It was the Fall of 1998. My parents and I had just moved to the US after I had completed high school in Chennai. My Dad’s work had brought us to the US. More specifically to Memphis, Tennessee. As my parents worried about the logistics of starting afresh in a new country, I had my own concerns. One of the chief questions was, how exactly was I going to keep in touch with Indian cricket and Tamil movies? For cricket, I had to resign to checking thehindu.com for daily updates. (Cricinfo happened later, if my memory serves me right.) For Tamil movies, luckily, there was an Indian store that rented out VHS cassettes.
What also helped my literary interests was the availability of Anandha Vikatan! My parents somehow found a way to get the magazine shipped to our home. I loved the previews and reviews offered by the magazine. It was during one such quest for cinema knowledge (!) that I happened upon a striking still of an old man. Salt and pepper hair, with an emphasis on the salt, metal-rimmed glasses, a walrus mustache, this man looked vaguely familiar. Upon closer inspection, I realized that it was one of my favorite actors, Radhakrishnan Parthiban.
I read about his upcoming film, Housefull, that he starred in, wrote, directed, and produced. It was advertised as a thriller set in a movie theater. This was a time when cell phones had not become prevalent. So, the plot made sense. Bombs are planted in a movie theater. But oblivious of being at peril, the audience is engaged in watching the film while the police, the bomb squad and most importantly, the theater owner (played superbly by Parthiban) strive to rescue the people inside and, if possible, salvage the theater too.
I anticipated this film with much eagerness. I had gone to India for a 3-week trip in December. But I was saddened to hear that I had to fly back a day before the film’s release for Pongal 1999. Those were the days before youtube reviews, Twitter posts and social media frenzy. For most films, one had to wait for a while for the reviews and reports to come in. I slowly got the sinking feeling that the mostly glowing reviews were not translating to box office receipts for the film. Nevertheless, I wanted to check out the film. There it was in the cassette rack, one fine Friday afternoon in late February. No sooner had we arrived at our house than I rushed to the video cassette player with the tape in hand. I told my folks that I did not want to be interrupted for the next couple of hours, for I had finished my homework. (This last detail, I am a bit unsure, but let’s go with my memory anyway!)
This film had me hooked right from the title score. It is a haunting piece, one of Ilayaraja’s unfortunately forgotten scores. Raja was and continues to be a master of establishing the mood of a film with his title score. For Housefull, his title score is not suggestive of a thriller. Rather, the score comes off as gentle and tender, reflective of the fact that at the heart of the film is a soft-hearted man who must deal with an impending danger to the love of his life, his movie theater.
The film is an ensemble piece that features a slew of actors with their own subplots and arcs. A love story featuring an energetic Vikram and a perky Suvalakshmi. An emotional back story for the theater owner and his former wife. An amusing comedy track featuring a bumbling crook, played by Vadivelu. A policeman and a bomb squad lead working in concert to devise a plan to save the theater and the audience. A visually-impaired man who ‘watches’ the film in his mind’s eye. A fully pregnant woman and her rickshaw-driver husband. (In what is testament to Parthiban’s yen for the minute detail, we see this husband as an auto driver at the start of the film before the flashback begins.) At times, one does get the feeling of Parthiban packing the film with too much detail and too many characters. Equally valid is the argument that he finds a way to make them all cohere as part of his narrative, with no loose ends. Every character has either logistical significance as part of the rescue operation or an emotional arc that has a satisfying closure. Apart from Parthiban’s Aiyya character, which I will get to in a bit, my favorite of the lot is his Man Friday played by Nair Raman. He makes us smile at many places with his staunch loyalty and worldly-wise attitude but also makes us misty-eyed with his performance in the scene where Aiyya gives him and other theater employees a sum of money, requesting them to leave the premises.
Amidst these colorful characters, the anchor of this film is Parthiban’s Aiyya. Parthiban reserves the best lines of the film for himself. The lines have, in equal measure, potency and profundity. Sample this. When he realizes that he cannot afford to make the police officers act in haste, he likens their situation to that of a surgeon who must remain calm even when a patient is fighting for her or his life. If this is an appropriate analogy for the situation, equally apropos is the way he describes his theater as “en amma…en kozhandhai.” When a well-meaning police officer urges him to leave the premises to a safer setting, he says, “Ipo thane sonnen, indha theater en amma, en kozhandhai. Unga Amma-vuko kozhandhai-ko serious-na apdiye uttutu poiduvengaLa. Angaye irundhu poraada maatenga. Enakum apdi thaan.” Fans of his acting style marvel at his felicity with words. But it is important that we don’t mistake the accessibility of his language for lack of depth. For this film, Parthiban eschews his fast-paced manner of talking in favor of a more measured delivery befitting an old man. And he sparkles in this character where he cast himself against type.
Technically, Housefull is one of Parthiban’s most accomplished films. If Ilayaraja’s background score elevates the bomb diffusing scenes to great heights, MV Panneer Selvam’s camerawork is of high standard. There is an enormously poignant scene where Aiyya, upon realizing that his theater is in serious danger, stretches out his arms almost as if to envelop the theater. The camera behind Aiyya gives us a stunning view of the theater. The artwork too (by RK Nagu) of the theater is exquisite.
The irony and the ingenuity of this film’s climax deserves much praise. Right from Pudhiya Paadhai, Parthiban has given us some powerful images and lines featuring infants and kids. Ditto for the climax of Housefull that features an infant sobbing in the middle of the road. Parthiban’s expression upon realizing that the infant is on the movie screen and not in the theater, is one that left a lump in my throat. The loss of Aiyya’s life makes a statement on the futility of violence in a way no amount of dialogue can. (It is deeply moving that throughout the film, Aiyya keeps saying, "Oru usuru kooda poga koodathu." In the end, it is only his life that is lost to senseless violence.)
Cut back to the scene in Memphis. Once I finished watching the film, I could not stop gushing about it. I wanted to meet the creator who had given me a movie experience that I well and truly relished. But I did not know Parthiban nor did I know anyone who knew him. A couple of years later, on a trip to India, I bought his book, KirukalgaL. In it, was a bookmark that contained the address and phone number of his office. I wrote a 10-page letter and mailed it (you know, snail mail existed; it still does!) from Memphis to his address. It was located at Temple View apartments. But since the bookmark said, ‘Kovil Noakku Kudiyirupu’ in Tamil, I wrote the same in English! It is a miracle that the letter reached him! A few weeks later, to my utter surprise, he sent me a handwritten response, with the words, “En thiramai saarndha ungaL thirunaayvum anbu soozhndha kadithamum kanden!” My day, week and month were made!
During subsequent trips to India, I tried to reach him on the phone, in vain. And then, my luck and persistence both paid off. When I once called him from Pittsburgh (where I was doing my Masters), luckily his office aide put me through to him. That conversation was the first of many that I have had the fortune of having with this creator some of whose works have meant much to me. Most recently, I met with him in 2019 after the release of Oththa Seruppu Size 7. They say that the daring of the youth tends to metamorphose into a more measured approach as people age. But with Parthiban, with age, the temerity and the yen to experiment have only grown manifold. I just hope that unlike Housefull, his ambitious ventures receive the awards and the rewards they deserve, at the time of release, not later. It is not just important that technology has evolved from the days of VHS cassettes; our audience appreciation for pathbreaking films must evolve too!