NOV 8, 2003 – IN PITHAMAGAN, BALA CONTINUES HIS LOVE AFFAIR with the fringe-dwellers and the misfits of society. He continues to nurture characters that you care about before scotching all hopes for their happiness. And he continues to detail some most unpleasant and horrific stretches of film that disturb and make you cringe even as they grab your attention and admiration. Yes, this is undoubtedly the work of the man who made the superb Sethu and the not-quite-there Nanda.
Pithamagan is the story of the heroes – Siththan (Vikram) and Sakthi (Surya) – getting in the way of a corrupt local big-shot, but the incidents around this theme are almost incidental. By the end of the first half of the film, you are no closer to figuring out its dramatic crux than you were at the beginning, because the ‘story’ isn’t anything but a peg for Bala to hang his characters on. The complete lack of narrative urgency in the initial portions may disorient viewers more used to the A-leads-to-B-which-causes-C style of storytelling, but this is really a character study posing as a masala movie.
And what characters they turn out to be! The Hero, Siththan, burns bodies at the graveyard and appears like a mangy dog, all yellowed teeth and animalistic grunts and unkempt exterior. The Mother Figure, Gomathi (an extremely moving Sangeetha), is a ganja peddler. The Hero’s Best Friend, Sakthi, is a con man who holds court on the subject of flatulence, and claims to possess the soapbox used by Saroja Devi in Aalayamani. And the Heroine, college student Manju (a miscast Laila), expresses her displeasure with extended bouts of shrieking.
These eccentricities make the central relationships feel fresh, even if the director merely glosses over certain elements, like why Manju falls for Sakthi or why Siththan is such a barbarian. Though Pithamagan isn’t quite a love story, it has different depictions of the emotion – the Siththan-Sakthi friendship, the Sakthi-Manju romance, the budding relationship between Siththan and Gomathi – and a good part of the film shows them developing these bonds, giving us the time to take these strange people into our hearts.
Bala, who never met a love angle that he couldn’t taint with tragedy, then takes things to their brutally violent conclusion. These are the most dramatic portions of the film – the atmosphere is charged with Ilayaraja’s outstanding, if at times overbearing, score – and you see why the big, fat character-building scenes were needed earlier on. Pre-interval, you may have felt, for instance, that Sakthi has been shown doing one too many con jobs, but these sequences, bringing out his lightheartedness and his live-wire nature, hugely reinforce our subsequent responses to his (mis)adventures.
Bala’s ingeniousness is evident everywhere – from making a creepy godman an almost-sympathetic figure of fun to Sakthi’s offhand mocking of a policeman as “nought-nought-seven” to making the most gratuitous of episodes (an interlude with Simran, playing herself) seem halfway relevant to the goings on. And he gets tremendous support from his leads. Vikram essays a showy part with a potent mix of spectacle and silence – think Kamal Haasan in Guna without his Abirami fixation – while Surya follows up his Kaakha Kaakha grimness with an all-out explosion of effusiveness and energy. It all adds up to a first-rate film that excoriates as much as it entertains.
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