One of the most controversial figures in my list of Inspirations, film actor and director Ra. Parthiban figures in my list because of just five (“Pudhiya Paadhai,” “Bharathi Kannamma,” “Swarnamukhi,” “Housefull” and “Kudaikkull Mazhai”) films that he has featured in, two unforgettable cameos (“Aravindan” and “Anthapuram”) and a book of mostly wonderful poems that he wrote, “KirukkalgaL.” It is hard to imagine an actor who has divided opinions so much, who has abused his undeniable talent in some unwatchable films, whose checkered personal life has been the subject of much criticism. Yet, he has - through a small set of meaningful, hard-hitting films such as the ones that I have listed above – made a lasting impact on people like me and even been an inspiration in a few ways. It is just sad that a close look at his career can serve as a lesson in how to not mess up a legacy. More on the actual legacy first.
Charting a “Pudhiya Paadhai”
Come April 14, 2014, it would have been 25 years since “Pudhiya Paadhai” released in the theatres to a rapturous response. Making his debut as an actor, writer and director, Parthiban did not just make a splash with his effort. Instead, he redefined the rules for jumping into the water. “Pudhiya Paadhai,” for whatever flaws it may have, is a raw, bold and beautiful piece of cinema. Every line of dialogue uttered by Parthiban in the movie is as bold as bold is. Sample this piece uttered by Parthiban (an orphan in the movie) to a woman who tries to abandon her illegitimate child under a tree in the middle of the night:
Watch from the 0:37-3:11 point (WARNING: This scene has really graphic language)
After writing a script that sparkled with wit, raw emotion and inimitable play of words, Parthiban the actor added even more weight to the controversial subject with his acting which again was raw, rough around the edges, yet hit you in the face with punches so hard that it hurts (for the right reasons) even 25 years after the movie was first made. What really has hurt me (for the wrong reasons) is how his career has rarely lived up to the promise shown in this movie. With exceptions, that is. Except that the exceptions are so exceptional that it is sad that his career in films overall has turned to be a case of mostly wasted talent.
If Parthiban had only made the half a dozen or so films that I listed in the beginning, he would have been acclaimed as a master actor and even more masterful script writer. (He is known to frequently write his own lines for the movies that he acts in even if he doesn’t get credit.) Blessed with big, powerful eyes, gift of the gab as well as superb diction, Parthiban’s strength as an actor is dialogue delivery. But one has to see him in movies like “Housefull” to note how masterful his body language is. As a story writer and director, he has a yen for the different. But what started out as a yen turned out to be obsession. Obsession to the point that his films started being very distanced from the mainstream. A film like “KudaikkuL Mazhai” has a number of brilliant moments but placed in a screenplay that gads about in an unconventional way, the filmmaker ended up catering to a very small audience. One of Parthiban’s flaws as a filmmaker has been to almost want to take a vengeance on the audience for failing him commercially. A sensitive (but undercooked) effort such as “Sugamaana Sumaigal” was backed up with a cheap “Ulle Veliye” and a wondrous film such as “KudaikkuL Mazhai” was succeeded by a crude “Pacha Kudhira.” Now, how do you preserve a legacy of films such as “Pudhiya Paadhai” and “Housefull” if your oeuvre also contains drivel like “Kundakka Mandakka” and “Kadhal Kirukkan?”
You must be wondering, “All this and yet, you not only like him but also consider him an inspiration, no less?” It now behooves me to tell you why my answer is yes!
The unconventional inspiration
Where Parthiban has really influenced me is in my approach to writing as well as my perspective on things that would have normally made me squeamish otherwise. Through his forthright approach to dealing with uncomfortable subjects such as a rape, abandoned children and the effects of violence (in “Housefull”), he has inspired me to not shut my eyes to things that happen around me and instead, as a responsible adult, to talk and write boldly about issues that reveal the darker side of humanity. For instance, the first short story that I wrote was called, “True Love.” Sounds innocuous except the fact that it was about someone afflicted with AIDS. Another story that I wrote was titled, “White Doves,” and was about domestic violence. I wrote the story after watching his “Housefull,” which was a 2 ½ hour paean to non-violence. I said to myself, “The type of violence that bothers me the most is domestic violence, so I better write something about it.” I will openly admit that I have not done anything substantial as yet (such as joining a non-profit organization that helps victims of violence) about the things in the society that bother me. But I once received a letter from someone (who had seen my story on Sulekha) who wrote to me that she had lost her partner to AIDS and that my story meant something to her. That was truly gratifying for a budding writer and I have to thank Parthiban for making me approach a sensitive topic without shying away. Maybe the day will come when I do something substantial such as what he does with his “Manidha Neya Mandram.”
Apart from my writing, my approach to public speaking has also been influenced by Parthiban. In my Toastmasters Speaking Club as well as at work (where I give motivational speeches at group meetings), I have given some speeches on topics such as how my wife dealt with an unfortunate miscarriage to how I have tried to curb my short tempered nature after reading a book on habits. Whenever I type up the contents of a speech, I would think about the places where I would have to state something bold in order to make an impact and would strive to make lines sharp without sounding unnecessarily sensational. Sure, there are places where subtlety has a place. But as I have seen Parthiban demonstrate time and again, there are instances where making a point in a brutally honest manner can be very effective in conveying something important. For instance, at a group meeting at work, as part of a motivational speech (during a time of reorganization), I spoke about three people – Randy Pausch (who kept a sunny attitude through his terminal cancer), Sheena Iyengar (who, despite her blindness, has made a profound impact on people’s lives through her book, “The Art of Choosing”) and my wife, who dealt with a miscarriage in a mature manner without complaining. I finished my speech saying, “Each of these three people had every right to complain. But they did not. So, let’s not sit and complain about something that’s beyond our control.” I through twice about saying this in a professional setting and whether it was too personal or prescriptive but then I said to myself that there was a point worth making and it was worth making only if made in no uncertain terms. That was that.
I recognize that this write-up does not talk about the less admirable traits of Parthiban. But as I wrote in my piece on Imran Khan, for a person to be an inspiration of mine, I don’t think he or she has to be perfect. I just want to take the best out of a disparate set of people and find inspiration to view the world through different lenses. And, a different lens is something that Parthiban has indeed given me. I just wish that he acquires the 20:20 vision of hindsight to look back at all the mistakes that he has made in his career, a career whose “paadhai” has lost a lot of direction since he set foot in a gloriously “pudhiya” manner 25 years ago. But is it ever too late to get back on track?