Moondram Pillai, so far as I can tell, does not exist with subtitles. So instead I ended up with Sadma with poor subtitles. A challenge for my Hindi skills! Luckily, most of the performance brilliance was in the non-verbal parts.
I first heard about this movie I think 15 years ago? Someone I knew had just seen, not the whole film, but the sari scene. And she insisted on showing the scene to me and explaining the context as it was explained to her. And that’s what I always thought of when I thought of Sadma, that one scene. Which is really all you need from the movie. Okay, it’s a great movie overall, but it is grappling with the idea of a child and a woman in one, as shown through Sridevi’s brilliant performance and Kamal Haasan’s equally brilliant reactions to her. And the sari scene perfectly encapsulates all of that.
It’s a very difficult film. Even while watching it, there were moments when I suddenly pulled out of the film and went “this plot is CRAZY!” And then I got pulled back in again. The story concept was so ambitious, and the director and actors committed to it fully, that the audience could get swept along even with this ridiculous plot.
And one moment for the soundtrack and songs! I’ve seen a fair number of Ilaiyaraaja scored movies, but they never really stood out to me until now. This film though, the music is everything. It sets this tone of light openness that keeps the film burbling along through all the events. Right from the start it tells us the world this is and how it will be.
It’s also the visuals that tell us this. This is a gorgeous gorgeous movie. Not in a fake over the top way, but simply looking at natural beauty with a camera that lets us see it. All kinds of natural beauty, whether it is a birch forest or Silk Smitha’s body. Or Sridevi’s face.
This is not a movie about artifice or poetic metaphorical images, it is about the messy confusing impossible realities of life. The film it reminded me of the most was Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal. Similarly complicated and human with no easy answers. And similarly honest about sexuality, about the complexities of love, about all the darkness and lightness in the world.
I am not surprised at all that the Hindi version failed. This kind of truly honestly “adult” content is not what the Hindi audience would have been used to. An open ending, a complicated situation with no easy answers, Silk Smitha putting a bandaid on her thigh, all of this is more adult than Hindi films usually are. However, I am hopeful that all also means it is faithful to the impossible-to-find Tamil version so I did not miss as much as I could,
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The structure of this film is so amazing. We start with a view of modern Indian woman. Sridevi, in pants and a blouse, happily strolling a sunny beach and singing along to a light western infused song, surrounded by desis and white people, in bikinis, playing guitars, everything is very free and easy and casual, we have an immediate picture of who Sridevi is, a cool modern woman for modern India. She likes experiencing things, being part of the party, without necessarily changing herself over to be like the people around her. She will be on the beach watching the white people, enjoying it, but without wearing a bikini like them or being part of their crowd. And then, before the song is over, she is singing along in her car when it is suddenly hit by a truck, and this amazing strong confident different woman is gone.
We go from this happy sunny free easy world to one of silence and calm and rules, Sridevi is in a hospital bed being poked and prodded by men in white coats. Finally she awakes to cower in fear, the opposite of the confident beautiful put together woman we saw moments earlier. And she isn’t beautiful any more. I mean, she is, but she isn’t moving as though she is aware of her appearance, trying to look good for someone, conscious of her face. She immediately looks just slightly “wrong”. And then her parents are sat down by her doctor and gently told that she seems to have regressed to age 6-7. And it may or may not be reversible. And the doctor reassures them, he has a friend who is a psychiatrist, he will send her to a nursing home where she will be taken care of.
And then we switch to Kamal. An out of towner uncomfortably visiting his friend in the city. His friend who encourages him to drink and offers to take him to a brothel. At the brothel, Kamal is charmingly uncomfortable. But the Madam is sure she has the right one for him. First time for him, first time for her. And there is Sridevi. Mysteriously at a brothel. And still childish. Kamal and she are alone in a room together, he starts to approach her and she suddenly lashes out and then starts to cry saying she is scared, she wants her mother. And Kamal rushes out, realizing that something is very very wrong. He keeps thinking about her though, and eventually goes back to see her again and try to very gently find out what happened. She isn’t sure, someone told her he was a friend of her doctor and brought her there, she isn’t sure what her mother or her father’s name is. All she remembers about their house is that there are pigeons nearby. And Kamal tries to follow all of this, primarily seeming to get out of it that Sridevi is is mentally retarded, has loving parents behind her, and was safe in a nursing home until recently. This nags at him, he can’t forget her, and finally he decides to go back and buy her out of the brothel and take her home with him, to the remote hill station where he lives.
All of this I vaguely knew in advance, but what I hadn’t expected was the way it was played. From the sari scene, and just the outlines of the plot, I expected a tension between Kamal and Sridevi falling in love and her brain injuries. But it’s not that at all. She is truly a 6 year old little girl. Not a mentally retarded grown woman, but a little girl.
That’s why it has to be amnesia, not a lifelong mental issue. Sridevi isn’t a grown woman with a different brain than most women, she is a little girl who isn’t even aware of or comfortable in her grown woman body. And therefore Kamal isn’t torn between his protective and lustful feelings for Sridevi, but rather through his joy in and urge towards parenting her, and a sense that he is supposed to be interested in women in a different way.
This whole film, as I see it, is about Kamal running from his own mature desires. He is uncomfortable in the brothel and easily changes from being desirous of Sridevi to storming off, and then being curious about her. Once he decides to take her home, he is clearly and happily treating her as a daughter rather than an equal. His friend doesn’t understand, but he is happy.
Their idyll in the country is very much that of a new parent falling in love with his child. Not in romantic love, but parental love, which can be just as euphoric and addictive and over-whelming. Kamal delights in all the small moments and small joys of caring for his new daughter. He gets angry at her and then forgives her like a father and daughter. And when she is attacked by the neighbor blacksmith, he reacts not with jealous rage, but with protective fatherly rage.
In context, the sari scene isn’t about Kamal “wishing” Sridevi would be cured and beautiful and sexual with him. It is about him trying on that expectation, the way he would normally expect to see a woman in a special sari in his bedroom. But when she appears, in her real style, he laughs at himself and is content with what he has.
He does have something else on offer. Silk Smitha in this movie is effortlessly perfectly sexy. She is everything healthy and sexual and natural all at once. The embodiment of mature human desire. And she is on offer to Kamal. She is tired of her older man protector (husband? not sure) and Kamal is the only attractive young man around, she longs and lusts for him. And the film doesn’t necessarily judge her for that, she has a normal healthy human desire and wants to fulfill it. She might be immoral, but she is not unnatural in what she wants.
Kamal is the unnatural one. He doesn’t want Silk. Or he does and doesn’t at the same time. He is intrigued, but he can’t bring himself to accept her advances. Instead he retreats to his fantasy with Sridevi. The human connection and love and shared life he needs, without an adult relationship.
Or maybe it’s not that Kamal is unnatural, but rather that his situation is unnatural. He lives in a remote hill station, his only neighbor is an elderly woman. His best choice for a connection is either with a sex worker, or with the purely physical relationship on offer from Silk Smitha. By comparison his turning to the completely innocent bond with Sridevi is understandable.
The sari scene is the turning point, I think. Not that Kamal decides he is in love with Sridevi, but that he makes his peace with letting go of the other possibility for his life. He doesn’t need the beautiful Sridevi, the mature woman taking control and promising him sex, he is happy with this other Sridevi, the little girl Sridevi who laughs and plays with him.
Let’s take a moment for Sridevi. Her performance here is truly remarkable. Often in these kinds of roles it feels like the performance is more a combination of tics and tricks than real from the heart emotions. Not so here. Sridevi perfectly embodies the 6 year old she is supposed to be playing, not just on the surface but down deep. The way she holds a puppy, the way her face shifts from happy to scared in a moment, the way she is scared with a complete whole-heartedness like a small child would be. She is what makes it sure that Kamal does not want her to be more than she is, because she isn’t more than she is, she is just a little girl like any other little girl. And Kamal is happy with that, he doesn’t want a woman.
Which brings us to the ending. Kamal’s sacrifice, in bringing her to the traditional healer of the village, risking losing his little girl. It isn’t a bid to make her into a woman who he can control and can satisfy his needs, it is a sacrifice of the “daughter” he has come to love. And it turns into a greater sacrifice.
In between seeing Kamal and Sridevi build their life, the audience has been reminded that Sridevi has another life and another family. Her parents go to the police for help after she disappears from the nursing home. The police claim to be unable to find her, her parents advertise in the paper, and she is recognized in the village. So that she wakes from her cure to discover her parents there, and she remembers everything up to the car accident but no more. And meanwhile Kamal sees the police and is afraid and stays away, watching from a distance.
Sridevi is herself again, a casual cool adult. The kind of woman who would terrify or not even notice shy villager Kamal Haasan. Who does terrify him, Kamal stays away although there is no reason for him to do so. Her parents are grateful, not angry, wish they could meet the man who took care of her. But Kamal hides from the police, follows from a distance instead of coming forward. Until finally he is able to break free his fear when he sees that Sridevi is really leaving. He chases the car, falls down, keeps going, and finally reaches the station just as Sridevi’s train is pulling out. He chases it and chases it, tries to get her attention, makes faces to remind her of the games they played, but it is useless. She does not recognize him and he is left alone at the station.
At first I was sad at this ending, I mean it is an objectively sad ending. But then I started to think about it. It’s not that if Kamal had been able to remind her of their time together, or even just introduce himself to her parents, that they would have been married and together forever. We know this Sridevi, we saw her at the beginning. This is not a woman who wants to stay tucked away at a hill station with a shy husband. Kamal found a temporary happiness and now it is gone, while Sridevi’s happiness has returned. She is once again herself, not a confused little girl but a strong grown woman.
Sridevi can play roles as strangely childish sometimes, not childish like in this movie, but the slightly timid and big-eyed and naive kind of woman. That is not how she plays her heroine’s “real” self in this movie. This is not a childish timid kind of woman, this is a confident strong independent woman. It’s a tribute to her acting in this film, to play a total child and then a total adult all within the same performance.
And Kamal could not handle this adult. He can’t simply go up to her and say “Hi, I’m Kamal, I took care of you while you were sick”. He has to try to get her back to that little girl state, at least to remember that little girl state, because that is what he needs her to be so that he can be who he is.
Way back when they first met, the madame of the brothel suggested that Sridevi would be right for him because Kamal was not ready for a more experienced woman. And she was right. Sridevi was what he needed. And so maybe this is a happy ending. Maybe this is Kamal finally facing up to his limitations and his fears and being ready to grow up as well, just as Sridevi just has.