In 1994, Kamal Haasan had three releases — Mahanadi, Magalir Mattum and Nammavar. However, the first film remains my all-time favourite till date. I think I must have been barely 11 or 12 when I first saw Mahanadi on television. My father said I was ‘too young to watch an intense film’ and stopped me. Nevertheless, I managed to watch the film eventually. As a kid, I could relate to Shobana who played Kamal’s daughter. I fell in love with the song “Sri Ranga Ranganathanin”, and remember dressing up like Shobana in pattupaavadai with a bright red bindi, double-plait hairstyle and ribbons. My father used to say, ‘Periya Mahanadi Shobana-nu nenappu!’
Undoubtedly, one of the masterpieces of Tamil cinema, Mahanadi was made much ahead of its time. The Santhana Bharathi directorial, which hit screens on January 14, 1994, witnesses Haasan’s brilliant performance where he transforms from an innocent widower into an angry-emotional father. And boy, he gets into the skin of every character he plays with so much ease! After all, he is a complete actor who not only transforms but also makes the audience feel that transformation, putting his soul into the character. Kamal not only acted in it, but also wrote the story and screenplay of the National Award-winning film.
When you see Mahanadi, you don’t see Kamal Haasan. You only see Krishnaswamy. You feel for him. You empathise with him and his pain. It is unfortunate that back then the film was criticised as “hard-hitting and depressing,” but I would say it was realistic, moving and a genuine piece of cinematic work.
Krishnaswamy (Haasan), a small-time businessman has a loving family (two children, mother-in-law) and a dog. But a tragic twist in the story lands him in jail, his son with a gypsy family and his daughter in a brothel.
Who could forget the iconic scene where he meets his daughter in Sonagachi after a long time, following a tip-off? Krishnaswamy wants to believe that she wouldn’t be there. He hears the shrieks of a girl from the adjacent walls, and goes from one room to the other, and finally finds her. She says ‘appa’, but soon the reality begins to sink in. She covers her naked body with her hands. Deeply disturbed, he stays in a moment of shock and disbelief. You should watch Kamal’s expression, and I would call it a ‘killer performance’. He hugs his daughter and tries to escape the place, carrying her in his arms.
Partially, Mahanadi is a socio-political commentary where Krishnaswamy laments about the society, and how he becomes a victim of circumstances. The important characters in the film are named after the great rivers in India – starting from the protagonist, Krishna. The daughter of Krishna is named Cauvery, his love-interest is Yamuna, his son is named Bharani. In a symbolic way, the Cauvery water problem is also dealt here. Krishnaswamy rescues his daughter in Kolkata where the Ganges flows as the Hoogly, and here, the makers discuss the issue of ‘linking rivers’.
In particular, I quite like those scenes involving Krishnaswamy (Kamal Haasan) and Yamuna (Suganya). This man is lonely and is looking for a companion. It is not for seeking sexual pleasure but out of a genuine need for companionship. That scene where Krishna wants to kiss Yamuna, but he is unable to. At the same time, he doesn’t want to let her go. The writing is fantastic here and Krishnaswamy is humanised. He is a single parent, but he likes Yamuna and wants to spend his life with her.
Mahanadi takes you on an emotional journey, and you wouldn’t know what I am talking about unless you experience the film. It is a story of the struggle to survive, of pain, of everything.
Decades later, Kamal Haasan himself revealed what prompted him to write the film. He said it was inspired by a real-life conspiracy to kidnap his daughter. “Now my daughters are old enough to understand the ways of this world, I guess. My household help, all of them, conspired to kidnap my daughter for ransom. They even did a dry run. By accident, I discovered their plan. I was angry, unnerved and ready to kill for my baby’s safety. But I saw the sense in time. I was to write a new script and kept delaying it for a month. When I sat down to write, the script wrote itself. Maybe, assisted by my fear, apprehension and paranoia,” Kamal said.
To any 90s’ kid, Tamil cinema began with Kamal Haasan in the true sense. There is an innate drama in everything he was a part of. His films, in fact, have been the most experimental in nature, and he is one of those rare artistes who never shied away from experimenting. I don’t know if he would continue to do films after Indian 2, but one thing is for sure — I know I belong to the generation that has witnessed him staying true to his art and artistic integrity. And that’s more than enough.