Here is the thing about one of the famous tropes in Tamil cinema – the flashback. Sometimes it actually makes no logical sense, especially when it involves a song sequence. Sample the scene that leads into the freedom struggle segment in Indian. Sukanya, playing the ageing wife of the former freedom fighter Senapathi (memorably essayed by Kamal Hassan), asks the CBI officer in disguise, “What the hell do you know about freedom struggle?” The story goes back 50 years to the pre-independence era. A rousing 20-minute sequence follows. We then cut back to the present scene involving Sukanya. So, let’s think – what would she have been narrating to the officer? That she danced to “Kappal Yeri Poyaachu” and changed costumes a dozen times to reflect the myriad ethnic Indian wear?! But I can bet my life’s debt…err, earnings…on the fact that not one member of the packed audience at Satyam Theater was thinking this way back in 1996 when the movie was released!
The flashback sequence packs a tremendous punch, not missing a single emotional beat despite all the grandeur and special effects. This sequence is meant to offer an explanation for the violent ways of the protagonist. The emotional wallop is complete in a second flashback in the second half featuring his daughter Kasthuri. If the freedom struggle portions sowed the seeds for violence as a justifiable means to a utopian end, the village portions ensure that our emotional investment in Senapathi is complete. (Even here, did Senapathi, who had a corrupt doctor at the edge of his knife, tell him, “We sang and danced to the lovely ‘Patchai KiLigaL’ song?” Of course, I don’t need an answer!) Now we are not only empathizing with him but also rooting for him to take out the corrupt, societal weeds the way he deems appropriate.
The flashback has been a part and parcel of the grammar of Tamil cinema. It is an efficient way to reveal the motivations of a character. It is a tool that allows writers to chart a narrative arc, while achieving a dramatic high. It also forces them to be economical. For instance, the delightful Karthik segment in Mouna Raagam plays for only 24 minutes from start to finish. Yet Karthik made a career out of playing variations (not always nearly as well written, of course) of this character! These segments allow the writers to build to an episode within the bigger picture, with a climax of its own, even if it means a tone that is different from the rest of the film. Though not regarded a commercial classic the way Indian is, the standalone segment in Jeans is a standout. Radhika steals these scenes with her expansive performance, her diction, her body language and her piercing stares all fitting in perfectly with her character, one that has shades of gray. (It is a testament to her skill as a performer that she made her abrupt transition in the second half work.) Up until this flashback sequence, Jeans meanders along. It is with this short, powerful segment that Shankar ensures that the first half doesn’t come across as totally slight.
Never one to shy away from experimentation, K Balachander used the flashback to great effect in several of his movies. One of his greatest efforts AvargaL, worked precisely because of the back and forth nature of the storytelling. Told linearly, it would not have worked nearly as well in giving us glimpses into the complex, sometimes confused mind of the lead, played splendidly by Sujatha. This narrative form allowed KB to establish the specter of the Rajnikanth character looming ominously over the life of Sujatha. This brings a sense of urgency to the narration, making us wish for her happiness and for her to end up with a man (played with finesse and restraint by Kamal) that has a sad past of his own.
The one kind of flashback that I am not a fan of is the one where a sad scene opens a movie, only for us to immediately travel back in time. Even in undisputed classics such as 16 Vayathinile, I find it to serve little purpose except to forewarn us to a sad end. In movies like Mudhal Mariyadhai, Housefull and Duet, the initial scenes give away a little too much. In the marvelous cult classic Hey Ram, it works both ways. The present day scenes offer a telling counterpoint to the communal violence of the pre-independence days. But it is the same narrative style that, at least for me, robbed the crucial shootout sequence (where Shah Rukh Khan ends up losing his life) of tension. Thanks to the present day scenes that had preceded this, I knew that nothing untoward would happen to the Kamal character. The one movie where the solemn-first-scene trope worked exceptionally well was Bharathi Kannama. The old character played by Vijaykumar is apparently waiting for his daughter and son-in-law to return. We think that Meena (his daughter) and Parthiban (her love interest) will return. What happens in the climax, of course, is entirely unexpected and all the more stunning because of the skillful setup.
The other aspect about flashbacks that I find to be especially important is the build up. The best of writers find the most appropriate places to introduce the flashback segments. The twin flashbacks in Rhythm are placed at just the perfect place in the narration, allowing us to relate deeper to the central characters, leading to an intermission where each of them have learned about the passing away of the other person’s spouse and the tragic coincidence. Of course, the flashback of flashbacks is the one in Baasha. The entire first half is essentially an 80-min lead-in to the unforgettable introduction of the don character and his bête noire Raghuvaran.
As the newer generation of writers and directors strive to make a mark in Tamil cinema, I hope that they use but not abuse flashbacks that can, when conceived and executed thoughtfully, really help them achieve peaks in their narration. They just have to flash back to the classics of Tamil cinema to see how it was done effectively. And of course, by coming up with ingenious ways of incorporating flashbacks (Rang De Basanti is probably unsurpassed in this aspect) they will only be flashing forward to a glorious era of cinema!