Friday, 9 May 2014

நிழல் நிஜமாகிறது

I’ve never been a big fan of the Tamil language. I hated learning it school. I still remember the howls of laughter – and a குட்டு on my head from appa – when I wrote “என்று குறளகம் சொல்கிறது” when talking about something in the Thirukkural. Sometimes I think Telugu is a sweeter language.
Maybe it’s a part of being from Madras. Madras Tamil is not really the most mellifluous of languages. But once in a while, I listen to something and I get what the poets talk about.
A couple of weeks back, I was travelling from Bangalore to Madras. We crossed Kanchipuram at around 10 pm and got hold of an FM station playing old hit songs. One of them was this.
Ignore the subtitles. The sound is crappy, but fuck, the song still works. The song - and the movie is completely set-bound, it manages to invoke 1970s West Mambalam tambram vibe pretty damn well. I know. I used to spend my weekends with my cousins in Umapathy street. They were all in their twenties, and the street was full of guys like them, with names like Murali, Gopal, Muthu, Nagu, Nachchu, Pacha... so many of them. They would come back from work and change into lungis, checked or tie-dyed green and blue against black, and hang out,  playing shuttle and carrom and chess and flying kites in the evenings, gathering to watch TV calling out the names of playback singers and music directors, talking about girls  or  sleeping on well worn mats on mottai maadis on those warm summer nights.
And the furniture. Those cane "easy-chairs". The "show-cases". Those lamps. Those glass/peengan flower vases with bright and ugly plastic flowers.The wash basins in the "hall". The calendar from Kodambakkam timber mart. The houses rented out room by room to multiple tenants.  நாடா ஜெட்டிs vs  elastic. The Shaw Wallace calendar.
கம்பன் ஏமாந்தான் was one of the first songs I recorded - on one of those C-60 TDK tapes that were so prized three decades ago. Must have been around 10 at the time. My chitappa mocked me gently, for my choice. The movie was, after all, about a master who bangs his servant and gets her pregnant, while his ice queen sister defrosts to the charms of an jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold Kamalahasan. I didn't really understand the lyrics - or maybe I didn't examine them too deeply. I didn't know much about women or love (not that I'm any better now)- nor was I very interested, but I liked the sounds of the words.
Balachander isn't Welles or Hitchcock. He isn't Resnais or Antonioni. He seems to be more about "social" than "style". In நிழல், he overdoes the Sumitra "imprisoned" motif with low angle shots through balcony railings, window grills and banisters. Thilakam's queen cuts are funny, but they don't need the queen costume, Shobha could have carried the conceit off even with her hand-me-down sarees. When I saw Arangetram -I cringed at the whole "Trap" play name. But Balachander was never about style. He was "social" and he was courageous. There is something that he did really well, in all those movies - he ripped up the tambram lifestyle and showed the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness that often lay beneath. Even now, I have cousins who detest him because he is so "anti-brahmin".
Its easy to take that away. Tilakam is the most sympathetic character in the film. Kasi is the nicest.  but their happy ending doesn't change anything. And it's debatable whether losing Thilakam is any kind of punishment for Chalam's choothishness. Indu saying she hates men after one failed பொண்ணு பார்த்தல் makes her way too sensitive (Maybe that was intentional, but it seems off).  All it would have taken is just a few throwaway lines of dialogue to change one rejection to two or three. Or maybe Chalam is an unreliable narrator, and Indhu is really a stroing  minded woman determined to get ahead in the world without a husband. But for that, it really doesnt seem that bharatha natyam tuitions would be enough to handle such a big house without being supplemented by her brother's salary.
And Kamal is meant to be likeable because he doesn't fit the hypocritical brahm stereotype. 
And fuck, he was good - and he made smoking look so cool - especially in கம்பன் - which is filmed so much better than his sections in this - equally awesome - song.
I watched நிழல் a few days back. It holds up, and has a certain quiet charm. Maybe that's because I remember the time it came out. There used to be a huge poster of a shirtless Kamal in bell-bottomed pants (why do I remember them as being pink?) striking a Bharatha Natyam pose on Mount Road.This pose:

And its also because Sarath Babu's Chalam and Kamal's Sanjeevi are recognizable - but I'm not sure they exist any longer in the internet era,  they're probably at retirement age now, with children and grandchildren
I do find it odd that a woman brother's name is Venkatachalam would plaster her forehead with விபூதி, though.  

In some ways, the movie is unsettling, in terms of how much gender roles have changed in the 36 years since its release.  But that would be the subject of another movie, wouldn't it?