Balu Mahendra’s Tamil classic, ‘Azhiyadha Kolangal’ (Unforgettable memories)

It is the directorial début movie in Tamil for Balu Mahendra and was released in 1979. The ace cinematographer delivers a rare gem that was not widely known but has gained the status of a ‘cult classic’ now.

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Shobha (Indumathi Teacher) and Pratap Pothan in Azhiyatha Kolangal  Image Courtesy -You Tube

A bildungsroman tale set in the boondocks of rural India, the content and context is adapted well to its locale. In terms of transition, it can remind you of other popular tales like Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’, Bennett’s ‘Clayhanger’ and Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’.

The movie begins on a cryptic note – we meet Kamal Haasan as the grown up Gowri Shankar who has the mark of being a successful businessman. He receives a letter from childhood friend Pattabi and asks his secretary to ensure he is not disturbed. The news turns out to be disturbing though – he learns about the death of Indu teacher and we traipse down the memory lane for the rest of the movie.

It marks the rites of passage of 3 youngsters who were in the midst of childhood when an unfortunate accident marks their transition to adulthood. The haunting melody that marks the opening scenes of a placid sunrise echo in true meaning only at the end of the 100 minute movie.

It is the tale of 3 thick friends – Gowri, Pattabi and Raghu – who are enjoying their childhood and while away the day in pursuit of inane and ordinary indulgences.  True to type we have Raghu play the role of a chubby and mischievous kid who is still a coward at heart – we see him run away from perceived trouble often enough.

Their experiences are a mix of innocent fun and an attempt to grow up and be the ‘man-of-the-world’ as they visualize it. So we come across some typical scenes – puffing away the first cigarettes but running away at the sight of approach of adults, wanting to be friendly with girls but being gawky and tongue-tied when the moment comes, provoking fights amongst themselves by teasing one another about routine incidents. Their favourite activity is to swim in the river that  is shown to be a placid stream.

The arrival of Shobha who plays the role of a teacher (Indumathi) marks a moment of change in the village. Shobha is indeed a refreshing change as a character – she is friendly, affectionate and not conscious of her sexuality. Her easy ways attract the attention of the trio and in particular Gowri. They eventually befriend her and in particular Gowri is enamored of the ‘child-woman’ who was to be Mahendra’s famous muse and inspired ‘Moondram Pirai’. Raghu and Pattabi tease Gowri to no end for being infatuated by her.

There is seems to be an aimless drift in the story – we are shown the growing friendship between Pattabi and his visiting cousin Margadam though instinctively it seems not much would emerge from it as well.

Prathap Pothan’s arrival on the scene as Shobha’s fiancé complicates matter further – there is a telling scene when Gowri is clean bowled by him while the boys are playing Cricket and subsequently the most serious fight breaks out between Gowri and Pattabi on account of him. Characteristically Raghu plays the role of a peace-maker.

And suddenly Raghu drowns in a routine swim in the river and their lives are changed forever. The movie ends with Kamal acknowledging that life changed markedly after the sad incident and it marked the loss of their innocent childhood. The movie ends with the echo of Salil Chowdhury’s opening track – Nenjil Itta Kolam Yellam Azhivathillai, Endrum Atha Kalaivathillai, Enanggalleum Maraivathillai (The patterns painted on my heart are immutable, they are never destroyed, their emotional essence is never neglected in the memory vaults by the passage of time).

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