Balu Mahendra's demise is another reminder that a certain kind of “artistic” commercial film has vanished from our screens

In the tribute I wrote in this paper for Balu Mahendra, I’d contended that Moondram Pirai was the “apotheosis of his art,” and that didn’t go down well with some readers. They felt that this was too “commercial” a film, with its ‘Silk’ Smitha item number and all, and that Mahendra’s art should be evaluated on the basis of films like Veedu or Sandhya Raagam. This, to me, basically reinforces the whole art-commerce divide that Mahendra fought against for most of his career.

With a handful of exceptions, his films were “commercial films,” meant for large audiences – and that’s why it seemed appropriate to celebrate Moondram Pirai, a superb example of how the presence of a commercially viable plot and the participation of commercially viable actors and technicians can result in art. Can you imagine a similar situation today, where a young hero at the peak of his powers and a top heroine (who can actually act) agree to star in something that we’ll be talking about 30 years from now? No? That’s what I’m saying.

The Balu Mahendra kind of films are gone. Today’s commercial films are something else, and that’s because today’s audiences are something else. The people who came to theatres to see Moondram Pirai don’t come to theatres anymore, and even if they do, certainly not in sufficient numbers to make a hit out of something like Maryan — a flawed film, yes, but the closest that present-day Tamil cinema came to capturing the Balu Mahendra ethos, the Moondram Pirai ethos, with good actors and a top-ranked music director and a minimalistic storyline that the director at least attempted to narrate in a quasi-art-house fashion. The demise of these films is the demise of a certain kind of culture, where leisurely paced “art” could be snuck into popular cinema.

That kind of rhythm, that kind of pace has vanished from our screens. Watch the early films of Balu Mahendra and his contemporaries like Mahendran (Udhiri Pookkal, Nenjathai Killathey), and you’re astounded by how... slow and silent they are (in relative terms, compared to the films of today), and how, despite this slowness, this quietness, they found enough audiences to sustain them for 25-week runs in theatres.

Of course, that was a time before DVDs and downloads and “special screenings” on television on a festival day that’s no longer spent visiting friends and relatives, so if you wanted to see a film a second time, you had to go to the theatre. Today’s films, therefore, cannot hope for such staying power in theatres. But though the metrics by which we determine hits may have changed — 25-week runs versus opening-weekend gross, or whatever – a hit is still a hit. And those slow, silent films were hits.

To make intensely personal films and still make them appealing to large audiences – that’s a near-lost art today, and it’s in that context that I was celebrating Moondram Pirai. Is it the most uncompromised film Mahendra made (if that’s how you want to evaluate art)? Certainly not — and taken that way, Sandhya Raagam is probably a “better” film. There are so many opportunities for cheap melodramatic compromises in this story about an old man who, after the death of his wife, comes to Madras to stay with his nephew, but Mahendra opts, always, for the high road. The man’s loneliness isn’t milked for pathos. It just is.

We think the nephew’s wife will turn out to be a shrill shrew, resenting this unwanted visitor’s claims on their already meagre possessions. But no, she’s kind and observant, and the only time she screams at him is when he (inadvertently) harms her daughter. At one point, she is unable to return a small sum she owes her landlady – the old man repays this loan without telling her. We think this turn of events will result in major emotion – maybe, she’ll feel guilty when she finds out and fall at his feet in repentance, or maybe she’ll scream at him, again, for poking his nose in her affairs – but the way this plot point is resolved is exquisitely understated.

And this is the point I was making with Moondram Pirai. In some ways, the understatement is even more remarkable here, because this film, unlike Sandhya Raagam, is an overtly commercial proposition. Events that could have resulted in major melodrama — and there’s nothing wrong with that style of cinema, provided done well — are presented in such a matter-of-fact manner that seeing the film, today, we wonder at how the audiences were then, and how they are now, hooting their derision at the slightest “lag” in the narrative.

The film’s slyest trick is that the drama is always present, thanks to the underlying sexual tension and Ilaiyaraaja’s score. After a small prologue (that details the heroine’s accident), the opening credits appear over an intense burst of violins — the same burst of violins that will be heard as a bookend towards the end, when the heroine and her parents enter the railway station and the devastated hero, far behind, is racing to meet her. So we’re already primed, subliminally, for this intensity of emotion — except that Mahendra takes his own sweet time getting to that point. As much as the themes in this complex film can be studied, the filmmaking, too, is worth putting under a microscope. Of how many commercial films today can you say this?

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