Why doesn’t Bala make comedies? His obsession with bloodbaths may suggest he has one of the most twisted minds in the industry – it’s a wonder he’s not yet been snapped up as a consultant by the people who run Hell, to design increasingly vivid tortures. But his mind is also one of the funniest – he serves up jokes with a uniquely whimsical twist. Like the scene in Thaarai Thappattai where the folk artist Sannasi (M Sasikumar) finds himself staring at a serving of rum in a bottle cap. Or the one where he goes to recruit a dancer named Chinnaponnu. Or the villain’s ringtone – a devotional chant. I found myself grinning at even some of the non-jokey lines, as when Sannasi’s father Saamipulavan (GM Kumar, whose contracts with Bala clearly have a clothing-optional clause) curses his son, “Nee ellaam nallaa irukka maatte.” Look, it’s a Bala movie. As if someone needed to say that.
Some might view Thaarai Thappattai, which is set in the village of Padithurai in Thanjavur, as Bala’s take on Avatharam. The storyline woven around the miserable plight of folk artists, the near-mythical end, the magnificent Ilayaraja score (more on that later) – it’s all here. Others may view the film as Bala’s take on… Bala’s older films. An early stretch of the film features the Discovery Channel, but subsequently, we feel we’re watching the Rediscovery Channel. The déjà vu, especially in the latter portions, is undeniable. But the power of his films is equally undeniable. At one point, a man likens an impromptu Caesarean operation to splitting open a jackfruit and scooping out the flesh. I can’t readily think of many other filmmakers whose dialogue can make you feel violated. With Bala, the “should I watch this film?” question is moot. You already know the answer.
That could be said of Sanjay Leela Bhansali as well, and for the first time, I sensed some kind of kinship between the two filmmakers. (Perhaps the very recent viewing of Bajirao Mastani had something to do with this.) At first, this might seem ridiculous, given their sensibilities, aesthetics, vision and the fact that they operate at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. But both essentially keep making the same movie. Both are drawn, repeatedly, to darkness, and love is but another stop on the tortuous road to doom. Plus, the highly stylised performances, which don’t seem to come from the actor so much as the director. Watch the villain in Thaarai Thappattai – he looks smashing in a white veshti topped with Aviator sunglasses – throw his head back and cackle, as if auditioning for a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Bala’s films may be set in a discernable reality, but this isn’t “realism” – not by a long shot.
Bala is especially visible in the character played by Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, which is to take nothing away from her livewire inhabitation of the role and her full-throttled commitment to it. (She plays the dancer Sooravali. Contrast her name with that of the Sasikumar character, and you get the gist of their personalities.) But it’s still a Bala performance – in the mockery she makes of the word thaaipaasam when her mother advises her not to drink during daytime; in the hammy glee she brings to the query “Enakkaa?”, when Sannasi buys her a sari (she sounds like a five-year-old trying to emulate late-period Sivaji Ganesan); in her mimicking of the full life cycle of alcohol consumption, from opening the bottle to falling back inebriated; and in her brazen appropriation of the things we expect from the hero, right down to beating up bad guys. (She refers to herself, rightly, as Mr. Sooravali.) Sasikumar, on the other hand, plays the character like he plays all his serious characters, like he’s exhausted and he’d rather crawl back into his beard. He’s the straight guy amidst the others (like the excellent new find, RK Suresh), the much-needed foil.
I watched Thaarai Thappattai like I watch all Bala’s films – partly exasperated, but also (for the most part) able to brush aside the annoyances because he’s such a singular creator. Foremost among my issues with this director: the jagged cutaways, the oddly spliced in reaction shots, the vague-looking foreigners, the painfully one-note villains, the naked desire to shock the audience (he’s K Balchander’s equal in this respect; look out for the bra-buying scene), and most of all, the utter lack of finesse. Note the awful scene in which women parade before a two-way mirror – it’s directed like a Bindu Ghosh comedy routine. How can a visionary who’s been making films for so long give us such crude frames? Then again, the Bala apologist in me wonders if this lack of polish is deliberate. Maybe this kind of filmmaking is as much an act of violence as the endings of his films. He’s doing to our sensibilities what the villains did to Suriya at the close of Pithamagan.
But then you see what he does with the Paruruvaaya song sequence, with Sannasi carrying Sooravali like a daughter – in his arms, on his back, leading her to the bathroom like a little girl. It’s moving enough when you see these scenes as they’re unfolding, but the blow-to-the-head import comes only at the end, when these images come full circle. For such a sensationalist, Bala can be terrifically subtle. I was especially taken by the link he fashions between the scene from Titanic where the hero paints the heroine and the one in which this film’s hero paints his heroine, as she’s readying for a performance in the Andamans. Everything’s there for a reason, however minor. At first, the film-song medley in the second half looks like another thing Bala has to have in his movies. But it’s not just a lazy talisman. It’s also the culmination of the character arcs of a brother-sister duo in the film. And it’s also a comment on the hierarchy inherent in even a form as loosely evolved as folk. Saamipulavan is the equivalent of the Somayajulu character in Shankarabharanam – the dour purist. He looks down on his son’s bastardization of the art, and Sannasi, in turn, looks down on what the brother-sister duo is doing with the art, setting it to film songs. (This is this film’s equivalent of Shankarabharanam’s rock n’ roll Broche vaa sequence.)
But does the brother-sister duo warrant this extended interlude? Put differently, why not give them a few more scenes, earlier, and help us get to know them more, so we better appreciate their participation in this sequence? Why not spend a little more time with Saamipulavan and flesh him out with regard to his dynamics with Sannasi and Sooravali? A bit of all this is there – but not enough to make us feel for these social outsiders the way we felt about the quartet in Pithamagan or even the duo of Avan Ivan. We know, from the Andaman sequences, that Sooravali will do anything for Sannasi – yet, this knowledge in the head doesn’t warm the heart. And the minor characters, usually so memorable in Bala’s films, are just part of the background here, illuminated only by their names. (Sooravali’s dancing cohorts are called… Puyal, Anugundu, Boogambam.) More troubling are the scenes that needed to be more powerful – the villain’s reveal, the random way in which Sannasi stumbles upon Soorvali after she’s gone missing (one scene he gets the news, the next scene he’s right by her side), or even Sannasi’s transformation at the end, which appears to arise not so much from pages of a screenplay as bars of sheet music.
I refer, of course, to Ilayaraja. It isn’t everyday that we celebrate a 1000th film, and the maestro rises to the occasion with a rousingly red-blooded score. Translation: with the exception of Aattakaari, bye-bye tinny synth sound. It’s fitting that this landmark deposits him right in Annakkili’s backyard – he seems to have come full circle too. Even if Sannasi’s climactic transformation makes little sense from a narrative point of view, Ilayaraja’s score – violins, conch shells, beats that slam the brain – almost makes you buy it. The scenes don’t last long enough for leitmotif-driven background music, but the bits are brilliant – the thavil with konnakol syllables in Saamipulavan’s introduction, which segues superbly into the less-classical-sounding piece as Sannasi makes his introduction (you have reams of character development right there, in that switch); the rhythms and the thrilling pauses in the instrumental piece that plays over Soorvali’s dance in the Andamans. And then, the songs. Idarinum and Paruruvaaya are heartbreaking, but my favourite song in the soundtrack is Vathana vathana vadivelan, which sounds like Deepavali inside your head. If Ada veettukku veettukku is single-malt, this is hooch. Voice and percussion come together so organically that you may think the singer, rather than the rhythm section, is keeping beat. And for long-time fans, there are amusing flashbacks – to Kuyila pudichu, to En purushan dhaan. The latter plays as a ringtone in a sequence that’s the exact reversal of the doormat situation in Gopurangal Saaivadhillai – here, the husband is pressing his wife’s feet. Tell me again, why doesn’t Bala make comedies?
I suppose it’s the second half that will test the patience of the staunchest Bala fan. The sad lives of these artists has already been alluded to – for instance, in the Andamans stretch, where the female dancers are regarded as easy. We get more scenes saying the same thing, and it feels like filler, like something an assistant director was asked to do while Bala went backstage to sharpen his machetes and load his spray gun with red paint, for the climax. (The ensuing kicks and beatings are their own kind of percussion.) And there are three massive musical sequences (not exactly helped by the repetitive dance moves) that suck up all narrative energy – though one of these songs made me smile. It’s an update of Aarambam aavadhu pennukkule, from Thangapadhumai, with Padmini’s laments ingeniously transformed into fake-wails for a corpse. Only Bala can make an attention-deficit modern audience sit through a thathuva paadal, by making them think they’re actually watching a kuthu number.
- tharai thappattai = a folk percussion instrument
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