‘Uthiri Pookal’ defined his genius but even otherwise his body of work represents the realistic Tamil cinema of the 80s. Sans any hyperbole or melodrama the narrative often questions the established social ethos and tends to end in a tragedy.
But even the cornered characters caught in trying circumstances retain an amazing dignity and register their protest without resorting to violent means. In this regard the approach is a tad bit different from his contemporaries KB and Bharathirajaa.
Mahendran’s movies were not major commercial hits but they have endured and inspired many new directors. They represent realistic Tamil cinema that was entertaining and reachable to the average Joe on the street. He never tried to be overtly ‘artistic’ in his movies and most of his films are entertaining as well – peppered with popular songs and humor that offsets the brooding subjects they deal with.
He has had some popular associations with Sarath Babu, Ilaiyaraja, Ashwini etc and we see their collaboration across movies. Mahendran’s movies are visual treats with minimal dialogues and understated enactments. They have stood the test of time and offer the viewer a vantage view of India in the 80s. My favourites include –
#1 Uthiri Pookal
Vijayan essays the character of a reviled sadist and his villainy propels the movie towards an unconventional climax. Sprinkled along are cute kids and some lovely songs. Dialogues may be few but are powerful and delivered again in a low tone. The movie’s extra-ordinary appeal is the director’s triumph of achieving some sympathy for Vijayan’s character in the climax, moments before he is to swept away in the river. It shows a glimpse of the genuine love he had for his kids and a word of remorse for the pain and suffering he had caused by his actions.
#2 Mullum Malarum
Touted as a story that is a tribute to the loving relationship between a brother and sister, the movie again has powerful visuals with the cinematography being helmed by Balu Mahendra. Ilaiyaraja gives us a melodious number in ‘Senthazham Poovil...’. But the story is more fascinating insight into Rajni’s character as a ‘alpha male’ who cannot accept Sarath Babu’s authority and does not mind in staking even his sister’s future rather than eat a humble pie. The happy ending – and a rare thing it is in Mahendran’s movies – is achieved rather fortuitously as Shobha acknowledges that Rajni matters more to her than Sarath Babu; so Rajni can act magnanimous and bestow a favour on his bête noire by permitting their marriage.
#3 Nenjathai Killathe
Suhasini makes her début and is the central character to the movie. We get to see the beautiful Cubbon Park in Bangalore in the early morning light.The movie has some passable comic sequences and is mostly light-hearted stuff. The resolution of the complex emotions bedevilling the heroine again leads to a happy ending. Suhasini does a great job in her first movie by skillfully depicting the confusion felt by the female lead. Sarath Babu too gets to play a meaty character role as a mature brother who really cares for his sister’s well-being.
#4 Poothathu Pootukkal
The movie is not well-known and struggled to find a commercial release. It has mostly new actors and a rather unusual storyline. But the story moved at a snail’s pace and surely would have tested the patience of most avid viewers. Uncharacteristically the situation is not redeemed by use of songs or comic tracks as well. Possibly Mahendran wanted to give a very sober treatment to the subject at hand. The climax too was rather ‘modern’ for the audience.
Lovely songs and a great cast. Early on in the story you have a foreboding that we are dealing with doomed lives. And so it unveils – intermittently the story takes a positive turn but the momentum is not sustained for long. By the time we approach the climax the director’s penchant for realism is in full flow and there is no redemption to be found for anyone. All the same it is not as grim as it sounds – you have some great songs and a good comedy track to keep you engaged.
PS – Sasanam, initiated in the late 90s, starring Arvind Swamy and Gouthami had a much delayed release in 2006. It was an interesting take on relationships but the times are different now and I missed the old magic when I saw it.