The happiness, success and clout of his nephew Subbu are cause for much jealousy and resentment for his Uncle (Delhi Ganesh). But by all accounts, Subbu is a fair, kind, affable man who deserves none of this hatred. In his very first scene, he adoringly looks at his daughter, who is about to get married, and spontaneously asks, “Chithappa paatharo unna?” in the kindest of tones. Later, he gifts his Uncle a coat and falls at his feet to get his blessings. Instead of blessing him generously, Ganesh takes a jab at his girth – “Unaala mudiyadhu da, paavam!” The film alternates expertly between giving us enough glimpses of the goodness of Subbu and his Uncle’s abhorrence. Even the song “Kannoonjal” includes a line on Subbu– “Ullathile vanjam illa uththaman petra kumari.” But here is what is truly special about this film – none of this detailing is in your face. That is one of the chief pleasures of Vasanth S Sai’s Payasam - the delicacy of touch. A film focused on evoking the tricky emotion of ‘disgust’, this film weaves in a staggering amount of detail unfussily, in its short running time.
Payasam is an adaptation of a T. Janakiraman story set in the 1960s. 1965 to be precise. Vasanth lovingly adapts it for the audiovisual medium. The period details, from the utensils to the leather watch worn by the bridegroom, are evoked in an unobtrusive manner. At the same time, the film shows great restraint in spotlighting a particular community and its attitudes towards a girl (Aditi Balan) who has lost her husband at a young age. There is a lot of respect and affection showed towards her. The way the bride hugs Aditi on seeing her hold something in surprise for her, is a lovely moment. Even the head cook is kind in the way he tells her, “Inge nikkadhe, pogai varum.” At the same time, her sad plight is not glossed over. There is a supremely well-staged moment where the cook offers an elaborate explanation for the wedding payasam, as he is preparing it. While he does it, the camera slowly moves its focus to Aditi’s face – the actress is remarkably restrained yet effective in this scene. No huge display of emotion but we see a forlorn figure who has resigned to her situation. This offers a stark contrast to the emotions felt by the Dad, who refuses to come to terms with the unfortunate situation of his daughter.
Vasanth displays a sureness of foot in the way he shapes Delhi Ganesh’s character. Yes, the man harbors quite a bit of negativity towards someone who is essentially a good Samaritan. Yet we never dislike him. Especially affecting are his moments with his wife (an utterly charming Rohini) – even the surprise about her appearance is revealed in a matter-of-fact manner, in tune with the rest of the film. The way Ganesh’s voice quivers when he says, “Poyittiye dee thangam…” is a marvelous bit of dialogue delivery. He is fabulous in the final scene where he realizes that his daughter knows what he has done. His tentative body language, where he desperately avoids eye contact, is brilliantly done. This surely ranks among one of Ganesh’s greatest performances of a long, illustrious career.
The technical elements cohere stupendously in service of the story. Sathyan Sooryan’s cinematography deserves much praise. I loved how the camera is out of focus for a few seconds before showing us Delhi Ganesh and Rohini on the banks of the river. It perfectly underscores the actor’s frame of mind. And masterful is the 2 ½ minute tracking shot which ends in Ganesh doing something that reveals the full extent of his resentment. Ditto for the music (Justin Prabhakaran) and the background score. Typically, the background score is used to accentuate an emotion. In Payasam, the background score and sound design (Anand Krishnamoorthi) are used more to bring us into the milieu as active participants, not passive observers. For instance, the 2 ½ minute shot that I just mentioned is not accompanied by a suspenseful music. Instead, we hear the nadaswaram in the background. If anything, the lack of an overtly emphatic score amplifies the impact of Ganesh’s act. At the same time, there is a mellifluous violin piece that plays during the two scenes where see the bride and Aditi interact with one another.
Payasam is a must-see for connoisseurs of meaningful cinema. It has much finesse and much heart. ‘Disgust’ might be the rasa that the film strives to spotlight. But sheer ‘delight’ is what Vasanth’s top drawer writing and direction evoke.