Revisiting Mani Ratnam’s ‘Alaipayuthey’ (ebbs and flows of the waves)

Mouna Raagam (1986), Alaipayuthey (2000) and O Kadhal Kanmani (2015) – his magical touch with sensitive portrayals of evolving romance and relationships in Tamil Cinema is quite mesmerizing. In fact all his movies showcase romance and strong female characters but these three movies in particular were ‘simple love stories’ where a boy meets a girl and much transpires.

‘Pachai Nerame…’ P C Sreeram’s onscreen magic Image Courtesy –

‘Alaipayuthey Yen Manasu Alaipayuthey …’ , the classic gem we all heard in Carnatic  music kutcheris, follows the ebbs and flows of relationship shared by Shalini and Madhavan.

It has a lot of classic touches of a Mani Ratnam romantic movie – no villains, a breezy romance followed by conflict and angst, minimalistic dialogues that sound like everyday conversations from our lives, moving images and silences that convey a lot and finally a ‘happy ending’ that pleases most people though critics view it as a surrender to ‘candy floss’ romance at the box office.

So Madhavan meets Shalini at a village wedding ( a peppy number – Yaaro Yaarodi Onnadu Purusan …) and sparks fly. He follows it up with a chase in the local trains (Mani’s love for trains is reflected in all his movies) and delivers a popular love proposal. (Shakti naan unna virumbala un maela aasai padla, nee azhagaa irukkannu nenakkala, aana, adhudhaan nadandhudumonnu bayama irukku!’).

Egged on by a supportive elder sister essayed by Swarnamalya, Shalini finally accepts Madhavan. A whirlwind romance is followed up by the meeting of Elders but due to a clash of egos the marriage proposal goes for a toss. Initially they decide to go their separate ways but true love wins and a secret ‘registered marriage’ is the result. This emerges dramatically during Swarnamalya’s engagement . It results in the engagement being called off and as a repercussion the young couple is disowned by both families and thrown to their own devices.

Madhavan’s friends help him set up a home in an ‘under construction’ terrace flat. Life is still a breeze and the young couple’s chemistry is shown in the romantic number, ‘Kadhal Sadugudu …’. Madhavan is busy trying to establish his startup software company (Eventually a USD 2 Million assignment just lands in their lap) and Shalini focusses on completing her internship to become a Doctor. The post marriage romance soon meets reality and conflicts appear in a variety of ways.

Mani Ratnam skillfully builds on everyday incidents and a dramatic one (Shalini’s father passes away without getting to see his favourite daughter who wanted Madhavan to accompany her on the visit) to show increasing discord and estrangement between the two. And one evening, Madhavan goes to the railway station to pick up Shalini and she fails to turn up. After waiting for a while, Madhavan is distraught and desperately searches for her everywhere.

What worked for me –

Strong Cast 

Typical of Mani Ratnam movies we have a bevy of strong characters – Shakti (Shalini), Karthik (Madhavan), Jayasudha (Shalini’s mother) and Pyramid Natarajan (Karthik’s father). Shalini as ‘Shakti’ typifies the strong female lead character in the movie. She is vivacious and pokes fun at Madhavan (Karthik) in the intro song, ‘Yaaro Yaarodi Onnadu Purusan …’. She aspires for a better life as a Doctor and is very self-willed (adangapidari as per her mother). It’s quite a sad loss that the movie was more or less her swansong as she got married and called time on her career.

Shakti’s upward mobility is still quite principled – neither she gets fazed by Karthik being from a relatively rich and powerful family nor does she expect any support from them once  the families have had a bitter fight. She is keen on protecting her future – she takes the initiative to have a registered marriage with Karthik, as she feels threatened by her aunt manipulating her into marrying her feckless cousin essayed by Vivek.

Her humour-filled conflicts with Karthik in the early phase of marriage is also an expression of her personality. She doesn’t mind conflict though it makes her feel vulnerable, confused and impetuous. Her mother recognizes this streak of rebellion in her and often tries to curb it by holding up her elder sister as an example – the dutiful and patient Swarnamalya, who will never assert herself and go against the wishes of her Elders. Shakti is forced to make a transition from being a fun-filled youngster to a newly married wife to a rather estranged and neglected wife in a span of months.

Classic Mix of Twists n Surprises

The story has a non-linear narrative and right from start we know that something serious is afoot when Shakti fails to turn up as Madhavan waits for her at the railway station. Given their estranged relationship, Madhavan even fears that she may have walked out on him. So even as we watch the romance unfold as a backstory, the suspense is kept alive.

Mani Ratnam can execute brutal twists – the ‘accident’ happens in a sudden moment and jolts you up. It is hard-hitting and Madhavan’s growing desperation finds expression in a brawl with the Cop and him refusing to look at women rescued from the streets. True to fashion from ‘Mouna Raagam’ days, he gives the audience many moments to wring their hands such as Shakti delays meeting her ailing father by a day and is shocked to learn that he is dead, Shakti misses to see her sister’s face when she happens to catch a glimpse of Karthik hugging someone and suspects the worst, Madhavan almost finds Shakti but is told that Arvind Swami is the husband of the lady with the accident.

Creative Collaborators

A R Rahman’s music score and P C Sreeram’s cinematography making for some lovely songs and BGM. ‘Pachai Niraame’ became a trend-setter in Tamil cinema where the words  (Vairamuthu), the music and the visuals go so well hand-in-hand. All other songs were equally popular and set well in the movie. Alaipayuthey, Kadhal Sadugudu and Snehithane were my other favourites. The couple of songs that jarred for me as a take of modern music were September Madham and Endrendrum Punnagai.

What didn’t work for me

Confused Characterization

There were some misses in the screenplay that jarred. Vivek’s role as Shakti’s cousin was an utter flop – he just became a pitiful caricature as someone unsuitable for Shakti. Swarnamalya is supportive of her kid sister but fails to show up when it matters – Shakti is thrown out of the house and she doesn’t even protest. She even fails to keep in touch when their father is critically ill.

A grieving Shakti berates her mother for not knocking sense into her, for not forcibly stopping her from leaving the house, for even giving her an upbringing where she could express her will. May be grief makes us vulnerable and disoriented, but the rant seemed out-of-place as was her mother’s brief reaction in simply asking her to leave.

Karthik’s family disapprove of his marriage and simply vanish. While we don’t support the usual melodrama, their absence even in the closing scenes is quite a surprise in our world of cinema.

‘Blink n Miss’ cameo by Arvind Swami and Khushboo

Their role brings an important twist in the tale and we are shown what is  conventionally adequate for the situation. But we expect more from a Mani Ratnam movie – even a 10 minute back story on them would have added so much more heft and fun to the film.

Contrived Climax

One knows that usually Mani Ratnam’s movies have ‘all-is-well-that-ends-well’ wraps. Madhavan’s success in patching up things between Swarnamalya and her fiance by effecting a single meeting and a follow up marriage proposal is quite unreal and unexpected. Still one does doff one’s hat to the commercial needs in cinema.

But what truly came as a bolt from the Blue was the ‘accident’ situation and the moral lecture that followed it. It was a machination to bring curtains on the story – we could have found a similar ending without having to endure such dramatics. ‘Shakti’ was anyways on her way to eagerly reconcile with ‘Karthik’ so why insert a brutal accident in the script?

The Summing Up

The movie was a rage hit with the youngsters when it released. It has aged rather well though the millennials may find it rather conservative. Still worth a repeat watch to relive some swell songs and the rituals of classic courtship.


2 Replies to “Revisiting Mani Ratnam’s ‘Alaipayuthey’ (ebbs and flows of the waves)”

    1. Yes it was an official remake of the movie and the Mani Ratnam – A R Rahman magic worked across the Vindhyas so to say.
      Shaad Ali, who was AD with Mani Ratnam for Dil Se, was the director. He is now about to release Ok Jaanu – an official remake of Mani Ratnam’s ‘O Kadhal Kanmani’. So let us hope it does well too.

      Liked by 1 person

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