UTHAMA PUTHIRAN

A movie review by Balaji Balasubramaniam


Cast: 'Sivaji' Ganesan, Padmini, Nambiar, Thangavelu, Ragini, Kannaambaal
Music: G.Ramanathan
Direction: T.Prakash Rao

Old, black and white movies contain a certain charm. Especially the historicals. With strong storylines, grand settings, swordplays and lots of double and triple crossings, they rarely fail to entertain. Uthama Puthiran, released in 1958, is one of my favorite movies from those times. Adapted from Alexander Dumas' The Man in the Iron Mask, it combines the best elements of historicals in a delightful mixture. It has good performances, melodious music, an engaging screenplay and is hugely entertaining.

It is a joyous time for everyone in Malarpuri when the queen of the land becomes pregnant. Everyone except her brother(and commander of the army) Naganathan(Nambiar) who has his eye on the throne. So he pays one of the maids to deliver the newborn to him. He then proceeds to hand it over to his henchman Somu, ordering it to be killed. But the queen gives birth to twins and the king, ever suspicious of Naganathan, passes an order that forces Naganathan to take care of this baby. But he decides to raise it as his hand puppet. Meanwhile, Somu desists from killing the baby and instead, raises it in another town. So the twins grow up separately - Parthiban(Sivaji), a good, honest and brave man and Vikraman(Sivaji), a drunkard and womaniser who is dependent on his uncle for everything. Parthiban falls in love with Amuthavalli(Padmini), the daughter of the minister at the palace and on one of his nocturnal visits, runs into his brother and his mother. Vikraman, his mind poisoned by his uncle, clamps an iron mask on his face and locks him up.

The movie moves at a fairly fast clip to keep us engrossed throughout. It is just a little slow-paced during the initial portions with the song sequence that details the growing up of the two princes not being particularly catchy. But it is necessary for the setup and the movie is not lacking in intrigue or emotions even during these portions as the king's clever plan to ensure the safety of his second son and Nambiar's heartless acts demonstrate. The Sivaji-Padmini romance is quick and low-key and Thangavelu's comedy is not funny. But the movie moves into top gear once the two Sivajis meet. From here, one is kept on the edge of the seat with the twists and turns in the screenplay.

The scene in the dungeon is very well handled. Both the queen's (as she implores Vikraman to spare his brother's life) and Nambiar's(as he poisons Vikraman's mind with the threat to his throne) dialogs are strong and convincing. The path the movie takes after this, with first one Sivaji and then the other trapped inside the mask, is captivating. The scene where Parthiban scares Thangavelu by pretending to be Vikraman is one of the few genuinely funny scenes in the movies.

The technical skill evident during the first scene the two Sivajis meet, as one appraises the other while moving in a circle around him, is admirable, especially considering how old the movie is. Infact, any of the scenes involving both Sivajis would stand up to those in most movies involving a double role today. There are also a couple of nicely-handled fights between the two Sivajis, a task that is by no means easy and is mostly clumsily done even today.

One thing that keeps me away from older movies is the multiplicity of songs. Even Yaar Nee, though not as old as this movie, suffered from this phenomenon, with too many songs at inappropriate places sapping away the interest in the movie. Surprisingly, inspite of being a historical, Uthama Puthiran does not have that many songs and so, the songs appear at reasonable intervals. Most of them are also very good with Mullaimalar Mele... taking the top spot. Anbe Amudhe... and Unnazhagai Kanniyargal... are the other good songs. As far as song sequences go, the exuberant Yaaradi Nee Mohini... has little competition. With its fast beats, well-choreographed dance and Sivaji's stylish gestures, it is a treat to watch.

There is not a single wrong step in Sivaji's performance. Inspite of no visual differences, the distinction between the two characters is beautifully brought out with just body language and style of talking. Vikraman is easily the more interesting of the two and offers more scope for acting. Sivaji very obviously enjoys himself immensely in the role. He is charming and his scenes with Nambiar, where he takes his advice on all matters(with a beautifully delivered "Mama") are very enjoyable. No wonder he manages to earn our sympathy when pleading with Parthiban to not make him wear the iron mask, inspite of being wicked. Padmini looks almost divinely beautiful and her dancing prowess is on full display during the Kaathiruppaan Kamalakkannan... sequence. Nambiar shows why he was one of the most enduring and longlosting villains on the silver screen. Kannaambaal plays the fiery, emoting mother role she is so familiar with while Thangavelu and Ragini provide comic relief.