Sunday, February 26, 2023

25 years of Swarnamukhi

Good actors are chameleons.  They can slip into any role effortlessly, internalizing the spirit of the character and projecting a three-dimensional personality that leaps out of a two-dimensional screen.  There are some actors with whom – for better or for worse- the viewing public associates a certain persona.  There is a certain comfort associated with that persona.  A certain expectation when the audience buys a ticket at the turnstiles.  What the lesser directors do is take the easy way out and depend almost entirely on the persona of the actor.  The wiser of the creators realize that the persona is just a solid foundation on which they can mount their films.  Radhakrishnan Parthiban is one such actor with a persona.  The glib, witty, fast-talking character is something that he has made his own.  Of course, there are several films (either of his own creation or others’) where he broke out of the mold – Housefull and Azhagi instantly come to mind.  But his collaboration with the supremely talented KS Adhiyaman led to one of his greatest performances.  The film is the memorable Swarnamukhi, which was released 25 Februarys ago.

In the title credits of the film, the director thanks Parthiban for his extensive inputs into the story and dialogues into the film.  Even without this thoughtful acknowledgement, one can sense that Parthiban made the character of Pandian completely his own.  The usual plethora of witty repartees is on full display.  His interactions with Prakash Raj are especially priceless.  The latter, a scene stealer himself, is totally overshadowed by Parthiban in this film.  The characterization and the performance take equal credit for the one-man show of Parthiban.  Right from his Pondaati Thevai days, he has played characters whose feelings of love are rarely, if ever, superficial.  While his exchanges with Devyani in the flashback are fun, starting with the act of violence that sends him to jail, one realizes that this is not yet another love story.

The characterization of Pandian is truly unique.  The man – unreasonably, one hastens to add – believes that despite three years of not knowing his whereabouts that the love of his life would still be waiting for him.  Since he had been in jail with the singular thought of reuniting with her, he blindly trusts that she too would have been waiting for him.  That a man could have entered her life is a thought that just doesn’t register with him.  This premise leads to a sparkling set of scenes in the second half.  In addition to the sharp dialogues, the screenplay too flows beautifully once Pandian reenters Swarna's life.  Every scene is a result of a character feeling a certain way and moving the story forward.  For instance, when Devyani hesitatingly conveys to Parthiban that Prakash Raj may have fallen for her, he does not even bother to ask her if she feels the same way!  Instead, he goes to mercilessly taunt Prakash Raj – the scene with the auto driver is a riot!  And when Devyani expresses anguish about being stuck between two men, her mother goes to Parthiban’s house to explain the harsh reality to him.  That sequence is what makes this film utterly unforgettable.  

The epoch of Swarnamukhi is the eight-minute stretch that spans two scenes starting with the one in Parthiban’s room.  Right from the moment that Fathima Babu breaks the news that her daughter may have fallen for another man, Parthiban’s reactions from surprise to anger to shock to anguish are spellbinding.  Watch him smear his face with the ‘kari’ (to convey the 'moonjila kariya poositaa' feeling) and look around the room where he has written her name all over.  The helplessness writ largely on his face is haunting.  His powerful eyes are as arresting as they have ever been on screen.  The second is the scene right after this where he confronts Devyani.  Starting from the piercing stare and the way he beats himself with the slippers, Parthiban’s body language and dialogue delivery are stupendous.  Several of the lines are not only sharp but also intensely observant.  Note the way he says, “Enaku irukardhu chinna manasu thaan, aana andha manasu muzhuka nee thaan iruke.”  The manner in which his voice trembles by the end of the line is stirring to watch.

A gamut of expressions

Click on 'Play' to go to the beginning of the stretch that I have written about:

Synergistic actor-director collaborations are rare in Tamil cinema.  When they happen, it is an unforgettable experience for viewers because even without knowing exactly who contributed what to a particular scene, we can sense that something special has unfolded.  We can dissect such movies to our heart’s content, calling attention to specific elements such as the writing, acting and other departments of filmmaking.  But while we are watching the film, everything coheres so seamlessly, so magically, immersing us in a swell of hard-hitting emotions.  The impact of the creation subsequently is undeniably enduring.  During the aforementioned confrontation scene, Parthiban proclaims, “Moonu varusham illa, muppathu varusham aanalum enakaage nee kaathitrukanum.  Adhaan kaadhal.”  Along similar lines, be it 2 years or 25 years, the impact of emotionally wrenching films does not wane.  And that’s what we call a classic. 

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Single Take #2 - “If Thatha retires, what do we do?”

1990 was a memorable year for my mother’s side of the family.  This was the year that my Aunt (my Mom’s only sibling, who passed on in 2016) got married.  It was a festive few months between her engagement (June) and wedding (September).  My grandparents’ house would be filled with wedding-related items.  Friends and relatives who were part of the wedding planning efforts would flit in and out of the house.  The stove in the kitchen was perpetually turned on.  One sinister – and utterly irresponsible, I shall add – thought that I had was that I could totally flop in my quarterly exams and could conveniently shift the blame onto my family for not helping out enough with my preparations. (What actually happened was…why don’t you take a guess?) But in between the engagement and wedding, something significant happened.  My grandpa retired from his job in July.

You might wonder what was so significant about someone retiring from his job.  It was actually quite straightforward.  Thatha had worked for The Reserve Bank of India from 1954 until 1990.  He had turned 58 in July, refused the offer of an extension and happily retired without a crease in his forehead.  All the creases were appearing on the broad forehead of his pudgy 9-year old grandson, yours truly.  At his retirement dinner, I was the only one who appeared unhappy.  When my family checked on me, I responded, in all seriousness, “If Thatha retires, what do we do?  Will we become poor?  Retirement means we will not have any money, no?  Why are we eating at this restaurant now?”  Everyone at the table burst into simultaneous laughter.  I was reassured by my Thatha that life will not be a struggle.  That everything from the dinner to my Aunt’s wedding will be paid for!  I was also gently reminded that my parents were working professionals as well.  That the family’s fate did not depend on just Thatha, his job or his pension payments!


One of my fondest memories of that dinner is the son-in-law of my grandpa’s friend narrating the delightful “kozhu kozhu kanne” story to me.  I don’t remember if it was to cheer me up.  But by the end of the dinner, I was taking great pleasure in being able to recite all the lines in the story to anyone who cared to listen.


Those last three words.  That’s really it.  “Cared to listen.”  That is really why this dinner stands out in my memory as fresh as this morning’s filter coffee.  I was never given the feeling that me, my words or my worries – as amusing as they seem now – did not matter to my family.  My Thatha knew that it was my fondness for him that made me tie our entire future to his employment.  Even when the table erupted with laughter, I never got the vibe that my feelings were trivialized or ignored.  Their laughter was just a spontaneous adult reaction to a kid’s innocent inquiry.  That an Uncle chose to regale me with a story despite having no need to give me the time of day at a dinner party, warms my heart when I think about it.  These might all seem like minutiae.  But just like how scientists in a lab discover wonders through a microscope, we can all do the same through the magnifying lens of introspection.  Seemingly little moments will seem wondrous.  32 years from the dinner, several of my near and dear are gone – my grandparents, their best friends, even my Aunt.  I don’t remember what I ate on that day.  But their kindness and thoughtfulness certainly gives me plenty of food for thought on how I can pay that goodness forward.