Thangar Bachan is a filmmaker of strong convictions. He is known for his outspoken nature. In his interviews, one can sense his passion for meaningful cinema. His directorial debut, “Azhagi” just turned 20. And he has been in the spotlight again, giving multiple interviews, celebrating two decades of what is an undisputed classic. But for a writer who is so in love with the characters that he created, he scarcely did justice, in his interviews, to one of the thoughtfully etched characters in “Azhagi.” That is Valarmathi, played with much assurance by a superb Devayani. Both the characterization and the actor deserve more spotlight. So, here we go.
The titular character of “Azhagi” is played by Nandita Das. Her Dhanalakshmi (aka Dhanam) is a character whose life had been filled with unhappy accidents, one of which is a literal one that results in her husband’s death. She is confined to a life of misery and, contrary to her name, poverty. She has a chance meeting – the situation leading to the haunting “Un Kuththama” is sublime – with Shanmugam (a marvelously controlled Parthiban), a man with whom she shared a special bond in her childhood and adolescence. This meeting turns her life around for the better, but the catch is that Shanmugam is now married to Valarmathi.
Whenever there is ‘another’ woman in a man’s life, Tamil Cinema directors usually makes the wife one of two kinds – the meek sufferer or the shrill witch. (If you didn’t instantly think of Vadivukkarasi in “Muthal Mariyathai” for the second category, we cannot be friends!) Valarmathi is neither. She is immensely kind, thoughtful and loving. But that she is a person who sets reasonable ground rules is established early on. When Shanmugam asks her why she made an acquaintance (Shayaji Shinde) wait outside the house, she points to his sozzled state – he would have thrown up all over – and simply states, “If he was in the house, we would have had to wait outside.” In another, rather terrific scene, she is introduced to Dhanam. She looks at her in the kindest, most non-judgmental way possible. Yet when Dhanam addresses Shanmugam by his name, Valarmathi looks befuddled at the familiarity and privilege being assumed. Devayani is wonderful in this sequence, sporting the perfect puzzled look without overdoing it. (As an aside, she had another great dining table scene in "Bharathi", where she expresses discomfort in a setting that is alien to her. I shall share both links below to offer a glimpse into this talented actor’s nuanced understanding of the two vastly different roles.)
The perfect puzzled look (Click on 'play' to go to the scene)
In a very unforced manner, Thangar Bachan keeps reminding us of the innate generosity and thoughtfulness of Valarmathi. This is evident in the scene where she consoles Dhanam for her mother’s brusque manners. As a result, we never question Valarmathi’s actions or why she grows increasingly insecure about Dhanam. She trusts her husband. She even trusts Dhanam. Yet, as a wife, she is unwilling to let this arrangement continue. These conflicting emotions are brought out in the bedroom scene prior to the climax. Devayani is absolutely fabulous here. The scene stealer that Parthiban usually is, is actually playing a willing second fiddle here. Right from the way she says, “Why are you looking at me as though you have no idea what I am about to discuss?” till the end of the scene where she leans on him, requesting his understanding, Devayani aces the myriad emotions that her character goes through. It is a testament to the delicacy of Bachan’s writing that even though she insists on Dhanam leaving the house, we do not, for a moment, despise her. Because there is a lovely grace note here too. Valarmathi assures Shanmugam that she will make the necessary arrangements for the education of Dhanam’s son. (That she follows through on this later in the orphanage scene makes the character shine like a diamond.)
The "we need to talk" sequence:
It is worth noting that neither Devayani nor Nandita Das are native Tamil speakers. It is a testament to their dedication to the craft that everything about their performances – be it their perfect lip sync or their range of expressions – is pitch-perfect. Some of the modern day actresses who struggle with their lip sync and look clueless and out of place, would do well to learn from these actresses who clearly put in considerable effort to come across as authentic to the characters they were essaying.
20 years down the line, the performance of Devayani in “Azhagi” remains largely forgotten. Well, not anymore!
******The "Bharathi" scene that I cited: