Between Reviews: Love Letter to a Love Story


APR 6, 2008 – ONE REASON THEY’RE CALLED “MOTION PICTURES” could be that they’re never at rest inside your head. They infiltrate, then gestate, then mutate _ sometimes combining with memories from other movies and morphing into a different genetic creation altogether, and sometimes overlapping with your own wishful thinking to become an amalgamation of the film you saw, the film you thought you saw, and the film you wanted to see. The latter _ the film I wanted to see _ came up recently when a recent acquaintance, a film-school student, and I were jamming about the movies in general, and about Balu Mahendra’s Moondram Pirai in particular.

We both agreed it was one of our favourite films, and I said what was most fascinating for me was the unresolved sexual tension between Kamal Hassan and Sridevi (well, between the characters they play, actually, but then you knew that). Seen from one viewpoint, there’s nothing stopping them from nudging the emotional aspect of their relationship towards a more physical plane (in fact, he firsts meets her in a brothel, where he picks her from a lineup, and surely not because he wants to coo Kanne kalaimaane into her ear) _ but on the other hand, acting on this impulse would border on paedophilia, because she has regressed into childhood. After hearing me out patiently, this film-school acquaintance _ RS Prasanna, who’s recently completed a documentary on Balu Mahendra (more about that later) _ had just this to offer: “But none of this is explored in any way in the film.”

And I countered that it was there, if you looked for it. It’s buried in the landscape of the film’s narrative _ and if you marked an X and started digging at the point where Kamal discovers that a local has tried to rape Sridevi, if you stopped to think about the fury that this discovery engenders in him, you’d see it right there. Couldn’t Kamal’s rage be as much the result of the would-be rapist’s actions as the fact that this man has dared to look at Sridevi as a woman _ an impulse that Kamal is no doubt suppressing every minute of his life with her at home.

Every time he tries to think of her in grown-up terms, she’s made him revise that notion. He gets her a sari to wear, and he imagines her in front of him, the very vision of womanhood _ even motherhood, if you want to mine these frames for further subtext, for in this dream, she cradles him in her arms, nestles his head near her bosom and feeds him a glass a milk _ but when she finally comes out of the room she’s gone in to change, she’s back to being a child, the sari bunched around her in hideous, hilarious tufts. So after this rebuff, couldn’t you view Kamal’s anger towards the man who tried to rape Sridevi as the explosion of these festering frustrations? “Here I am, controlling my every hormonal impulse, letting the lover inside me be quashed by the father and the brother and the tender caregiver inside me _ and you think you can just barge in and have her body?”

This contention, of course, led to a lot of heated debate _ the kind where no resolution is possible because both parties are right; we are, after all, talking about subjective and hypothetical interpretation _ and the good that came out of this is the advance copy of the Balu Mahendra documentary that Prasanna dropped off subsequently, for my viewing. (Note to self: The next time you’re railing at the heavens at your choice of profession, at having to sit through One Two Three and Race and Rama Rama Kya Hai Dramaaa, remember these rare moments of grace.)

Titled Balu Mahendra _ Art & Craft: A Master Class Session, the film has the director talking about various aspects of his craft and career, and revealing unexpected shades of his personality. I never got this from his films, but the man comes off as something of an unabashed romantic. His first viewing of Pather Panchali was at a film society he formed in his college, and when the screening got over, he recalls that it was raining outside. “I went out and got drenched and danced and laughed,” like Durga and Apu in the film. “That was our way of celebrating Pather Panchali.” And later, a different kind of confession, that one of his hobbies is “butterfly watching, if you know what I mean.”

In between, filmmaker K Hariharan lauds Balu Mahendra as “an emotional Hitchcock,” and Kamal Hassan remembers fondly that, at first, he thought, “Either this guy is a genius or he’s mad.” A pause. “He was both.” Proof comes through clips from Balu Mahendra’s work, mostly from Kokila, Moondram Pirai, Sandhya Ragam and Veedu _ and thankfully, none from Neengal Kettavai, that steaming pile of contempt he hurled at his audience _ and once again, I was struck by a scene from Moondram Pirai, the one where the dinner that Kamal is preparing gets burnt and he vents his bile on poor Sridevi.

I haven’t seen the film in a long while and I’d forgotten what an accumulation of Kamal-isms this stretch is. He needs to go out and buy food now, so he hurriedly pulls on a pant and a shirt. He opens a drawer in this haste (to locate his wallet) and its contents crash to the floor _ among them a bottle of ink, now reduced to a spreading stain of red. Kamal _ the peerless manipulator of props that he is _ skirts around the mess and tries to push the drawer back into its recess. No amount of fidgeting helps, so he drops it in irritation. He continues tucking his shirt into his pants, and locates the wallet in another shirt hanging on the wall. He grabs it and tries to stuff it into the front pocket of his pants, and he tries again, and then discovers that these pants have no pockets, so he places the wallet inside his shirt and strides out. People often point to Kamal being inspired by Marlon Brando, but Marcel Marceau is a more likely progenitor in this case. It’s a masterly physical performance by an actor at the peak of his powers, in a film by a director at the peak of his powers _ and it’s just one of the reasons Moondram Pirai will never meet the fate that befell its protagonist. This is one film that will never end up sad, alone, forgotten.

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