Saturday, March 7, 2020

Si-Lens: A few quiet moments captured on Tamil screen

In an interview with Bosskey, the late Mahendran had recounted his formative years in Ilayangudi.  He was a fan of the Tamil cinema of the 50s, which boasted of truly impressive, at times incessant, dialogue.  This was the decade when Tamil cinema was branching out of musicals into more social dramas.  Writers like Mu. Karunanidhi and Sakthi Krishnaswamy were making a mark with their pen in unprecedentedly powerful fashion.  Mahendran had truly enjoyed the talky films to the hilt.  During a conversation with his Uncle, the latter urged him to watch more English films.  It was only after he started watching films from the West did Mahendran develop a bit of an aversion towards excessive dialogue.  To his credit, he stuck to his convictions when he became a Director two decades later and gave us a handful of mesmerizingly memorable audiovisual experiences.  In this piece, I am going to list a few moments from Tamil cinema where it was a combination of expression, body language, cinematography and background score that weaved magic.  Dialogues, in these sequences, were functional, minimal or non-existent. 

Shoba in Mullum Malarum
It is impossible to create this sort of a list without a tribute to the master storyteller that I mentioned above.  This film and Udhiri PookaL are filled with several stunning moments of silence.  One of the most haunting visuals committed to the silver screen featured that shooting star, Shoba.  She slowly, painfully realizes that her brother has had a hand amputated.  Her expressions ranging from joy to realization to shock to despair are brought out in sublime fashion by her.  Rajni does very little and graciously cedes the spotlight to his co-star.  And she is incandescent.

Note: for all the videos below, clicking on Play will take you to the scenes I write about:

Sivaji Ganesan in Mudhal Mariyadhai
Sivaji Ganesan was referred to as ‘nadigar thilagam.’  Many fans of his work remember him for his remarkable dialogue delivery and crystal-clear diction.  But that scarcely does justice to the depth and breadth of his acting chops.  You would have to watch him keenly in some of the smaller moments to realize how beautifully expressive he could be, with very little dialogue.  One of my favorite moments in Bharathiraja’s Mudhal Mariyadhai is the scene where he is disgusted with his wife’s gesture while serving food.  He quietly moves away.  And the moment he steps out of his house, he drinks in the beauty of his surroundings.  The joy on his face is a delight to behold.

Saritha in Achamillai Achamillai
There is a beautiful line in Dil Se where Shah Rukh Khan describes the eyes of Manisha Koirala.  He loves them yet hates the fact that the deeper he looks, the stronger the realization that there are more depths to plumb.  KB probably felt that way about Saritha.  Watch this scene where she acts entirely with her eyes.  Sure it’s a showy piece of histrionics.  But it is impossible to look away.

Ilayaraja in Sethu
Consistent with the previous headers, I should have probably titled this, “Abitha in Sethu.”  But as moving and expressive as she is, many portions of Sethu, this one included, are totally owned by the King.  In concert with Ratnavelu’s marvelously purposeful camera movements, the impact of Sethu endures, warts and all (especially in the realm of toxic masculinity).

Prakashraj and Mohanlal in Iruvar
For a film set in an era where the oration and rhetoric swayed the voting and movie-viewing public en masse, Iruvar boasts a plethora of visually arresting moments.  One of the telling contrasts is evidenced in the pair of scenes where Prakashraj is on stage while Mohanlal makes a delayed entry.  In the second scene, it is clearly established that Lal arrives late on purpose to test the strength of his following.  Prakashraj’s expressions in this scene are nuanced and measured.

The first scene - the young idealists:

The second sequence - power corrupts…absolutely!

SPB in Sigaram
Tamil cinema has been witness to many death scenes that have spanned the spectrum of loudness from incredibly quiet to deafeningly loud.  On the quiet end of the spectrum is one of the most poignant scenes in Sigaram – SPB’s wife Rekha is dead while he is away in Singapore on a concert trip.  What happens once he returns is what is captured in this sequence which features no background music, just a few ambient sounds.  Director Vasanth once told me that writer Anuradha Ramanan, in a conversation on Rhythm, death and loss, mentioned the “silence that comes with death.”  That phrase is what comes to mind in this scene, especially the portion where SPB enters an empty house.

Kamal Haasan and Amala in Pesum Padam
And finally, the movie with probably the most apt title about silence ever, Pesum Padam!  A film where the actors ‘spoke’ volumes through their eyes, their body language and purposeful gestures.  My favorite is the scene in the handicrafts shop where Kamal ‘picks’ a earring for Amala.  These two fine actors share such cute, crackling chemistry that any dialogue would have felt completely redundant!


Zola said...

Ram - What about the telephone call scene between KR Vijaya and Sivaji in Thrisoolam ? LOL :)

Trust you to pick up unique themes and threads. Wonderful piece !
Your opening para on Mahendran says it ll. Its amazing to know that he is the writer of the talky dialogues in Thanga Padhakkam. That he transformed into the director of yedhaarthamaana works like Nenjathai killadhe and Udhiri Pookkal is astounding.

Ram Murali said...

Ha ha! That's hilarious, Zola!
The contrast between the films that Mahendran wrote (and were directed by others) vs. the ones he directed is so scarily stark! No wonder he was a trailblazer.