Second week that I am managing a Tamil Tuesday! And an actual good film this time, another R. Balachander. If I were still watching movies in a wild and unplanned manner, I would be zipping through all his films on youtube and probably getting super confused as to what happened in which. But with my new alliterative schedule theory, I have to hold off. Or else zip through and then schedule all my posts out for the next several Tuesdays. We’ll see what I end up doing.
I saw somewhere on The Internet that this film is supposed to be a favorite of Mani Ratnam. And I can see that, it reminds me a lot of him, in the way he can understand the unique conflicts and desires of a woman versus a man. But this movie takes it a step forward, and looks at the unique issues of a woman who has been forced to take a man’s role.
It’s a tricky concept to handle, without accidentally making a statement that a woman can’t “handle” the job of a man, or that it “unwomans” her when she tries. On the flipside, it would also be wrong to argue that there are no challenges, that a woman can thrive in a man’s position just as easily as a man can. Really, it’s the difference between “blind” casting and “aware”.
This movie is all kinds of aware! Not just of our heroine, but of her best friend, her mother, her sisters, even her forgotten sister-in-law comes in for some awareness of her uniquely female struggles. Heck, even her best friend’s mother gets a full-fledged conflict and issue.
And once again, just like in Moondru Mudichi, Balachander manages to cast the perfect person for each role. I cannot believe this was Sujatha’s first starring role! She wasn’t just a good actress, she was so confident onscreen, like she was born to be a star. And then there’s Kamal Haasan again, playing a special kind of character, a man who somehow fits more easily in the role of someone serving and cheering on women than as one who demands to be served. And Vijayakumar playing the opposite. One who enjoys women, but ultimately wants someone who is weaker than he.
And then there are the other women, besides Sujatha. Sripriya is the quiet widow, retiring, afraid of her own beauty. And they cast an actress whose very eyes hold the screen, even if she has no words to say. And Fatafat Jayalaxmi, this is almost too perfect, playing the slightly wild and slightly crazy friend whose ending mirrors her end in real life. Only the real life is sadder (which is saying something with a Balachander film!).
Mostly thought, I can’t believe how well-realized this whole world was. Early on, our heroine mentions that she is supporting 9 people, and I thought “9! How am I ever going to keep track of all 9 main family members?” And by the end, I knew each one, not just of those 9, but of a good half dozen other characters we met only briefly. With just a few situations and reactions, Balachander was able to build a whole distinctive personality for each one of them.
And most of these people were good people! This isn’t a world where tragedies come out of “evil” deeds. No, it’s about weakness, and random tragedies of fate. And personalities that somehow come together and come apart and don’t quite match. That’s where the tragedies come from.
And that’s our heroine’s tragedy. Not the many many many sad or frustrating things that happen in her life. But how her personality has been warped beyond repair, how she will always have a disconnect between what she feels herself to be inside and how she has become to the world. At least, in the end, those closest to her, the ones for whom she was forced to make this change, can come close to understanding what has happened to her and why.
One final thing before I get into the SPOILERS. Once again, I am in awe of Balachander’s technical abilities. The very opening of the film is a series of images of our heroine from different angles, catching her in different lights, changes of expressions, different backgrounds. As a flat newsreel style voice recites the details of her life. For a Brechtian New Wave kind of opening, this rivals anything you could see from the great directors of Europe in the same era. Only it’s in India! Which means either Balachander was very remarkable and dedicated to finding and seeing the newest styles of film from all over the world and teaching himself to imitate them. Or, it means Balachander was superhumanly impressive, and developed all these techniques on his own.
Okay, now SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Sujatha, our heroine, lives in a house with 9 relatives and works to support them all. We learn this in our voice over in the opening. She has a younger sister who was married before her and then widowed, Sripriya. She has a drunkard brother. And his wife, her sister-in-law, who had had 3 children, a boy, a girl, and another boy who is still a baby. She has her mother, who continues to wait for her husband/Sujatha’s father to return home even though he left 8 years back and hasn’t been heard from since. She has an even younger sister who is yet unmarried and stays home. And she has a younger brother, a little boy who is blind.
That all sounded really over-whelming, right? Not just that she has so much to struggle with, but that the audience has to remember all those details! Luckily, Balachander makes it easy for us, he structures the film so that we start by spending time getting to know every angle of Sujatha. And then, slowly, one by one, he unpeels the other characters in their own little sections.
Sujatha is the most fascinating of them all though. This is where I was saying that I was so fascinated that it was her first leading role, because she carries the entire film on her shoulders. And it is not a role that fits into any of the usual “heroine” boxes.
She is the self-sacrificing daughter and sister who gives up her own happiness for her family. But she doesn’t do it by wearing old saris and crying and praying. She does it in make-up with a cheerful smile and the most modern style. And she does it by scaring everyone else in the bus line and refusing to give alms to the poor and going to the office every day and then coming home and glaring until her family is scared into doing what she wishes. Basically, she does it by becoming what is too easy to label as a “bitch”.
This is the brilliant challenge that I mentioned above which Balachander grasps. When, by necessity, a woman is forced to take on the role that is usually held by a man, in order to succeed in it, she has to be twice as fierce and twice as unpleasant as a man. But with the womanly awareness of how her actions are hurting others and making her unloveable and unlikeable (an awareness that men often have ground out of them in childhood, and which women are trained to cultivate).
And then there’s the other challenge. That a fully “unfeminine” woman cannot move as far forward in life as one who has learned to “armor” herself in feminine signs. This is the actually wording Balachander uses in the film, Sujatha describes her make-up as “armor” that she must wear because she has to do battle with the world on behalf of her family. And she armors herself not only in make-up, but in smiles and laughter and flirtation. She has learned that an insincere laugh when insulted or depressed will get her father than tears.
Which is what makes it all the more poignant the few moments in the film when we get to see her “real” laugh. They come when she is allowed, for a brief moment, to return to herself before struggle had hardened her and changed her. They are not there when she is living the facade she has forced on herself.
What is notable is that each of the woman in this film have some variation of this same challenge, a faux-self that they have been forced to create in order to confront the world without the protection of a man, a man who is able to confront the world simply as himself and nothing else.
While getting to know Sujatha, we also get to know her best friend, Fatafat Jayalaxmi. Fatafat uses her smile as currency in the world, puts on a carefree face in order to get rides to the office, to have fun with boyfriends, to not think of anything at all. Even when she has her abortion (yes, a movie from 1974 that casually mentions abortion!), it doesn’t appear to touch her. Until suddenly the whole life comes crashing down on her and awakes her to the realities all of a sudden.
While Fatafat lived her life out in the world and refused to think, her mother lived a life of the mind, hiding herself in novels and dreams. Another woman left behind and alone without a man, waiting her life out however she could.
And then there is Sujatha’s widowed sister who puts on a face of contentment with her small life of sewing to make a meager contribution to the household. Pretending she has no more dreams or emotions left in her. And her mother, who lives a life of fantasies that someday her husband will return, that her son will start working, that their life will get better again.
Even her sister-in-law gets some slight character! While at first she is simply the figure in the background trying to quiet a crying baby, once Sujatha attempts to throw her brother out of the house once and for all, his wife sticks up for him, gently asking that he be allowed in, as he has never misbehaved in love. And later, when Sujatha arrives home late at night to the sound of a crying baby, she calls out for her sister-in-law and sees that she is in the bedroom and has invited her husband back in. She may put on the face of a silent mother, but inside she is a sexual being who both loves and desires her husband.
But of all these woman it is Sujatha who suffers the most, because she must carry the burdens of both a man and a woman. She goes out into the world every day, rides crowded busses, works in an office. And she has to put up with harassment from her boss, nagging from her mother, and no respect from her relatives.
Most of all, love is not an option for her. This movie comes awfully close to treating love in the kind of “crowning glory for all women” way. But I think it works, because ultimately the issue is the same for both Sujata and her boyfriend. Almost. They have been together for 4 years. They love each other. And they both want children.
But Sujata cannot bring new life into the world until she is finished with her current responsibilities. And she cannot ask her boyfriend Vijayakumar to take on all the responsibilities of her life and share them with her. That is the difference, a woman is expected to move in and share in a man’s family problems. But a man is not expected to take on full responsibility for his wife’s family. At least, not such a very large family as Sujatha has. That is the difference. Everyone wants love and everyone deserves love, man or woman. But for a woman, love cannot end in marriage unless she is willing to give up all of her responsibilities and dedicate herself to her new husband.
Although a man has his own challenges. This is why we have Kamal Haasan in the film, to show how a male character can be challenged by similar issues. Kamal doesn’t have any responsibilities, which is why he is able to pursue his impractical dreams. But that also means he has no right to speak his heart to Sripriya (Sujatha’s widowed sister), because he cannot support her. He is just the lodger who lives upstairs, no more. It isn’t until he takes on the role and challenges of manhood, gives up his impractical dream and finds a real job, that he is able to find his own love story.
Oh man, I haven’t even started to give you the real plot yet, have I? Sujatha works everyday while her family makes fun of her for being so bitter and angry all the time. After work she dates Vijayakumar. But he is beginning to pressure her slightly to finally marry him and leave her home and start a family of their own.
Nothing really “happens” so much here. Except that Sujatha’s family life becomes slightly better for her. She learns that her little brother and nephew have taken to begging and stealing for treats like movie tickets and sweet buns. And she reacts not with the anger they expected but instead forgiveness. She refuses to give her mother money for a trip to a temple and later her family learns she has purchased new lipstick and passive aggressively complain.
At which point she has finally had enough. I think this is when she explains the “armor” concept, that she spends money on make-up because it helps her go out into the world and bring back the money they all depend on. And where does that money go? She finally breaks, still with that fixed smile, and pulls out her bank books to show that it is being saved in the name of her sister, to support her in her widowhood. Her other sister, for her wedding. Her brother, for his education. And even her neice and nephews, her brother’s children, she is saving money on their behalf too! And does she go out and work and control the finances because she wants to? NO! She does it because there is no one else. The day she can give this up and throw out her make-up would be the happiest day of her life. And in fact, if she comes home tonight to find her brother ready to take up responsibility, that would be the happiest day of her life. Of course, her brother is a drunk, so she comes home that night to find him worse off than ever.
But at least her family has finally understood her a little better! And when they get word that her father is returning and promises to bring “great wealth”, they can understand the reason behind her wild celebration. And her depression when she learns her father’s “wealth” is of the spiritual kind.
Perhaps it is this greater understanding which makes Sujatha wish to finally bring her lover into her home. Which, tragically, is where her life goes wrong. Vijayakumar leaves his glasses behind, and when he returns for them, he both discovers how impossible these responsibilities of Sujatha are when he meets her blind brother and the other children she had hidden away on his last visit. And he meets Sripriya, the equally beautiful and equally strong, but younger and more feminine, version of Sujatha.
Now, if this were the other sister, the still unmarried one, well, Vijayakumar would be kind of a dog and she would be kind of faithless and cruel. But this is Sripriya, the young widow who has tried to hide away all her feelings. She has resisted her youth and happiness for so long, how can she turn away a lover who approaches her? And Vijayakumar, we can’t simply say he is looking for an easier choice than Sujatha, he is still picking a hard road, convincing a widow, and the rest of society, that she can be married and happy again. After 4 years of patient waiting, finally grasping what impossible odds their relationship faces, can we blame him for being swept up in half-glimpsed eyes and face?
And so Sujatha finds a love letter Sripriya has hidden. And, against her objections, insists that she dress in a new sari and go out and live her life and set an engagement with Vijayakumar. She even gives the couple her bedroom for their honeymoon. And later hosts her baby shower.
Sujatha has made sacrifices and used her new “freedom” to provide for others. But at least she has avoided the catastrophe that hits her best friend, Fatafat, who has used her freedom to live a life with no cares or responsibilities for others. Fatafat’s first boyfriend that we meet is a mere “distraction”, just good times. She sleeps with him, learns he is engaged, gets pregnant, gets an abortion, and moves on with her life with a laugh. Her next lover is Sujatha’s supervisor, who had already tried to harass Sujatha. Sujatha tries to warn her off, but Fatafat just laughs. After all, what could go wrong? Sex is fun, love is fun, it’s all just good times.
Really, if the film weren’t made in such an easy artistic manner, the “twist” would seem incredibly soapy. But seeing as it was done through half completed scenes, close-ups of fluttering hands, and finally a confrontation in which horror is masked by giggles. See, Fatafat’s new boyfriend is a bit of a player. And so, although he is dating Fatafat already, he has no problem with flirting with an attractive woman he meets in a store. And later, surprising her at home. Until finally she succumbs to his charms, as is implied by her fluttering hands and sudden excitement the next day. Which is when Fatafat comes home to discover her boyfriend’s writing in her mother’s book and puts it together that mother and daughter are sharing a man. Her first reaction seems no worse than her casual response to her abortion, laughter and joking. But as the laughter goes on and she runs and runs, it becomes clear that she cannot live with this knowledge and is planning to kill herself.
(I mentioned that it was interesting that she was cast in this role. She was only 16 in this movie, 6 years later at age 22, she killed herself)
But Sujatha is there. Taking on one more responsibility, rescuing her and taking her home, to discover that her mother did what she could not. And then taking her into her household and arranging for her to start a new life with a new love, Kamal Haasan.
And, finally, Sujatha is rewarded for all her sacrifice. Her brother is finally working, and she responds by giving up her own job, explaining to her boss that if she is still working, her brother will feel he has an escape and might decide he can avoid work again. She throws out her make-up and delights in her freedom.
And her boss, from those few scenes we got of him (this is one of those characters who is barely in the film, and yet we know him as a unique person), is a remarkably decent person with an understanding of her character. He believed her when she reported harassment, he lent her brother money when he lied about her mother being sick and understood when she apologized and returned the money. And now, when she explains her reason for leaving, he suggests that her position be given to her brother so that he can earn enough to support the household.
And then, finally, he comes to her house and asks to marry her. It seems a little out of nowhere, but not really. He has been a remarkably decent guy all along, and she has been honest and straightforward with him. He really knows her, all her sacrifices and nobility, and he has seemed to appreciate them before. It makes sense that, now that she has retired her position, he might want to have a woman like her for his wife.
Wikipedia calls what happens next a “classic Balachander twist”. Which apparently is a nice way of saying “life always sucks!” Just as the wedding is being prepared, a double wedding between Sujatha and her boss and Fatafa and Kamal, the evil man who destroyed Fatafa, still resenting how Sujatha had rescued Fatafa, declares he will go to the wedding and break it up. Coincidentally, Sujatha’s brother hears this and, finally aware of his responsibilities to his family and the debt he owes his sister in particular, and tries his best to stop it. And, in a freak accident, dies. Word reaches Sujatha at the wedding, and we have a lovely shot of her getting the news, pulling aside her fiance to share it with him, all without hearing the actual dialogue.
And so, in a final sacrifice, knowing that there is no one left to support her mother, her sister-in-law, and the children, but wanting to save the face of her fiance and the cost of the wedding, she hands her bridal garland to her youngest sister and sits her down to be married in her place.
But that’s not the end-end. The end-end is a little more hopeful. The first shot of the film was the family working away until she left and then quickly going about enjoying themselves. This time, there are a few changes, now it is her sister-in-law who is the widow at the sewing machine instead of her sister. The youngest sister is gone and so is her brother. But the children and her mother are still there.
And, the biggest difference, this time when she leaves, the work doesn’t stop. They have finally appreciated her for the true head of the household that she is and are giving her the respect of following her wishes, even when she is not present to enforce them.