As I was watching, with rapt attention, a few scenes from Mahendran’s Mullum Malarum, two people that came to my mind were Satyaraj and the late Director Manivannan. The duo had a long fruitful association which peaked in their 1994 blockbuster, the political drama Amaidhi Padai. There were two parallels that I could see between Rajnikanth and Satyaraj in Mullum Malarum and Amaidhi Padai respectively. The first, obvious similarity was that they turned in arguably their greatest performance in these two movies. But digging deeper, I realized that the reason these actors scaled the zenith of their careers acting wise was that the directors in question not only understood their persona but also delved deep and deeper into it until there was no further facet to explore and not an extra shade left to project.
Released in 1978, Mullum Malarum was Mahendran’s debut as a director. A writer of some repute (Thanga Padhakkam, Mogam Muppathu Varusham), Mahendran, in an interview with Bosskey, mentioned how he used to bemoan the fact that Rajni’s tremendous potential as an actor had scarcely met its match in his prior movies. Prior to the movie being made, Rajni had been acting mainly in supporting roles, mostly as an antagonist, taking baby steps into the leading man territory. But in the best of his performances till then – Moondru Mudichu, 16 Vayathinile or AvargaL – there was simmering anger. You could always sense a dynamite ready to explode.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is a bomb under the table. If it explodes, it is surprise. If it doesn’t, it is suspense.” In an inspired move, Mahendran decided that he would tease the audience by having a light next to the wick of the dynamite but would set it off only when needed. What also benefited Rajni was that the director (who also wrote the movie) gave him a character that was essentially good-hearted. In fact, the build-up to the Rajni – Sarat Babu confrontation is an exercise in skillful writing. Sample the sequence (25:00 – 30:00 min point in the video below) where Rajni thrashes his colleague for attempting to tarnish his reputation. If the actual beating of the hapless colleague is raw, messy and lifelike, what is enormously touching is the way he describes his affection for his sister. What is also wonderful to watch is how in the montage scenes, Rajni is marvelously casual. (Watch him chat with the old women!) The supporting cast, especially Samikannu, does a stellar job, proving to be an apt foil for the charged Rajni as he lets sparks fly.
Watch the 5-min sequence from the 25-min point:
Satyaraj had been a leading man through the late 80s and early 90s when Manivannan decided to bring back the villain in him to the screen. Satyaraj’s fan base would have been just content to see an antagonist on screen. But Manivannan was not content in just presenting any villainous character. He envisaged the portrait of an evil man that was so consumed by thirst for power that he found it impossible to accommodate any goodness. If you look past the legendary highlights of the movie like the election scene, you will see shades in this villain that are rarely seen in antagonists even these days. This is especially true in the case of his relationship with his wife Sujatha. He knows that she is a righteous person who doesn’t deserve to be killed. Yet in his desperation and fear that she will turn into an approver, he orders his aide to kill him. Satyaraj is brilliant in this scene, as the hunger for power kills any residual humanity in him. Be it his last conversation with Sujatha or his casual orders to his henchman to kill her, he brings to life an evil man who is unable to curb the demon inside. In a superb touch, he adds, “Please don’t torture her like you do your other victims. Just slay her and let her die without suffering.” This was Manivannan’s pen at its sharpest, not content with exploring the actor’s persona on the surface and instead, piercing it and tearing it asunder.
Start - 2:28 min point:
Mahendran, with Mullum Malarum, had introduced a style of writing where painting a leading man in shades of gray would actually make him seem human, warts and all, and not ‘heroic’ in the way prior leading men of Tamil cinema had been portrayed. He probably noted in Rajni’s earlier films that the actor had built the persona of a loose cannon. By keeping the movie strongly rooted in the sensitive brother-sister relationship, Mahendran is able to showcase the tenderness of the Rajni character. This allows some of his character’s questionable actions, be it banging his wife’s head against the pillar or wanting to marry his sister off to an older man to get back at Sarat Babu, to be forgiven by the audience. Even in the moving climactic sequence, Rajni’s ego co-exists with his abiding love for his sister. Mahendran’s shaping of this character is so exquisite that we rarely realize while watching the movie that he has taken the actor’s persona and strengths and worked with it and around it.
Watch from 4:15 (with a kerchief handy!)
Manivannan, on the other hand, probably realized that his best chance at making Satyaraj’s ‘performance’ work was to have him appear effortless and relaxed. But it is a testament to his writing skill that he gives Satyaraj line after sizzling line that mixes acerbic wit and perceptive social commentary. Since it is all tossed off with panache, the lines make us laugh but upon a bit of reflection, they make us think. Witness the scene where Satyaraj plots a caste-based riot. In a scene that is hilarious on the surface, he touches upon religious fanaticism, caste-based factions and the sad state of affairs of the uneducated voting public. But there is no highfalutin talk here about any of these heavy duty topics. Manivannan, in a remarkable demonstration of ‘invisible’ writing, places all these issues into the safe hands of the master villain, who uses his dialogue delivery and casual body language to bring these lines to life. In none of their earlier collaborations (such as 24 Mani Neram) was the villain much beyond a smiling assassin driven by base instincts. But here, Manivannan tapped into the antagonist in Satyaraj and wrote his character as the personification of sociopolitical evil.
5:30 min point --
Modern day directors like Karthik Subburaj – his casting of SJ Suryah in Iraivi was a masterstroke – and Pushkar-Gayathri (the duo behind the sensational Vikram Vedha) do use actors purposefully to fit their vision. For them, yesteryear doyens like Mahendran have set high standards. These directors that do want to shape the future of Tamil cinema will do well to revisit the work of masters who have invested time and effort into their writing, casting and making inspired choices in their direction. If history can repeat itself more often, then the influx of directors into the pantheon of great Tamil filmmakers will happen at a much faster pace.