Following cinematographer-director Balu Mahendra's death, a tribute to 'Moondram pirai'/'Sadma', a dream conjured by the auteur.

Last Thursday, an auteur, one the finest Tamil cinema has produced, died. That Balu Mahendra was also a cinematographer ensured that his vision in many films was uniquely his. His creativity peaked in the 80s, when he was joined by other aspiring auteurs like Bharathiraja and Mahendran.

Among the ones directed by him , I have watched three. One film I think has his voice firmly stamped is Moondram pirai/Sadma. The ambience — just like that in another Kamal Hassan starrer Guna — resembles a scenic dreamscape, where the artist is free to add the intended shades of melancholy. In both narratives, the protagonist’s image of an ideal dreamgirl animate his antics and idiosyncrasies. But unlike Guna, it is the minimalism — as in a painting — that dominates and not the histrionics.

The melancholy lurking in the air, punctuated by uneasy, prolonged silences, assumes a life of its own with the help of Ilayaraja’s background music. This somehow presages the coda, with dialogues acting as mere accoutrements to add greater visibility to the dream-like state. It looks like a melange of Keats’ tragedy and Freud’s psychoanalysis to create an esoterica that would have done Bob Dylan proud.

Though Lakshmi (Sridevi) is introduced first, we see the film through Cheenu (Kamal Haasan)’s eyes. Even the name he gives her, Viji, is the way he sees her. It surely reminds one of Abhirami, the muse of the eponymous protagonist in Guna.

Seeking an escape from his mundane reality in Ooty, Cheenu seeks a trance, a dream-like state when he comes to Madras. In a moment of empathy or love, he takes a captive amnesiac back home, to his world, where he wants to perhaps preserve her as a painting, as a masterpiece. Where he wants to keep her not as much as an individual, but as a muse.

This imagery of an artist’s obsession with his muse was painted most disturbingly in Pedro Almodovar’s recent film, the monumental The skin I live in. Cheenu’s attraction toward her is a bit similar to that of Almodovar’s doctor for his creation. In fact, the scene where the doctor (Antonio Banderas) kills the intruder for trying to desecrate his masterpiece has shades of the one in Moondram pirai where Cheenu bashes the neighbourhood molester, almost killing him.

Throughout the narrative, a sense of uncertainty lurks in the viewer’s mind, the exact kind of uncertainty we get while dreaming. The knowledge that the spell would break any time. That Cheenu would be thrown back into his solitude. And that the fall from this ethereal tranquillity would be brutal, maybe even fatal.

Vignettes of this uncertainty show themselves in songs. In one, Cheenu asks life to embrace him (Poongatru/Ae zindagi gale lagaa le). In an antara, he says he has hidden himself in some obscure corner of life’s eyes where no one else can find him. In another, he reaches his kinara (destination) with two little droplets of life. All this gives a feeling that this bubble state can burst anytime, keeping the viewer on the edge of his seat.

The lullaby kanne kalaimaane/surmai akhiyon mein sees the tranquillity reach a crescendo. The mood created has contrasting layers in the Tamil and Hindi versions of the song. While the Tamil one has him staring at the scenic paintings in front and dreading the day he is likely to come back to reality, the Hindi one is much brighter, with him relishing his bubble happiness in the ephemeral present.

While the Tamil one shows him camouflage his dream in his address to the girl, the Hindi one makes it more explicit. He knows that the alien dream this unruly bird called sleep creates can vanish anytime, yet wants to cherish it.

While the Hindi version peaks at the first antara, the Tamil one peaks at the second when he says,

...unakke uyiraanen, enaalum ennai nee maravaade,

nee illamal ethu nimmathi, needane endan sannidi

He has created a monument for her, one that would be shattered if she forgets him, which he somewhere in his heart knows that is going to happen. Isn’t there a Keats lurking in his imagination, a foreboding that ultimately, she would desert him, making him come back to reality?

In the much-liked climax, Cheenu tries his best to deceive himself by reminding his own subconscious of his once-romantic present. It would have been tragic, but only if it were not so real.

As the spell ends, he sits, inconsolable, trying to come to terms with what happened. “Haggard and woe-begone,” just like the knight in Keats’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci. With "lily on the brow, anguish moist and fever dew," and a "fading, withering rose on his cheeks".

The monument he created has shattered like castles built by a child, out of fond naivete, in a deceptive air. He needs to come back to his quotidian existence. When reality bites, dream feels like its antithesis. One which a protagonist can see but never reach.