Cast: Gautham Karthik, Pugazh, Richard Ashton
Director: N.S. Ponkumar
Rating: One star (out of 5)
Torture, physical and mental, assumes varied forms in August 16, 1947 – both within the film’s anything-goes fictional universe and on the audience in the theatre. The Tamil period drama written and directed by debutant N.S. Ponkumar and also released in Hindi, is a screechy and gratuitously gory action drama set in a remote village in Madras Presidency where news of India’s freedom at midnight takes an entire day to reach. Hence the title. That is the closest that the pulpy film gets to anything that looks, feels or sounds logical.
The hamlet in which August 16, 1947, plays out is in the vice-like, enervating grip of a ruthless British general who subjects the local cotton farmers to the most unspeakable of horrors while his debauched son makes a grab for any pubescent girl who strays into his field of vision.
August 16, 1947 marks A.R. Murugadoss’s return to production. The last film that he produced was in collaboration Fox Star Studios — Rangoon (2017), directed by an erstwhile assistant. Ponkumar, too, is a former assistant to Murugadoss. Rangoon was the first hit of Gautham Karthik’s career.
Should the star be expecting similar results from August 16, 1947? The film does not possess the pomp and pageantry of an RRR nor probably the Telugu blockbuster’s jingoistic fervour, which isn’t necessarily a drawback. But the lack of imagination and control certainly is. The hackneyed treatment of a done-to-death anti-colonial genre yields a film that revels in brain-addling excess.
Does any of it make any sense? Nope. Nobody in this film talks like a normal human being, be it the tyrant, his local collaborators or his hapless, voiceless victims. The officer growls, his flunkeys squeal and yell, and his subjects whine interminably.
The horrid methods of torture that Robert (Richard Ashton) uses to beat the villagers into submission are both deadly and diverse. The subservient men and women of Singaad are whipped, impaled, shot, scalded or mercilessly pummelled. The nature and severity of the punishment they receive has absolutely nothing to with the seriousness of the ‘offence’. It is Robert who decides the fate of his victims depending upon how foul his mood is at a given moment.
The British officer’s men wield spiky, flesh-tearing whips that open up wounds and draw blood with every lash. They need the slightest provocation to go berserk. One man has his hands chopped off because his nails accidentally hurt Robert’s son, Justin (Jason Shah). If that were not enough, in the heart of the village is a cauldron of perpetually boiling oil meant for workers who dare to ask for food or water or seek permission for a break to relieve themselves. And somewhere near pot that is always on the boil are sharply pointed poles from which the incalcitrant are hung and left bleed to death in full public view.
Death and fear loom large in other forms over the cowering village. Parents dress their daughters as boys in order to escape Justin’s leering eye. The ploy rarely works. The disguise is too thin. Sniffing out his prey comes easy to the predator.
Worse, they bury the girls alive so that they do not fall into Justin hands. Death before dishonour is the philosophy. Hard to digest, right? But this is 1947 and this is a village that lives in perpetual fear. The film, on its part, is stuck in the past in terms of style, substance and spirit. The torture that it heaps on the audience, mercifully only vicariously, is hard to withstand.
The action spans across five days – from August 12 to 16 – but in trying to squeeze every ounce of melodrama out of the 120 available hours and stretch the limited time-frame to feel like 120 years, the film wears itself thin. But even after it is frayed completely, it does not give up. It goes out kicking, shouting and spilling buckets of blood.
Among the villagers lives a young wastrel Param (Gautham Karthik), who has no illusions about his will power. He only knows that he loves Deepali (Revathy Sharma), the zamindar’s daughter. Her family has told the village that she died of cholera a decade ago. To keep up the pretence, Deepali’s father and her brother observe her death anniversary every year.
The girl lives in captivity in her own home, yearning for freedom pretty much like the rest of the village does. Param is aware of her existence. Her father, who dreams of gaining control of the entire village when the British leave India, unquestioningly submits to the whims and fancies of Robert and Justin.
When Deepali’s secret is in danger of being of being exposed, she is hidden in a wooden chest. A little later she seeks refuge in a cupboard, signifying the status of girls in Singaad. Param, not a conventional hero spoiling for a fight, springs to Deepali’s defence not out of any larger sense of responsibility towards the village and its residents. All that the guy is interested in is protecting his beloved.
In fact, Param has always had a problem with the villagers because they betrayed his mother to another rapacious British officer many years ago. The only person he trusts is his pal (Pugazh), who is by his side through thick and thin until he falls foul of Robert.
The winding plot, apart from being exhausting and repetitious, is riddled with elements that fly in the face of historicity. It is one thing to rustle up a fictional village that lies deep inside a forest and far beyond a mountain and quite another to play fast and loose with facts for the purpose of setting the stage for a fight for liberation by a long-suppressed populace that has nothing to lose anymore.
That isn’t the only problem with August 16, 1947. It seems to have been written in haste and staged without much thought. The storyline is a maze, the characters are riddled with contradictions and the general tone of the drama is beyond shrill. The bad guys are very, very bad. The exploited people are very, very exploited. When violence is unleashed, it is extreme. Tongues are cut, limbs are severed, and faces are smashed. Life goes on.
The oppressed villagers are desperate to escape the clutches of Robert and his son but have no clue how to shed their trepidation and cast the first stone at their tormentors. Mercifully, we in the audience, just as desperate to gain freedom from a scrappy film, know where the exit is. But why go that far to test how avoidable August 16, 1947 is?