‘Avargal’ is a good place to begin analysing K Balachander’s unique, complicated and quite amazing love for his female characters.
As reductive as it sounds, is there one film that sums up K Balachander? It isn’t easy – not when there are so many to choose from, but maybe we can settle on Avargal, which examines the life of Anu (Sujatha) as she deals with the affections of three men. One of these men is Ramanathan, played by Rajinikanth. Villains have existed since the beginning of cinema, but here was someone who enjoyed doing to people what a kid with a magnifying glass would do to an ant on a sunny day. Except, he wasn’t obvious. He wasn’t a Nambiar wielding a whip. He didn’t let you see that he was holding the magnifying glass, and he didn’t let you know that he regarded you as an ant. You ended up fried all the same. Anu certainly did. At the end of the film, she called Ramanathan a sadist. It was a new word in Tamil cinema – not because of the Englishness of the word, though that brought in its element of newness too, but because emotional sadism, the kind Ramanathan specialised in, was new.
In a way, KB was like Ramanathan. I am not going as far as suggesting he was a sadist, but he loved to put women under a magnifying glass – to study them, yes, but also to watch them squirm under heated circumstances. He made them shoulder monstrous burdens and made them bear those burdens willingly, and then, as if as a reward, he led them, again and again, to the brink of what looked like a happy ending, only to kick them over the ledge into an abyss. Take Arangetram, for instance, the story of a Brahmin woman who becomes a prostitute to provide for her large, impoverished family. (The largeness of this family is illustrated through a simple dinner-time shot, where the father is seated on the floor, as if at the head of the table, and his children sit in two apparently endless rows on either side – there’s a separate essay waiting to be written about the mise-en-scène in KB’s cinema.) At the end, when her family finds out and throws her out on the street, she is rescued by a good-hearted acquaintance whose son is willing to marry her. But she loses her mind. Happily ever after – so near, yet so far.
But in many other ways, KB was like Janardhanan, the character Kamal Haasan played in Avargal. He adored women, respected them, took care of them, nourished them, groomed them, cheered for them when they turned independent, and, yes, loved them. To see his work is to see a filmmaker who worshipped women, who essentially demolished the myth that a film needed a hero to be a hit, and who did not mind that his female characters often came off stronger than the males. Look at the insufferably male-dominated (hero-dominated, really) Tamil cinema today, and look back at KB’s cinema. In Moondru Mudichu and Manmadha Leelai, the hero is taught a lesson at the end. In Sollathan Ninaikkiren, the hero is pursued by three women, and yet, by the end, they marry others – he ends up all alone. In Achamillai Achamillai, the hero winds up at the sharp end of a knife held by the heroine, his wife. Few directors, before or after, have endowed their women characters with so much agency.
This blend of Ramanathan and Janardhanan – or Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, if you will; they are, after all, his two most famous protégés – is the thing that makes KB’s work endlessly fascinating to analyse. His films, today, don’t look like just films. They come off like autobiographies. And his women characters – not just the heroines, but also the supporting characters like Chandra, played by ‘Fatafat’ Jayalakshmi in Aval Oru Thodarkadhai – come off like the fantasies of a man who was brought up in rather conservative times but yearned to liberate his women, and ended up swinging wildly between these extremes. Chandra, for instance, is all happy-go-lucky and who-gives-a-fish in the film’s early portions, but by the end, she falls gratefully at the feet of the man who says he will marry her. Looking at the film today, some may sneer that the bohemian has been tamed by tradition, but the right way to look at the film is through the eyes of the audiences of 1974, the year it was released, when even the existence of such a bohemian was a miracle.
There is another man in Avargal, Bharani (Ravi Kumar). He loves Anu too. He was Anu’s boyfriend earlier, before she married Ramanathan. And he becomes her boyfriend again after she divorces Ramanathan, even as a love-struck Janardhanan looks on hopefully from the sidelines. The culmination of these loves plays out during the exquisite MS Viswanathan number Angum ingum, where Anu falls ill and is tended to by all three men. One of them measures out medicine. Another squeezes juice from oranges. The third cooks and takes care of her child. Anu will end up in the abyss, but at this moment, there seems to be no luckier woman than the K Balachander heroine.
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