most of them have been produced by him and a few have been directed by him, too. Kamal equals grandeur, he is many things rolled into one, which makes him not just a versatile artist but also a powerhouse performer. And this is what exactly comes in his way while playing Suyambu in Papanasam. While in Drishyam, Mohanlal convinces us that he is indeed George Kutty without much paraphernalia, Kamal disappoints us right at first look with his utterly fake-looking moustache. Suyambu speaks Tamil with a regional accent, to justify setting the film in Papanasam, a town in the Thanjavur district of the state. All this sure adds to the process of building up a believable character whom you can relate to, but works against Kamal, the actor, as it becomes evident, scene after scene, that he is indeed just 'acting' to look like a person called Suyambu.
Both Suyambu and Gerogekutty are essentially the same person so to speak. Their stories are the same, their conflicts mirror each others. The only difference being that they belong to two different regions. It is natural for a writer-filmmaker to tweak the story and characters to fit into the surroundings they are placed within. But at a time when Tamil cinema comes out with little gems like recent releases Kaaka Muttai and Moone Moonu Vaarthai, which excel in subtle storytelling and underplayed performances, the cast and crew of Papanasam seem to be stuck in an entirely different era. The film, which is for most of its length a scene-by-scene replica of the Malayalam version, is pitched a few notes too high and is an unnecessarily emotional and melodramatic retelling of the original.
Right from the first scene in which the protagonists are introduced, it is clear that the treatment of the two films are as different as chalk and cheese. While in the Malayalam version, George Kutty is introduced in a relatively low-key scene, where two policemen talk about him among themselves, creating a mystery about the story in the viewer's mind, the Tamil version gives Kamal his own voice over. Indian cinema places much importance on the "hero's entry" and Kamal gets such a flamboyant one in Papanasam. We hear only his voice while he answers some film trivia quiz which the officers are trying to crack, after which in slow motion we are shown the man, which then cuts to a disturbingly extreme close up of his face. In his own voice Kamal gives us a snippet of info about Suyambu, tracing his love for films to his unconventional birth in a film theatre. There is also a crowd-pleasing meta-reference to the actor's own 1975 release Cinema Paithiyam (the title roughly translates to 'crazy about films'). But the voice over disappears after this scene to never return in the entire film. This, then, looks just like a setup to play on Kamal's stardom in a film that claims to bring back the actor in him. Even in terms of looks, Georgekutty appears exhausted after all what happened to him and his family, has an unshaven stubble and maintains a straight face in this scene. Whereas Kamal looks spick and span and somewhat cheerful, thereby destroying the curious element the scene was meant to create.
There is an inherent idolisation of Kamal throughout the film that can be spotted if one looks keenly. In a scene where Kamal gives legal advice to an elderly couple, he is also seen quickly giving out some money to them before they leave. In the same scene in Drishyam, Georgekutty, true to his character, only offers them legal counsel and no monetary help. This is a man who saves up every bit of his money for his family. We are repeatedly told he is a miser and although good at heart, it is unlikely that he hands out money freely. In fact, Papanasam goes one step ahead in driving home Suyambu's miserliness, showing us how he meticulously notes down his accounts even to the last paisa behind a cigarette packet. This makes it all the more incoherent with the arc of Suyambu's character.
"Kamal resorts to a whole-body acting method, in which he shivers, stutters, gasps, cries and most often comes off as too melodramatic."
Suyambu has been shown as a much more emotional being than Georgekutty, who is more practical, cold and composed. Mohanlal conveys all the pain, guilt, anguish and fear effectively through his eyes and his superbly modulated voice. But Kamal resorts to a whole-body acting method, in which he shivers, stutters, gasps, cries and most often comes off as too melodramatic. Even the final monologue in the climax when the protagonist is given a chance to explain his intentions, Jeethu who opted for a non-fussy, minimal scene in Drishyam, brings to us a high-octane, almost unintentionally funny portrayal of the same in Papanasam. While Mohanlal's Georgekutty is framed in profile as he avoids eye contact with the parents of the young boy whose death triggers off this cat and mouse game, feelings of guilt and shame are largely writ all over his tear-filled eyes and his defeatedly stooped shoulders. But Kamal gets to look right into the camera and mumble a much more revealing and histrionic outburst.
There are also many scenes in the first half of the Malayalam version, which clearly cements the nature of the relationship between the various characters, which have been chopped off in Papanasam. Despite being longer by 20 minutes, Papanasam fails to recreate these moments in any other way. The mother of the family Rani (played by Meena in Malayalam) in Drishyam is shown as an uneducated woman, who like many others of her age and social standing like to boast about her new sarees, kitchenware and the school her children go to. But Gautami's Rani in the Tamil version is not given much time to showcase these little nuances in her character. So is the relationship between Georgekutty and his father-in-law. In just one scene it is clear why his father in law would run to his help if he were to fall into trouble. In Papanasam, this relationship, too, is not clearly defined.
Performances-wise, there are a few that stand out in Papanasam as compared to the original. Niveda Thomas, who plays Suyambu's elder daughter Selvi, comes off as more convincing than Ansiba who played the same role in the Malayalam version. Although she reprises her own role from the Malayalam version, Asha Sarath gives a more restrained and mature performance this time around as Inspector General Geetha Prabhakar, the mother of the murdered boy. For most of the other characters, actors in the Malayalam version did more justice to their parts. Especially Kalabhavan Shajon, who plays the malicious cop in Drishyam and stands out with his realistic performance as compared to Kalabhavan Mani who plays the same part in Tamil. Gautami, who makes a comeback with offscreen partner Kamal, loses out on the performance scale only because of an underwritten part.
Papanasam is the perfect example of how adding melodrama to an already potent script weakens it despite having good performers on board. It could also be a reflection of Malayali director Jeethu Joseph's misunderstanding or underestimation of the Tamil audience. He uses a lot of self-referencing to Kamal's own films, cringeworthy tear-jerker reaction shots and elaborate, yet ineffective torture sequences to build up the emotional tempo of the film. But in a time when audiences are moving towards subtle, realistic and true to life portrayals, Papanasam looks and feels much dated. All said, Drishyam and Papanasam are both tributes to cinema itself. The protagonist's love for cinema is what keeps him going even in the toughest of times and is what in a way holds the film together. Only if Jeethu had refrained from indulging in hero-worshipping Kamal throughout the film and simply let the actor be, Papanasam would have hit all the right notes.