Historically, the 70s are a very important decade in Indian cinema. Not that the others are any less important but the 70s hold a special place because more than any other decade it was in this that films on social stigmas, society came into play and film makers like Balu Mahendra, Bharathiraja, Mani Kaul, Shyam Benegal etc. started making waves. Also, this was the period where master auteurs like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen etc. started getting noticed abroad. All in all, the 70s gave the Indian films a global audience and appreciation that it didn’t have earlier. Among the wonderful films that came out during that period came what is probably one of the greatest films, and arguably Tamil cinema’s finest – Aval Appadithan.
I first watched this movie as a 15 year old when it aired on KTV I think(?). I watched it because it had my favourite actorKamal Haasan in it and I vaguely remember liking the movie. It wasn’t something that lasted with me like some of the films I watched during that period have remained and I must say that after a prolonged period of thought that I am misguided when I say that. The film influenced most of my feminist sensitive beliefs even without remaining fresh on my mind.
Aval Appadithan starts with Kamal Haasan’s voice over starting he film with the title cards playing on screen and you immediately sense that there is something ominous about to happen. It isn’t a gunshot sound or instructions to siege a place but Arun (Kamal Haasan) speaking director’s lingo. This is the kind of treatment that is not unusual in a foreign language film from the period but for an Indian film to have such a capturing quality with just the title cards in place is something truly remarkable.
If you ask most people what they think of scripts written during the 70s or 80s and most would say that they tended to be long, paved the way for the song and dance numbers and were largely formulaic. That would very well be the case if we ignore the work done in parallel cinema and here’s a jewel of a script. The dialogues are smart, intelligent and to the point. There’s no meandering about when it comes to what is to be said and that’s a welcome relief. The script is far beyond its times and to be quite honest, it is far beyond times even in this age, 13 years into the 21st century. The story is about a female lead going out of her prescribed way in the society. This doesn’t mean that she is an aggressive winner but her fragility is brought out so beautifully that the pain brings an astonishment to your eyes that you want to hold yourself tight after everything is done and dusted and think about everything that’s been shown on screen. The greatest strength of any script is its ability to linger on after the movie and make you introspective or imagine yourself in such a position. Aval Appadithan has one such magnificent script.
Manju (Sripriya) works for an advertising agency and is shown to us a modern woman who hates men. Her life in present day has two men playing important roles, one is her boss Tyagu (Rajinikanth) who asks her to assist Arun in his documentary film about women in India. Even though the film is about Manju, it is through Arun’s actions and eyes that we come to see the film. But it isn’t in his perspective, it is just that Arun is a reflection of us. Like us, he is the observer here. Through his experiences with Manju, we come to see the woman that she is – cyincal, man – hating, strong beyond her years on the outside but brittle inside.
During the course of the filming of the documentary Rudhraiya shows us the different types of women the society has, never passing judgement but merely observing and giving them a voice. And Manju is the central theme here. We see her troubled childhood, all the pain she has gone through and in Tyagu and Arun we have two different kinds of men, the two kinds that exist – one who is sexist and the other who is sensitive. In a script that allows the actors to explore their talent to the hilt, the actors make great use of their ability. Even though Rajinikanth is playing the role of a sexist, he has undeniable charm which makes you like him. It is wonderful to see Rajinikanth, the actor outshine Rajinikanth, the showman. Sripriya’s performance is one to be lauded. Sensational would still be understating it. The pain, the torture, the way her eyes speak volumes hits you in the gut. In the wake of these two brilliant performances, it’d be considered okay by some to see Kamal Haasan’s second fiddle to Manju. Beautifully compassionate, impromptu and sensitive, this is Kamal Haasan at the height of his prowess, a prowess that would be the envy of any actor.
There are many stand out scenes in this film but there’s one in particular that stands above everything else. I am going to call it “The Breakdown” scene. In “The Breakdown” we have everything that makes the film special coming together. The scene opens up in a room where Manju is recounting her experiences and this is the culmination of them all. Arun is the listener in this conversation and she tells him
“Avan enna thevidiya nu kooptalum naan vartha pattirikka maaten, enna thangachinu sollitta avan”
which translates to
“I wouldn’t have been broken if he’d called me a prostitute but he called me his sister”
A powerful dialogue delivered in a heart breaking voice by Sripriya and a helplessness displayed by Kamal Haasan with a sensitivity beyond comprehension. These are two actors displaying their acting talent and are at their very best. The Breakdown also has Mr. Nallusamy‘s camera making love with the shadows in the room. The tension is built up with Ilayaraja‘s wonderful BGM working its magic in the background and Rudhraiya employs the single room and bathroom to great effect. As you see the camera move away from the scene and it closes, there’s a jump cut. The film has plenty of jump cuts in it that’d make Godard proud.
From the very first minute the cameras starts rolling, it is evident that the people responsible for this movie know their craft. Mr. Nallusamy’s camera makes love with the shadows. The movie is lit brilliantly and shot in black and white and the prominent use of shadows would bring a smile upon F. W Murnau‘s face.
A movie with plenty of craft in it that’d make the European masters, especially the French, sit up and take notice. The lighting, the cinematography, the music and the jump cuts set the movie up for an amazing watch but never believe that the a movie can work without a good story. It is always the story that makes the film and Aval Appadithan has not only a radical story but one which is extremely well written. Great acting makes it an extremely sensitive watch and Rudhraiya’s film is a treat for a cinephile. It is unfortunate that a maker of such a masterpiece hasn’t gone on to do more films. There’s a Telugu film that he has gone on to after this one but I for one haven’t found it. I wonder how it turned out to be.
The film closes with the voice over
“She died today. She will be reborn tomorrow. She will die again. She will be reborn again. That’s how she is”.
It closes out making you want to stand up and give it a rousing applause for being as great as it is. If the movie didn’t affect me enough that it made me want to hold myself tight after watching it, I would have had tears of joy at watching such a masterpiece. One of the greatest films made, this is an Indian film far beyond almost everything with the exception of a dozen films to have come from these shores. A masterpiece that can change lives. Hats off to Mr. Rudhraiya and this remarkable team of talented professionals.
Language : Tamil | Running Time : 108 Minutes | Director : C. Rudhraiya
Rating : 4/4