Tuesday, July 4, 2017

An Original: Reflections on Sathyaraj’s performance in Vedham Pudhidhu

“People talk about how certain products are Made in India or Made in China.  Similarly, I was made by Manivannan” – these were the words of Sathyaraj in an interview where he paid a tribute to his dear friend, the late director Manivannan.  There is no denying the fact that their collaboration yielded us many a rich cinematic experience ranging from political dramas like Amaidhi Padai to interesting thrillers like Vidinja Kalyanam or 24 Mani Neram.  In his interviews, Sathyaraj has showered encomiums on Manivannan for shaping his dialogue delivery as a villain and for giving him some of the most sizzling dialogues ever written for screen.  While Amaidhi Padai till date remains one of the greatest villainous turns in Thamizh cinema – it certainly is Sathyaraj’s best performance – to me, his role as Balu Thevar in Bharathiraja’s Vedham Pudhidhu remains his finest work as a leading man.  Multilayered, nuanced and boasting of an arc that merits a place in any serious discussion on screenwriting, this is a marvelously etched character that is done full justice to by the great actor.

One thing that I have noticed about Sathyaraj is that his abundant talent shines through in the works of directors who allow him to appear relaxed on screen.  Contrary to what we have seen of his work in P Vasu’s films – some of which were admittedly hugely successful – his real strength and charm comes from understatement.  We have seen this facet of his more in his antagonist roles.  But Vedham Pudhidhu is a movie where he exhibited this in a positive role.  The initial portions establish his character of a principled atheist, one who worships his fellow human beings.  But Bharathiraja does the right thing by adopting a light tone for the initial scenes.  This does two things – there is heavy duty drama to follow; by then we are primed to accept the behaviors of the leads.  More importantly, the changes in the Balu Thevar character come across as very natural and not preachy because we know the place he is coming from.  The introductory scene of Sathyaraj, for instance, is a perfect example of the effortless charm that the actor brings to the role.  He is spouting lines on his lack of belief in God and alluding to the meaninglessness of caste-based factions.  But watch how there is a certain amount of playfulness that envelops the heavier themes without obscuring them.

As I was revisiting certain scenes from the movie, I realized that there is not a single performance by another actor that I was reminded of.  Specifically, Sathyaraj’s dialogue delivery – his manner of speaking his villainous lines in other movies may have been shaped by his lifelong friend.  But his measured way of speaking, with impeccable diction, with just the right amount of pauses and inflections, is completely original and is on display in its full glory in Vedham Pudhidhu.  Of course, the contributions of Bharathiraja, the director, must not be underestimated.  But the way Sathyaraj brings certain scenes to life with just his dialogue delivery is a pleasure to watch.  The panchayat sequence is a case in point.  Leading up to the scene, he calls upon the different groups separately to make them see the error of their ways.  His expression of anger is controlled.  Then, in the panchayat scene, he brings it all together in a crisp but meaningful monologue.  His posture, with his legs folded, is just perfect for the setting.  And his line on the thamirabarani river is superbly delivered.

Start watching at the 2:35 min point:

The best scene in the movie is one involving another master performer, Saritha.  The Dad has just rescued the son (Raja) and his love interest (Amala) from a deeply embarrassing situation.  The Mom (Saritha) is furious that the son has put her husband through this ordeal.  The girl’s Dad (Charuhasan, in his career-best role) has come to plead to Balu Thevar that his girl not be pursued by Balu’s son.  Struggling to balance his love for his son and his duty towards his fellow beings that he places on a pedestal, Balu assures the Dad that his girl will not be disturbed anymore.  Sathyaraj’s body language, facial expressions and the crack in his voice when he says, “…Balu Thevanuku pazhakkam ille” are a perfect showcase for students of acting to watch.  The detailing here is perfect.  Prior to seeing Charuhasan, Sathyaraj is seated comfortably in an oonjal and later walking the room as he talks to Raja and Saritha.  But after he has made the promise to Charuhasan, he sits in a chair in the corner of the room, unable to come to grips with the possible repercussions of his promise.  Once again, his method of delivering the lines does full justice to what was on paper.  When he says, “nadanthurukarthe vaera,” there is power and assurance.  But when he immediately adds, “Aana andha manushan kai yendhi illadaa ninaaru” there is a certain softness that he brings to his delivery.  Nearly 30 years after its release, this sequence still holds tremendous power and most of the credit should go to Sathyaraj's stellar acting.

The highlights - 4:16 - 4:42, 5:02 - 5:16, 5:33 - 5:43

The movie and the character itself peak in the climactic sequence.  His plea to the villagers to spare Charuhasan’s kids has the right mix of his own firm convictions and the acceptance of his diminished status in the face of the villagers’ equally unshakable beliefs in superstitions and rituals.  Sathyaraj’s performance is masterful here, with his use of hands, when making his points, minimal and purposeful. 

Vedham Pudhidhu may have its share of flaws.  But Sathyaraj is the anchor and his top drawer acting is the reason to watch this movie, whatever one’s religious sentiments may be.  This is a perfect exhibition of sensible writing and assured direction blending with one of the great performances by a leading man.  Sathyaraj may have been “made by Manivannan” but this Balu Thevar is certainly made by Sathyaraj!


Anonymous said...

After watching Baahubali, Satyaraj as Katappa was so memorable. Glad you are writing about Vedam pudidhu- i'm sure his fans will appreciate all your analysis as the movie is nearing 30 years. I think he is one of the very few actors who can
do a variety of roles - hero, villain, character actor etc. When I think of Satyaraj, poovizhi vaasalile, valter vetrivel and China thambi periyathambi stand out. Time to watch Vedam pudidhu after this read. Well done as usual.

ravishanker sunderam said...

Very well said Anonymous !

What a discerning eye you have Ram Murali.

Ayone who watches Tamil movies would have zeroed in on Vedam Pudhidhu as Satyaraj's best performance but your highlighting of the nuances of the way he interpreted Balu Thevar helps immeasurably in appreciating the performance even more.

Especially your detailing the cadence and arc and the way he reacts to Charuhasan's plea.

If I may sum it up in one word after reading your article, I would say 'Control' is what he brings to the performance despite so may "opportunities" to go over the top.

Your last sentence is a gem. it is so apt that he should create this one by himself.

Bharatiraja should consider himself lucky in this aspect

Ram Murali said...

Anonymous and Ravishanker - thank you for reading and commenting.

Anonymous - Poovizhi Vaasalile was a damn fine piece of cinema but I honestly remember it more for Raghuvaran's scene-stealing turn as the suave villain.

Ravishanker - yes, "control" is the word. :) I also liked him a lot in En Bommukutti Ammavukku. Even Suhasini was restrained in that film!

ravishanker sunderam said...

"Even Suhasini was restrained in that film!"

HA HA KUrrrruumbbu ! What a cheeky comment

But aligns with my personal opinion

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - nothing can escape the discerning cartoonist's eyes! Glad you caught what I tried to sneak through!

Kousalya Murali said...

This movie created a big furore when it was released-it was a hard hitting movie more so because of sathyaraj-his stature, his dialogue delivery and Ram as you rightly said the understated performance; a;; these are really so outstanding that they merit discussions and accolade decades after the movie was released-kudos to Bharathi Raja as well.
Sathyaraj is really an original and could hold his own even with the likes of Shivaji & Kamal-he was a scene stealer with his famous "thagadu Thagadu" with Kamal.

Will watch this movie again after reading this fabulous review.
Ram I am wondering-Did u see this movie with us when it was released?

ravishanker sunderam said...

I didnt see the movie in the theatre but saw it on DD Madras after it won the Best Film award for National Integration or some such thing.

What I remember very clearly is the interview with Bharathiraja on DD.

My college classmate used to do a great imitation of the bit in the interview where he (Bharathiraja) elaborates on the scene on the river bank where Sathyaraj stands dumbfounded unable to answer the little boy's question.

His hand gestures looked like he was shifting the gears on a Premier Padmini.

Ram Murali said...

Amma - I don't think I saw VP in a theater. Like Ravishanker, I remember watching it on DD.

Ravishanker - "His hand gestures looked like he was shifting the gears on a Premier Padmini." The image that it conjured in my mind was worth a cartoon! You should consider a cartoon with that scene!!

ravishanker sunderam said...

Better still Ill send you a whatsapp sound byte and a video byte with only the hands just like a Mysskin shot

Venkatesh said...

One among many issues I have with the film is BR's dubbing for Nizhalgal Ravi. :) Maybe, he wanted to romance Amala in some way or the other?

I quite like the Sathyaraj-BR combo in Kadalora Kavithaigal. VP is watchable for Sathyaraj, Saritha.

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - yes, I will look forward to that!

Venkatesh - thank you for your comment. Nizhalgal Ravi mentioned in a Koffee with Anu episode that his role was significantly cut from the film during editing. And that BR felt awkward even approaching Ravi for dubbing, hence the (bad) decision to do it on his own.

Kadalora KavithaigaL is not a favorite of mine because I didn't really 'buy' the romance. Mesmerizing numbers from Young King though!

Venkatesh said...

I see. :-) As for KK, yes, the second half was dragging a bit, but the first half was quite entertaining.

I think VP is easily the best non-IR album of the 80s.

Ram Murali said...

Venkatesh, as good as "kannukuL nooru nilava" is, I loved Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu and Oru Thalai Raagam songs even more. Esp. "Sippi Irukudhu" and "Idhu Kuzhandhai..."

Venkatesh said...

Oh, I almost forgot MSV! Haven't listened to much of TR's music, but I like Cooliekaran.