Thursday Tamil: Major Chandrakanth (Not the NTR One, the Other One)

Well, this was depressing!  And shockingly coincidental.  I am beginning to suspect that the K. Balachander fictional universe only contains about 200 people, which would explain why so many characters end up having surprising connections to other characters previously introduced.

This is the second Balachander movie I’ve seen that starred Nagesh.  I know the title character is supposed to be the real lead, and the actor gained a “Major” nickname based on it.  But for me, Nagesh is the beating heart and soul of the film, just as much as he was in Ethir Neechal.

Image result for nagesh tamil

(This actor.  Has a kind of Jerry Lewis vibe, but with more purity)

One of the things I like best about Balachander is his sensitivity for the situation of women in society.  But as I watch more of his films, I’m beginning to notice that it’s not actually about being a feminist.  It’s about being an underdog-ist.  He always cares for the powerless.  Women are almost always powerless, so they are often his protagonists.  But he also cares for the poor, the abused, the infirm, anyone who is overlooked and used by the rest of society.

The other recurring theme is how these powerless folks take what little power they have and try to do the right thing with it.  Those above, who could solve all our hero’s problems just by lifting a finger, can’t be bothered.  But those below, they struggle and slave and sacrifice to do their little bit for the larger society.  Without hope of acknowledgement, or reward.  Without even thinking that acknowledgement might be something they should or could want.

What I find particular heartbreaking about Nagesh’s character in this movie is that he doesn’t know he is powerless.  At least at the beginning.  He thinks he is in control of his destiny and his life.  He thinks he is the one tricking and using others.  And that makes it all the more terrible when he comes face to face with how very little power he does have in the world.

Major Sundarrajan goes through a bit of a similar process.  He thinks he knows the reality of his situation because he has accepted his physical weaknesses.  Only to learn that his physical weakness was the least of his problems, and any sense of control and awareness was only an illusion.

Image result for major sundarrajan

(This guy.  He was with Nagesh in Ethir Neechal too.  And if I am reading The Internet correctly, he got the nickname “Major” thanks to this role?)

Although this movie isn’t exactly un-feminist either.  Our one featured female character, Jayalalithaa (Hey!  My first Jayalalithaa movie!), is the most powerless of all.  And it is her suffering and powerlessness that sets all the rest of the events in motion.












This plot is a little less tight than the other Balachander films I have seen.  They all kind of took the long way round to get to the point, but at least we followed our central character most of the time.  In this one, we jump between Nagesh and Major Sundarram and their families in an almost random way.

I can see the point to this structure, to make us understand how these two seemingly totally dissimilar people are the same, and how everyone of us is connected in ways that are not immediately apparent.  I just think the execution should have been a little better.  In Ek Nai Paheli, for instance, we jumped between the two stories, but on a scene by scene basis they were thematically tied.  If the “twist” had never been revealed, I would have still considered it a good movie, an exploration of gender and age issues through the lens of two similar but different stories.  However, with this film, it never quite gelled together until the “twist” showed up.  I couldn’t see the connected theme until way at the end, not because the filmmaker was keeping it from me, but because it wasn’t really a consistent theme until the last few scenes.

The general idea of blindness, I can see that in retrospect.  Major Sundarram is literally blind.  That is our opening, him returning to his house, the arrival of the police, and then the reveal that he is only afraid of the police because the police officer is his son and he knows his son will be angry at him for going outside in the evening chill.  At first, the literal blindness appears to be ironic, since his intellect can see so clearly.  He is a wise and noble person who can see to the heard of a matter, such as his son’s concern for his health.

But later, as the film develops, we see that his blindness is not just physical.  He is blind to the flaws of his younger son, and also to how his older son becomes complicit in hiding those flaws.  And in the end, when he can finally “see”, it’s like a blazing light bursts forth and suddenly he can see more clearly to the heart of a matter than anyone else involved in it.

(The younger son.  Charming, but flawed.  A bit of a flirt)

But just as I am getting used to Major Sundarram and his protective loving son, and dog, and put upon servant, and military pride, and all of that, suddenly BOOM!  We are somewhere else!  We are watching Nagesh, a tailor and a bit of a conman, manipulate his staff and his customers and everyone else who is gathered in his house.  He is in complete control and everyone else is suffering from his shuffling off the work onto others, squeezing the last penny from customers, and general other trickery.

Only, we learn, he is doing this all for the sake of his little sister.  Who he has positioned in her own large room in the back, carefully cooled by a fan and not to be disturbed while she studies.  It’s Jayalalithaa!

I was assuming this was one of her earlier roles, because the character is so young.  But no!  Turns out Jayalalithaa has been acting since she was a small child, and moved on to heroine roles at 16 (I think?).  And now, at 18, she was already an experienced actress with over a dozen films under her belt, in Tamil and Telugu and Kannada.  It’s great casting, because she is able to convincingly play a whole range of emotions and complicated scenes thanks to her experience, but still looks so young and innocent because in reality she is only 18.

I am also seeing that Jayalalithaa is a highly trained dancer?  Is that correct?  Or do I just think that because Aish’s character was a dancer in Iruvar?  Anyway, that is super important to her character, because it is how we are able to experience two perspectives at once, to share in Nagesh’s “blindness” and his sudden new vision.

Nagesh sees Jayalalithaa as his beautiful and talented sister.  He is excited to show off her performing skills to the whole neighborhood, and brags about them constantly.  And she is clearly talented, we in the audience can see that in a lovely scene where their radio breaks just as her song is about to play.  So instead Nagesh rigs up a microphone from the back bedroom, and we watch Jayalalithaa joyfully sing, and dance in her joy, with the accompaniment of her brother and their household dishes.

It is the best way for us to see her talent the way her brother sees it.  Something joyful and as innocent as a child.  Something that adds light to their simple life, their plain kitchen utensils and bare rooms.  Her talent is a wonderful gift, it is no wonder that Nagesh sacrifices everything in order to nurture it and is so sure that he is doing right.

But then, we see her first live performance.  At first, it is the same as her kitchen performance.  We see her lovely dance, her pretty costumes, it all seems like a fairy world, innocent and perfect.  And so we are as shocked as Nagesh when we hear an audience member talk about her “displaying” herself for men.  And yet, with a second glance at the stage, we can also see the problem.  What appears to her brother as youthful enthusiasm and fearlessness, could appear to a different audience as openness and invitation.

You could say that Nagesh should just ignore those men, they don’t know his sister like he does.  But in reality, both visions are true.  Jayalalithaa is loving and innocent.  But she is also putting herself on display and available for men.  And Nagesh is right to be worried.  And to be happy once he arranges her marriage.

What the audience knows at this point even if Nagesh doesn’t is that Jayalalithaa is pregnant by Major Sundarram’s younger son.  This information is being kept from Nagesh by Jayalalithaa who still hopes to marry her lover before she has to confess to her brother.  And from Major Sundarram by both his sons, the younger because he is ashamed and hopes to pay her off and arrange an abortion.  And the older, because he doesn’t want to hurt his father and instead is pressuring the younger to do the right thing.

Nagesh’s original vision of Jayalalithaa is still accurate, because she trustingly assumes that it will all work out, and the father of her baby will support her.  But just as Nagesh was originally blind to the womanly and attractive vision of his sister, so is Major Sundarram’s evil son blind to this innocent view of her.  And so he heartlessly sends her his message suggesting an abortion because he clearly could not marry someone let her.  And it breaks her heart.

Normally I don’t like the whole “a woman needs a husband!” message, but the way we are lead through Nagesh’s reasoning here, it works.  He doesn’t want her to marry because he wants her to leave the house, in fact it is breaking his heart.  And he wouldn’t be so eager, except that he is suddenly aware of the reality of the situation that a young unmarried woman is in danger if she performs in public.  So he either has to live with that danger (unacceptable), or make her stop performer (also unacceptable).  And therefore, a husband is required.  And what Nagesh doesn’t know is that the danger he sees is so real, that it has already taken her, she has already been used by a man who took advantage of her freedom and her naivety.


What makes this, I don’t want to say feminist, but at least “not anti-feminist” is that we never get to see Nagesh’s reaction to her being “ruined”.  Well, we kind of do.  We see his devastated reaction to her suicide.  It’s not a “thank goodness that problem is solved, family honor saved!” reaction.  It’s total misery and hopelessness.  Which seems to imply, at least to me, that he would have preferred she live and be “ruined”.  That he would have accepted the baby and helped her to work through this problem.

It’s Jayalalithaa herself who, in her protected view of the world and broken heart, decides the only solution is suicide.  And Nagesh’s reaction is not to blame her, but to blame the man who took advantage of her twice.  Once by seducing her, and again by abandoning her and moving on from that seduction without a second thought.

This is also the point when, FINALLY, the movie feels like it comes together.  Even with all the little ties between the two narratives, seeing the letter from Jayalalithaa arrive at Major Sundarram’s house and all that, they still didn’t feel connected.  The real heart of the film was with Nagesh and his sister, our little visits to the other half of the film felt kind of empty and soulless with these characters we knew so much less about.  Not in terms of backstory, but in terms of personality.  Nagesh and Jayalalithaa, there were so many scenes where we got to know their strengths and weaknesses and how they viewed the world.  But on the Major Sunddarram side, we got to know a little about him as a father and a man who lived with but refused to give in to his disability.  But his sons never felt like real people to me, just abstractions, the “good” honest cop and the “bad” weak college student.

But now, in the end, that weakness becomes a strength.  When Nagesh kills the “bad” son, there is no moment of sympathy for the victim or confusion over who we should “root” for.  It is clearly Nagesh all the way.  He is a real person with motivations we know and understand.  The victim is just the “bad” son that we barely know.

In the same way, skipping ahead to the very end, when the “good” son comes to arrest Nagesh, we want Nagesh to escape.  And we know the “good” son won’t let him go.  Because the “good” son is merely justice incarnate, not a person with feelings who might understand Nagesh’s struggle, and with reasoning that the audience can support.

R. Muthuraman.JPG

(This is the good son, R. Muthuraman.  Head of a very filmi and very political family)

But still the two halves start to come together at this point when Nagesh and Major Sundarram meet up.  Massive coincidence, by the way!!!  That an escaping murderer will end up at the house of the father of his victim.  But, if we accept the coincidence, this is also the best part of the movie.  And clearly the point of the movie.

Going back to Ek Nai Paheli for a moment, in that film it felt like the ending “Paheli” was just another part of the film.  It was equally important to the earlier scenes with couples falling in love and dealing with age differences and everything else.  But in this movie, the situation in the last hour feels like what everything else was setting up.  All the previous scenes were merely setting the stage for one final push.

It’s a really good final section, I just kind of wish it had been a one act play or short film and we had jumped straight to this section.  The rest of the film was enjoyable and high quality, but it feels disconnected with this last bit, where Balachander finally reaches the meat of it all.

Nagesh is discovered by Major Sundarram who invites him to stay and comes to like him.  Eventually, Major Sundarram learns he is a murderer on the run.  But he is a fair man, and so hears Nagesh out, assuming that his new “friend” must have had a good reason for what he has done.  Nagesh explains what happened with Jayalalithaa and the Major agrees that he has done the right thing.

That alone is a nice section, the idea of this proud old man and this little scared tailor becoming unlikely friends out of the loneliness of one and the fear of the other.  And that Major Sundarram is so fair that he is willing to hear out his friend, and make a decision based on a higher moral authority, not just “the law”.

But then of course we, the audience, know that Major Sundarram’s son is the victim of this murder.  Information the Major himself does not yet have.  And there is that tension, will he stick with his faith in Nagesh and support for his actions once he knows the truth?  Or will the personal element ruin his judgement?

It’s not just Major Sundarram, we see this destiny coming down for all of them.  Will Nagesh regret his actions when he sees that he has hurt his new friend?  Will the police officer son take extra vengeance on the one who killed his brother, or forgive him completely because he knows his brother deserved it?  What about the Major?  Will he be punished for harboring a fugitive?

In the end, it’s not so much a “puzzle” or a twist, it’s just a moment of watching 3 people rise to great heights of justice.  Major Sundarram, while heartbroken over the death of his son, still believes in his earlier decision that Nagesh was justified and should not be hated for what he did.  The police officer son acknowledges his own grief, but also his own guilt in the matter, by not stepping in back when he first found out his brother had gotten a woman pregnant.  And Nagesh agrees to stop running and be taken into custody and face a fair trial, because while his actions may have been correct under a higher justice, he still owes something to the laws of man and society.

But the big moment, the moment the whole film has been building up to, is when the Major is taken into custody by his own son.  First, as we have seen earlier in the film, he gently strikes his hand with a stick.  But, since the Major is blind, his son must first hand him the stick before he is struck.  It’s a great moment of filial (filial?) obedience and love.  That he is so willing to take the punishment meted out, he is even willing to hand his father the stick with which to do it.  What makes this moment on a whole other level is when the Major first strikes him for being a bad son by lying to his father (by helping to hide that the “bad” son had gotten Jayalalithaa pregnant).  And then sets the stick aside and calmly holds out his hands for handcuffs to be arrested for helping to hide Nagesh.  Because, while he may have the right of punishment as a father, his son has the right of punishment over him as a representative of law and order.  It’s an almost Ramayana level drawing of the line between our responsibilities to our family, versus our responsibilities to the larger society.


My only problem is, both because there was so much more time devoted to it and because I just reacted more to it, I felt a lot more for Nagesh and Jayalalalithaa’s story than for the Major and his sons.  And so the resolution fell a little flat for me, as it dealt with the half of the film in which I was just slightly less invested.  But otherwise, perfection!


8 thoughts on “Thursday Tamil: Major Chandrakanth (Not the NTR One, the Other One)

  1. Loved the write up 🙂 And by the way, I think Major Chandrakanth was a stage play (also by Balachander), which he later turned into a movie. That might explain some of the pacing.


    • Thank you! Both for the kind words and the information. That does make sense, I knew that Ethir Neechal was a stage play and I was very aware that it was almost all on one set, and kind of arranged for easy exits and entrances and lighting changes and things. But I didn’t know this film was a play as well. I think they must have changed a little more than in Ethir? There were some scenes that just couldn’t have taken place in a stage show. But maybe it was inserting those scenes that messed it up, the regular play script scenes were the ones that seemed so logical and well-written, but then they were all confused with the inserted scenes.


  2. Balachander wrote a film named Server Sundaram which starred Nagesh and Muthuraman. It is dramatic, but quite lightweight. I suggest you to try it when free.

    BTW, Thursday Tamil? Wasn’t it Tuesday?


    • Yeah, I got behind this week. Thank goodness, there are two days that start with “t”.

      Shoot, Server Sundaram isn’t easily available. I’ll have to see if I can track it down somehow.

      On Thu, Mar 9, 2017 at 7:59 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  3. Hello,

    I just stumbled on your blog and am working my way through the posts. Loving it by the way. 🙂

    My cousin and I used to joke that we would never want to be heroines in a Balachander film – really bad things always happen to them and they never get the happy ending either, or the guy. Granted, that’s probably more in line with real life than most Tamil movies.

    He actually did quite a few TV serials that were very popular. I remember getting really pulled into Kai Alavu Manasu. If you’ve got the time, its a pretty interesting story about a content housewife who loses her husband (and primary breadwinner) and gets diagnosed with a serious illness – basically has her entire life flipped on its head. She gives up her 3 kids for adoption in the hopes they’ll have a better life expecting to die. She doesn’t obviously, and its isn’t quite as depressing as my summary seems.

    Nagesh is one of my favorites and you’re right – this film is all him. Major Sunderajan did infact inherit the Major from this film. 🙂


    • I’ll see if I can find it! Amazingly, Rajshri seems to have picked up the rights for most of the classic Balachander’s, and has put them on youtube for free in high quality with subtitles. But there are odd gaps in their catalog.

      On Mon, Jun 26, 2017 at 11:35 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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