The Punnagai Mannan Theme: A Fitting Demonstration of the Riveting Dance of Life!

An attempt at making sense of the Raja-KB duo’s evergreen masterpiece, the ‘Punnagai Mannan’ theme…

-Mani Prabhu

The piece works best when it’s read with the track playing in the background.

Sethu, the lone survivor of a dreadful suicide-attempt, almost dies a second time when he is absolved of all his murder-charges and denied a death sentence.

Wait… What?

This piece of information, as a string of words, might do no justice to the gravity of the situation we are talking about, but try putting yourselves in the shoes of the man, whose world had collapsed in a freaking moment like a deck of cards, and slowly, the unsympathetic play of destiny dawns on you.

A couple of weeks back, he was found, battered and almost-dead, unwillingly hanging on to his unlikely savior – a destined branch. Now, his entire life hung in the air.

Why should death evade you, when it embraces the one you thought you couldn’t live without?

The more you think of it, the more it makes life seem unapologetically muddled.

The clock answers? That really must be some bull, an unrealistic optimist made up out of thin air. Doubt it? Ask Sethu.

A year in prison doesn’t change much. The nightmares continue, even after the release.

Most of his days stretch out, struggling to cope with the unsparing truth that the person who meant the world to him was no more, and on top of it, with the indelible social stigma of abetting an insanely imprudent decision.

To waddle through life, grieving a dear one, is one thing. But, waking up every morning alone in bed, only to be reminded that a moment of reckless impulse had made all the difference, is a whole new ball game.  The latter ends up killing you… again and again. And before you know, you are a zombie! 

Fortunately for Sethu, after a period of a near-aimless actuality, he stumbles upon a new lease of life in art.

How? It’s tough to explain.

May be, as you start gaining years and perspective, you tend to come to terms with this. What lasts, lasts; and what doesn’t, doesn’t. Time solves a few things, but when it doesn’t, you have to work with it.

And that, Sethu does, probably, the only way he knows.

He finds purpose again in his long-lost passion, teaching dance. And slowly, everything starts to feel a tad less suffocating. Is this what they call ‘healing’?

Or, is it just the mind, in an attempt at protecting its sanity, covering the wounds with stripes of scar tissue, making them temporarily numb?

Whatever it is… into this apparently single-minded existence of his, enters a woman.

The name is Malini. Bold. Beautiful. And quite an irresistible personality.

Why? He couldn’t fathom. For he wasn’t done fighting his inner demons yet. The excruciating memory-trips had doused a bit, but they hadn’t completely stopped either.

But the woman had come in, and was persevering to stay put.

Sethu seems to turn a blind eye to the brimming attention, but is the callousness just an excuse to hush his screaming alter-ego?

And suddenly one day, in a gooseflesh moment of heightened emotions, it all bursts, one by one.

First, the ruthlessly sculpted mask of indifference – something the man had so agonizingly garbed over months – to conceal his layers of vulnerability.

Next, his super-ego, exploding into some kind of a beast of an art-form!

It’s weird. Day after day, for months, you hang on to life; avoiding connections in any form… and nothing seems to change. And then, in a second, everything’s different.

He shoves her into a seat. “Clap”, he howls.

Raja starts working his magic.

The cymbals start setting up the tempo, and the beats mesmerisingly synchronize with the claps. The atmosphere turns subtly psychedelic.

And here, Haasan, giving absolutely no hint whatsoever at the brilliance to unspool, starts off with his near-hypnotic terpsichorean trip.

The actor immediately recedes to the background. All you can see is a bottled-up man, exploding his senses off.

The percussions go on a merciless rampage.

The gyrations seem to be emanating from somewhere deep within him, assembled from bits and pieces of his agony, that continue to be reframed, redefined and repurposed with every step. Words belie the sudden paroxysm.

Imaginably, it was about time that this happened.

His soul, perhaps, always knew what to do to heal itself. The challenge was to silence the haunting doubts.

But how did she manage to do it?

Was his ‘bubble’ made too heavy to endure even the slightest of proddings? Or was it, in a way, made flimsier by the day?

The man, in a graceful coup of sorts, displaces all his pent-up torment in an energy-outburst that flows like fluid through the room. It’s truly a sight to behold.

And when you are least expecting it, he picks her up in a breath-taking curvet around her seat, and freezes mid-way in the closed-position dance stance.  And for a moment – probably, the first time in the last one minute – their eyes meet.

The way she looks at him… it speaks a million words. She is shocked beyond emotions. She is scared. She is dumbfounded. But then, there is something else that reigns supreme, superseding the mixed barrage. She feels something that she had never before seen in his eyes.

May be, a glint of love. Or the likes of that. It could also be a shimmer of hope.

Raja’s orchestration, to put it in a nutshell, is astounding at this juncture.

Sethu gasps for breath from the sudden bout of insane ardour. But Malini knows she saw a thing, beneath all the feigned stoicism. The tension is palpable.

As he walks away to continue his graceful thandavam – staging a swift escape from his own ambivalence – he seems truly liberated one moment. And the next moment, he looks possessed. 

What is he possessed with? A form of sinful attraction? Undeserving warmth? Plaguing guilt?

Or is it the detonation of a fatal blend of self-reproach, fear, hesitation, and exhilaration – taking the form of his favourite art form?

Is there a personal masochistic perspective at play?

After another minute of operating at the brutal thresholds of emotional-snapping, Raja reaches a spectacular crescendo with Sethu finally pausing for breath, his hands around Malini.

Strained moments of dyspneic intimacy ensue.

What is he feeling?

Is it some form of exasperation? Or better still, unadorned anger? Of the inability of his heart to listen to reasoning.

He takes her into his arms soon after, a strange heat radiating between them. They flow in sync, the sweat gliding down their skin, each dance-move leaving them a little more breathless.

And Raja, in this last minute of complementary duet, embarks on a riveting penance, where the sensuality meter rises by the second.

If you had even been drunk purely on the dance form, you would know!

It’s almost like they are searching for answers in each other, and at times, even the questions that beget them. Sethu seems to be blooming from the wound; he once almost-fatally bled from. Malini seems to be watering the scars. He appears to be erupting like a long-dormant volcano, releasing himself from the clutches of self-restraint. She appears to be lost in the spark of the moment. Together, as they sway to the magic, they can’t tell if it’s killing them a little more or making them stronger.

But one thing is for sure. Wounds don’t heal the way you want them to; they heal the way they need to. This healing-moment that stretches between what you once were, and what you are now becoming, is where the dance of life actually takes place.

And understandingly so… as this one, made timeless by Haasan, Revathi, Raja, and KB, fittingly demonstrates.