Monday, February 12, 2007

Remembering 'Agni Natchathiram'

Bharadwaj Rangan has a great piece on Manirathnam. Instead of the usual dissection of Mani and his movies(with a couple of glowing lines about each of them), Rangan writes about how Mani made his best movies when he focused on Chennai(or atleast, Tamil Nadu) and how he seems to have diluted and compromised his art when he expanded his canvas to the whole of India. I couldn't have agreed with him more. But the pleasant surprise for me was the admiration for Agni Natchathiram that came through in the article.

I've always felt that Agni Natchathiram never got the respect it deserved. It is never spoken about in the same breath as, say, Mouna Raagam or Naayagan though it was released right after the latter and is usually little more than a footnote in articles about the director. But the film has always been one of my favorites and reading Rangan's article brought the memories flooding back. Hence this post...

I think Agni Natchathiram's biggest problem was that it was released after Naayagan. When you last made a movie that was widely considered one of the best Tamil movies ever, how could you ever live upto people's expectations with your next? People went to Agni Natchathiram expecting another Naayagan and obviously, that was not what they got. But I feel the film is a classic in its own right.

Agni Natchathiram's always been my favorite example for the power of the screenplay. A 1-line story about warring stepbrothers uniting to save their father was transformed into this sleek, stylish and energetic film solely because of Mani's screenplay. Realizing the flimsiness of the story, Mani concentrated on the picturization and presentation and it showed in every frame. The film's style was way ahead of its times and could stand up to any film today. It would probably rank as the film with the most number of slo-mo shots but every one of them oozed with style. Every meeting between Prabhu and Karthik positively crackled with energy and even the over-the-top climax was transformed into a thrill ride with those flashing lights.

Agni Natchathiram was also the film where Mani adopted the technique of a separate, unnecessarily vulgar comedy track(thank goodness it died a quick after two movies). Inspite of giving us a great, oft-used line("En Pondatti Oorukku Poittaaaaa!"), the track is the only black spot in the classic film.

Though my last viewing of the film was more than 5 years ago, I remember almost every scene vividly. Prabhu asking Karthik for his license after throwing it away; Amala's Oru Eli, Rendu Eli... self-introduction; Nirosha's blunt conversation with Karthik about her pregnancy; the bloodspray on the crying kid to show Vijayakumar's accident; the final broken piece of glass falling away after Karthik break's Prabhu's house's window... the film is just this great collection of memorable sequences. But I'm pretty sure that knowing all these scenes is still not going to spoil my next viewing of the film. Now that's the sign of a true classic!


At 10:47 PM, Blogger srivatsan said...


Though VKR and Janak track was vulgar..I enjoy it every time. In fact I'd say that is Mani's best effort in comedy so far.

The silver lining is VKR and Janak watching porn (look for VKR's expressions :)))). If you take into acct what Vivek and Vadivelu do in terms of double entendres, it is possibly nothing.

Brangan's comments on Anbe Sivam and Mumbai Xpress were also very good.

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Meera said...

I couldn't agree with you more. This story has been told and retold a zillion times but nothing comes close to Mani's Agni Natchatram.

I loved the movie and the songs. I was dissappointed after watching GURU.

Some people cant understand why i would love Thiruda Thiruda also. Some movies are not about the romance, the story or the cast. Its about something less subtle but traverses in silence with the movie.

At 11:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By today's standards, I wouldn't even call V.K.Ramaswamy and Janakaraj's comedy in Agni.. as vulgar. Their intention is to have a jolly good time when their wives are away and I still thoroughly enjoy the hide-and-seek between VKR, Janakaraj, Disco Shanthi and VKR's wife. Simply hilarious.. Surely not that crass or unbelievably acceptable; nowhere close to ruining the classic that Agni turned out to be..

Amala's very cute Vichchu, Sushi routine..

The series of sequences between Karthik and Nirosha (especially the scene where Karthik beats up his friend for giving his address to Nirosha.. simply Mani-est! :-)..

The long but worthwhile scene where Vijayakumar talks about treating Gautham and Ashok as one and the same..

The scene where Karthik comes to Vijayakumar's house, yells at him as being the reason for Tara's wedding not getting finalized, demanding that he tie a thaali around Jayachitra's neck to prove to the world.. and in an instant, he looks over Vijayakumar's shoulder and is stunned to see V's mother having passed away.

Man(i), is he great or what? And it's only been about 10 years since I last saw Agni.. But I spent almost all of '89, '90 and '91 summers watching this and Mouna Raagam alternately.. Remember every scene in these two films like they were experiences that actually happened to me! :-)

At 11:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Couple of things that were added attraction were, Music - Illayaraja was at his peak and his music for movies around this period had a more western fusion to it. Probably ARR influence with his keyboard.

The villain underplayed by Umapathy. Characters of heroines who broke all nomenclatures of Tamil movie heroines.

The climax was a straight lift from Godfather, the switching of Beds, maybe his hangover from Nayakan and he wanted to use scenes what he could not use in Nayakan.

- KP

At 11:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's funny to me that you would praise agni for its style -- i saw it recently and was cringing at the 80s low-budget-miami-vice cheesiness. it wants to cool so badly it's sort of embarassing.

At 5:55 AM, Blogger Balaji Sivaraman said...

Great article by Bharadwaj, made me feel more like a Madrasi and that Mani truly belongs here.

As for Agni Nakshatram, I still marvel at how the movie was way ahead of its time. The flickering lights in the hospital during the climax was just splendid.

You've mentioned IR's bg music many times and it stands out again in AN. The music during each of the encounters between Karthik and Prabhu really heightened the tempo and got the pulse racing like anything. The slow-mo shots which you mentioned were just icing on the cake for these sequences.

Mani not only developed on the story of warring stepbrothers who joined hands to save their father. Only Mani could have taken such a beautiful movie which concentrated on the complexities that grew from having two wives and two separate families. I still think Vijayakumar telling Karthik and Prabhu how ashamed he feels to have sons like them is one of the best scenes in a Mani movie.

At 5:59 AM, Blogger Balaji Sivaraman said...

And I forgot to mention another of my favourite scenes from the film. The scene where Karthik's sister (forgot her name) calls Prabhu "Anna" after the whole train sequence couldn't have been brought out more naturally by none other than Mani.

At 6:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had expressed particularly the precise points about Agni Natchathiram, if you'd cared to browse through the long list of comments.
The film is often dismissed as "masala" or "all-frills" sort of film. I'd add Alai Payuthey to the list too. (Just so I don't look like a nostalgic movie fan!) Mani, the artist, was in full form here. There are not even many who've learnt the art of storytelling (simple storytelling, if you will) even after 20 years after this movie got made.

At 7:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well it IS masala, well-made sophisticated and slick masala :-)

Balaji, I dont know about you but I came to know of Mani only after Agni Natchathiram. Mani Rathnam became a brand name after this film, so Iam not so sure when you say this moivie wasnt recognized or appreciated all that much. It was a super duper hit. If it didnt get very high critical recognition(if thats what you meant) its probably because it was a light entertainer with all the commercial elements well mixed in(but presented in a refreshing manner) and thus was probably taken not taken seriously.

Also you didnt mention the music in your blog. You imagine any other composer that time in place of Raja and the movie just falls flat. Not just the songs, the background score too in many many places. Credit goes to Mani as well for managing to extract the best out of his music directors. He has been pretty consistent in that aspect.

At 7:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do agree with you on the timing of "Agni Nakshathram" being its biggest problem. But one has to praise Mani for his guts in making a movie that was nothing like Nayagan in terms of story or presentation. He went in a totally different direction with this movie yet emerged with flying colors. One of my favorite emotional moments from "Agni..." is Jayachitra's reaction to Karthik's question, "Indha Madhiri Oru Aalla Yaen Ma Kalyanam Pannite?"

Of course, the movie has an endless supply of cute scenes with both the the way Amala says, "Indha Kaadhula..." when Prabhu whispers, "I love you" typical Mani touch...

idha paththi romba to revisit the movie sometime!

At 8:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the one correct thing u said.... yes ...mani should have stayed with tamil cinema... that is where he is in his element and exels.not that he cant make movies on national is just difficult to get subjects of an all indian canvas

At 1:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BBals, VKR was at his best in all of Mani's movies.. But I would love Mani to direct a movie with suhasini,revathy and kamal ..

At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

BB, Apart from the comedy track the climax was also disappointing. Mani could have come up with a better ending. I was watching it on NumTV a few weeks back. Its one of my all time favourites.

At 8:36 PM, Blogger srivatsan said...


You can't dismiss it totally as Masala ones.They are a few qualities for Masalafilms.

Punch dialogues
Hero bashing 100 ppl
Rain dance/Gana songs

:-) AN has none of the above.

May be, we can call it stylish commercial cinema. I have the same opinion about Aboorva Sagodarargal. Both the movies are meaningful to a large extent!

At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi Balaji
i simply luvvvvvvvvvvv this movie esp for amla's spontaenity,ennai thaLLikittu vandhutiyaa!!!
isnt it first time she herself spoke w/o a dubbing artiste??
dialogues r interlaced with humor that u cant help smiling..
just as best cameo role na karthik in mouna raagam ( still holds that unbeaten record) xcellent performance by duo heroes at their peak naa idhaan..
cinematography is simply superb...
music...ooohhh la la laaaa:)))

At 10:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it was remade in now, I would cast:

Nirosha...............Meera Jasmine
V. K. Ramaswamy.........No one or Suman Shetty

Any comments?

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

srivatsan, your definition or criteria for masala movies apply more to the films of the last decade. This is the 80s we are taking about when things like punch dialogues were not quite in vogue.AN has lots of stuff that made up a typical masala film of that decade - no real story :-), an unrelated comedy drack(although no song for disco shanthi, but there was a small record dance :-) ), songs and fights at regular intervals and so on.
The presentation had freshness no doubt and artistes like PC sriram and Ilayaraja had a big hand in it. But the movie itself was sophisticated masala. Recently Mani's Guru has been labelled as a borderline masala by the rediff reviewer Raja Sen. I wonder what he will label AN has, if he has a chance to watch it :-)


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