It’s 25 years since Kamal Haasan’s film Mahanadi released. Directed by Santhana Bharathi, the film was about a man whose daughter is trafficked and sold into sex work. Kamal played the lead role, with singer Shobana playing his young daughter, Kaveri. The veteran actor also wrote the story and the screenplay for the film, which went on to win the National Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil.
In 2017, Kamal revealed what made him write such a story. When his daughters were very young, his domestic workers had allegedly conspired to kidnap one of them for ransom and had even done a dry run of the plan. However, Kamal found out about it by accident.
“I have never spoken of what prompted me to write Mahanadi. Now my daughters are old enough to understand the ways of this world I can... My household help, all of them, conspired to kidnap my daughter for ransom. They even did a dry run. By accident I discovered their plan. I was angry, unnerved and ready to kill for my baby’s safety,” he told Hindustan Times.
“But I saw sense in time. I was to write a new script and I kept delaying it for a month. Later when I sat down to write, the script wrote itself... maybe assisted by my fear, apprehension and paranoia,” he added.
Perhaps it was because he had his child in mind, Mahanadi emerged as a story that flouted conventional representations about sex work, trafficking and “chastity” on screen. Along the way, it also offered us a glimpse of financial scams, brutality in prisons and single parenting. And a song (‘Peigala nambathey’) against superstition!
Kamal plays Krishnaswamy, a widower with two children (Kaveri and Bharani) who lives with his mother-in-law Saraswathi (SN Lakshmi) in a village near Trichy. Their content life is thrown awry when the naive Krishnaswamy is lured into running a chit fund business by Dhanush (Cochin Haneefa). The latter cheats him and Krishnaswamy ends up in prison, where he and others face brutal violence from the jailer (Shankar). He learns to stand up for himself, and also becomes friends with Panjapakesan (Poornam Viswanathan in the popular ‘innocent Brahmin’ stereotype in Tamil films), an elderly man whose daughter, nurse Yamuna (Sukanya), visits him often.
A romance blooms between Krishnaswamy and Yamuna, but in the meantime, Saraswathi dies and Dhanush manages to get the two kids under his clutches – the boy, Bharani, ends up as a street performer, while Kaveri is raped by Dhanush’s boss, Venkatachalam, and later trafficked.
Though Krishnaswamy finds his son, he’s unable to locate his daughter and several years pass before he learns that she’s in Kolkata’s infamous Sonagachi, India’s largest red-light district. Among the most heart-rending scenes in the film is when Krishnaswamy and Panjapakesan find Kaveri (played by an older actor) in a brothel and the sex workers pay for her to be rescued. They also give her a modest send-off as she leaves with her family. It’s one of the rare times in Tamil cinema when sex workers have been portrayed with some amount of humanity rather than as objects to be lusted after.
Another disturbing scene is when Krishnaswamy hears his daughter muttering in her sleep, asking men to leave her alone. However, though the young girl is raped and sold into sex work, she does not conveniently kill herself out of “shame”, as has been the usual portrayals of rape survivors in Tamil films. She even gets married and leads a happy life later.
Krishnaswamy is pushed into violence and ends up killing Venkatachalam at last, hacking his own arm in the process. This sequence, too, is hard to watch, but Kamal manages to convince the audience entirely about why such a brutal finish is necessary, with the quality of the writing as well as his performance. But perhaps it’s because of the violence in the film (nothing compared to what we routinely see on screen now), it was only an average grosser at the box office when it released in 1994.
However, it is undoubtedly one of those films that has aged well, with Ilaiyaraaja’s songs and background score still managing to stir our emotions in the way only he can. Shobana, in fact, is still remembered as ‘Mahanadi’ Shobana and the song she sang, ‘Sri Ranga Ranganathanin’, remains popular. Kamal was exceptional in his role as a naive father who dearly loves his children. He remains an ordinary man for the most part, and his internal struggles (when he tries to resist Manju’s advances, for instance) and battles with society remain very relatable. It is because of the vulnerability of his character and the film’s genuine effort to give importance to the other actors, too, that Mahanadi manages to move us even after 25 years of its release. The film title alludes to the river in which Krishnaswamy used to play as a child, with his son doing the same years later when they move back to their native place. Indeed, the characters who are and become Krishnaswamy's family are all named after rivers. It speaks of the circle of life, but also shows us that life is never at a standstill – and one must move on from the past to welcome the future.