Retro Ruminations: Chinna Thayaval from Thalapathi (1991)

For the fourteen-year-old unmarried Kalyani, the festival of Bhogi assumes a brutal literal meaning after she delivers a baby boy in the wilderness, amidst the cheerful celebrations in the town.

All the brazen public-shunning, and the agony of unassisted labour leaves the exhausted teenager completely disillusioned. As she lies all alone in the fading light, her maternal inadequacies painfully dawn upon her.

Endless questions with no logical answers plague her mind, making her doubt the very essence of her motherhood.

சின்னத் தாயவள் தந்த ராசாவே
முள்ளில் தோன்றிய சின்ன ரோசாவே…

Nowhere to go, she puts the baby on a cargo train in the hope that someone would find the newborn, and take him under their wings.

But destiny doesn’t seem to be in a mood to relent, as the door of the compartment nestling the baby loosens, and opens out.

Shell-shocked by this sudden turn of events, she runs behind the whooshing train for a while. At one point, she gives up and slumps on the track, wailing in agony.

The young girl, who had never seen the world outside her home, is left to deal with a barrage of alien and razor-sharp motherly instincts.

சொல்லவா ஆராரோ
நம் சொந்தங்கள் யாராரோ…
உந்தன் கண்ணில் ஏன் தான் நீரோ!

As she looks towards the horizon, devastated, and helpless, what is that which is mercilessly consuming her? Guilt? Anger? Gloom? Doubt? Regret? You would know if you are Kalyani.

உன்னை நான் தான் நெஞ்சில் வாங்கிட
மெத்தை போலுன்னை மெல்லத் தாங்கிட
விழி மூடாதோ!

Fast forward thirty years, the abandoned baby boy has grown up to be Surya – the much-feared ‘Thalapathi’ and the trusted friend of the local slum lord, Deva – ruling the city and meting out justice as he deems fit.

Surya had, over time, warmed up to wear a mask of indifference, but deep within, the pain is seething. Losing your parent is one thing. The grief can leave you shattered. But, to realize that you were an undesired entity, only to be discarded by the genesis of your own blood… that’s quite a dreadful thought to live with. The more you think of it, the more it is likely to shake you to your soul’s core, leaving you numb and full of existential uncertainties.

But, the man had learnt to live with them. All the emotional trauma had made him short-tempered, but what it had not done is crush his spirit. With Deva by his side, he is determined to give back something to the community, which had nursed him to adulthood.

And in the process, he gets to lock horns with the newly appointed district collector, Arjun, who, incidentally, happens to be his antithesis, with a diametrically-opposite sense of justice.

Over the battle of conflicting sensibilities, Surya, one day, barges into the collector’s residence, and threatens Arjun’s mother, who’s none other than Kalyani.

Years after her tryst with destiny, Kalyani had married an understanding man, who, knowing about her first baby, had helped her wade through the relentless guilt.

Kalyani on her part, had learnt to live with the self-blame, but not a single day passes without thoughts of her dear son – the one she had halfheartedly run away from.

பால் மணம் வீசும் பூமுகம்
பார்க்கையில் பொங்கும் தாய் மனம்!

When Kalyani’s husband gets to know that Surya is the ill-fated child, who had grown up to be an apparent convict, he approaches Surya with a request to move away from Deva, and renounce his violent ways.

Surya reflexively refuses, citing Deva as his dear friend and the only person in the whole world who would care for him.

Kalyani’s husband however disagrees, telling him the truth about his wife. Surya is instantly lost for emotions. “How did she get the heart to throw me away? Why did she? What made her think that I would survive this desertion?” Incessant doubts regarding his mother’s apparent callousness are all he could convey, right up front.

However, when the old man attempts to explain the circumstances that forced her to take the fateful decision, it slowly starts to make sense for Surya. Unable to choose between his best friend and his newfound mother, he begs his step-dad not to reveal the truth about him to Kalyani.

Ah, how must it feel to have lost sleep over a close-someone’s insensitive decision over years, and wake up one fine day to realize the justifications behind it? Surya is not able to digest the sweeping implications for quite some time.

After days of contemplation, he follows Kalyani to a temple, gathering his emotions with considerable effort.

It’s amazing how a life-changing piece of information can change the way you perceive people.The same person he had shouted to, a week back, seems completely different now.

Hidden from Kalyani’s view, Surya stares at the lady – who had brought him into the world, and who is now ceaselessly repenting for the same – with stoic shock.

It’s tough to comprehend the sort of emotions he is going through. Thirty years of yearning for some form of affection and identity, and now, within the blink of an eyelid, the sight of the embodiment of love in his mother’s eyes. What does it mean to him? How would she feel if she knows of his brutal ways?

A hardened criminal in the eyes of the law, how would he come off in his mother’s eyes? Would this newfound identity alter his way of looking at life? What about his promise to Deva?

The apathy on Surya’s face slowly gives way to a deadly combination of joy, agony and confusion, as questions keep getting stacked on one another.

Kalyani, meanwhile, walks around the temple with a sombre look that seems to beg for some kind of redemption. Probably, she’s praying for the son, whom she never got to say goodbye to. She’s visibly hurting, but, have her inner demons grown stronger over the years?

Believe me, when you are a grieving parent, no amount of rational self-persuasion can silence the howling voice of guilt within. It’s potentially crippling, and it hits you at the most unexpected moments. But then, it’s also exasperating, as it’s intermittently replaced by a voice of hope, without any warning.

ஆயிரம் காலம் ஊர்வலம்
வேண்டிட வந்த பூச்சரம்
வெய்யில் வீதியில் வாடக் கூடுமோ
தெய்வக் கோயிலை சென்று சேருமோ
எந்தன் தேனாறே…

On one such moment of unrelenting torment, Kalyani instinctively senses someone watching her from behind, and turns back.

Surya, who has been following her, retreats just in time to escape from her sight, As she proceeds to close her eyes and pray, he is fighting a battle of epic proportions within. Caught in a whirlwind of elation and indecision, he sincerely wants to undo a lot of his past, but, can’t seem to get a hold on the infinite repercussions.

One glimpse at his mother’s lamenting eyes and all words cease to exist for Surya. A part of him wants to put all the emotional baggage behind, hug his mother tightly, and tell her that none of this was her fault… that he wants to be nothing else other than her loving son. Only that the other part – the one which is more in touch with the reality – takes over soon. And makes sure he stands grounded, staring at the woman’s departing silhouette.

சின்னத் தாயவள் தந்த ராசாவே
முள்ளில் தோன்றிய சின்ன ரோசாவே…

But then, he has seen his mother; which has now given him a freaking purpose to exist. Nothing else mattered.

***


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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.

Six Spectacular Frames. One Genius Cinematographer. The Name is Santosh Sivan.

Over a career spanning three decades, Santosh Sivan must have spear-headed myriad bursts of brilliance. Here, I pick out six breathtaking frames from his oeuvre that scream his name in every pixel…

Mani Prabhu

1. Thalapathi

thalapathi

In this debut film of Santosh in Tamil – his first ever association with Mani Ratnam – the man had to tackle the toughest challenge of all – to portray dark emotions in the backdrop of the blazing sun. The reason?

Mani was alluding to the epic friendship between Karna and Duryodhana, and Karna being the son of the solar deity, a conscious decision was taken at the script-level to synchronize most of Karna’s decisions with sun-rays. Its a tricky proposition as nuanced expressions get lost in silhouettes, when the sun is put as the back-light.

This particular sequence involves the stirring transformation of Surya into the ‘Thalapathi’, as he goes to war in a mystic silhouette against a scorching sun. Raja’s rousing theme plays in the background.

This frame speaks a lot about Santosh’s caliber as it is never easy to shoot against the sun because of dynamic limitations of film stock. A gooseflesh inciting high-contrast image is obtained, by keeping the key light low and allowing the all-commanding solar backlight to dictate the mood. Santosh actually goes on to use this ‘low-key-high-contrast’ style through out the film to get the magical Surya effect.

2. Roja

roja

In stark contrast with the mood of his previous association with the master, this sequence in Roja required Santosh to bring to screen a soulful romance blooming amidst the astounding beauty of nature.

After a hurtful misunderstanding, love gently blossoms between the unassuming Roja and the city-bred Rishi in the alluring backdrop of Kashmir. One fine day, Rishi blindfolds Roja and takes her for a sweet surprise. At a particular spot, when Roja opens her eyes, she is in for the moment of her lifetime. She stares on, dumbfounded, at the charm of the snow-capped mountains.

There’s a momentary hint of the blue sky and the peeking sun, but it’s enough for Santosh to capture a flash of diamonds across the wide landscape, in the form of dazzling snowflakes.

It’s all pre-planned. We, the audience, are supposed to see the snow only when Roja does. And what a spectacle it turns out to be! Everything glistens. Colours are brighter against the pure white blanket that spreads as far as the eye could see.

And this particular frame, where Roja revels in a warm hug with Rishi, speaks a million words. She would be there for Rishi, come what may, till the very end. She may not be actually telling it, but we can hear her voice. Almost.

3. Iruvar

iruvar

Yet another masterpiece from the ManiRatnam – Santosh Sivan duo, this time for the epic political drama Iruvar.

Thamizhselvan is married, but is irreversibly smitten with Senthamarai. The scene reflects the complicated emotions of the two, as they succumb to their lethal attraction, all the while silencing the howls of their conscience.

As the back ground score begins with an apparent hissing of bats, Tamizhselvan and Senthamarai are lying on the floor, having consummated their relationship, her hair in tangles and their clothing in a mess.

The camera slowly zooms in to capture the rapture in their eyes, spilling out through layers of fear and guilt.

As we look upon the couple from above, from a God-like position, the camera starts rotating, starting off in a gentle gyration.

This particular frame is a stunner, with Tamizhselvan’s face caught in a reflective sense of calm, while Senthamarai looks more disturbed. We could see through her gnawing  and deep-seated torment at the moment.

The frame starts spinning a bit faster, catching us off-guard at the amount of emotions, being thrown at us by the stunning lyrics. The sound of a ticking clock adds on.

As Tamizhsevan fondles Senthamarai’s cheek with his touch, Santhosh edges up the pace of the gyration, soulful humming with stunning percussions hitting on us in the background.

At one point, we are so poignantly muddled, that indecision takes over. The man truly starts playing God here. Is it the frame that is spinning? Or the ground? Or our thoughts? The questions get only stronger. Heights of emotional blurring!

4. Thuppaki

thuppaki

An age old action-masala motif was being staged. The sister had been kidnapped.

But wait, we aren’t that worried. At least, about the fate of the girl. Why would we be? We have seen too many of these to even manage a false-gasp. We are familiar with the ploy. And the fact that the hero would make a fitting appearance in the scene, any moment now.

If at all, the staging of this age-old action motif lacked something, it was the element of anticipatory surprise.

What fun is it then? What was the need to keep us in the loop all along? As we wait for the inevitable to pan out, we even start dwelling on the ifs and whys for a micro-moment.

But before we could exercise our sensibilities any further, there is a hushed silence. Everyone in the scene stops mid-action, with the man-in-charge trying to make sense of the disturbance.

We hear something like a distant canine sound. Is it? The camera slowly arcs around the room, taking note of the shocked expressions and pans further to reveal an empty hallway, half cloaked in some sort of factory vapours.

The aura of the frame is staggering. We get the first hint of the brilliance that is still kept in clever wraps. As we stare ahead forgetting to blink, a dog casually trots into the frame.

We know the inevitable, but yet, the setting almost grabs by the collar and refuses to let go.

A gun shot is heard. And the man holding the knife to the girl’s throat collapses simultaneously. The camera records this, and then instinctively pans to explore the sound source.

It sure seems like the edge of a wall at first sight. What next?

None at sight. Just a lone lantern, lighting up the corner.  Curls of vaporous smoke, lingering from the firearm shot. The vapours hang on for a split moment. We are pulled into the scene, all mouths gaping.

An illusory reverie. That’s what Santosh makes it look like. Somewhere, as the sumptuous, milky haze writhes around, the heart misses a beat.

And slowly, fingers of light poke through the misty mesh – filtering down the interstices of the clearing smoke – revealing what is probably one of the finest ‘mass’ moments in the history of star-vehicles.

The image of Jagadish, with that killer-stare, pointing the gun at our forehead emerges, constructing itself like a self-solving jigsaw puzzle.

The man had elevated yet another scene to a different level.

5. Raavanan

raav

Mani had set his eyes on the Ramayana next. The film-maker’s vision was singular – he was attempting to blur the thin line between – what is perceived by the world – as good and evil.

Veera plays Raavan – the demon – the unpolished and boorish tribal leader. Dev plays Ram – the privileged ‘all-powerful’ – the resolute encounter-specialist. Veera eyes Dev’s wife, Ragini aka Sita, and kidnaps her. The motive? Veera’s sister had been tortured and brutal raped by Dev’s men. So who is the demon again?

While holding Ragini captive in the forest, Veera subconsciously starts falling for the lady. Ragini is angry and hurting, but soon softens up a bit, as she starts seeing the real Veera camouflaged within layers of apparent barbarism.

This particular sequence happens in the backdrop of a spectacular waterway, when the love-torn Veera questions Ragini about her love for her husband. Mani here seeks the help of Santosh Sivan to showcase Veera’s rugged yet striking abode. A huge stone effigy of Lord Vishnu in the ‘lying-down’ posture breaks into the rivulet, fragmented at the hip.

Initially, when Ragini equates her husband to God and all things righteous, Veera is seated on the leg fragment of the Lord himself. The supposed monster realizing his stand at the feet of the supposed divine. Rains start lashing out.

“Is your God the embodiment of all things good? An archetype of the ideal husband? Is he the most virtuous? Does he err ever? Does he love you unconditionally” As Veera relentlessly picks on Ragini’s mind, she seems to nod in concurrence. But wait, as the focus shifts to her face, the torment of missing her husband muddled by a hint of growing affection for her captor, is readily evident.

This particular frame, where Santosh contrasts Veera’s painful envy for Dev – for the things he can only dream of – with the pervading beauty of picturesque goodness, will go down in his repertoire as one of the very best.

 6. Dil Se

dil-se

A lead character from the heart of India. Another one from a politically and socially-sidelined peripheral state. Bundles of contradiction in the eyes of the law and the society. In Dil Se, Mani Ratnam had ventured to take us through the leads’ tumultuous journey, as they pass through the seven stages of love – attraction, preoccupation, desire, worship, surrender, fatal obsession and immortality – as laid out in literature.

Amar irreversibly falls for the mysterious Meghna, the moment he sees her. Meghna’s obliviousness is obvious, but the more she starts brushing him away, the more he gets obsessed with her.

He relentlessly pursues Meghna and questions her coldness. In a fierce altercation, she reveals to Amar, that as a child, she had been raped by a few soldiers and that her soul seeks liberation through her suicide attack on the Indian army and the President of India. She insists on her duty to represent her people and their unheard voices.

This particular sequence, which represents the zenith of love, happens in a dilapidated fort, which Santosh brilliantly uses as a backdrop to depict emotional isolation, the dread of an impending disaster and a hint of patriotism.

Knowing Megha’s resilience, Amar realizes that it would be tough to make her abort the mission, but he can’t give up on his love yet… can he? As Meghna proceeds for the suicide attack, Amar confronts her midway and frantically attempts to hold her back.

Santosh here alternates between the master shot fixed at mid-range and stirring close-ups to bring the insane tension alive. The dripping love in Amar’s eyes cannot be missed, even though the glimmer of hope had vanished. He knows he is the only person in the world who can stop her. He forcibly embraces her and pleads her not to go away.

There must be a million thoughts running in Meghna’s mind that moment. And Santosh resorts to over-the-shoulder shots for capturing the conflicting emotions. Amar seems to be still deconstructing her mind, which seems to escape all definitions. But the blatant nervousness had given way to a calm resolve. Meghna struggles for a few minutes, torn between an unflinching love and an apparent existential crisis.

This particular frame, where she stops fighting back after a while, eventually giving in to the passionate cuddle, is so haunting that you just can’t look away. When was the last time a cinematographer thematized the entire movie in a single frame?

The explosives tied to Meghna’s chest go off, with the couple breathing into each other. Amar drowns his body in Meghna’s soul. The couple sleep in the lap of death.