Moodru Mudichu: Rajnikanth and Sridevi’s First Lead roles!

Is that right?  That’s what Wikipedia says, that they had both acted before (in child roles for Sridevi, and in smaller parts for Rajnikanth), but this was the first movie for both in which they were lead characters.  Which is UNBELIEVABLE!!!  Not just because they are so good, but because they are already so uniquely themselves, the personalities and personas familiar to me now, 40 years later.

First, a public service announcement: Rajshri Tamil on youtube has rights to about a dozen old R. Balanchadran films, with subtitles.  Many many people told me that I had to track this director down, he is the greatest artist of Tamil film, and I was all set to go on some kind of epic quest.  And then, boom!  There they all are, waiting for me!  And for you, if you feel like some classic Tamil human dramas.

(ta-da!)

It’s funny calling them “human dramas”, because if you just tell the plot in bare bones, it sounds like the most ridiculously melodramatic and over the top story in the world.  But when you watch it play out onscreen, the grounded-yet-stylish way that Balachadran films it, it doesn’t feel melodramatic at all.  It feels like flawed humans dealing with human problems, controlled by a just God.

That “just God” is Balachadran, I assume.  I like authors like that, who decide to reward goodness and forgive sins whenever possible.  It may not be “realistic”, but neither is a world in which the good always die young and evil triumphs.  So why not make your fictional world tend towards the just rather than the unjust?

What also makes it feel more like a “just God” controlling all, is how artificial the filming is.  We are seeing a real world (small apartment block, pleasant but not overly luxurious country home, lake), but filmed through a false eye.  Or a “more real” eye?  I am thinking of stylistic touches like the way a deformed character is always filmed in shadows, face covered or hidden, or the way a certain traumatic event is originally shot simply and quickly, but the aftermath results in multiple rapid repeated shots.  Is that perhaps the eye of “God”?  Taking pity on the deformed and hiding them from our sight, focusing more on the moments of sin and decision by humans than on the actions they perform?  Forcing the audience to sit in judgement of all that is happening?

Or is it a more human eye, perhaps?  The way we “see” things when our mind translates them.  The eye turns away from an unpleasant sight, insisting on blurring it or hiding it from our awareness.  An initial trauma happens without us even noticing, and it is the moments afterwards that seem to stretch and last forever and loop back on themselves.  The camera is ruthlessly revealing the truth of the story, as these characters are living it, not as it “actually happened”.

(See also-German Expressionism!)

Oh, also, the film is in black and white and it is masterfully done.  Making a good black and white film isn’t just about removing color, it’s about playing with a different form of the medium.  Shadows take on added significance, light shining, patterns, it can all be used to a heightened effect.  The greats were able to turn the “lack” of color into a positive.  Guru Dutt in particular, his use of light and shadow has never been equaled.  Raj Kapoor as well, although the man was such a genius, he was able to easily translate that mastery of light and dark into color films, adding a whole rainbow of color palettes to make up for his loss of the shadows.

I haven’t read about it with Indian directors, but I know there were some Hollywood directors who chose to keep shooting in Black and White long after color film became cheap and plentiful because they wanted the light and dark.  Like Chaplin choosing to resist sound films.  Anyway, does anyone know if R. Balachandran chose to continue in black and white past the point it became common for a similar reason?  Or did he merely make the best of a financial limitation and find ways to make the best black and white film possible?  I could believe either way, his black and white work here is masterful, but on the other hand, he did switch to color eventually, presumably he was also masterful in it (I don’t know, all the Rajshri films are black and white).

In terms of style and some of the content (randomness of fate, small moments adding up to big decisions, blah blah blah), Balachandran is very similar to the European art directors of the same era.  Polanski’s Knife in the Water, Bergmann’s everything, Godard’s Breathless. But it is the actors that really set him apart.

Those other stylistic directors I rattled off, they love using actors as kind of blank slates for the story.  Which is fine, it’s a directing style, nothing wrong with that.  But Balachandran took 3 of possibly the most distinctive artists in the history of film, Sridevi, Kamal Haasan, and Rajnikanth, and found a way to work with their style, to let them breath in their characters, instead of trapping them within his vision.

And he was able to bring out those distinctive characters in just their first films!  When I saw Thalapathi, I talked about how Rajnikanth was like lightening, fast and shocking and electric.  And that was already true in this movie, in one of his first lead roles.  The distinctive line delivery, the hand gestures, the way of walking even.  It’s exactly the same Rajnikanth as I saw just this summer in Kabali.

(Same guy!)

Sridevi is a special case, of course.  Not only had she already been acting for years, she was also a trained dancer, giving her amazing control of her expressions and movements, the kind of control you would normally expect to see in a much older actor of much more experience.  But in this film, she had to express young love, mature power, vengeance, forgiveness, generosity, a whole rainbow of emotions that only come with adulthood, all in her first film.  And, again, she is the same recognizable Sridevi that I saw in English/Vinglish.  The same sensitivity and strength combined in one package.

And then there’s Kamal.  He’s okay I guess.  A smaller role than Rajnikanth and Sridevi.  But he already has the sensitive touch and soulful eyes and all that.  And slight graceful kind of wristy gestures.

His smaller role is part of what is so fascinating about this movie.  But to talk about that I’m going to have to get into SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

 

 

 

 

Now, who here has read Georgette Heyer?  The Great Grand Master of Romance?  The First and Best?  I’m guessing at least 50% of the female audience?  If you haven’t actually read her, you have definitely read something influenced by her.  If you’ve read any regency romance at all, you’ve read something inspired by Georgette Heyer.

The reason I bring up Heyer is because of something from her very first novel.  It’s called The Black Moth and it is really not very good.  Mostly because she hadn’t yet realized who her “hero” should be.  She had a spunky and interesting young heroine, that was perfect.  But her hero was this noble type guy.  Sure, he was wrongfully disinherited and working as a highwayman, but besides that, boring boring boring!  Also, blond.  Blond heroes are always dull.

But her villain!  Now, he was great!  Rich and unscrupulous and older and dark haired and a brilliant swordsman and so on and so on.  Even though he was all rapey and dangerous, he is still a lot more fun to read about than the so-called “hero.”  Plus, when the heroine was with him, she got to be a lot more interesting too, all fighting back and making points and defending herself, instead of just laying (lying?) around waiting to be rescued by some blond guy.

And then over time Heyer realized that the key was to take her villain, soften the edges ever so slightly, and turn THAT into the hero!  Make him all dark and complicated and interesting, and make the heroine fight back and find her strength by going up against him.  Way way better than some bland blond guy being all respectful and courteous towards your womanliness.

Image result for mr darcy

(See, Heyer just needed to read her Austen a little more closely!  You don’t want Wickham, but you also don’t want Bingley.)

So, why did I take that little side road on the route to this film?  Because that’s kind of what Balachandran does here.  Except better, because there’s no romance at all.  Our heroine defeats our interesting villain without falling in love with him, or caring that he is in love with her.  And our kind of nice but bland hero disappears, so that our heroine can find her strength within herself.

Okay, so the plot sounds crazily melodramatic when you lay it out (which is why I have told the bare outlines of the story to about a dozen people, all of whom have been jaw-droppingly fascinated).  But the end result is stripping away every source of out side strength from our heroine so she can find the strength within herself.  More than that, so she can find the goal she wants and the happiness in her life for herself.  Not what her sister wants for her, or her boyfriend wants for her, or even what her husband wants for her.  But what she wants for herself.

If you look at it like that, the plot almost kind of makes sense!  Sridevi and her sister live in a tiny apartment block in Madras.  Sridevi is in college, and her sister supports them by picking up extra work in films.  Kamal Haasan and his roommate and best friend Rajnikanth are roommates her live in the same apartment complex.  Kamal meets Sridevi in the record shop where he works and they discover a mutual love for a romantic singer.  Later, he notices her washing clothes on the roof.  They have a little flirtation of exchanged glances and harmonica serenades (SHOLAY REFERENCE!!!!).  Only while they are being all sweet and innocent, Rajnikanth is skulking in the corner, watching and tempted.

Their little romance is discovered when she bumps into her sister on a filmset, but there is no real conflict, she understands that young love is hard to resist and gives them permission to keep seeing each other, so long as Sridevi finishes school before they get really serious.  And all of this is just boring boring boring!  You know what is interesting?  Her sister’s struggles to get parts to support them.  Rajnikanth sneaking in and cutting holes in her new sari and then pretending he didn’t.  Sridevi trying to tell Kamal Haasan that Rajni makes her uncomfortable and being told to shut up, she’s imagining things.  That’s way way more interesting than young lovers!

And so, when Rajnikanth kills Kamal Haasan, I can’t really find it in myself to be sorry.  Sure, I feel bad for poor Sridevi, he has to stand there and watch.  But I’m kind of thrilled as an audience member that we have finally gotten rid of one of the boring people!

(The love story does have a nice little romantic passing back and forth of the harmonica that mirrors the coke bottle thing in this song.  Although I think Akshaye pulls it off slightly better than Kamal Haasan)

And post-murder, Sridevi turns interesting too!  Especially after she returns home to find out her sister has been hideously scarred in a film accident.  For the first time, she can’t lean on her sister, or her lover, or anyone else.  She has to keep her knowledge to herself, hide it from those close to her and make her decisions for herself.

The rest of the film is watching Sridevi slowly come into her own power.  From a little girl too scared to date without her sister’s permission, she turns into a strong confident woman who can make decisions for herself, and for those that rely on her.  And she discovers that the joys of maturity and responsibility are much greater than those of fragile youth.

I’m going to skip ahead about five plot points to when Sridevi ends up hired as a nanny by a kindly older man in the country and loves the kids and her job and the life.  But then it turns out that the kindly older man’s oldest son is Rajnikanth!!!!  And the kindly older man thinks that the simplest solution to all of this would be if Sridevi married Rajnikanth, then she could still love the children and the house as the young master’s wife.  Sridevi is unable to tell anyone her very valid reasons for not marrying Rajnikanth (he killed her boyfriend/his best friend.  And he raped her maid, which I forgot to mention until just now), because she doesn’t want to hurt her kind employer or add more trauma to her sister’s life. She clings to the excuse that she doesn’t want to leave her sister, but then her sister kills herself to free her.

Again, super melodramatic!  But the result is that Sridevi is left entirely alone in the world.  She has nothing and no one.  In a different movie, at this point she would give in to fate and marry Rajnikanth, and then probably kill herself on the wedding night or something.  Passive passive passive.

(Wouldn’t this have been a more interesting movie if Aish had responded to all this by running away from home and getting a job?  Or would that just be Queen?)

But this is a much better movie.  And so, after losing absolutely everything, Sridevi finally finds her own way out.  She asks her employer if she can marry him, instead of his son.  He is a nice older man, so he hesitates, but she convinces him.

No more young ingenue, no more beauty and fragility and young love.  No, now she has become A Woman, A Mother, A Householder.  This is better than any young romance ever could be.

And from this position of power, she can also finally see her way to her true goal.  She doesn’t want to punish Rajnikanth, she wants to save him.  She pities him.

I suppose in a different movie this could be seen as a sign of weakness.  Or a weak message, that women are supposed to forgive and forget.  But instead it feels like the weakness was the early part, when she was torn with anger and fear and revenge.  She was still thinking about Kamal, about someone other than herself.

But now, now she sees clearly.  Her concerns are her kind husband and her beloved stepchildren and building a happy life for herself and those that depend on her.  She has no time for mourning some young man who used to love her.  Better to look to the future, to find a way to make something good out of all of this.

Which is what brings me to the ending.  Which, okay, is kind of ridiculous.  Her husband overhears her talking to Rajnikanth and puts it together that Rajnikanth killed his roommate/best friend/Sridevi’s boyfriend.  And he sets up an elaborate scheme to prove it, pretending to fall overboard on a picnic, which would allow Rajnikanth to once again kill Sridevi’s lover.  Rajnikanth panics, blurts out his guilt and confusion and that he would never do it again, especially not to his beloved father.  And when it is all over, his father reveals himself and tries to make Rajnikanth face “justice”, to kill himself.  And Sridevi intervenes.

Again, in a different movie, or even with a different actress, this might feel like Sridevi being the saintly self-sacrificing woman.  But in this movie, it feels like she knows what she wants and she is willing to stand up to all the men around her in order to make it happen, both the “good” and the “bad” man.

I also love it that her husband is just a truly decent guy, start to finish.  He’s an older wealthy powerful guy, the type who usually in films gets caught up on abstract concepts of honor and family pride and so on, who is quick to assume that his way is the right way because no one has ever questioned it.  But in this film, he is always willing to listen to others, to consider others, and to use careful judgement to decide what is right.  And our new wise mature Sridevi sees that and sees that these are valuable qualities in a husband when she chooses him.

(Back to Hum Dil again!  FINALLY Aish discovers the value of a good reasonable decent husband.  It only took her 3 hours!)

And her choice is proven out when her husband responds to learning about her past not by blaming her in any way, but by immediately placing the blame on his son.  Despite the revelation that Sridevi had a previous relationship before marriage, that she has been playing a secret game with his son, that his son desires her, all things which in other movies might have lead to a woman being thrown out, reputation in tatters, in this film are not considered at all.  He doesn’t just forgive her, he never sees anything to forgive.  She is a kind and loving and faithful wife, and a wonderful mother to his children (even the murdery one), why should anything that happened before they even met have any effect on how he feels about her?

But even her husband’s decent and reasonable attitude is still black and white.  He sees that his son is in the wrong, and he wants him to be punished.  Rajnikanth himself agrees.  He fears the punishment, but he doesn’t protest against it.  It is Sridevi who asks for a different way.  Just as she has found a new life with her new husband, so can Rajnikanth be reborn.

Let me take it back to Rajnikanth for a bit.  He’s so eeeeeeeeeeeeevil!  Which is great, super fun when people are eeeeeeeeeeeevil.  But what makes him brilliant is how he slowly drops the eeeeeeeeeeeeeevil until it is more just eeevil, and then just eevil, and then plain bad.  And finally kind of good, by the end!

Sridevi turns him good, not by her “goodness”, but by her selfishness.  When she gives in, when she is passive, Rajnikanth goes on a rampage.  He uses her powerlessness to rape, to kill, with no remorse or consequences.  But once she takes her power back, no longer relies on her sister or her boyfriend to protect her, but just quietly says “No” to his repeated proposals, to the pressure of everyone else to give in, he starts to change.  He tries to persuade her, he asks again and again, but when she says “No”, he is powerless.

And when she becomes his “mother”, he is truly powerless.  Forced by constraints of society, those same power dynamics that let him rape a maid with no remorse, now place him below the woman he formerly threatened.  If power corrupts, then lack of power heals.  Rajnikanth becomes smaller and weaker and quieter in every scene.

Until, finally, there is the finale.  The big dramatic scene on the lake, which should be another showcase for Sridevi.  But instead, it is Rajnikanth’s emotions that take control.  He is horrified at Sridevi’s accusation that he would let his father die out of desire for her, and then further horrified as he suddenly sees the true tragedy of his past actions, when he did let his friend die, his friend who he sincerely loved, just out of lust.  When he returns to his house to find his father alive, he makes you believe that the joy of that discovery is bigger than any other emotion.  That the pain of his father’s disapproval and disgust is what drives him to suicide.  That he isn’t some kind of cold monster, just a boy who got too used to having his own way.  And all he needed was a wake up call to see the world in a new light and find a place in it.  Just like Sridevi.

And in the end, they meet in the middle.  Sridevi had learned to take her power and craft the world to the way she wanted it.  And Rajnikanth has learned to give up power and take life as it is given to him.

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25 thoughts on “Moodru Mudichu: Rajnikanth and Sridevi’s First Lead roles!

  1. Great review. I didn’t read past the spoilers section, but the first paragraphs had me salivating! It sounds right up my alley. I need to watch this as soon as I possibly can.

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  2. Everything you listed as a positive for this is magnifed 100x in Aval Appadithan, a masterfully done movie looking at the state of feminism in the 70s India. Starring Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, it’s very ahead of its time and a must watch.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPmiYeNhOcM (a great scene from the movie showing the two opposing characters, representing the views in India at the time)

    Also another great grounded Rajini film is Johnny. Probably his best performance. I’ve linked two of my favorite scenes from the movie that prove Rajinikanth isn’t just a bag of gimmicks. He’s also an incredible actor who’s very natural.

    https://youtu.be/pSnrb2nQkNw?t=7136 (have always adored Rajini’s performance in this scene. The voice modulation is excellent, especially the way his voice starts to crack)

    https://youtu.be/Avd5o0j_yv8?t=163 (Another great scene. Even without understanding the scene, you can see how natural both of them are.)

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      • Thanks for the post, based on the post and comments I have put Aval Apadithan and Moondru Mudichu in my “Must View” list. I have not seen much movies of this era, but few scenes i have seen of Rajini as villain from this era, always made me notice him.

        I can see Dulquer & Prithviraj do roles like these, I think those two have it in them.

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        • I liked Dulquer, but I wasn’t THAT impressed with him until I saw Kali. He really managed to make a semi-negative part work. Prithviraj, I felt kind of the same, until I saw Celluloid. It was so different from the sort of cocky and aggressive roles I’d seen him in before.

          On Wed, Jan 4, 2017 at 8:57 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

          >

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  3. This is a legendary film of Rajinikanth, the antihero whom the South Indian audience can never forget so easily. The scene where Rajinikanth kills Kamal is as iconic as SRK killing Shilpa in Baazigar. The results were similar. If you enjoyed Rajinikanth’s villainy, let me tell you that this film is more humane. His antihero act is best found in films like Avargal, Aval Appadithan (highly reccomended), and 16 Vayadhiniley. You can see him play the villain in Enthiran (2010 release) as well. Just see him imitate a goat here in this scene and you can understand how effective Rajini is as a villain. That laugh is not that easy too, if we actually try.

    (forgive me for the poor quality)

    During those days, he was the devil every one loved to see. His style and swagger were so enticing, that the hero would be shadowed sometimes if Rajini plays the villain. So, it would be natural that producers rejected Rajini as a hero initially. Who knew that this not-so-good-looking guy criticised constantly until the release of Mullum Malarum (in which he played more of a supporting role) in 1978 went on to become the most dominating stars of Tamil cinema by the end of 90s and arguably the cinematic deity of Indian cinema? If the antihero was all about overpowering everything good (except here), the hero, well you know. After watching Baasha, Thalapathi and Kabali, I need not tell tou the level of optimism Rajinikanth brings with his mere presence.

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    • I should really watch Thalapathi again. It was my first Rajni film, and one of my first Mammootty and Shobhana films. I enjoyed it, but I think I would enjoy it more with the greater background and understanding I know have for all 3 stars.

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  4. my mom is an avid movie fan & in the 70s and 80s, we didn’t have cable, so the few movies that were shown on national television, she would be very keen to catch the director name , to judge if the movie was going to be a good one. And yes, prior to getting married, she used to watch a lot of films in the theaters, being very discerning about the director of course!
    I remember she considers K Balachandar an excellent director, so she has probably seen and appreciated this movie.
    I enjoyed reading your blog entry on this. Thank you.

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    • Thank you for commenting! And I’m impressed with your mother, knowing directors is a higher level of film knowledge in America, and it’s really high level in India, where the directors tend to be poorly publicized. Although maybe it is better in Tamil versus Hindi industry?

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  5. My mom has lived in both North & South India growing up. She has a master’s education & has an amazing story of how her initial schooling was in Tamil, but they moved to North India right around 10th grade & she had to master Hindi, because the teachers would give instructions in Hindi. Then, they moved to Bombay & she had to master English to complete her Masters degree, because the professors would lecture using ‘complex’ English words & she had to really work hard outside the coursework to excel.But I digress :0).
    My point is that growing up, my mom was immersed in both Tamil & Hindi movies (but not English) & prefers reading only Tamil ‘Film/popular’ magazines, so I imagine she is better acquainted with Tamil directors than Hindi …..but I remember her watching out to understand who is the director for Hindi films as well….so I guess she picked up on the fact that directors are key to a good movie & applied it everywhere.

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  6. I watched this last night. What a great film. I’ve gone back and read the rest of your review now- it is wonderful! I laughed out loud when you mentioned that you were thrilled that ‘we finally got rid of one of the boring people’ when Kamal’s character drowned. You’ve covered everything so well, I don’t have much to add. I will mention that I was very impressed with the camera work. I found some of the shots/staging to be very innovative and unique.

    There was one scene, where Sridevi brings Rajnikanth a coffee and he kind of walks a circle around here, checking her out. The way that the camera captured him moving swiftly around and then the flashes of her chest, neck, hair that he was fixated on, was incredible. It added so much extra tension to the already tense scene. I also loved the shot where the camera was fixed on the room, and different scenes of Rajnikanth trying to convince Sridevi to marry him and she keeps turning him down. It marked his persistence and the passage of time in such a unique and artful way. I also enjoyed the way that he used the low-angle technique that Orson Welles employed in Citizen Kane, or Fritz Lang used in M. It was nowhere near as extreme as those examples. It was much more subtle and changed throughout the film to reflect the shift in power, culminating in that gorgeous shot of Sridevi appearing at the top of the stairs after Rajnikanth has just noticed her picture on the wall next to his father. There were a lot more little moments and shots that I can’t really think of at the moment. I enjoyed the movie a great deal!

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  7. I’ve never seen this movie but it sounds pretty interesting.

    One coincidence is that today I was watching a interview of an old Telugu producer named Ashwini Dutt and his debut movie was called O Seeta Katha which turned out to be the original version of Moondru Mudichu. He turned out to make many commercial blockbusters in the future, but I just thought this was an interesting.

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    • Oh that is interesting! Normally I believe in watching the original before the remake but in this case so much was added to the film through the style of filming and camerawork, I don’t think I want to see a version not directed by Balachandran.

      I just wiki’d it, and it looks like it was remade multiple times. But what’s really interesting is, in the Malayalam version, Kamal Haasan played the Rajnikanth role here!

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      • I assumed that K. Balachander made all three versions because that was a common practice at that time but I just checked and realized that K. Viswanath made the Telugu original. From what I know, K. Viswanath is also a very well known and critically acclaimed director too. I remember watching and liking his Swati Mutyam which was a movie about an autistic man who marries a widow. It is starring Kamal Haasan and Radhika if you want to check it out.

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