Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Scaling a new peak: An essay on Sathyaraj’s performance as Periyar

My Twitter timeline was inundated recently with messages on the birth anniversary of Periyar, who was born on 17th September 1879.  The movie buff that I am, I was instantly reminded of the astounding performance that Sathyaraj had turned in, in the titular role of Periyar (2007).  More specifically, I remembered this moment where Periyar’s friend Rajaji visits him in Erode.  The way Sathyaraj hugs him and offers him a seat while standing himself, was an image that was stuck in my mind.  I found a youtube video of the film and went straight to that scene.  It is not an especially dramatic scene.  Revisiting it, I realized why that particular scene had been affixed to my memory cells.  It was Sathyaraj’s body language and dialogue delivery.  In this piece, I hope to shed light on his body language, which rarely gets the kind of space that is dedicated to his diction and dialogue delivery.

Yes, Sathyaraj and Periyar share similar physiognomy.  But Sathyaraj, in real life, does not even sound remotely like Periyar.  The accent, the style of speaking, the gruffness (in Periyar’s voice, lacking in the actor) are all completely different between the activist and the actor.  That is why Sathyaraj’s transformation is especially praiseworthy.  There was a scene in Amaidhi Padai where he mimics a range of public figures like Karunanidhi, MGR, Sivaji and…Periyar.  That, I suppose, should have given us a glimpse of what the actor might do in the role of Periyar.  But a throwaway mimicry scene is one thing.  A complete embodiment of a character is another challenge altogether.  And Sathyaraj truly rises to the occasion in Periyar

In this scene with Rajaji, the way he says, “Sandhosamunga…romba sandhosamunga…” is incredibly lifelike.  Also, the use of his hands while making his point to Rajaji is a superb demonstration of body language.  The ageing man holds onto his stick with one hand and gesticulates just the right amount when speaking of the politicians’ self-serving tendencies and the swiftness with which they switch allegiance.  Hand movements need to be purposeful and must accentuate the lines being delivered without serving as a distraction.  That is exactly what Sathyaraj does here. 

1:59:03 - The Periyar-Rajaji meeting

There is another well-written scene where K Veeramani (a miscast Vijay Adhiraj) runs a proposal by him around self-respect marriage.  Periyar notices the phrase “and tying of the thaali.”  And he requests Veeramani to correct it to say, “or” so that the thaali does not become a mandatory requirement of a self-respect marriage.  Sathyaraj leans in, in the manner of elderly people who do so to listen with intent and hear things audibly.  He proceeds to make the corrections while using his hands to help signal the difference between the draft text versus what he is proposing.  In this and several other sequences, Sathyaraj evokes the body language of an elderly man in a very unfussy manner.  The drooping shoulders, the trembling hands, the tentative gait (with the aid of the stick) are all nuanced, never once calling undue attention to itself.

2:33:20 - The "tying of the thaali" scene

A word on the initial portions of the film.  Sathyaraj was 53 when the film was made.  So, it must not have been easy to evoke the younger version of Periyar.  This is where Sathyaraj brings in his years of experience.  Ignoring the fact that he looked older than the age of the character (in the first half), he uses his voice sans gruffness, to evoke the vim and vigor of Periyar’s younger days.  He is especially impressive in the scene where he transforms into the khaadhi attire.  The proud walk brings to life a man who is comfortable in his new avatar.  My only grouse is that Sathyaraj’s accent and dialect for the early portions are inconsistent with the dialect he speaks later in the film.

Sathyaraj, in real life, is a man of strong views and an unwavering belief in rational thought.  His long association with his friend and comrade Manivannan, who was a fount of knowledge on rationalism, solidified his value system over the years.  Whenever Sathyaraj had a chance to express political views or rational thought on screen in films such as Paalaivana RojakkaLVedham PudhidhuAmaidhi Padai or Puratchikaaran, one could sense that extra energy in the performance, an edge, a conviction in the lines he was speaking.  And Periyar, in that respect, is Sathyaraj’s apogee as a rational thinking actor.  It is a testament to his skill that he doesn’t rely on just personal convictions and physical similarities.  And that he actually turns in a 'performance' that reflects the myriad emotions that the character goes through.

Periyar, as a film, may have flaws.  It is more a hagiography than a balanced biography.  The acting, other than Sathyaraj and Khushboo, rarely rises above the level of a low-budget period drama.  Even Vidyasagar is not really in form, be it with the songs or the background score.  Yet the film is an important chronicle of a very important, even if polarizing, personality.  And a lion’s share of the accolades should be laid at the feet of the tall actor who turns in a towering performance.  And as a diehard fan of the actor, I will simply exclaim, “Sandhosamunga…romba sandhosamunga!"


1 comment:

Zola said...

Sorry Ram. Got to read this very late. Is miserable at work.

I remember in an interview Satyaraj was entranced by Periyar's lollu.

I suppose that is something both the activist and performer have in common :)

My favorite portion is the meeting between Rajaji and Periyar.

The way you described it was so graphic and true to life that I'm afraid I'll be disappointed if I actually see it in the movie !

And yes Vijay Adhiraj (my college junior was miscast....if you say so :)