As an ardent fan of Parthiban the actor, one of my regrets is that he never had a director that tapped into his abundant potential the way a Mahendran worked with Rajnikanth or the manner in which the late Manivannan collaborated with Satyaraj. With those duos, you could sense that they got the best out of each other. Take the proposal scene in Johnny – have you ever seen Rajni cede space and play second fiddle to a female lead so wonderfully? As spectacular as Sridevi was in the scene, the scene would have fizzled out had Rajni not played such an apt foil. It was a side of Rajni that was never seen before and rarely seen afterwards. Parthiban the writer-director has given us some unforgettable movies like the sensational Pudhiya Paadhai, the riveting Kathai Thiraikathai Vasanam Iyakkam or the poignant KudaikuL Mazhai. But when directed by others, he has rarely been as effective. Of course, he has given us enough performances as a lead that we know of his skill as an actor. But it is in a small set of films like Bharathi Kannamma, Azhagi and Naanum Rowdy Thaan that we have seen directors give ample fodder to the talents of Parthiban. Eclipsing all these films is Swarnamukhi. Written and directed by KS Adhiyaman (who also gave us that forgotten gem Thotta Chinungi), the film features Parthiban at the peak of his powers. He sinks his teeth into a role that is tailor made for him – actually, he stitched large parts of the fabric. (He is credited in the titles for his significant contribution to the script.)
Swarnamukhi is the story of the titular character (played by Devyani), the daughter of a devadasi. Born out of wedlock to her mother (Fathima Babu) and biological father (Manivannan), she dedicates herself to bharatanatyam. Her mother steadfastly refuses to toe her father’s line and ensures that the fate that felled her does not befell her daughter. Into Swarna’s life enter two men – Pandian (Parthiban) and Aakash (Prakash Raj) - at vastly different points. But when the two men face off with one another, an absorbing triangle ensues. But unlike the typical love triangle where one of the suitors is reduced to a cartoon, the men vying for the same lady love are equally good in their own ways yet equally crazy about the girl.
Prakash Raj and Devyani have their moments in Swarnamukhi. But if they were to honestly introspect on this film, they would be the first two people to admit that it is Parthiban that dominates this film from the 40-minute point to the finish. (I couldn’t say “start to finish” since he makes his entry around three quarters into the first hour!) People typically wax eloquent about just the ingenuity, wit and sarcasm of his lines. But in Swarnamukhi, he is a magnetic presence. His body language is so assured, his large eyes so evocative and the vocal intonations pitch perfect that it is impossible to take your eyes off him. Even his use of props like the bubble gum, Swarna’s slippers, the thaali, the anklet bell and the kari (with which he writes Swarna’s name all over the walls of his room) is expertly purposeful. Every prop he uses gets a completely unexpected ‘climax’ of its own, none more so than the kari, which is part of the stunning sequence which I am about to describe.
There is a nine-minute sequence which spans across two scenes - Swarna’s mother visits Pandian to request him to gracefully exit Swarna’s life, thereby allowing Swarna and Aakash to unite. A maelstrom of escalating emotions from anger to indignation to devastation envelops Pandian. This is where Parthiban summons all his acting chops. The way he implodes with grief (once Fathima Babu leaves the house) is deeply moving – the manner in which he collapses to the floor is just about the perfect finish to this scene. In what is an inspired editing choice, we cut straight to Devyani’s house. The mirudangam that accompanies Parthiban’s entry into the house (slippers in hand) adds to the menace and sets up the scene brilliantly. What follows is a tirade where Parthiban’s dialogue delivery is seen in its full glory – note the way his voice cracks when he says, “manasu poora nee thaan dee irukkey…”
Click on the play button below to go directly to this sequence:
The movie has a melodramatic, slightly contrived finish (starting at the 2 hr 25 min point in the video above), where Pandian pretends to be a lustful, vengeful devil in order to unite Swarna and Aakash without letting them know of his sacrifice. Here again, Parthiban skillfully juggles between several notes in his performance, always seamless in transition, never discordant. The final line of the movie is an apt culmination of this actor’s showcase -- in a standout acting moment, he fiddles with the anklet bell (that is hanging around his neck) as he talks about fading out of Swarna's life. As the character extricates himself as a point from the love triangle, the actor simultaneously finishes etching an indelible mark in the minds of the viewers. As an unabashed admirer of the actor, I can only hope that he gets to make a mark in many more impactful pictures. I have reason to be hopeful because the imprints of a man who has chalked out his own paadhai seldom get erased by time or tide!