Sunday, December 17, 2017

Visu(al) Medium: Musing on Visu’s films

In a recent interaction between film critic Baradwaj Rangan and producer G Dhananjayan, the two of them discussed the dearth of true ‘directors’ in Thamizh cinema.  Directors that could take something on paper and use all the cinematic tools at their disposal to stage -- “staging” is a term that Rangan often uses in this context -- a scene in a manner that is befitting the audiovisual medium of cinema.  During the course of that conversation, Rangan mentioned that directors of the 1960s and 70s like Bhimsingh made entertaining films but that those would not really fit the definition of pure ‘cinema.’  If he had gone on talk about the 80s, I have little doubt that he would have mentioned Visu in the same breath.

The way I see it, filmmakers were mostly products of their system.  Belonging to an entertainment culture that had strong roots in theatre, it was not rare for directors and producers in the 60s through the late 70s to adapt stage plays.  Several of K Balachander’s films were adaptations of his plays – Edhir Neechal was probably the most famous instance.  But KB gradually took to the ‘visual’ component of the audio visual medium.  His landscapes too changed and he skillfully utilized the settings (sometimes in an overt way, no doubt) to help tell a story.  Two examples that spring to mind are the waterfalls in Achamillai Achamillai and the boulder in Oru Veedu Iru Vaasal.  KB also had a tremendous ear for music and was a master at situational songs.  This was another element that helped him in his quest to embrace the tools that cinema afforded him.

In the early 80s, KB took Visu under his wing and had the latter script films that he produced, like Netrikann, Mazhalai Pattalam and Thillu Mullu (a remake of Gol Maal).  At this time, directors like ‘Muktha’ Srinivasan (Shimla Special) and SP Muthuraman (Kudumbam Oru Kadhambam) directed movies that were written by Visu.  Very swiftly, Visu became an actor-writer-director with Manal Kayiru in 1982.  (The lack of real cinematic polish in a Kudumbam… when compared to a Manal Kayiru makes me think that even if Visu had continued as a writer alone, his films would have still come across as photographed plays, owing to paucity of pure ‘directors,’ the ones that Rangan alludes to.) 

Starting in 1982 up until the mid-90s, Visu evolved into a prolific filmmaker but unlike KB, he never quite let go of his theatrical staging ways.  He was extremely popular among the middle class movie watching folk in an era where TV viewing was restricted to Doordarshan!  Since the serial-watching audiences of today once went to the theatres, he had a built-in audience.  It is more accurate to state that he earned that audience.  He told their stories.  As dramatic as the movies may have been and as simplistic as some of the resolutions to the knots were, his target audiences lapped up his offerings gleefully.  He very rarely resorted to the kind of crude, contrived villainy and caricatures that was seen in the masala films of the day and even the ghastfully written TV dramas of today, to move his stories forward.  Quite a few of his films did not work for me – the characters in his lesser efforts seemed to be mere one-note mouthpieces for the themes that he wanted to flesh out.  But let me take the apogee of his career, Samsaram Adhu Minsaaram, to elaborate on what aspects of his brand of films still hold appeal to me.

Samsaram… is an honest account of the trials and tribulations of a middle class family.  Some are seemingly stock characters but notice closely and you will see that they have shades that reflect the depth of the writing.  The brother played by Chandrasekar is a case in point.  He is an obedient son, obedient to the point that he resists from talking to Lakshmi (his sister-in-law) following the showdown between his father (Visu) and brother (Raghuvaran).  He has an element of male chauvinism too.  He forces his wife (an educated woman) to tutor his brother, who is not exactly the brightest bulb in the room.  When she speaks to him openly about the lack of intimacy between the two of them, he chides her rather crudely.  But later, when she is down with chicken pox, he tends to her lovingly.  Now, one could argue that he is trying hard to balance his affections for the different members of the family.  But he is no saint.  And the way he talks to his wife (on the road, after she has walked out on him) is truly despicable.  It is only when Lakshmi knocks some sense into him does he realize the error of his ways.  The character arc is superbly done.  Even though he is not ‘allowed’ to talk to Lakshmi, he listens to her well-meaning advice.  Their interaction in the climax is a poignant little segment.  And the way Lakshmi says, “Neenga kooda enna yaemathiteenga Thambi” is deeply moving.  The Chandrasekar character fits in beautifully into the core theme of the film.  Vairamuthu’s lines illustrate this at markedly different points - the “minsaaram” that is “samsaram” can provide as much light as it can lead to acute shocks.

Another reason why I prefer Samsaram… (and Kudumbam Oru Kadhambam) over all his other films was that Visu was not the main protagonist.  By being one among several characters, I actually felt he liberated the writer in him to move the story through narrative arcs rather than preachy dialogues.  This movie is an actor’s showcase for Lakshmi and she delivers one of the great performances of her checkered career.  Known mostly for an overemphatic acting style, when the writing was in top gear (Sila NerangaLil Sila ManidhargaL, for instance), Lakshmi’s performances could be equally arresting.  In Samsaram… she plays the role at just the right pitch, elevating Visu’s writing considerably.  She is especially wonderful in the climax where she conveys the pain of being alienated for no fault of hers.  Where Visu’s films sometimes don’t work for me is when resolutions to sensitive issues are simplistic and convenient.  But here, the actions of the Lakshmi character convey myriad messy emotions without neatly wrapping up everything.  As a result, despite the theatrical manner of staging, the drama itself comes across as lifelike. 

No write-up on Visu will be complete without a mention of his dialogues.  Famous for his long-winded alliterative, repetitive style of dialogues, Visu was equally a master of the pithy line.  Sample these from Samsaram… - “Rendu vishyathula kaNakku paaka koodathu…Appa Amma-vukku podra soaru…Akka thangaiku seiyyara seeru.”  Another gem from the climax – “Kootu Kudumbam-ngaradhu oru nalla poo madhiri...adha kasakittom...apram moondhu paaka koodathu.”  When viewed today, these scenes do look and sound dated to most people.  But I find these sharp lines redolent of an era where a strong script was a sturdy pillar that held a movie aloft. (It is nice to see that in 2017, there has been an enviable mix of style and substance in movies like Maanagaram.)

Yes, Visu’s films lacked cinematic finesse.  His roots in theater were the charge (“minsaaram”) that short circuited his wholehearted adoption of the visual medium.  But it is these same roots that ensured that the best of his scripts had a spark that was uniquely his.  And for that, I feel a strong need to give him his due. 


ravishanker sunderam said...

Lovely Lovely !

You know Ram - we had such a dearth of entertainment options those days in madras, My father, mother and I roamed all over the theatres on MountRoad and finally ended up seeing this in a night show.

I hated it the first time.

But for the reasons you've so beautifully captured its grown on me over time and its one of the few movies I can watch again and again (for all its flaws) whenever its shown on TV.

You mentioned lines from the movie - my all time favourite and which holds true in many contexts even now is "Varsham pass aaitrikkay thavara NEE pass aagaraa maadhri yenakku theriyala" delivered beautifully by the one and only Raghuvaran.

Super duper !

Viveka parasuram said...

"Samsaram adhu minsaram" is Vishu' s best in my opinion. As Ravishankar said, for all it's flaws, I can still watch the movie and enjoy it. Ram, I loved reading the parts that really describe Chandrasekar's character in

Anusha said...

Interesting to read your reasoning! [Feel free to skip the rest of the comment.]
I have always disliked the heavy handed preaching/ moral lessons/ code for good behaviour that accompany his movies (even when I watched the movies as a child). I think his movies are "talkies" - a friend came up with this term. I find that I'm not entertained, I laugh at nothing, I mostly watch it like an endurance sport, I can't wait for all of them to stop talking. And none of this has changed over the years. It was actually very amusing for me to see some of my peers enjoying the humour in Visu's movies. :)

Ram Murali said...

Ravishanker - yes, I loved the way Raghuvaran delivered that line. If you remember, we had spoken about how Raghuvaran's dialogue delivery in SAM was very different from his usual style. In the showdown scene, the way he chides his sister was a fantastic exhibition of apt dialogue delivery. Thanks for sharing your memories of watching the movie more than once.

Viveka - I found your description of Chandrasekar ("spineless") amusing! Thanks for sharing!!

Anusha -
"[Feel free to skip the rest of the comment.]"
--> Why would I do that when you have taken the effort to post a comment? :)
Thanks for recording your thoughts. Sure, I don't share those views. But I do know that Visu's movies do have a polarizing effect. I am a huge fan of good writing, esp. sharp dialogues. Even as I appreciate the more conversational style of dialogues in Balu Mahendra and Vasanth movies, I also have a certain fondness for the Visu-style dialogues. The fact that 'vasanam' was a big deal those days and was used as a criterion to evaluate the worth of a movie also makes me think of how, as I wrote in my article, filmmakers like Visu were products of their system. (Of course, the likes of Mahendran were trailblazers that moved away from the "talkie" style of filmmaking. In fact, that is a term that Mahendran uses in his interview. See link below.) Have you watched Mahendran and Visu's (separate) interviews with Bosskey? If not, you may find them interesting. To say the least, two very different directors from the same period!

ravishanker sunderam said...

Anusha Come on ! Dont you like PJs ? Thats what Visu's movies are - PJs.

And who can forget "Come na come ! Comenaatti Goooooo !"

Anusha said...

Ram: Thanks for the links! Will take a look. :)

Ravishanker: Can't say I like 'PJs'.

Deepika Ramesh said...

Hi Ram. I am so glad to have discovered your blog. Although I am in my early 30's, I still can't find a lot of people, who wouldn't let their jaws fall or who wouldn't call me a 'Raj Video Vision' or who wouldn't ask me why I watched such films when I should have actually watched Cartoon Network, when I talk about my love for Visu's films. So your website is a precious find for me.

About this post: I am absolutely with you on this. Oh yes! Everything is dramatic in Visu's films. From the reaction shots to staged monologues, everything screams of theatre. But one can't dismiss the humanity in his films and in the way he explored the grays of human beings. The other day I was watching the climax of 'Penmani Aval Kanmani'. It made me squirm. But I can never dismiss Visu. He was relevant. He is still relevant.

ravishanker sunderam said...

Deepika :

"Neenga YESU nnGreenga
Naanga VASU nngroam"

Wishing you a Merry Christmas Visu style :)

Deepika Ramesh said...

Ravishanker, wahaha! :D That was SO cute. Thank you!

ravishanker sunderam said...

Deepika : Very welcome !

I could blabber on with more Visu-isms but that'll make even Ram come out of his Christmas to New Year Social Media hibernation aka postvrat.

o I'll quit while the going is good

Ram Murali said...

Deepika - thank you so much for your detailed comments. Perfectly said about the relevance of his themes, beyond the outdated style of staging.

Ravishanker - pinreenga... please carry on!!

ravishanker sunderam said...

Ah ! Then here goes :

"Naanga Mundakkanni Ammanungroam

Neenga Velankanni Ammanungreenga"

Ram Murali said...

Ha ha, thanks thalaivare!


Rendu perukum kozhandhaiku oru jaan vayiru, seththaa aaradi nelam...moththathula neengalum manishanga than...nangalum manishangathaan...:)

ravishanker sunderam said...

Paah ! Yenna oru thathuvams :)

The guy should most definitely be institutionalised