Sunday, November 20, 2022

Old Paths, New Roads: An essay on R Parthiban, post "Iravin Nizhal"

Now that Radhakrishnan Parthiban’s Iravin Nizhal (Shadow of the Night) is out on Amazon Prime, I decided to not just revisit the film.  But also take a moment to pause and reflect on one part of his directorial journey - the reformed sinner films.  Given his unending desire to travel unexplored frontiers, risk his talents and push his boundaries, I sometimes feel like we don’t give him the credit for his achievements or the leeway for the flaws in his works.  Arguing about certain basic facts – the fact that this is the world’s first non-linear single shot film – might be exercises in futility that self-proclaimed youtube ‘experts’ might engage in.  But having followed his career with keen interest from the 90s, I feel compelled to offer a defense of something that is a bit of an unfair judgement – that he keeps dishing out the same content despite wanting to innovate with form.

Firstly, it is imperative to acknowledge that some filmmakers have pet themes.  A theme is different from a story.  While Pudhiya Paadhai (1989) and Iravin Nizhal (2022) might have, at their core, a central character whose troubled childhood lays the foundation for all his moral depravity as an adult, the way the stories are told and the narrative arc themselves are vastly different.  In fact, the differences that age and maturity bring to a filmmaker are there to see.  

In an interview with Baradwaj Rangan, the latter asked Parthiban what he would do with the lead characters of Pudhiya Paadhai if he had a chance to revisit the film.  Pat came the reply that the film would start with the victim shooting the rapist.  If you think that that was a convenient answer given in an interview to earn brownie points for political correctness, then you haven’t seen his earlier reformed rowdyTM films and now, Iravin Nizhal.

In both Pudhiya Paadhai and Ulle Veliye, it is others that pay for the rowdy's sins.  If in his debut effort, his wife succumbs to a bomb blast where he was the target, in Ulle Veliye, it is a girl in the slum who commits suicide after lying about being a prostitute.  In Pachcha Kuthira, despite committing acts like chopping off an innocent man’s leg, the ruffian doesn’t even set foot in jail until the movie ends.  KudaikkuL Mazhai was the first film of Parthiban where crime and punishment are in close proximity to one another.  Even though the Singapore-returned character is a figment of the protagonist’s imagination, in ‘shooting’ the character – a concretization of a man ‘killing’ his evil side and absolving himself- Parthiban, the filmmaker, showed a marked departure from his earlier works.  And that evolution is complete in Iravin Nizhal. 

The lead character of Iravin Nizhal goes through unimaginable hardships as a child and as a youth.  The more depravity he witnesses, he experiences a strange dichotomy between being repelled by it and wanting to do it himself.  He succumbs to desires and temptations.  In reflecting on a harrowing episode, he notes, “Pasiyum paNam saarndha prachanaiyum than yenna ellaa vayasilayum verattikitte iruku.”  As much as we feel sympathy for the character, Parthiban also leaves us with a strong message – that sins will beget more sins.  And when one finally realizes the error of his ways, it might sometimes be too little too late.  In Iravin Nizhal, the fact that his daughter – the apple of his eye – begins to hate him is a powerful instance of karma hitting back hard and in a manner that hurts the most. 

Let’s examine the sequence of events here.  An inability to pay a loan leads to a tragedy.  The episode makes the character bitter and turns him into a loan shark.  And when a family commits suicide because of his incessant pressure, his daughter begins to hate him because it was the family of a close friend of hers.  Unable to digest the fact that the one genuine love of his life will never accept him again, he commits suicide.  The emotional logic and psychological reasoning here are exquisite.  And the message now is very different from Pudhiya Paadhai.  That one’s sins, if repeated over time, will insidiously chip away at their core until there is very little left.  In this context, the sublime "Paapam seiyyadhiru maname" is not just a dirge, it is a plea.

As I mentioned earlier, the themes of certain films might remind us of earlier works of a filmmaker.  But it is imperative that we not just see the starting point of a pathway, which might seem vaguely familiar.  Instead, we must also take the time to see the new roads that are painstakingly laid out from the same starting point.  The roads might take us on a journey that we might not have experienced previously.  Up until we willingly take the new road, we will commit the mistake of leaving important filmmakers like Parthiban in the shadow of the night instead of shedding the spotlight on them.