Friday, June 26, 2020

Missed Spotlights #2 – Manorama in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi

Veteran comedienne and character actress Manorama had a striking similarity to Sivaji Ganesan.  An analysis of her performances suggests that like Ganesan, she was a willing puppet in the hands of filmmakers who had a good appreciation for restraint and underplay.  While she may be remembered for her histrionics in the films of P Vasu and his ilk, Manorama could be sensationally effective when working with directors who weren’t quite content with extracting broad performances from her.  Writer-director K Balachander’s characters were generally expansive personalities.  But he could, from time to time rein in himself and his actors to write a three-dimensional character and extract a truly moving performance.  Manorama’s Angayarkanni character in Unnal Mudiyum Thambi is one such character that I don’t think had gotten as much recognition as I thought it should have. 

Kamal Hassan and Manorama (who plays his sister-in-law here) have shared remarkable chemistry in a wide variety of films ranging from comedies to dramas.  Surprisingly, Kamal, as a filmmaker or screenplay writer, rarely utilized Manorama in serious dramas.  He seemed to prefer SN Lakshmi for the more serious roles – Lakshmi too was fantastic in films like Mahanadi.  Kamal typically gave more lighter roles to Manorama in films like Aboorva SahodarargaL and Michael Madana Kamarajan.  K Balachander, after having worked with Manorama in the sixties and seventies hadn’t collaborated with Manorama in over a decade.  In Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988), he brought back two of his frequent early collaborators – Gemini Ganesan and Manorama.  Both turned in entirely different but equally stellar performances.  The friendly Annee character has been a feature in some remarkable films like Sethu and Aaha.  This one too is an equally memorable one.  And the actress played no small part in ensuring that.

The early portions of the film do a marvelous job of establishing Manorama as a friendly, maternal figure to Kamal.  There are some little touches like the way Manorama calls out Gemini for his “vidya garvam” that establish her character as a respectful but opinionated daughter-in-law.  This subtle character sketching is rewarded with an apt payoff in the second half where she confronts Gemini.  While she is the balanced, responsible daughter-in-law to Gemini and a loving wife to her mute husband, her relationship with Kamal is what stands tallest.  She stands up for him when Gemini utters some harsh words, encourages his wooing of Seetha (which, by the way, is one of KB’s most charming romances) but excoriates him when he crosses the line with his father. 

Kamal and Manorama work out their scenes in an utterly down-to-earth fashion.  Two sequences stand out, one a lighthearted one and one a more serious one.  The first one is the delightful scene where Kamal opens up to Manorama about Seetha.  After fumbling through the conversation, the two of them jointly sing, “Oru Pennai Paarthu Nilavai…”  It is an adorably puckish moment whose sweetness quotient is matched only by her line to him in the same sequence - “Enna Raja…koondhal-a elaam moondhu paathirke…paer theriyaadha?”

The second, deeply poignant scene is the one where Kamal decides to leave the house.  With the nagaswaram playing in the background, there is a touching vignette that plays out with no dialogues.  Manorama packs a sweet for Kamal, which the latter refuses.  She gently admonishes him, after which he falls on her feet to get her blessings.  This scene – the lack of dialogues, the searing emotions, the evocative background score - is vintage KB, surely.  But it is Manorama and Kamal who bring the director’s vision to life.

Watch from the start to the 2:30 min point:

Manorama passed on a few years ago, leaving behind a rich body of work for us to cherish.  She enjoyed the adulation of the public and at times, critical appreciation. (She had even won a National Award for her performance in Pudhiya Paadhai.)  But to me, her work in Unaal Mudiyum Thambi is the vestige that does not deserve to be erased by the tides of time.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Missed Spotlights #1 - Karthika in Nayagan

Of late, I have been reading this series of articles on Cricinfo titled, “Come to think of it.”  Taking a leaf out of my favorite cricket site, I am starting a series titled, “Missed Spotlights.”  In this series, I am hoping to shed light on performances, aspects of a particular film’s craft or entire movies that, in my opinion, didn’t get the spotlight that they deserved.  So, without further ado, let’s start with a performance in a film that has reams and reams of literature dedicated to it.  But hitherto, I have not read even a paragraph on what I reckon to be one of the finest supporting roles and performances – Karthika, who plays the grown-up version of Kamal Hassan’s daughter in Nayagan. (Neena played the younger version.)

Karthika in "Nayagan"

When the entire world (of this film) kowtows to the ageing yet commanding Don, there are two people who stand up to him.  One is the intrepid police officer (played by Nasser), who aims to bring him to book.  To Nasser, nobody, irrespective of their good deeds, is above the law.  Karthika, much before Nasser tries to nab her father, tries to impose the manacles of humanity and reasoning to restrain him.  Of course, the Godfather has rules of his own making and a value system that he had believed in over several decades.  The clash of ideals is the focus of the spectacular confrontation scene between father and daughter.  As arresting as Kamal is in the sequence, Karthika is equally feisty and fiery in this verbal duel.  Right from the moment where she expresses mild irritation at his attempt to fix her hair to her stunned look as she is kneeling down next to the basil plant, Karthika brings to life Balakumaran’s razor-sharp dialogues with the assurance of a veteran. (Mani Ratnam’s attention to detail is astounding.  After Kamal’s slap, notice her cheek closely and you will see fingerprints.)

The Dad-Daughter confrontation sequence:

The other scene where she sparkles is the telephone conversation with her father.  The much-feared gangster, who had refused to pay heed to his daughter’s pleas or respect the boundaries of jurisprudence, sees the plight of his devoted followers in the hospital.  After seeing them in a sorry state, he decides that he is going to surrender to the court of law.  By now, the daughter is married to the very inspector who has been trying to capture him.  What ensues is a poignant conversation, the highlights of which are actually the meaningful pauses more than the words.  Karthika makes full use of her expressive eyes to do full justice to this scene, especially the part where Nasser thinks he has caught her red-handed.

The telephone conversation:

One of the features of Mani Ratnam’s early work was how different and realistic his heroines looked when compared to actresses in the mainstream fare that was dished out in the 1980s.  Here too, Karthika’s lack of conspicuous make-up and her simple, elegant costumes add to the realism that Mani Ratnam strove for in the drama.  The black saree that Karthika wears in the climax somehow looks perfect, given the heavy-duty emotions and the impending tragedy.  I state these seemingly trivial details to underscore the fact that all these elements play their own roles in making a performance believable.  That these choices by the filmmaker are in service of a sublime performance make them indispensable even if they are hidden in plain view.

Apart from Poovizhi Vaasalile and Nayagan, there are no other Tamil movies that I remember seeing Karthika in.  But given that she had superbly etched roles in undisputed classics, it would be a travesty if her roles were to be forgotten.  After all, a shooting star is special in its own way, a spot of light that is not to be missed!