Birth of a tragic hero

Birth of a tragic hero

There’s a wide, sweepingly composed crane shot in Sibi Malayil’s Kireedam (1989) that in many ways defines the imprint that the film and its protagonist have left on the Malayali movie sensibilities.

The shot is canned for the closing portions of Kanneer Poovinte Kavilil Thalodi, the film’s hauntingly mournful solo track. Sethumadhavan (Mohanlal) is in the middle of a personal crisis; he tells his friend that he can feel life “slipping away”.

He has let his father down; he has just lost the love of his life and is staring at a dark, uncertain tomorrow.

Sethu walks on a deserted, seemingly endless road. Twenty-five years later, he’s arguably the definitive Tragic Hero that many Malayalis love to mourn.

Trend-setter

For those uninitiated to Malayalam cinema of the 1980s, the core plot point of Kireedam could evoke a taut actioner on the lines of many latter-day masala films in Tamil and Telugu: Man responds instinctively to a situation without fully comprehending the strength of the antagonist or the forces involved. It’s a premise that has powered Tamil films like Sandaikkozhi and Dharani’s action trilogy of Dhill, Dhool and Ghilli.

A K Lohithadas, the late screenwriter who defined the best of Malayalam cinema’s writing traditions in the late 1980s and 1990s, is learnt to have based Kireedam on an incident in his village. He was inspired by a man; a regular, everyday struggler who took on a local thug because he didn’t know whom he had run into.

Kireedam, however, doesn’t root itself in the masala-film possibilities that this situation offers. Sethu is a dutiful son who reacts when his father Achuthan Nair (Thilakan in a fine performance), an upright police constable who dreams of seeing his son as a sub-inspector, gets roughed up by rowdy-sheeter Keerikkadan Jose (Mohanraj).

His response is not an orchestrated assault; it’s a blind shot, a hurried charge that just gets bloody even before he realises it. Sethu’s aspirations of a career in the police force are hit as he retreats to dodge the inevitable next confrontation with a fired-up, vengeful Jose.

Sethu knows he doesn’t stand a chance; “If he swings one hand at me, I’m finished,” he says of his adversary. When Sethu presents himself for the climactic fight with Jose, he’s an animal for sacrifice; poked, bruised and waiting for its executioner. He has lost even before the fight.

Timeless classic

For a film that stays within the template of popular cinema, at times embracing its most favoured stereotypes, Kireedam has had an astonishing re-run as a classic.

Interestingly, the characters turn up more evolved and riveting in the film’s underrated sequel Chenkol.

It’s probably not the best work from its director Sibi or writer Lohithadas, but this is one film that has rivalled the best in terms of endurance. It offers a fond rewind to the first-rate acting talent that marked Malayalam cinema of the 1980s.

Then, there’s Mohanlal. Intense, yet subtle and never striking that extra note for effect. Here, he’s the actor we loved to love, in a performance that helps us keep the faith at a time when he drifts between patented superstar fare and the occasional blaze of brilliance.

At some levels, it’s also a film that connects with the Malayali’s nostalgia and his affinity to tragic heroes. Sethumadhavan, a beaten man, a failure, would perhaps never make the cut elsewhere as protagonist material for a superhit mainstream film.

The largely underwhelming response that its three south Indian versions and the Hindi remake — Priyadarshan’s Gardish starring Jackie Shroff — had is a pointer.

On the 25th year of the release of Kireedam, the film’s crew gathered around at the Kireedam Bridge — a bridge in Vellayani in Thiruvananthapuram where some of the film’s scenes were shot — in an initiative to reconstruct the dilapidated structure.

A television news report drew a parallel between the battered bridge and the tragic life of Sethumadhavan. The most ardent of the film’s fans would like the structure untouched. They would also, at times, like a walk down that long, deserted road.

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