“Are Tamil indies finally having a moment?” tweeted film critic Baradwaj Rangan. Looking at his tweet, I was feeling rather wistful thinking of fabulous filmmakers such as Balu Mahendra and Mahendran. And how they would have thrived and been even more prolific had a funding system been in place for low budget, honest, non-mainstream films. I wonder if Balu Mahendra would have ever felt the need to make ‘commercial compromises’ such as item numbers in any of his films. I would like to think that even some of the subjects (freemakes such as Julie Ganapathy and Rettai Vaal Kuruvi) that he would have chosen would have been better. Most importantly, we would have gotten to see more films that showcased artistes who were superb talents yet didn’t quite fit into the commercial mold. An artiste like, say Chokkalinga Bagavathar.
Thanks to Balu Mahendra, we got the opportunity to see him in two classic films, Veedu and Sandhya Raagam and in a hilarious avatar in the comedy classic, Sathi Leelavathi. (You have not lived till you have seen him contrast an underwear and a loin cloth. The former is “wear and tear” and the latter is “tear and wear!”) But the film where I fell hook, line and sinker for his spontaneous, measured acting style was Veedu.
In Veedu, he does not just portray a grandpa who is affectionate. Balu Mahendra writes his Thatha as a three-dimensional human being who is funny, caustic, even angry in a couple of instances. When Archana suggests to him that her partner (a delightfully casual Bhanu Chander) will aid her in her efforts to build their house, he scoffs at her. When she wants to sell jewelry, he chides her and barks that he will hear the proposal no further. But best of all are the scenes where he mixes sagacity with humor. When the kid sister, in the middle of the road, stops walking because her older sister refuses her a room for herself, he gently ribs her, “Baaga Pirivinai elaam apram paathukalaam. Mudhal-la veedu kedaikkatum!”
They say that one’s eyes are the windows to the soul. It is one thing to, in real life, feel for something and reflect it in our eyes. It is another matter altogether for an actor to internalize the emotions in a character that they are essaying and project it in their eyes. And Bagavathar was an expert at it. And one has to look no further than his final sequence where he visits the house as it is being built. As he is about to step into the house, he quickly stops himself and steps in with his right leg first (for auspicious reasons). It is such a common practice that it makes one smile. His smile as he walks the house is so gentle and so moving because we have seen the travails of the family till then. The way he expresses his gratitude to the construction worker Manga (Pasi Sathya) is deeply affecting. Notice the way he exclaims, “Manga!” And the way he thanks her is devoid of the artificiality that is unfortunately too well known to mainstream Tamil Cinema. This entire sequence is such an acting tour de force whose impact lingers indelibly. When he passes on, it is impossible to not sob along with Archana (who turns in a stellar performance, herself).
Click on 'Play' to go to the house entry sequence:
Actors like Chokkalinga Bagavathar were rarely given their due in Tamil Cinema. Plum roles eluded them somehow. We can only rue the fact that they didn’t have the luxury of an indie film environment or an active parallel cinema movement to provide fodder for their enormous talents. But I suppose we can look at the cup (of joy, offered by their works) half-full and be thankful for at least a limited set of films that stand the test of time. And Veedu certainly is a timeless arthouse classic. While the Bagavathar character never got to live in the house built in this film, it is his presence that fills Veedu and our hearts permanently.