Sunday, June 16, 2013

Aval Appadithan (1978)

While interviewing a subject for his documentary on the state of women in India, Arun begins by asking, "Ungalukku yethana pasanga.."  before correcting himself and continuing with "..I mean, kozhandhainga?"  This one line with a simple correction may be easily taken for just a harmless slip of tongue on Kamal Hassan's part, but there was something extraordinary about it that caught my attention. I gave it some thought and it dawned on me how Indians have long had this habit of casually using a masculine term to collectively refer to children. I recollect from my days in Gujarat where parents unconsciously called their daughters 'beta'. The word pasanga has slowly eaten its way into our psyche and firmly established itself as a synonym for children. Arun felt the urge to correct himself because he is a compulsive feminist for whom political correctness is like oxygen.

Arun is where I personally wish to be in a few years' time. We can never tell what exactly kindled the feminist in him, but we can correctly assume that he has had it all worked out in his head for a long time now. He has reached a point where he no longer feels the need to have petty arguments with people who are simply never going to change their outlook. Though he does die a thousand deaths when he witnesses the level of misogyny and sexism prevailing in the mainstream. His frustrations and indomitable urges to do something that can bring about change lead him to make his documentary.

On the other end of the feminist spectrum is Arun's friend Tyagu, a male-chauvinist who is an embodiment of everything that we associate with sexism. He is the antithesis of Arun in how he whips out thathuvams describing women the way he sees them. He is a young and successful businessman with a very active sex life. Like with every sexist person, his words reek with double standards. Played by a perfectly cast Rajnikanth, Tyagu is irresistible despite the fact that I don't subscribe to his beliefs in the slightest.

When Arun needs help with his documentary, Tyagu asks his company's art director Manju (Sripriya) to offer her services. Through the days they spend together interviewing prominent women from all backgrounds, Manju ends up becoming Arun's single most fascinating subject. With a broken past consisting a cheating Mother, a subservient father, an abusive uncle and a bevy of disappointing lovers, she finds comfort wearing the mask of misandry. As Arun tries to peel layers off her to understand the real her, she keeps becoming even more inscrutable.

To quote Silambarasan, 'Jeans podra ponnunga ellam kettavangalum illa; chudidhar podra ellam  ponnungalum nallavanglum illa.'  While I have no idea what the definition of nalla ponnunga and ketta ponnunga is, I mention this line because Manju is a "modern" woman living in 70s Madras who can only be seen wearing sarees. Without any histrionics, Rudraiyya underlines that very same fascinating and yet simple idea with immense subtlety. Rudraiyya never feels the need to resort to handy character traits such as a drinking and smoking woman to highlight Manju's modernity. Not that there is anything wrong with a woman doing that, of course, but that would have been a lazy shorthand.

Manju's 'all-men-are-scoundrels' attitude wavers a bit every time she's around Arun. During an interview with an actress, Arun asks her if she feels servile for having to trim her eyebrows to look beautiful for the sake of men. While Arun's point that women try to look beautiful only to impress men is arguably incorrect, you might notice that Manju herself has her brows trimmed. The actress talks with disgust about the holier than thou attitude many outsiders take towards them.

At the peril of sounding like a gender-traitor, I have noticed how most men often resort to maligning an attractive woman when she appears ungettable. Rumors are started and jokes are said at her expense. I have been a culprit myself, though in a more harmless way. Manju is fodder for all sorts of office gossip because she intimidates men and women alike. Even Tyagu, her boss, is a scheming bastard who wants to bed her. Her being so hard to get makes her even more alluring to him. To be honest and fair to him, there are instances where he is surprisingly broad-minded. When he tells Arun that Manju is nothing but a sex-starved bitch, you can see that that's his honest assessment. He almost makes you wonder if that might be true.

In the final stages of production, Arun questions a bunch of female college students about their thoughts on premarital sex and legalized abortion. The answers are unsatisfactory and muffled. The giggling girls do not have an opinion on issues which stare them in the face. As a stark contrast, Arun talks to a group of women who appear to be poor and illiterate. This time his questions range from patriarchy to male infidelity and the response is startlingly heartening. But there's also a section of women which ridicules the entire demand for equality. I spoke in length about my own experience with my mother because I believe women are their biggest enemy in this battle. Their apathy and willingness to remain docile is also what's making it harder for them to blossom as they could.

One of the film's masterstroke- a very cruel joke on Manju- is making her fall in love again on her own terms. She slowly gets there, but not soon enough. I was always on her side, but there came a point where even I wished she would let her guard down. Despite all attempts from Arun to give this phenomenal woman the happiness she deserved, it is her own stubbornness which leads to her doom.

"What do you think about women's liberation?"
"Atha pathi yenakku onnum theriyathu.."
"Romba safe answer. Athan neenga santhoshama irrukinga."

The film probably wouldn't have been as special without the heartbreaking turn of events in the final minutes. In the end, she does exactly what she swore she would never: stand in a corner, filled with regret.

"yerinthu pona veedu.. murinthu pona uravugal.. 
kalainthu pona vanavugal.. sumakka mudiyatha sogangal.. 
meendum oru murai Manju iranthu ponal.. 
intha saavai sagitthu kolla Manju vaal thaanga mudiyavillai 
hm.. aval pirappal irappal; irappal pirappal.. aval appadithan."

Aval Appadithan is very easily one of the most shockingly great Tamil films I have ever seen. That this film released three decades ago in this very industry starring our very own superstars is what boggles me. Imagine the fate of Tamil cinema had it taken this alternate path of realistic films. In a word, Aval Appadithan is uncompromising. It lays in front of you the naked truth without having two thoughts about it. It seamlessly switches between English and Tamil to create an image of a Madras I never imagined existed. It cannot be bothered to dumb itself down for the least common denominator. The stellar script contains lines brimming with honesty. The three lead characters are fully realised individuals, magnificent in their own way.

It never once becomes an issue movie giving us a big moral science lesson. For most part, I only had this feeling that someone out there had made a movie that totally gets me. I now wonder if this film managed to bring in a change of heart in people who believed otherwise. It is bold by all means and very much ahead of its time. There was a time when Tamil films had titles far more poetic than anything else in the movie. (Manju asks Arun if the title of his documentary Muzhubaagil Oru Paathi is also on the same lines.) But unlike those others films from the period, Aval Appadithan is truly poignant.

Twenty three years after the release of the first color film in Tamil, Aval Appadithan was probably shot in black and white to achieve a style or due to monetary constraints or both. In 1978, Rajini acted in 21 films (including Bairavi, Priya and Mullum Malarum) and Kamal in 16 (including Sigappu Rojakkal). The numbers are shocking to say the least. There are two big scenes involving them where they don't even share a frame. Even Sripriya was doing nearly half a dozen films. It is quite amazing that these top stars have given performances of their lifetime under such a schedule. The credit must go to Rudraiyya or whoever came up with the idea of casting these three. 

The close-up shots, the background score and songs (I decided to watch this film only after recently discovering Uravugal Thodarkathai), the offhanded acting.. everything I love. This one film has made me sit up straight and look for more such gems from our past. They are definitely there; we just have to look closer.