Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal

Posted on March 27, 2005


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Remembering a classic movie, from a classic novel by Jnanpith award winner Jayakanthan.

MAR 27, 2005 – WHEN A WEALTHY MAN IN A CAR gives a lift to an impoverished girl one rainy night, and when he plays on her wide-eyed, jaw-dropped awe at his luxury to initiate lovemaking, is that an act of seduction, or is it rape? When this girl (named Ganga; played marvellously by Lakshmi) reinitiates contact with this man (named Prabhu; played by Srikanth) – after several years, when he’s forgotten all about that night in the car – and falls in love with him, despite his being married, despite his daughter being perhaps just a few years younger than her, is she striking an I-will-do-what-I-want-to-do blow for feminism, or is she surrendering to him because no one else will have her?

It isn’t surprising that such open-endedness existed in Jayakanthan’s Sahitya Akademi-award-winning novel, Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal – he was, after all, a left-leaning writer who used the pointed tip of his pen to jab readers into seeing and sensing things they wouldn’t ordinarily see or sense.

What’s surprising, even shocking, is that the mid-70s movie version – by A Bhimsingh, of all people, the man behind melodramas like Paasamalar and Paalum Pazhamum, known more for messing up your mascara than making you mull over minutiae – sustained this open-endedness till the very end. A last act is meant to supply answers, but Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal ends with a question – a song, actually, a magnificent MS Viswanathan melody that asks, through Jayakanthan’s lyrics, Veru Idam Thedi Povaalo? What will happen to Ganga, we wonder, as the film itself does, as we leave her, alone, huddled in a chair, covered by Prabhu’s coat after he leaves her. It’s the rare Tamil cinema moment revealing that in the movies, as in life sometimes, there are no answers.

This is the only screen work of Jayakanthan that I’ve seen… and seen, and seen. I’ve never caught Unnai Pol Oruvan or Yaarukkaaga Azhudhaan – do prints of these actually exist? – and Oru Nadigai Naadagam Paarkiraal, that other cerebral Jayakanthan-Bhimsingh-Lakshmi collaboration, I saw just once, way too long ago, when I’d have easier gotten all six faces of a Rubik’s Cube than comprehended the movie’s complexities. Still, I’d wager Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal is the best of the author’s work that made it to film, and arguably Tamil cinema’s finest literary adaptation of our time, at least till Thi. Janakiraman’s Mogamul found itself on screens.

And yet, when I first saw the movie, I thought it was a cheat. With Nagesh’s face on the poster, I’d had hopes of ribs being tickled – I ended up with my heart crushed. Not only was he not being funny, he was downright creepy, voyeuristically observing Ganga and Prabhu, using their lives for a story of his own – a short story named Agni Pravesam. Only later did I learn that this short story was actually written by Jayakanthan and later expanded as the novel Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal, which means that Nagesh was really a stand-in for the author, which means that this is probably the only instance of a Tamil film that self-references both its creator and its source.

Is it surprising, then, that Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal feels as much a movie as Master’s thesis material? It may be in black-and-white, but its concerns – the loneliness of the single woman (Ganga is lusted after by an elderly maternal uncle), the issues of gender (for Ganga, the incident in the car is life-altering; for Prabhu, it’s just something that happened one night) and caste (the tonsured, widowed mother in Ganga’s Brahmin family versus the tennis-playing, mini-skirted daughter in Prabhu’s “non-Brahmin” household) – are anything but, and that’s why this borderline-improbable, borderline-perverse love story remains as controversial, as fascinating, as endlessly debatable today as it was upon release.

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil