Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The stage is set – Reflections on Visu Sir

One of the obvious risks of revisiting films from an earlier era is that they could feel a little dated.  Especially family dramas.  The mores of a society are not set in stone.  It is one’s hope that with time, conventions and norms are questioned and that we see progression, not regression.  At the same time, when we revisit films from a different time, we might want to first evaluate whether the treatment does justice to the chosen theme.  And then assess whether the treatment is strong enough to overlook any elements that make it feel dated.  This was the framework that I used to appraise the works of writer-director Visu.  Or, as I addressed him, Visu Sir.  Let me first talk about the creations before talking about the creator.

Kudumbam Our Kadhambam is one of his finest works as a writer. (The film was directed by SP Muthuraman.) It is an ensemble drama, featuring a medley of lively characters.  Visu was a master at looking at one issue from different vantage points.  Employment was the issue that he explored with much depth through the “kadhambam” of characters who, despite belonging to different families, are united by their inherent goodness.  Not to mention, their income-related struggles.  A working woman who wants to be a homemaker.  A homemaker who wants to work, to help make ends meet.  An elderly lady and her daughter, who have to shoulder the family’s burdens amidst two personifications of irresponsibility that are the father and son.  These are some of the contrasting roles that Visu wove into a taut screenplay. 

There is often the question of whether male writers do justice to the women that they write.  With Visu, I believe that he wrote female characters in such a way that his target audience could learn how they could thrive in a patriarchal society.  Even though the women in most Visu films did not step outside of or rise above a conservative setup, he almost always gave them strength of character and made them thrive or flourish, depending on the situation.  For instance, in Kudumbam… in a fit of anger, Shekar slaps Suhasini.  She does not slap him back.  But by the end of the film, she is the primary breadwinner of the family.  You could argue that what might have been truly ‘progressive’ would have been to show Suhasini go to work because she wanted to work, not because she needed to work.  But for a film set in a lower middle-class setup in 1981, to show that it was not infra dig for a man to not be the primary earning member was ‘progress’ in a small way.  In a sense, Visu chipped away at societal norms, even if he didn’t demolish them in service of a utopian future. 

Click on Play to go to the "Ena jaathi pa nee?" scene

Visu was associated with the advice-spouting, problem solver in many of the films that he wrote and directed.  But dig a little deeper, you will find that some of his best moments were in films where messy relationships did not get tidy little closures.  The climactic scenes of both the celebrated Samsaram Adhu Minsaram and the underrated Varavu Nalla Uravu are cases in point.  In fact, the climax of Varavu… is as shocking as it is powerful.  When Visu laments the fact that he had ‘lost’ his wife long before she died, one cannot help but see a bit of reason in his rather harsh decision.  Yes, Varavu… might feel overwrought as a drama.  But some of the scenes pack tremendous punch.  There is real bite in some of the exchanges between the Dad and his family. (Ditto for the contrapuntal scenes between Rekha and Kishmu – they bristle with power.)

5:20-min point:

Another convenient yet inaccurate assessment of his writing was that he was always verbose.  Yes, his dialogues could be wordy and even a bit repetitive.  But Visu was equally adept at quick wit, sharp repartee and, this might surprise you, brevity.  In Kudumbam…, the new tenant is being grilled by the occupants of the house.  Towards the end of the scene, one of them asks, “Aamam, enna jaathi pa nee?”  To which the tenant responds, “Yaezhai.”  Stunned silence follows.  Cut to a scene where Suhasini and Sumalatha offer him food.  Listening to his story, Kamala Kamesh offers to cook him meals at a subsidized rate (compared to restaurants).  He hesitates a little and says, “Neenge Brahmins…naan…”  And she responds, “Illa, naangalum unga jaathi thaan - yaezhainge.”  There is a certain rhythm to the dialogue that flows beautifully from one scene to the next.  But the lines are in service of the story, not standalone ‘punch’ lines.  Sample another line of his from Penmani AvaL Kanmani, uttered by Delhi Ganesh, who is in a pitiable state.  When urged by Visu to fight for his rights, he says, “Maanamum roshamum vayathuku kedaiyadhu.  Paasamum pandigaiyum ezhaiku kedaiyadhu.”  Crisp, yet striking. 

Yes, his filmmaking style was basic and strongly reflective of his stage background.  But an assessment of a film- an audiovisual medium – should be reflective of not just the form but also content, not just the style but also the substance.  Visu’s finest works were so compelling on the content front that I was – I still am – always willing to look past the deficiencies on the craft side of things. 

Now that I have written enough about writer-filmmaker Visu, a word about Visu Sir.  I was fortunate enough to have known him in the last two years of his life.  Whatsapp voice notes were his preferred method of communication.  He was a delight to interact with.  He shared with me some truly sagacious words of wisdom from his own life experiences.  Since they were from his personal life and since he is no more, I would like to refrain from sharing examples in this public blog.  The stories from his professional life were no less illuminating.  When I learned that AVM Saravanan had insisted on the Manorama character in Samsaram Adhu Minsaram for comic relief, I asked Visu Sir if he felt like he had compromised as a writer for commercial reasons.  His response was, “Saraswati veLeele pogaatha varaikum Lakshmi ulla varathukaana edhavadhu velai pannaa thappu illa.”  I thought that that was a wonderful way of describing his lofty standards and integrity as a writer and the kind of tweaks and suggestions that were acceptable to him. 

Visu Sir was an important, influential figure in the world of stage, cinema and later in television.  In a day and age where Tamil audiences get rich exposure to world cinema and develop a deeper understanding of the nuances of films, it is easy to forget the works of a writer and director of an earlier era whose creations were populated with commoners, their highs, lows, joys and despair.  But to forget him or assess his works unfairly is grave injustice to one of our most thoughtful creators.  Giving him credit where it is due is one surefire way of ensuring that his soul continues to rest in peace.  In writing this piece, I have tried to do my bit.  In reading this piece, you have done yours.  Thank you!