Tamil noir classic ‘Andha Naal’ is more than the sum of its memes

S Balachander’s 1954 classic, starring Sivaji Ganesan as a murder victim, is an absorbing murder mystery with numerous suspects.

A movie still from the classic Tamil noir Andha Naal (1954) has caused immense mirth on Twitter. Featuring an array of characters all pointing guns at an unknown target, the image quickly led to a series of digs at what appeared to be yet another overblown moment from a black-and-white film.

There is a difference between the photograph and the actual scene in S Balachander’s movie. The suspects in the murder of radio engineer Rajan (Sivaji Ganesan) are lined up in the same manner, but at a different angle. They are pointing their guns, loaded with blanks, at detective Sivanandan (Javar Seetharaman), who has solved the case but wants to test his hypothesis.

The movie is anything but overblown. A rare songless film for its time, Andha Naal is a properly cinematic murder mystery, one that relies as much on Macguffins and red herrings as on cinematography and editing to create a sense of suspense and atmospherics. Despite its origins as an unstaged play and despite being shot by S Maruti Rao with a largely static camera, the movie has numerous scenes with dexterous chiaroscuro lighting effects, dramatic close-ups, and judicious cutting.

The opening itself is eye-popping for its time: Rajan, his face contorted by pain and impending death, staggers away from the camera soon after an opening title card and voiceover locate the time and place: Chennai, October 12, 1943, during World War II and the day after the Japanese air force has bombed the city.

Rajan dies of his gunshot wound, but returns through shards of subjective flashbacks. Each of his family members and his nosy neighbour Chinniah (PD Sambanda) has a different theory about the culprit. Chinniah asserts that Rajan’s brother Pattabi (TK Balachandran) is responsible since he bickered with his brother over money. Pattabi blames his shrewish wife Hema (Menaka). Hema has her own suspect – Rajan’s lover, the actor Ambujam (Suryakala). Only Rajan’s saintly wife Usha (Pandari Bai) appears to be blameless.

Rajan’s death plays out over and over again as each of these theories is presented to Crime Investigation Department officer Sivanandan (Seetharaman). Film historians have cited two sources for the multiple perspectives: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which Balachander is said to have watched and been influenced by. Kurosawa’s masterpiece about the subjectivity of truth has been imitated endlessly over the years, and it remains unmatched in its ability to present different points of view on the same incident (a rape and a murder).

Another source is said to be the British murder mystery The Woman in Question, directed by Antony Asquith in 1950. The plot is certainly similar – a woman’s murder evokes contradictory assertions about her character and the motives – but the stylistic treatment is completely different.

Balachander and Rao, ably aided by editor S Surya, ratchet up the tension during the multiple accounts. In one striking sequence, which underlines the power of the montage, Hema and Pattabi have a bruising scrap over Rajan’s plans to flee the bombardment in Chennai and leave them behind. Hema works herself up and clutches a glass in her anger. The camera moves closer and closer to Hema’s grotesque face until it fills the screen. Surya cuts between Hema’s ghastly visage, Pattabi’s shocked reaction, and the glass, which Hema clutches with such vengeance that it finally shatters.

If this scene is purely Expressionist in treatment, the other most well-known sequence owes a great deal to Gothic cinema and Hollywood’s love for soft focus and back lighting. There’s a touch of Orson Welles in the meeting of Rajan and his lover Ambujam in a park. A simple shot-reverse shot is dunked in deep shadows, which then gives way to a gorgeous silhouetted effect. Rajan’s death has already taken place, and if there any scene that foreshadows his fate, it is this spectral meeting of lovers.

The background music is an instrumental version of the song Yeh Zindagi Usi Ki Hai from the historical Anarkali (1953). Another Hindi film song is used in its instrumental version in the scene when Rajan first sets his eyes on Amjubam – the song Chup Chup Khade Ho from Badi Behen (1949).

Although the murder is unmasked only in the climax, Rajan’s character unravels through the numerous accounts – he is revealed to be an unfeeling and opportunistic cad who ultimately deserves his fate. Sivaji Ganesan mostly played noble and mythic characters in a highly melodramatic register that reflected both his origins on the stage as well as the rudimentary approach to storytelling in the 1950s. In Andha Naal, he reins in his bombast and delivers a compelling performance as an unlikable anti-hero.

Several films in the ’50s, drawing from theatre, depended on rich oratory, strongly etched characters and melodramatic plots, resulting in static tableaus in which the camera barely moved. Few of these productions are remembered today for their technical prowess, and Andha Naal remains a notable exception.

In Balachander’s movie, the filmmaking is at the service of the story – an approach that is rare even in our multi-hued present. Even though Rao barely moves his camera, resorting to zooms and tracking shots only in the climax, he overcomes the limits of frontality by playing with lighting and close-ups. Except for a few sequences shot in the open, most of Andha Naal takes places entirely indoors, in a hothouse of mutual suspicion and doubt. Rather than being restricted by the location, Balachander and Rao transcend the chamber room drama quality of the scenes to create a thriller that deservedly has a reputation as one of the few successful noirs in Indian cinema.

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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.