Sundari Kannaal from Thalapathi: The seething agony of lost love

You know that feeling when you are walking down the road and all of a sudden, you stumble upon that one soul, whom you wished you would never see again?

That person whom you once thought you would be sharing your joys, fears and secrets., forever. It’s tough to describe, right?

At first, it’s like a sharp stab to the gut, which slowly goes boring up your chest. You had gone over this potential situation a thousand times in your head, but still, the momentary shock is seething.

You almost forget to breathe.

The immediate neighbourhood evaporates into thin air, and you stand there frozen, trying to make sense of all the madcap cardiac mayhem.

You badly want to stop staring ahead, lest you come across as a lovelorn zombie, but you can’t help it.

For a moment, you feel nothing. It’s a blank limbo.

And when you recover, after what seems like a life-time, you are free-falling down this vortex of memories – sweet, painful, awkward, frustrating, in every possible permutation – wafting around you like finite objects that could be touched and felt.

You think you can leave them alone, but that’s just your brain playing futile games with your heart. You are only offered an illusion of choice.

You need to embrace them all – even the barbed painful bits– before you could even contemplate a diplomatic resolution.  And all of these, in a matter of seconds.

It’s brutal, to the point of being unimaginable. But that’s how it is.

Subhalakshmi would know.

Perhaps… not the burning intensity that youthful love imparts to the whole picture, but nevertheless, she had loved from the bottom of her heart.

It had broken her once, and despite the rehabilitation she had been through since then, the scars were still too young to be ignored.

She had not expected to bump into Surya at her doorstep that evening.

Given a choice, she might have preferred not to, but there is no way you could see through her subconscious.

The moment she sees him approaching the staircase, her face goes blank.

No expressions, whatsoever. Is she hurting? Is she happy? Is she cursing her destiny? Is she completely over him? Is she resentful? Is she guilty? Whatever that she is feeling doesn’t translate to her countenance for a while.

She just gazes ahead at the person who is standing frozen within a ten-foot distance, someone she thought she knew but, in reality, didn’t.

Seconds drag on.

And slowly, the emotional avalanche starts showing in her eyes, as Surya takes slow steps forward.

Just like it did, when she first felt his presence in a temple, in a time-frame that spuriously felt like the recent past.

She had caught him glancing at her for a split-second.

It had indeed intimidated her to start with, but something about that glance had also felt magical and warm, at no point associated with lechery.

She had seen him again a few days later, but this time, the man had forcibly acquired her gold bangle to pay for the treatment of a nine-year-old’s ailing mother.

Subhu had cursed him on the outside, but he had already incited something beautiful inside her.

She couldn’t make much sense of it, but it was there in a corner, waiting to be released – yearning to be acknowledged.

Eventually, it had happened soon enough, with the man coming to her dance class to return the bangle, and in the process confirming her apprehensions.

What was she thinking? How could this happen?

Initially, she couldn’t face her own questions. But the more she got to interact with Surya, the more he seemed darn irresistible.

The chill wind on her face brings her back to the present.

She is still staring at the man, who has started to climb the stairs now.

She seems pretty impervious, but something about his approaching proximity starts getting to her head.  And again, it’s only in her eyes that they reflect.

Look carefully, and you could almost see a glimmer of joy.

But then, you also hear howls of pain. Or is it disappointment? It’s like she isn’t sure of her own emotions.

Just like the day she had confessed her love for Surya on the banks of the temple lake, even after he had refused to change his violent ways.

She knew very well that her conservative brahmanical household could never accommodate someone like him, but her heart always found a way to silence all forms of reasoning.

But not for long… when forced to confront her worst fears – of choosing between her dad and Surya – her heart conceded.

What was it that prevented her from walking out of everything that caged her, hand-in-hand with the man she adored?

Fear? Guilt pangs? Making her paralytic at the very thought of severing all ties with someone she considered her ‘everything’?

Did she wonder whether he loved her as much as she did?

None of that mattered, before the overriding question ‘Would she be able to move on, for the sake of her father?’

Snap. The image of Surya walking up to him now makes her realize the gravity of that question, yet again.

She instinctively takes a step down, and one more, and before she can even realize, she is ambling towards him.

What is she going through? And now, for the first time, we see Surya’s face.

The man seems equally inscrutable, trying to drown a lifetime of memories in the faintest of frowns. On second thoughts, is it even a frown?

And at a point, somewhere in the middle of the stairs, they meet.

Their eyes connect for a split-second. Yet again. No words are spoken. We pray that it stays that way. After all, why speak out when so much is being communicated.

But soon, Surya staggers a bit, lowering his glance to the ground.

The discomfort is palpable.

He doesn’t ask anything about her, to start with. Did he want to, but decided not to? We will never know.

He says he has come to meet the collector. And then, he waits.

Is he expecting something?

Subhu has had enough. “How are you doing” she manages to blurt out.

Surya takes almost half a second to respond, all the while trying his best to be stoic, and when he does, the sincerity in his voice almost shakes us to the core.

He’s aching, and it shows in every inch of his countenance.

Why wouldn’t he?

For him, the agony was, probably, not about losing her. Or, about having to say goodbye.

It was learning to live without her, when he once she was the answer to all his past trauma and insecurities. It was, perhaps, making peace with destiny; and accepting the fact that he had lost his only chance at salvation. By a whisker.

Konjam Nilavu: When PC Sreeram redefined ambient lighting & field illumination forever, in Indian Cinema

It was 1993. Tamil cinema wasn’t yet familiar with the idea of ‘frisking with the lights’.

It hadn’t really visualized a truly explosive introduction for the ‘heroine’ – leave alone, one for a sultry supporting lead.

But then, we are talking Mani Ratnam here.

The situation happened to be one of routine.

A female singer, with a supposed shady side, is going through her concert. The event is happening in some sort of a magnificent fort – a visual that is meant to give our senses the equivalent of a surreal dream.

Imagine you are at the helm of affairs, and your musician unleashes something like “Konjam Nilavu” on you, one fine day, how would you visualize such an out-of-the-world composition?

That makes me curious about Mani’s thought processes when he went to PC Sreeram to detail the requirements for something that could have been easily dismissed as an ‘item number’.

Did he feel insecure about doing justice to such a powerful piece – something that involved extensive use of experimental sounds, including foreign orchestral elements and techno pop for the first time in Indian cinematic setting?

Why did he zero in on the National Art Gallery Museum for the bloody coup? We might never know.

But then it happened.

And PC probably took it upon himself to redefine ambient lighting and field illumination forever.

Conceiving and recording something so ahead of its time is one thing. You could indeed pass off an art gallery as an old fort with a handful of lights. But making it stay with us twenty five years later as one breathtaking sight is proof of PC’s genius.

As the musical frenzy begins, the main entrance gets lighted first. It’s a too-good-to-be-true moment, when the mystical humming smoothly segues into a fascinating wide shot.

It’s orgasmic, to say the least.

The subsequent chambers light up one by one in long shots. It’s a sight to behold.

Yellow. Bluish grey. White. Red… colours go on a rampage as Anu Agarwal at her sensual best, gyrates to an audience that largely found it tough to make sense of the happenings.

It was in that way, a daredevilry of sorts.

A tight-rope walk between sensual grace and voluptuous titillation that was understandably too much to handle for that time-frame.

Battling goosebumps, a generation was forced to hold on to the suspension of disbelief.

Smoke rose. Anu was skimping around in a dangerously short costume. The dancers were pulling off the most erotic of moves. But nothing could bait the gaping viewer from Sreeram’s spectacular frames.

It was nothing short of hypnosis. A revolution, taking root.

Not that the man wasn’t there in the spotlight before. But with “Chandralekha”, PC was probably for the first time, threatening to take the public glare beyond actors and filmmakers to a hitherto invisible artist, who was then seldom spoken about.

It was an assertive demand to be acknowledged. And the world sat up and took notice, after years of technical insensitivity.