Monday, May 6, 2019

(He)Art Beats: Mahendran’s “Nenjathai Killathey”

Watching Nenjathai Killathey, which released in 1980, in 2019 is quite a joyous experience for any cineaste.  Not just for the glorious cinematography by Ashok Kumar, which was way ahead of its time.  Not just for the exquisite delicacy of taste in the writing and characterizations, which is a rarity even now 39 years after its release.  Not just for the scintillating score, the kind of which Ilayaraja usually reserved - not that it was needed elsewhere! – for the directors who respected the ‘visual’ aspect of cinema.  As I think that the movie is six months older than me (!), what is a fun, illuminating experience is how much this film, unlike any of Mahendran’s 11 other films as a director, inspired other filmmakers.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise really.  Because, truth to be told, Nenjathai… is probably the most ‘commercial’ of Mahendran’s works as a director.  There is a love story, there are comedy scenes that the film really doesn’t need, there is a dance number featuring an adolescent kid and a girl, there is even a climax scene at the airport!  But while Mahendran dabbles in more mainstream elements than was the norm for him, the nuance of the writing and the complexity of the relationships all ensure that the movie gives us plenty of glimpses of what makes Mahendran’s work stand the test of time. 

Andha 7 NaatkaL (1981), Mouna Raagam (1986), the Prashant-Ambika-Manivannan portions of Agathian’s Kadhal Kavithai (1998), all have thematic similarities to Nenjathai… Agathian even made a film of the same title about a prickly relationship between a self-indulgent man and the hurt he causes his love interest.  To give credit to these filmmakers, all of them had their own stamp on their material.  Mouna Raagam’s similarity is striking if you look at just the core theme – that of a girl, who is unhappy in her arranged marriage because of a failed love affair.  But the key difference is that in Mouna Raagam, Revathi gradually falling in love with her husband is completely intrinsic, influenced by nobody.  Whereas in Nenjathai…, Suhasini falling for Pratap Pothen doesn’t happen in a vacuum – the tragedy of a kid succumbing to cancer and Murthy’s subsequent words of wisdom to Suhasini are a case in point.  Even her former lover (played by Mohan) who is now married, comes back into her life, trying to convince her in a roundabout way, to be happy in her marriage. 

Click on Play to go to the 'words of wisdom' scene mentioned above:

It is quite fascinating to see the difference in how Mahendran and Mani Ratnam, both masters of the medium, tackle the same theme.  I prefer Mouna Raagam to Nenjathai… mainly because of Revathy’s performance and the Revathy-Mohan portions in the second half.  As wonderfully controlled as Suhasini is in Nenjathai…, I think Revathy was astounding in Mouna Raagam.  Small moments like the lead-in to the “Chinna Chinna Vanna Kuyil” song, were sprinkles of magic between the couple.  There is something beautiful about a love story that zooms in on just the couple, sans external forces.  In Nenjathai…, an outspoken, modern woman marries an equally broadminded man who knows of her love affair.  The fact that she doesn’t open up to him is not hard to digest – after all, complex human beings are rarely seen on screen.  But somehow her changes in attitude, dressing style and her final change of heart don’t have the kind of quiet conviction that I sensed in Mouna Raagam.  But that is not to discredit the writing of Mahendran, which has several other layers which I will delve into.

Suhasini gets top billing (that too in her debut feature, which is still rare for actresses in Tamil movies).  But the best characters in the film are that of Sarat Babu, as her doting yet pragmatic sibling, and Pratap Pothen, who plays her husband.  Sarat is stuck in an unhappy marriage and is fully aware, yet helpless, of the odious effects that his monster of a wife has on his sister.  (Agathian had a beautiful arc for the Ambika character in Kadhal Kavithai whereas the shrew remains untamed until the end in Nenjathai…) He finds solace in a platonic relationship with a woman who showers him with the kind of affection that is missing in his marriage.  When he realizes that his sister has fallen in love with a mechanic, he reasons out with her perceptively.  Mahendran, the writer, sparkles in this segment.  The way Sarat talks to her and subsequently enlists Pratap’s help, are instances of psychologically sound writing.  Ditto for Pratap’s reaction later when Sarat tries to intervene in their marriage and its discord.  The protective attitude of the husband is as endearing as the tough love of the brother is understandable. 

The protective husband meets the practical brother (Play to go directly to this scene):

Suhasini, Sarat and Pratap, all do some of their finest work in this movie.  Aided by SN Surendar’s superb voice work, Pratap is especially delightful.  And he has arguably the best line of the movie.  It is his response to Sarat when the latter apologizes for a no-frills wedding at the registrar office - “Kalyanam-ngaradhu manasuku therinja podhum.  Naama vazhara vaazhkai mattum ulagathuku therinja podhum.”  Especially for those that have only seen his over the top eccentricity on screen, Nenjathai… will be a revelation.  Even Murthy, known for his ribaldry as a comedian, has a great scene where he learns of his employee’s cancer diagnosis.  While affording due credit to the performers, it is impossible not to think of the director who shapes up their performances, especially given how rarely we saw/see actors bring in this kind of detailing and understatement to their acting.  Note how Pratap is constantly clinging to a pack of cigarettes – his smoking habit, exacerbated by the stress of his marriage, gets a payoff in a deeply moving scene where Suhasini oscillates between tending to him and resisting the urge to do so, during a coughing bout.

Murthy's finest moment as a character actor:

Ilayaraja’s background theme for the Pratap – Suhasini portions is reason alone to watch this film!  The theme fits perfectly with the slowly brewing anguish of the marriage. (Suhasini utilized this theme again for the Revathy episode of Penn, which she wrote and directed.)  The “Paruvame” song is one of the most breathtaking sequences captured on film.  Ashok Kumar’s images are inimitably picturesque.  My favorite scene from a photographic perspective though is the one at the registrar office.  The staging is beautifully done, especially the placement of Sarat Babu’s confidant.  She is in the background behind a window, yet Sarat catches a glance at her as she silently admires the newly married couple.  What better way of showcasing the fact that she is a part of Sarat’s life, but with a caveat.  The closeups that capture the expressions of Pratap and Suhasini make any dialogue in this scene redundant. 

Ilayaraja's heavenly score:

The registrar office scene:

With Mahendran’s passing away, there has been considerable interest rekindled in his films.  Nenjathai Killathey was his biggest commercial success.  That he achieved it without completely sacrificing his vision raises the question why he didn’t walk this tightrope more often.  But I suppose that a subset of his films will continue to offer ample, enduring evidence of his vision for the audiovisual medium that is cinema.  It is now up to the modern generation of thoughtful filmmakers to carry that forward. 

Two rather lovely scenes from Kadhal Kavithai - this is a good example of what inspiration is as opposed to imitation.  The Ambika character is modeled along the lines of the Shanti Williams character of Nenjathai Killathey.  But Agathian provides a lovely closure to his character, something that Mahendran doesn't bother with.  Neither approach is 'right' or 'wrong.'  They are just different.


Zola said...

Yenna solvadhu ? No words ! You really took me back to before you were born and thats a master class !

I was an impressionable adolescent then and I experienced my first romantic haze after watching this oh so lovely movie. It picked up slowly since it didnt have stars and word of mouth publicity did the trick since the only game(s) and dames in town were Kamal, Rajni, Sridevi and Sripriya. (I'm really really choking as I'm writing this)

You've really nailed pretty much everything there is to the movie. The Paruvame song and photography was a tour de force (again choking big time here).

I never cease to marvel how a boy who never experienced the joys of listening to Ungal Virup[am from 8:30 to 9;30 in the morning could write this piece.

You bloody time traveller !

Zola said...

Just remembered. One thing I felt envious about the characters in the movie was that half the time they'd be eating out at a Drive-In restaurant. Eating out in Madras at that time was really a BIG DEAL.

Ram Murali said...

Thank you so much, Zola, for the continued encouragement of my writing. Makes the effort truly worth it! Nandri pala.