Writer: Kamal Hassan, Madan
Director: C. Sundar
Madhavan, a young upper-middle-class Indian ad moviemaker, encounters a middle-aged trade union activist in an airport. Due to heavy rain, the flight gets canceled and the two make an arduous trip by every means available from Orissa to Chennai. Their conflicting values and approaches constantly creates frictions and through this journey changing value systems in India is beautifully portrayed. The movie comes with a great plot, brilliant storytelling, humour and music.
It took me two years to write this review since the movie overwhelms me. I have seen the movie at least 10 times so far and each time I discover some layer that I did not notice before. But thanks to some brilliant storytelling and direction these layers of complexity are almost invisible when we see the movie for the first time. I have unpacked some of these themes below.
The flood forces Madhavan to stay in a room with Kamal Hassan who is less classy. Madhavan also finds him meddlesome and garrulous. As flights and trains get canceled and he is forced to go without comforts he is accustomed to, Madhavan complains bitterly that India is a country where you cannot get things even if you can pay for it.
Being accustomed to poorer ways of life, Kamal Hassan takes these discomforts with stride and acts resourcefully to steer them out of their troubles, especially in their joint quest to reach Madras quickly. Madhavan discoveres, as the movie goes along, that while Kamal Hassan is disagreeably garrulous, his social skills make him resourceful; while he is meddlesome, he is thoughtful and helpful; and while he is less classy, Kamal Hassan works for a cause that is worthy. The different locations of the two characters and their approach to life set the context for the movie.
The movie is a metaphorical journey for the ad maker who has not seen discomforts in life. The flood forces him to see difficult aspects of life in India that he is typically not used to. Such images are introduced initially as brief shots spanning just one or two seconds (scantily dressed children jumping into dirty flood water, helpless people sitting in a corner, etc.). As the movie goes along such encounters increase in length. Madhavan first faces a robber who tries to steal his suitcase and then he travels on the top of a bus to reach Andhra Pradesh. He then witnesses the victims of a train accident and finally travels in an ambulance with a boy who is badly injured in the accident with the boy finally dying.
In his first encounters with poverty, he is disdainful and distant. As his encounters grow Madhvan starts engaging and slowly becomes empathetic. When he donates blood to save a dying boy and sees him dying despite it, he is moved and his sense of humanism and love for the random stranger finds an expression. These encounters challenge his assumptions in life and he has conversations with Kamal Hassan who has dealt with these experiences. These conversations take them through religion, consumerism, communism, and other themes about the society.
Love, religion, communism & consumerism
The movie makes love for humanity its central theme and evaluates social arrangements such as religion and economic systems in its light. When Madhavan learns that the boy had died he questions if God exists. Kamal Hassan answers that god exists in love, and that Madhavan became that god when he is moved to tears for an unknown boy. God is nothing by love, he argues (and hence the title, Anbe Sivam – or love is god).
Yar yar sivam captures this idea in a beautiful song
When Madhavan challenges him initially that Communism is dead since the Soviet Union has fallen he retorts by asking if “Romeos” like him will stop loving if Taj Mahal is destroyed. When Madhavan responds by saying love is a feeling, Kamal Hassan argues that Communism too is a feeling. The movie also mocks people who practice religious rituals but exploit other people in their routine life. Affection, even for the stranger, becomes his prism through which he evaluates all ideologies and practices.
Many styles of humour
The movie combines slapstick comedy with satire and wordplay that makes it a thorough laugh amidst the seriousness of the theme. There is a healthy dose of satire with every theme in the movie getting mocked (these include communism, government, consumerism, Tamil society, religion, love, and whatnot). There are many occasions when conversations become serious like when Kamal Hassan talks of his father dying in an accident or when Madhavan discusses the boy’s death to be followed in a second with a dose of humour that changes the emotions of the viewer. This is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the movie for me.
Characters that make a brief appearance
At one point the duo reach a small station to board the train to Madras. They ask the station master if they could each make a phone call to their families and station master arbitrarily says only one person can make one phone call. An angry Madhavan asks him why to which he cooly responds, “because I am the station master”. This character appears for about a minute but is still well developed as a government official with little work who likes to joke around and use his power arbitrarily. Many such characters wade in and out of the movie often and leave an impression though they appear for as little as 10 seconds or at most for 3 minutes.
One of the greatest movies ever
In one of his movies, Kamal Hassan tells his girlfriend that they should go and watch Schindler’s List. It’s a great movie and so no one will be watching it and we can have our private space to be romantic, he tells her. This cheeky comment captures the fate of many a great movie. Anbe Sivam did not fail at the box office, but it did not do as well as it could have. With such great acting, storytelling, humour and music, the movie could have done a lot better than it did. But such are the ways of Tamil society and movie fans. Perhaps, it did not do as well since it deals with issues with great subtlety, and thus lacked in mass appeal. But thankfully, there are people like Kamal Hassan who are willing to make great movies periodically even if they know that they will not succeed in raking in the big bucks.