From the man who gave us the classic ‘Thevar Magan’ starring Kamal Haasan and Sivaji Ganesan, we have yet another gem featuring Sridevi and Arvind Swamy. The movie was originally made in Malayalam and then dubbed in Tamil.
The movie tanked on the box office and possibly it is still what one would call, ‘ahead of our times’. I have not heard of it emerge as a cult classic yet but then future is not ours to foresee. It is difficult to be a popular choice since it takes on orthodoxy and prevalent social norms head on. It is a bigger debate between the individual v/s the collective. And the climax sure pulls no punches.
Love as the forbidden fruit is not new in films right – particularly there does not seem to be much at clash when Lakshmi (Sridevi) falls for a young priest-in-making, Vishnu (Arvind Swamy). Of course the scene is rural countryside and definitely the Elders would be opposed to any such match. The brahminical world can be quite insular at times.And yet it unfolds quite playfully – Lakshmi’s charms her beau with a bagful of tricks. Lovely songs, comic interludes and acquiescing lovers, the first half seems to be meant for light entertainment.
Lot of things grab your attention in the movie – lovely cinematography (shades of Rajiv Menon at times), amazing background music that stays with you and some lovely songs. We do have stock situations that are played out as per standard cinema tradition – the bathing scene by the river, the couple falling into the river and the mythical dream song. So things are surely a treat and there don’t seem to be much in terms of tears. In fact it ends in a famous romp in the hay as the lovers cross all physical barriers to unite – it is done as a culmination of a mystical marriage ceremony wherein they acknowledge their commitment to each other.
Sridevi can be even considered not to be the apt choice to play the heroine, if all that is at stake is teenage romance that should lead to elopement, marriage and reconciliation. But it was never meant to be and the first half is quite a deceiver and things really happen later. And then one understands why we need Sridevi to essay the lead role – in the final count even Arvind Swamy plays second fiddle to her power-packed performance.
Lakshmi’s father (Nedumudi Venu) convinces Arvind Swamy to give up Lakshmi – a sheer irony that he acts as the priest who conducts Lakshmi’s marriage to her cousin, Parthasarathy. Unable to bear his grief he walks off onto a long pilgrimage. Meanwhile the marriage turns out to be a tumultuous episode as Parthasarathy is a freakish character and impotent to boot. Nonetheless as a compromise, he wants Lakshmi to have her child and retain the veneer of normalcy in the eyes of the world.
Vishnu then lands up in Chennai and stays with a modern priest who has a flourishing ‘business’. We have a few light moments again as potshots are taken on the crass commercialization of priestly functions. Vishnu ends up performing the ‘Ayushhomam’ function (the first birthday) of Lakshmi’s child. The past memories flood him again and he seeks escapes by returning to his father. His father had not quite grasped the events that lead his son to disappear. Vishnu now makes a clean breast of it and is brutally renounced by his father.
As a punishment he becomes a ‘Shaundi’ priest – a priest who participates in death related rituals and accepts offerings on behalf of the ‘dead’. Such priests stay off-limits from the society, often at cremation grounds. In fact the opening scenes show Vishnu being called to attend the death related rituals. He is grimy and all messed up – lying on a bench in a silent forest near a bat infested refuge.
The climax is dramatic – Lakshmi is undergoing the rituals associated with widowhood. It would make the most tough hearted wince to watch her being disrobed of her marital status and identity. Such realism is not meant for the faint hearted and could possibly account for the movie not being a popular watch. The real dénouement comes when she watches her son perform death rituals for his ‘father’ by offering food to the ‘Shaundi’. Unable to bear her grief and compromises any longer, she openly narrates her tale of woe. She is again blamed for bringing infamy to the family.
And finally Vishnu finds the courage to act and redeem his honour. He takes charge of his family and walks away with them, much to the astonishment of the stunned onlookers. Indeed the climax and many other sequences have coincidences that are not quite real – but surely one can excuse such a device given the message the director wants to convey to the society at large. Someday the movie would find wider acceptance and appreciation than it did on its release.