Readers Write In #375: Paadavaa Un Paadalai: a brilliant song, an apt picturisation and a terrible film

Posted on June 29, 2021

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(by Madan Mohan)

Recently, I heard Paadavaa Un Paadalai after years (having overplayed it to death back in college) thanks to the Quarantine From Reality series.  I enjoyed their performance of the song and went back to the original.  As I marvelled at the intensity of the original as well as Ambika’s wonderful enactment of the scene, I got curious about the film itself.  I mean, in the pre-Mani Ratnam phase, it was rare in general for Ilayaraja songs to get the picturisation they deserved.  So, against my better judgment, I decided to watch Naan Paadam Paadal.

In short order, I realised just what I had signed up for.  Especially after learning that, barring some nice foreshadowing of tragedy, the whole build up to the Paadavaa moment was rather lame and lacking the weight the song and the scene both conveyed. I could not help but get into Fast Forward mode.

But what really clinched the deal for me as far as slotting Naan Paadum Paadal in the terrible basket, notwithstanding the three other amazing Ilayaraja songs it is blessed with, was how director R Sundarrajan insidiously (ok, women watching the film wouldn’t say it is particularly insidious at all) seeks to make an argument for tradition and patriarchy through the device of a forever love. Basically going from QSQT to Vivaah in one and the same film, if you will.

Another way to put it is it takes a theme also explored in Nenjathai Killathe – of longing for a lover who cannot be attained and this getting in the way of marriage to another man – and looks at it purely from the purushan-pondaati (husband-wife) lens.

The first whiff of this traditional mindset is inserted quickly and slyly in the flashback portion.  When Mohan asks why Ambika won’t go for a recording on the day after, she says while she had aspired to be a singer before marriage, there was no place for this after marriage.  It is Maryada Purushottam Mohan who so benevolently and gently chides her for this and urges her to go forth and sing her heart out.

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There is another little touch here which I would have otherwise ignored…but for the fact that it’s of a piece with the other bits loudly celebrating the institution of marriage in a particular, traditional light. On the day of the recording, Mohan keeps getting calls from the wife of a patient whose heart surgery was to have happened that day (but which Mohan cancelled to attend pondaati’s recording).  Mohan even gives her a little lesson on work-life balance light years ahead of his time.

But just when yours truly was pleasantly surprised at this sudden breath of modernity,  Sundarrajan said, “Hold my beer, bro”.  As Mohan goes off to get dressed, the phone rings again and Ambika receives it and tells the caller she is the wife of the doctor. The aggrieved caller decides to talk woman to woman (would almost pass the Bechdel Test…if only she wasn’t talking about her husband).  But she defines the crux of her grievance as “En kazhuthula thaali irrukardhum erangardhum unga kaiyil dhan”. So it turns out women are at the mercy of not only their own husbands but also other husbands who happen to be overworked doctors hungry for work-life balance.

Ambika pulls off a screamer to save the thaali from dropping off and convinces Mohan that he can both get the surgery done and also get back in time for the recording, simultaneously underestimating the difficulty of a heart surgery and Madras traffic.  A grumpy Mohan drives his hapless Premier Padmini like it were a turbocharged sports car.  As Ambika gets into the recording room, he is performing the kind of feats that once led FIA to make Michael Schumacher participate in a road safety campaign. You can tell what happens next and the song Paadavaa Un Paadalai briefly makes it all worth it, etching the moment with the utmost sincerity.

I now cut to the very end when Sivakumar somehow confuses Ambika’s view of how his current novel should be concluded with a marriage proposal and wastes no time in applying the dreaded sindoor on her forehead.  His gesture is rewarded, in one of the movie’s few appropriate moments, with a tight slap.

Again, just as I thought she was showing him, she picks up a burning wooden stick (ostensibly being used for cooking) and lights up that very sindoor-stained spot.  She proceeds to tell him that the fault lies not with him for trying to pronounce her his wife without ever asking, in as many words, “Will you marry me?” but with her that she led him to believe she wanted to marry him.  She then delivers the coup-de-grace, “Yenniki engalkulla shanti mugurtham nadundho, annilendhu indha odambula odara yella rathammum avarodadhu dhaan.”  Please note, there is no reference here to her true love for Mohan or that he still occupies pride of place in her heart. 

Some personal context here.  Years back, one of my aunts lost her husband to an accident just a month after their marriage.  Worse still, she was riding pillion when a truck ran over the two of them and she miraculously survived.  The incident scarred her so much she didn’t want to marry again.  But she did…eventually and it’s been a happily-ever-after story ever since. 

But that would be years later and in 1984, Sundarrajan was having none of it as he mercilessly crushed the beauty of one of Ilayaraja’s ‘sleeper hit’ albums under the weight of tired writing paired to the agenda of upholding the thaali at all costs.  And uphold he did – Naan Paadum Paadal apparently ran for 175 days!