This is really an unbelievable performance. As in, you watch the movie, enjoy the movie, then look it up and discover that it was Sridevi’s first adult role and she was only 13 and go “I don’t believe it”. (full list of Sridevi reviews here)
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.
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.
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.
(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.