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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