First, head over here to read my big discussion of sex and meaning in Mani Ratnam films. That’s fun and new. This is not new, this has been reposted many many times already. But hey, maybe you haven’t read it yet somehow!
I first saw Saathiya shortly after it came out, and promptly fell in love with it. I’ve watched it so many times by now that I basically have it memorized. Which was good, because if I hadn’t known it that well, I don’t think I would have been able to easily pull out from Alai Payuthey the little things that were in the original but were dropped from the Hindi remake. Basically, it’s the same movie. But Alai Payuthey is about 15 minutes longer, and those 15 minutes add a whole other layer of complication to it.
Oh, and also there’s the casting. I love Rani, of course, and she did an amazing job with her role in Saathiya. And Viviek was super charming and endearing and enthusiastic. But they both felt old. I didn’t even realize how old they were until I saw Alai Payuthay, and Madhavan and Shalini felt like they were growing up onscreen. It’s not even that they were actually that much younger than Rani and Viviek, actually Madhavan was older, but they were so much fresher onscreen!
Shalini was a child star and had been in a handful of films as an adult. But Rani Mukherjee had been in over 20 films, including the massive hits Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. She was a known quantity to the audience, but more than that, she had a certain gloss and competence on screen. Her make-up and hair and costumes and mannerisms and line delivery and everything else felt like a movie star, not a person.
And then there’s Madhavan. A model, a TV actor, 30 years old, but this was his first movie. And it was like we were just watching him goofing off at the camera. There was no sense of self-consciousness, or “acting”. Viviek was starting out, he was fresh and charming too, but it wasn’t his first movie. He’d made a shockingly good debut in Company the year before, and followed it up with Road. He was willing to work hard and put on a massive charm offensive at the audience, but in some subtle way I felt like he knew he was on camera the whole time.
And Madhavan just looked so young! Both of them did, in ways that were in their bones, not created by make-up or styling. Madhavan had this amazing sort of look like his skin was stretched over his bones, like teenage boys sometimes do after a growth spurt. And Shalini was so tiny! Wild hair, little bones, little body. That’s something you can only get if you cast the actors for the role, taking into account every little aspect, that you want a certain look, a certain freshness, a certain everything else. And in the Hindi version, they were looking for a hit, they were looking for people who had proved themselves and would get the audience excited, they couldn’t afford to just cast for the roles.
Of course, there’s also the style. Even though Shaad Ali was trained by Ratnam, he has his own look. Shaad Ali is about bright colors and clear spaces. Ratnam is about color filters, and crowded spaces. They have similar camera movements, moving through spaces and following people, instead of the usual stagnant settings. But just the little tweaks in lighting and number of props visible, and all of that, gives such a different feel to the film’s world. Shaad Ali’s version feels like reality, but slightly stripped down. He wants to tell a story with simple clean lines, and the visuals support that.
Ratnam is different. He glories in the mess. There are saris piled in corners of bedrooms and utensils stacked in the kitchen, and in the same way, there are little side notes and hidden points in the characters and their interactions. Things that just aren’t there in the Shaad Ali version. Which brings me to those missing 15 minutes. And the SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
Both movies have the same general plot. A young man goes to meet his wife at the train, and she doesn’t show up. The rest of the film cuts between his hunt through the city to find her, and their courtship and life together over the past 2 years. They met at a wedding, and then weeks later he saw her on a passing train.
He spent weeks tracking her down, based on train schedules and school schedules. And then he started following her around, trying to start conversations, trying to get her to smile. Until he finally invited her to his house to meet his family, and she came, bringing her big sister who was the only one from her family who knew of their romance. Post this awkward meeting, his parents came to her house with a proposal. Our heroine is in med school, her parents are not eager for her to give everything up for a sudden love marriage. His family is unhappy with this girl from a less wealthy family that has been suddenly forced on them. Both sides are rude and dismissive, the meeting does not go well. The hero keeps pushing, saying he loves her and he can’t just forget the whole thing. Finally, she leaves for a service trip with a medical group, and the hero takes money from his mother to follow her. He finally finds her, and she suggests that they just get married, right away, in secret, and keep living in their own homes until her sister is married and things calm down.
Only, at her sister’s engagement meeting, it is going so well that the other family suggests both brothers marry both sisters, and the heroine has to confess to them all that she is already married. Her father throws her out of the house, and slaps the hero when she shows up to get her. They ride off to start a new life in an unfinished apartment owned by one of their friend’s uncles, she is still finishing up her residency, and he is trying to get his computer start up off the ground. At first everything is wonderful, sex and laughter and fun. But then they start fighting about little things like being late coming home, or moving a file, just pointless fights that keep escalating. Until the big fight comes, when the heroine learns her father is ill. She wants to see him right away, and the hero refuses, because they swore never to see their family again, especially her father. She doesn’t go without him, which finally softens him so he is willing to take her the next day. But it’s too late, her father is dead. And then the marriage really starts to crack, because he doesn’t know what to do to make her happy again and nothing seems right.
Finally, on the day it all started, the heroine has just learned that the hero has been going behind her back to fix up her sister’s engagement again. She is eager to meet him and thank him and solve the problems in their marriage. And then she is hit by a car. Our hero spends hours searching for her, and meanwhile there is a last minute cameo from a major star (Arvind Swamy in the original and Shahrukh in the remake) who’s wife is the one who hit the heroine. He arranges things at the hospital, makes sure the hero is finally tracked down and notified, and comforts his wife at the same time. Finally, the hero and heroine are reunited at the hospital, she isn’t waking up, he pours his heart out to her, and she finally wakes up and says “I love you” to him for the first time.
That wasn’t too long, was it? 4 paragraphs for the whole movie? Now that that’s out of the way, I want to cover the little things that aren’t shared between the two films. And they all kind of add up to one thing, in Saathiya it’s a movie about a marriage and two people struggling to make it work. In Alai Payuthay, ever so slightly, it’s a movie about Shalini more than Madhavan, her journey and her struggles.
There’s one big thing they dropped in the Hindi remake and it changes everything. In Alai Payuthay, Shalini has a threat hanging over her, the possibility that her family might marry her off to her cousin and force her to use her medical skills taking care of her complaining aunt. I can see why Shaad Ali thought he could drop it, because it’s not a real threat. Shalini’s family loves her, and wants the best for her, even her cousin himself doesn’t think they would make a good match. But for a while there, in the middle, it feels like a real threat. To both Shalini and the audience. And so when she suggests marriage to Madhavan, it’s not just because she is so in love she can’t bare to be away from him, it’s because she wants someone to rescue her from the possibility of a forced marriage. If they have that piece of paper, even if they aren’t living together, she has protection.
In both films, ultimately, it’s about how a man and a woman approach marriage differently. For the hero, once they are married, he’s done. Life is perfect, he has a wife at home, no need to do any more work. But for the heroine, marriage is when it really begins. Suddenly she is consumed with all the responsibilities of being a wife, and the huge existential question of if this person who she has given everything over to actually cares about her, can actually take care of her. And the resolution is him realizing just how much she still matters to him, that he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her happy. And her giving in and realizing that she loves him and can stop holding back and waiting for proof.
But in Saathiya, it was always a little strange to me that Rani’s character wasn’t willing to admit that she cared for him at all, and then suddenly was proposing. I could handwave it away that she didn’t realize how much she cared and how much she missed him until she was out on her own on the service trip, and then suddenly saw him. But what would she tell herself to explain this decision? In Rani’s version, the character was so consciously competent and together, you could believe that she never let anyone know he she felt about anything, that it was just her personality, to always deny emotions. That the proposal was a brief moment where she let her emotions override her mind, and she just denied it and beat it down later, pretending she didn’t feel those things.
But Alai Payuthay is so much simpler, and deeper. Shalini doesn’t think of it as a “love marriage” necessarily. She tells herself that she is just afraid of being married off to her cousin, that this is just a stopgap measure. She holds herself back from giving of herself emotionally. And part of that is making herself over to an entirely different person post-marriage. Shalini is just so wild and disorganized pre-marriage. There is this great moment in her intro song when the music goes up and suddenly she is running free down the street, breaking away from the other woman dancers.
That’s what her whole character is like, breaking free from convention, running away from responsibility. Until suddenly she is married, and trying to make sense of her responsibilities and suddenly being the woman who gets dressed up first thing in the morning so she will look nice for her husband, and won’t go see her dying father without his permission. In Saathiya, it’s less shocking, Rani as a good wife and married woman isn’t that different from Rani as a good daughter and serious doctor. But in Alai Payuthay, we can see the struggle and shock as Shalini does her best to live up to her own expectations for herself in a marriage, without ever admitting that she is doing this out of love, not obligation.
And, because Ratnam is so good, we see how that struggle didn’t just come up overnight, but goes all the way back to Shalini’s relationships with her parents and her family. In Saathiya, there is a little of that, Rani’s mother and father both have high expectations of her, and her sister is the one who understands her best. But in Alai Payuthay they sketch in so much more, just around the edges. Shalini is her father’s, and her sister is her mother’s child. Her mother resents her giving up her bright future for a love marriage not just because of their sacrifices as parents, but because of what her sister has sacrificed, giving up the possibility of marriage at the regular time, taking a job in a bank to help pay tuition. Shalini has spent her life being her father’s daughter, resisting the food and home and traditional female path that her mother is set on, letting her sister take that place. And now she feels like she has to fit herself into that model, like that is how to prove to her mother and everyone else that this marriage wasn’t a mistake or more than she can handle, that she can be the perfect wife and be happy with just a husband and no one else.
Since Alai Payuthay is ever so slightly more Shalini’s story than Madhavan’s, that means Madhavan ends up coming up ever so slightly short compared to Viviek’s character. Both of them have the same general outlines, a younger son who’s father doesn’t really believe in him, who flourishes once he feels he has the full support of his wife at home, but also falls into a pattern of taking her for granted, and at the same time not fully realizing his own responsibilities. He has no problem declaring that he won’t take her to see her dying father, but he is honestly surprised that she wouldn’t go without him.
However, in Saathiya, there are just a couple of moments that add a little more to him. We see him interacting with his father a bit more, we see how his father’s bluff confidence and indulgence is almost more insulting than a direct conflict would be, how much he must need to break off and be with someone who sees him as an adult, someone who looks up to him.
And why Rani’s declaration that “we don’t need anyone else, we are each other’s family now” must have been so important to him. We also get little glimpses of him as not just a loving happy husband, but a bit of an angry proud one. Maybe it’s because Viviek was just in Company, but there is the slightest hint of that kind of anger in his performance. Something about the way his face shifts when Rani’s father slaps him, we can see that this isn’t something he will ever be able to forgive. And way at the end, there is a moment when the police suggest that Rani ran out on him, and he grabs the police officer and shakes him, like he’s going to kill him. In Madhavan’s version, he makes a comment about maybe the police officer’s wife ran out on him. It’s different, it’s still bitter and angry, but it doesn’t have that undercurrent of darkness that Viviek had. Where you feel like there was a reason he latched onto this difficult woman and tried to win her, like he had to prove something to himself and his father and everyone else. And the end of the movie resolved that somehow, he learned what was really important in life beyond all his pride.
I am a little miffed that Alai Payuthay dropped my favorite line from Saathiya, Viviek finds Rani at the hospital and says something like “You weren’t on the train one day and everything fell apart.” It encapsulates his whole journey over that evening, going from just thinking she would be there because she is always there, to awkward hunting while still trying to keep up appearances (calling her boss and pretending there is nothing wrong), to finally bursting into her family home in desperation, no longer caring about any silly pride or vows not to speak to them. He thought he was a man when he took his wife into his own home and she declared they didn’t need anyone else. But in the end, what he learned was that it was about expanding out into the world, using this one relationship to build more.
He was fighting his way there already, in both versions we see how he struggles to make his wife happy after her father’s death, once the full weight of the responsibility hits him. And his final solution is sort of sideways, to fix her sister’s marriage, to take over the undone task her father left, and to unbreak the biggest thing their marriage broke. It’s the kind of thoughtful above and beyond effort that she has been looking for, a sign that he isn’t just in the marriage for the fun of it, that he has fully taken on his responsibility as a husband as part of the larger social system. But the accident jumpstarts it, puts their resolution on the fast track.
Only, in Alai Payuthay, even while she’s just lying there, it’s more about Shalini’s resolution than Madhavan’s. Madhavan is running around looking for her, sure, but so is her family. We see her cousin, the one she was supposed to marry, notice her in the hospital. Her sister and mother rush in and talk to the doctor. All Shalini’s issues about not being loved or appreciated by her family, about telling herself she is rushing into marriage to escape her parents, those are washed away. Her mother loves her and forgives her, the rest of the family loves her too. And when she knows that, when she opens her eyes and sees her mother and sister there, that’s when she knows for sure that Madhavan is the one she wants. If she has everything in the room with her, everyone who loves her right there, she still wants Madhavan, because she really does love him, not just as her husband or as the cute boy who chases her around and can save her from an arranged marriage, but as himself.