I just went ahead and ordered every R. Balachander movie on Netflix with subtitles. Which means I ended up watching the remake of Apoorva Raagangal instead of the original. I hate it when I do that! Oh well, at least I’ve seen some version of it now, even if it isn’t the “good” version.
I’m not sure how much I can talk about this movie without revealing the big “twist”. I guess I can start with the casting. There are two heroes and two heroines, we see that right away. Kamal Haasan, our young hero, is a college radical. Raaj Kumar (so much hotter than his real life son!), is an established and sophisticated wealthy man. On the heroines’ side of things, Hema Malini is a classy older singer and music teacher, successful enough to run her own household. And Padmini Kohlapure is a carefree young woman who lives by her own rules.
This casting is perfection and, once again, Balachander manages to beautifully meld the personality of his stars with the personality of his characters. Hema Malini, 36 in real life and decades into her career by the time this film came out, and yet still more beautiful and attractive than most younger actresses, perfectly captured the confidence and mature strength combined with femininity required by the character.
Kamal Haasan surprised me here. He convinced me as a man of action, and of chivalry. Most of all, a sort of exploding with youth sort of man. He leaps and runs and fights and shouts and generally believes that the world can be forced to change to fit the pattern he desires.
Padmini Kohlapure did not surprise me, because I always knew she was wonderful. Years and years ago, when I first saw Satyam Shivan Sundaram, I was blown away by how wonderful this little child actress was. Completely unsurprised to learn that she grew up to be an adult star, in fact I would have been surprised to learn that she didn’t. She is the youngest of the cast here, only 19. And she feels 19, with the innocence and hope of youth. But also with the surety of someone who has lived on her own and supported herself.
(See? Clearly destined for adult stardom)
And then there’s Raaj Kumar. Who, okay, has a really terrible wig in this. And his face in general is sort of leathery. But there’s still a spark of that classy devastatingly handsome young man from Mother India peaking through. And more importantly, he hasn’t lost his magic touch in female led films. There’s a wonderful kind of effacement and willingness to let his co-star shine in a scene which most male actors are not generous enough to do.
This casting is important, because the film is centered on unusual romances, and we have to both see the reasons why they are unusual, but also see why they would work. And I really can’t get into any more detail than that without getting into SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Balachander, I am beginning to realize, is all about the beauty of the pure sacrifice. “Pure”, meaning without even the reward of gratitude, or social approval. An older brother working hard for his younger siblings, he will get praise from all who witness it, his younger siblings will be told to honor and respect him for his sacrifice, and his own conscious (trained by society to follow certain paths) will reward him by telling him he is doing the “right” thing. But an older sister working to support her family, society will judge her for working outside the home, her family will see no need to honor her “unwomanly” sacrifice, and she herself will feel guilt for not doing what she is “supposed” to do-thus, Aval Oru Thodharkadai . This movie has a painfully complicated set up, in order for us to reach the point of accepting these characters’ methods of untying this knot, solving the “Paheli”, as the truly noble and sacrificial actions they are.
Do you know the movie The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek? If not, you should! It’s hilarious and brilliant and wonderful. And it also feels kind of like a dare. Someone said to Preston Sturges “I bet you can’t write and direct a movie about a woman who can’t remember who got her pregnant the night before without being censored” and Sturges took up the dare and figured it out step by step. She’s pregnant, but she also was married. Only she can’t remember who to. Not because she was drunk, but because she hit her head. And so on and so forth. Step by step, he takes this very “adult” kind of story, and makes it family friendly. And that’s sort of similar to what Balachander does here. He knows where he wants to end up, but he also knows that for the audience to stay with him, he has to take very careful steps to get there.
(I love this movie. And look! Even the trailer manages to convey the plot, without really saying what happened)
I knew what the ending would be, I think it was even included in the one sentence plot description I got from Netflix. But I was able to almost forget it while I watched the film because the journey was so engrossing.
Balachander does a bit of a slight of hand at the opening. He makes us think that we see what the “Paheli” is going to be. Raaj Kumar and Kamal Haasan are estranged father and son. At the same time that Kamal Haasan has been taken into the house of the older Hema Malini, Raaj Kumar takes into his house the younger Padmini. Both couples fall in love. Clearly, the issue is going to be that father and son both want to get married at the same time and when they are reunited, Kamal will object to Raaj marrying someone so young at the same time he objects to Kamal marrying someone so old. And they will both be forced to recognize their own hypocrisy in the end.
The romances are handled beautifully. No one acts older or younger than they are, Hema is still clearly a mature woman while Kamal is a young man brimming with youth. And Padmini is sweet and a little funny and naive, while Raaj is old and experience and suave. But their personalities are such a beautiful meshing, the age seems like a bonus, not a detriment.
Raaj meets Padmini when they are both at a comedy show and she notices that he isn’t laughing. If Padmini were a little older, she would never have the bravery to talk to a strange man, to ask why he doesn’t laugh. And if Raaj were younger, he wouldn’t have the confidence to answer honestly. It’s this combination of youthful brashness and optimism, with his older calm confidence in himself, that makes them such a perfect couple.
It doesn’t even seem odd when Raaj on their second meeting asks Padmini (who he knows is an orphan) to move in with him. We know that Raaj is too old to care what people think, and Padmini too young. And we have already seen how she makes him smile, and how she is not over-awed or self-conscious around him. There are plenty of reasons for him to want her to live with him, and no reason for her to say “no”.
It’s not exactly the same with Hema and Kamal, because men and woman are different. Kamal is a young vital man. He will not easily accept an invitation to live in someone else’s house, man or woman, but especially a woman. And Hema, as a wise woman who is aware of the cost of societal judgement, is not going to easily invite a stranger into her house, not the way Raaj can with his freedom as a confirmed bachelor. And so, in their case, it takes a dramatic situation, Kamal discovered injured on the road, for Hema to bring him into her house, and for Kamal to be too weak to object. Noticeably, as soon as he is even slightly better, he does object and insist that he cannot stay living off the charity of a woman. And Hema refuses to let him go, because her feminine need to care for others will not let her allow an injured man to leave.
In both cases, it is the younger people who take the lead in the romance. Because it is the confidence of youth which refuses to acknowledge obstacles like age, while the wisdom of age makes them more cautious. However, again, the gender roles still remain in place. Kamal is blunt and violent in his methods of romance. He declares his love passionately, and argues loudly when Hema tries to shut him out. And his love is clearly not just a “meeting of the minds”, but sexual and for her body. He is struck when accidentally seeing her come out of the shower in just a towel. He begs her to kiss his hand. And he wants to dominate her, their daily arm wrestling match (so long as she can beat him, he agrees to stay in her house to recover) turns into a moment of sexual spark as he finally defeats her. We believe that this young man desires her not just because she is there, or because he pities her, or for any of those other reasons that might explain their age gap, but because she is supremely desirable. And we believe that Hema returns his feelings not because she is flattered or desperate, but because he has truly beaten her down and “won” her. Again, thank goodness Hema Malini was cast in this part! 36 years old, she looks 36, not like a younger woman playing old. But she is also supremely vital and desirable and female. And it is completely believable for a younger man to have fallen passionately in love with her.
Raaj and Padmini are different, because men and women are different. Raaj is carefully unaware of Padmini’s physical appeal, because he sees himself as her protector and that would not be “gentlemanly”. It’s never even explicitly stated, but it is clear that Raaj would never let himself think of her that way. In fact, once he becomes aware that their relationship might possibly be miss-interpreted, he immediately starts moving to get her engaged to a nice age-appropriate young man. And Padmini, even in the freshness of youth, still approaches him as a woman. She is passive rather than aggressive, resisting making her feelings known until they are dragged out of her. And finally leaving it up to him to decide if he wishes to marry her, she will accept either decision. But, again, it avoids the pitfalls of a May-December romance. We believe that Padmini is attracted to Raaj (this is Raaj Kumar, after all), it’s not just a matter of pity or father issues. And we believe that Raaj cares for her sincerely, his acceptance of her proposal comes from a place of love, not mere desire for a younger woman.
The romances are so lovely, and that alone is plenty of conflict for one plot to handle (an older woman giving in to the advances of a younger man, and an older man agreeing to the advances of a younger woman). And then fresh complications appear on the horizon! Kamal learns that Hema was in love before, and had a child. But her lover abandoned her. And so she pretended to adopt her own daughter and raised her as a single parent. That is shocking enough, but shortly afterwards Kamal meets up with Suresh Oberoi (Viviek’s father, and BOY! Was he HANDSOME!), who falls down ill in front of him. Kamal takes him to the family doctor, only to learn that Suresh is that former lover of Hema’s, and has come trying to find her and his daughter. With the impetuousness of youth, Kamal immediately decides that Suresh has no right to Hema and forbids him from entering the house. At the same time, in his guilt, he pays for Suresh’s medical care, hiding him away in the doctor’s house.
(So many good looking men in this movie!)
Meanwhile, Raaj Kumar has decided to marry Padmini, but he wishes to get permission from her mother, who he has learned is alive but estranged, before they wed. Like Kamal, he is hiding something from the woman he loves because he feels it is the right thing to do. Building a relationship with someone in her life before she has the chance to do so.
This would all be lovely parallelism, and moving towards a double wedding and a happy ending, only the audience learned (long before the characters knew it), that father and son have fallen in love with daughter and mother! Padmini is Hema’s estranged daughter, when she learned the truth, that she was Hema’s biological child and not adopted, she run away from home. And after that, in her loneliness, Hema brought Kamal into her life. While Padmini ended up meeting Raaj Kumar, who took pity on her youth and brought her home with him.
It’s fascinating how much sooner the audience knows all this than the characters. Hitchcock’s theory of suspense, if you remember, is that if a bomb goes off, no suspense. But if we know there is a bomb under the table and the characters don’t, suspense!!!! It’s similar here. We are waiting in increasing tension for the “bomb” of these relationships to burst on the characters.
But at the same time, it also gives us in the audience time to get used to the idea. We continue to see these characters interact, be in love, and plan their lives. What at first seemed shocking and disgusting slowly becomes normalized, something we can live with and hope they can as well. We want them to be married, to sweep this under the rug. And so we feel with him the pain and difficulty of Raaj Kumar revealing the truth to them all.
In the end, this is a story of father and son. Raaj and Kamal are the ones to sacrifice all happiness. Hema and Padmini are reunited, that pain is healed for them. Hema gets the completion she desired for her earlier romance, and can now live a life as a widow (since Suresh has died). Padmini can continue to grow up and, perhaps, someday, learn to love again. But Raaj and Kamal are still separated from each other. And, now, also from the women they love.
This is the solution of the “Paheli”, for the men to sacrifice their happiness for the sake of the women they love. For mother-daughter love to be triumphant over romantic love, or the love of a father for a son. And this is what I was talking about at the very beginning. A woman giving up the man she loves, that is laudable in Indian society, and familiar, and something that everyone (including the people involved) will applaud and consider “virtuous”. But society places a low value on maternal love for a daughter. And low value on a man sacrificing for a woman he loves. And would generally consider this whole situation gross if they knew about it. And so, this is a true sacrifice. Something done for the happiness of others which will give them no rewards of any kind, no outside or internal approval, not even a good story to tell at parties. A secret hurt which only those involved can appreciate. And even there, the ones for whom they make the sacrifice do not care. In the end, the two women ride off together holding hands and smiling, while Kamal is left behind, looking at the photo of the woman he loves who does not even think of him any more.