Note: For the scenes described below, I have pointers to the specific portions of the youtube video (of the full movie) just above the snapshots. The youtube video is embedded at the bottom of the article. Thank you, Anu Warrier, for introducing me to your style of movie essays - that's the format that I have adopted for this piece.
A bunch of friends are having a get-together at a restaurant. They await the arrival of Divya, the lone girl in their group. She walks in wearing a checked shirt, carrying a backpack, sporting an unfussy hairstyle, her hair kept in place by a black band. Looking a little pensive, she apologizes for being tardy. When her friend inquires, she responds by stating that she bumped into her former beau. As he (wrongly) guesses the nature of the meeting, her face slowly turns red. Unable to digest her friend’s comments, she stands up in the middle of the restaurant and creates a bit of a scene, slapping her friend. Regaining composure, with her eyes welling up, she explains to him that the reason she could face her ex was because of the security that his friendship offered her. This explanation, coming from a girl who had attempted suicide after being spurned by her boyfriend, says a lot that there is to be said about the ability of a genuine friendship to offer a sturdy pillar of support when the emotional foundation of a person is on shaky ground. Sneha, the actress playing the role of Divya, handles this scene exquisitely. Anger, sadness and strength all form part of the gamut of emotions she undergoes in this sequence. She expresses and internalizes in equal measure – this balance is what makes her performance in Autograph the crown jewel of her career.
Scene starts at the 2:03:40 min point
This ‘balance’ deserves elaboration especially because the creative brain behind this movie – writer and director Cheran – is not known for understatement. Cheran’s movies invariably elicit polarizing opinions. Some find them unbearably preachy but others find them sweetly old fashioned. Irrespective of the camp one belongs to, it is hard to deny the strength of some of his characters. Actors like Parthiban who can internalize effectively (Bharathi Kannamma) can serve as a counterpoint to the dramatism (sometimes loudness) of the scenes, making the characters lifelike and the sequences more realistic. Never has this been illustrated better in Cheran’s oeuvre than in Sneha’s masterful performance here. An actress blessed with large, expressive eyes, Sneha had the acting chops to make her emoting look effortless. Rarely did she look awkward on screen because she seldom tried to oversell a moment. But on the other hand, for tragic sequences, she used every facial muscle to bring the moment to life. The scene where she realizes that her mother has passed away is a case in point. Especially poignant is the way she cradles her mother, tearing up uncontrollably. It is raw, powerful emotion erupting out of a face that looks like it stored each iota of sadness in every cell only for them to tear asunder.
Sequence begins at the 2:14:21 min point
Two other moments deserve mention because Sneha, at first glance, might appear to do very little. But owing to the thoughtful writing and deft direction, she is resplendent. The first of this is the brief scene outside the orphanage where she has decided to live, following the death of her mother. Her friend Cheran is a little upset with her decision but understands and respects her choice, describing the inevitability of separations in a relationship. We hear her voice (splendid voice work by Savitha) in the background as she talks affectionately, almost reverentially, about her friendship with him. The casualness of Sneha’s body language is in perfect contrast to the heavy duty lines that we hear in the background. As I mentioned earlier, you need a natural like her to make this kind of drama work.
2:19:36 min point --
The other moment is in the climax at the wedding hall. In a small but lovely moment sans any dialogue, Sneha teases Cheran for removing his beard. The impish smile is just about perfect given the comfort level that exists between them. Again, this is an instance of a talented actor bringing a touch that helps make the character well-rounded.
2:36:30 min point --
In the hero-dominated world of Tamil cinema, it is rare to find well-fleshed out characters for women. But upon closer inspection, the true torchbearers of sensible cinema have always invested their female leads with agency. Seasoned veterans like Balachander, Mahendran, Mani Ratnam and Vasanth to the latest generation of filmmakers like Karthik Subburaj (Anjali and Pooja Devariya in Iraivi) and Seenu Ramasamy (Tamanna in Dharmadurai) may have had markedly different filmmaking styles. But the one common aspect of these perspicacious creators is their vision to project their women through the lens of feminism and not just through the male gaze which can be sometimes be covered with the blinders of chauvinism and sexism. It is when we see roles such as Sneha's in Autograph that we see the value of this thoughtfulness. Sincere thanks to Cheran and to Sneha for giving me such an abiding memory of a well-etched character in an unforgettable movie.