Saturday, November 27, 2021

Take 3: My essay on Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Penngallum

A short story about a tumbler.  That was one of the things that filmmaker Vasanth S Sai recalled fondly in a commemorative speech on writer Balakumaran.  He went on to elaborate on how Balakumaran, during an outdoor shooting of “Punnagai Mannan”, had brought with him a tumbler that would serve to remind him of his wife.  And that Balakumaran had created a short story around it, infusing the inanimate object with a lot of life.  An avid reader, Vasanth too, over the years, has mastered the art of finding much depth, beauty and meaning in the minutest of details.  With immense assurance, he lets his camera dwell on minutiae for just enough time for a viewer to drink in the details without ever feeling the need to spoon-feed them.  In this anthology, he skillfully adapts three stories (by Ashokamitran, Adhavan and Jeyamohan) and presents richly detailed portraits of three women who seek to find ways to rise above the system that rarely gives them the opportunity to breathe.

A chair, a diary and a trophy.  These are ‘objects’ that gain life during the course of the stories that feature them.  In the first story, the protagonist (played by a stupendous Kalieaswari Srinivasan) never sits in the sole chair of their modest home.  Even during afternoons when she is by herself, she sits beside the chair, never on it.  There is a superb shot where we see her seated on the floor, through the arms of the chair.  But by the time the story ends, her posture while comfortably ensconced on the chair, says a whole lot without a word being uttered.  The way Ilayaraja’s background gradually increases in intensity as the camera gets closer to her is a masterful audiovisual moment where Vasanth demonstrates, “show, don’t tell.”  But as mentioned previously, Vasanth is too secure a filmmaker to not know the difference between “show” and “show off.”  The shift in perspective of the camera is as gradual as the increase in intensity of the score.  (Spoiler ahead) We also realize, as the story wraps up, that the first time we see her smile is in her husband’s absence.  We are left to fill the gaps with our imagination but we are given enough detail to savor and reflect on.

In the second story headlined by Parvathy Thiruvothu, the lead character is rather happy and well-settled at the beginning of the story.  She lives in a joint family setup where she seems to be respected and loved, not least of all by her nephew, through whose perspective we see the tale unfold.  Their relationship is underlined through the most lifelike of gestures such as the gifting of a geometry box.  The manner in which the kid asks her to hug him is delightfully sweet.  So is the amusing “netta Mani…kutta Mani” conversation.  We get an early hint of resentment in the way her sister-in-law refers to her mockingly as “Elizabeth maharani.”  Early on in a scene outside her room, notice how Parvathy waits for a split-second for her sister-in-law to leave along with her.  It is a subtle character-establishing moment where we see that the Parvathy character is acutely aware of her space.  Later on, an issue regarding her diary snowballs into something monstrous with damaging implications. 

The diary and the perceptions around her rights are, as with the first story, focused on just enough to give us something to mull on while Vasanth trusts us with some blanks to fill on our own.  In what is a departure from the typical cinema grammar that we are used to, he does not always give us the payoffs that we are used to.  For instance, there are at least three instances towards the end where we wonder why Parvathy does not make eye-contact with her nephew.  Does the boy feel guilty?  How does Parvathy feel about the kid now?  They do not have a final moment that offers a neat closure to their relationship or for the story, for that matter.  But isn’t that how life is?  Do we always get the goodbyes and the catharses that we get to see in fiction? 

And in the final story, we get to witness a character who does not, on the surface, seem to undergo the hardships of the characters in the first two stories.  But we slowly see how the life that had been chosen for her – not by her – has saddled her with a plethora of familial duties and responsibilities with rarely an instance where anyone seems genuinely interested in her needs and desires.  But the character’s core trait is internalization.  She rarely speaks a word more than is necessary for her to get through her chores, be it instructions for her daughter - the two disparate moments involving the small vs big “Ra” in “Karka Kasadara” is a fine example of Vasanth’s  attention to detail – or responses to her man-child of a husband. 

Sivaranjani (the central character of the third story) internalizes all her emotions from anguish to ecstasy.  And Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli turns in an enormously moving performance.  Be it the longing look at the athlete in the playground, the nuanced manner in which she says that she would have “bought” her trophy or the way her eyes widen when she sees the school kids applauding a little ‘feat’ of hers, her work in this film deserves a lot of praise.  In this segment too, Vasanth leaves it to us to determine what will be the future of the lead character.  Is she content with the little joys of her domestic life?  Or will the little bus chase serve as a spark to revive the athlete in her?  What we are left with is a ray of hope as seen in Lakshmi Priyaa’s contained smile as she walks back.

The cinematographers Ravi Shankaran and NK Ekhambaram offer stellar support to the director.  The aforementioned shots of the chair in the first story are astounding yet unobtrusive.  The craft never overshadows the story.  Even with respect to the much celebrated single-take sequence – I timed it; it lasts an astonishing 4 minutes and 24 seconds – in the third story, it is only when we reflect on it do we realize that we ‘experienced’ the exhaustion of Sivaranjani and that we did not get yanked out of the mood of the sequence by the precise choreography.  As paradoxical as it may sound, the craft is as understated as it is palpable.  And as mentioned earlier, Ilayaraja’s score is marvelously in sync with the look and feel of the first story.  In the third story, his score for the moment when Sivaranjani prepares to leave the dilapidated godown, is pitch-perfect.  Although I must say that for the bus chase scene, I preferred the version that I had watched in the NY film festival with just ambient sounds – a special shout-out to sound designer Anand Krishnamoorthi.  Somehow the dramatic flourish of Ilayaraja’s score here didn’t seem as impactful as the grunts and the heavy breaths of the version that I had watched previously. 

In the final analysis, Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Penngallum is an immensely fulfilling experience from both a form and content point of view.  I had remarked earlier this year that his “Payasam” episode in the Navarasa series was just an appetizer for the wholesome meal that was Sivaranjaniyum… Now, I will sign off with the hope that this film is the harbinger of a new innings for him where he makes profound, personal films.  Balakumaran may have brought to life a tumbler in his short story.  But having watched this film, it is my tumbler of joy that is brimming!


The film is streaming on Sony Liv in India.  Outside of India, it is available on the Simply South app.

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