I’ve been obsessed with Indian film for some 14 years now and since I’ve started writing about those movies and the people who make them, I try to get to Mumbai and Chennai every year, to stay in touch.
Yes, Chennai too, because only a few years after the Hindi movie bug bit me, my local Indian cinema in New York (since closed) had one special weekend screening of the first Tamil movie I’d ever seen, and it was another lightning bolt moment for me, the start of another branch in this obsession.
At that time, around 2000, Tamil films were harder to come by at the desi video stores in New York. So in spite of my newfound craving, Hindi movies remained the dal chawal for me, and Tamil movies only an occasional payasam.
But from my first trip to Mumbai, meeting up with a bunch of fellow bloggers and writers, any mention of Tamil movies, or Chennai even, would elicit either puzzled smiles or that kind of 'Ok, I hope you know what you’re doing' shrug you give people who you think have embarked on some questionable venture, but whom you’re powerless to stop.
I remembered many years before in Manhattan, an Indian taxi driver generalising and telling me about the attitudes Indians from north and south can have toward each other, and how there was sometimes distrust or disdain, but it surprised me to actually see it in the sophisticated, worldly Mumbai. That said, we’re all subject to our own parochial chauvinism (just ask a New Yorker if they’d ever consider living in New Jersey…) But if you’re reading this as you sit in Delhi or Mumbai, and you’re rolling your eyes too, please stay for a bit and hear me out.
Sense and Sensibility
That movie I saw back in 2000 was Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (I Have Found It), a wonderful Tamil adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (with, I would venture, some influence from the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson film as well). Though I knew few of the big names of Tamil cinema, I immediately recognised the two women in the lead roles — Tabu and Aishwarya Rai — and I figured if they were on the bill, how bad could it be?
To say I was enthralled is an understatement. Tabu plays the older, more serious, practical sister Sowmya and Aishwarya is the younger, romantic, impulsive sister Meenakshi. Add to that Ajith, and Mammootty as a vet from the war in Sri Lanka and you’d be smitten as well. I was hooked from the inventive touches in the first song picturisation- Konjum Mainakkale – with the beautiful, fearless, sari-clad Meenakshi capering through fields and dancing, at times tomboyishly, while surrounded by male dancers wearing a series of masks of faces as diverse as tigers, Ganesha and the Tamil poet Bharathiyar. The stories, the melodies, the rich visuals and cinematography by Ravi K. Chandran, all flowed together so flawlessly, that I practically floated out of the cinema.
Youtube video of Konjum Mainakkale
For me, part of the charm also was hearing the sounds and intonations of the Tamil language and its very unique stop-and-start rhythms for the first time. A decade later, after fitful attempts to learn the language, I’m still mesmerised by it enough to listen to audiobooks in Tamil, as I try to identify snippets that I understand, or, more often, just to listen to language and let it roll over me.
Mani Ratnam and the Sri Lankan Civil War
If Kandukondain was the initial first crush, the movie that cemented my love of Tamil film forever was one that I saw in 2002 on a long Sri Lankan Airways flight from Zurich to Colombo, and had as its backdrop – much to my surprise, given the carrier - the Sri Lankan civil war. It was Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal (For a Peck on the Cheek).
The movie begins in a Tamil area in the north, with Shyama (Nandita Das) getting married. Shortly after, her husband goes off to fight with the Tigers. Shyama learns that she is pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu and then returns to Sri Lanka while the little girl, Amudha, grows up in Chennai. On her ninth birthday, her new parents (played by R. Madhavan and Simran Bagga) reveal to Amudha she is adopted. Devastated, Amudha wants to meet her birth mother, which then puts a whole series of events into motion.
Aside from the moving story, it is the way that Mani Ratnam has told it that still thrills and awes me, almost 10 years later and probably about as many viewings. For example, Madhavan’s character, Thiruchelvan, is a writer, and when a flashback explains how he came to know of the infant Amudha and realise he wants to adopt her, the story begins as Tamil script, handwritten, moving across the screen, superimposed over his image, with a voice narrating the words. Seamlessly, without our realising it, that artifice slowly disappears as we are deposited fully into those scenes.
Unlike so many Tamil films that have a boy-meets-girl romance at their core, here it is actually the story of Thiruchelvan and Indira (Simran) falling in love with the orphan baby that is so beautifully told, without an image or a word wasted. To see what I mean, just look on YouTube for the two versions of the film’s title song, in one case picturised with mother and daughter, the other with father and daughter, the music by A.R. Rahman and lyrics by Vairamuthu. For a real treat, Google the lyrics in English; even in translation, they are exquisite.