Undoubtedly it is a cult classic movie now. It has so many things going for it – Sivaji Ganesan’s playing his role faultlessly in an understated manner that was in sheer contrast to his trademark histrionics, Radha transforming herself as an actress with a substantive role instead of playing her usual glamorous roles and finally the shrewish wife played by Vadivukkarasi who riles up the viewers to no end.
Add to it the magic of lyrics by Vairamuthu and music by Isaignani Ilaiyaraja and surely Bharathirajaa had a winner on his hands.
For a long time I was not convinced with the climax and felt that were many chinks in Malaichami’s character played by Sivaji. Malaichami is a middle-aged respected Headman in a small village who is unhappily married to a shrewish wife. The marriage was a sordid compromise as he was a penniless youth who relented to accede to his uncle’s request to marry his daughter Ponnatha (Vadivukkarasi) in order to protect the family’s honour.
The sad union resulted in no joy as it seemed to be have been foredoomed to failure. Appearances had to be kept up though and Malaichami would never ever renege on the deal in his lifetime. Life even acquires a staid rhythm under these circumstances until Kuyil (Radha) makes an appearance in his life.
Kuyil and her father are vagrants who land up seeking a livelihood. Interestingly Kuyil takes up the job of a ‘boat woman’ who helps the villagers cross the river. She regards Malaichami with some humour and they have certain spirited exchanges. Things really change when she learns about Malaichami’s past and she starts to respect him. She then starts to admire him when she observes his conduct and character. And eventually she falls in love with him and Sivaji finally accepts it, after denying it initially. Nonetheless it is all at a platonic level and there is never even a hint of a sexual liaison.
Things approach a startling climax when Kuyil sacrifices her future in order to help Malaichami to defend his family honour yet again. Malaichami’s character is realistic and not without blemishes – he is a traditional villager, he has great regard for his family’s station in life and he is no flouter of the conventional mores of a patriarchal society. He regards the individual to be a pawn in the face of the collective – indeed that alone can explain why he venerates his lifelong sacrifice and never contemplates an alternate life wherein his desires and pleasures would take precedence. It is precisely this element of his character that took me such a while to figure out.
And yet the movie is no sob-story, it has nice songs and cinematography. Certain comic sequences are built-in well and there is authentic characterization of a rustic scene. Ponnatha’s shrewish nature too is cleverly exploited to promote comic episodes. Sivaji and Radha have some great scenes together and their interactions holds great promise as the viewer’s appetite is vetted to know what’s coming next. In particular the episode where Malaichami tries to life a huge boulder to prove his youth and virility to Kuyil is amusing and life-like. Kuyil has spiced up the challenge by promising to marry him if he were to successfully accomplish the feat.
It was a difficult subject and would have been reduced to a pedestrian movie but for Bharathirajaa’s deft direction and control over screenplay. It was surely a masterstroke to get an iconic star like Sivaji to underplay himself and portray a romance in his autumn years that was not besmirched in any manner whatsoever by a suggestion of any sexual innuendoes. So Bharathirajaa succeeded once again with a rustic subject wherein he vividly brought to life the compulsions and predilections of a middle-aged hero who could never shirk off his roots and culture, not even for true love that he encountered only once in his lifetime. So the ‘Mudhal Mariyadhai’ (First Respect) is to his credo and even love plays a second fiddle to that.