Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Punnagai Mannan

K.Balachander loved to focus on complex relationships and the complications that arose out of them. Whether it was a father-son pair falling in love with a daughter-mother pair or the other woman intruding into a happy family, he loved to pit strong characters against one another and explore the emotional fissures that created because of that. So when he makes a full-length love story like Punnagai Mannan, it should come as no surprise that its not a candyfloss romance that follows the usual Tamil cinema romance template.

When the film opens, Sethu(Kamalhassan) and Nandhini(Rekha) are lovers who are spending their last minutes together before committing suicide. But when they jump together, fate conspires to keep Sethu alive while Nandhini plunges to her death. A devastated Sethu is convinced to not try and kill himself again by his uncle Chaplin Chellappa(Kamalhassan) but turns into a quiet, moody recluse. On the anniversary of Nandhini's death, Sethu runs into Malini(Rekha) at the same spot where Nandhini died and dissuades her from committing suicide. Malini falls for him after this and enrolls in the dance school where Sethu is working as a teacher.

Someone who watches Punnagai Mannan without being familiar with KB's long resume could be forgiven for thinking that KB was his generation's Bala. Inspite of the cheery title referring to a king of smiles, this is a film that has little for us to smile about. It starts and ends with death, both its main romances are doomed, its protagonist comes from a rather dysfunctional family headed by a drunkard, polygamous father, its heroine is a refugee from Sri Lanka and even the one character modeled on one of the most iconic comic characters of all time, has taken on the image to hide his own sad past. The film is not relentlessly downbeat or depressing like one of Bala's films but no one's going to mistake it for a feel-good romance.

But inspite of the sadness in the background, the film can be considered positive since it is essentially about the power of love. Kamal has loved and lost and become dead emotionally but it is again love that resuscitates him. He goes through an entire gamut of emotions during this journey of romantic rebirth - he is devastated by Rekha's death; he blames himself for being alive; he is irritated by Revathi's actions; and he experiences feelings of guilt about abandoning Rekha as he feels the stirrings of love in his heart once again. But eventually, love triumphs over all those feelings.

Tamil cinema has always trumpeted the once-only nature of love(it was spelt out most famously by Vijay in Poove Unakkaaga as he compared love to a flower which once withered, can never bloom again). Death, rather than the reemergence of love, is the choice if love fails. So KB and Kamal walk a dangerous tightrope with the story here and they navigate it without crashing down. The revival of love in Kamal's heart has been portrayed naturally and believably as it appears against his wishes and the way he grapples with his conscience and guilt adds a new dimension to the romance. The sequence where he finally admits his love is exquisitely handled with Kamal's performance and Ilaiyaraja's music bringing out the mood and situation perfectly.

Within a span of five minutes, Kamal and Rekha manage to show us the extent of their love(what is really amazing they do this though we have no idea of who they are and what their backgrounds are). Kamal is at his romantic best in this sequence. Though Kamal and Revathi have a lot more time, their romance doesn't possess the same depth. But the two do make it easy for us to simply accept it. Revathi is sweet but persistent and we can see why she is able to enter Kamal's closed heart. And Kamal's sadness and confusion are easily expressed in his eyes and body language. The understated romance between Kamal(as Chaplin Chellappa) and Srividya is also a similar kind of love since this Kamal too has lost the love of his life. The romance is spelt out late and the two have only a couple of scenes together. But their characters are so endearing and the car ride during which he expresses his love and she accepts it is so sweet that they seem made for each other and make us wonder why we didn't see it coming.

I have found that in order to be effective, a long build-up has to culminate with a positive payoff(like in Kaadhal Koattai) while tragedy has more impact when it is sudden and unexpected(Sethu is a fine example of this). Punnagai Mannan raises the tension with a long build-up but then disappoints by closing things off in tragic fashion. The impact of the happening is greatly diluted because of the way it is presented(KB did the same thing in his last film Poi) and the end almost feels anti-climactic.

While song and dance have been an inseparable part of Tamil cinema since its beginnings, films that could be termed musicals have been rare. Punnagai Mannan is not one considering the traditional definition of one i.e. it doesn't have extravagantly staged numbers; it doesn't replace dialog with song; and it doesn't make its characters sing to one another when talking would have sufficed. But what it does do is treat the music as an integral part of the movie. Probably realizing that, Ilaiyaraja delivered one of his best albums. The songs here are not separate entities that were composed first - following a template such as 1 intro song, 3 duets and 1 pathos number - and then thrust into the narrative at moments where the director thought viewers could most use a bathroom or cigarette break. They are used to convey emotions at times when words just won't do. Its Kamal-Rekha's urgent passion that is on display in the wonderfully melodious Enna Satham..., Revathi's stubbornness that finds an outlet in the fast Kavidhai Kelungal..., her happiness that she has broken through Kamal's barriers that shines through in the cheerful Vaan Megam... and Kamal's jealousy that is expressed in the fun Mamavukku.... These numbers definitely convey those emotions in a much more forceful fashion that dialogs could've done. Music plays an important part right upto the end as Kamal and Revathi, on the car ride after their wedding, sing a medley of all the songs, with the slow ones transformed into more upbeat versions.


At 11:37 PM, Blogger Babs said...

small typo this "Malini(Rekha)" should read "Malini(Revathi)"

At 12:18 AM, Blogger D.E.V said...

nice review Balaji..wats ur rating?

At 12:31 AM, Blogger Rajesh Thiagarajan said...

I hope and wish this marks the restart of your rewind section. I've always been a fan of your movie reviews especially of the old movies.

I watched Punnagai Mannan again a couple of months ago. I felt that it was different from a number of other KB films that usually have a strong women centric tone.


At 1:53 AM, Blogger Sriram said...

I remember this movie for many awesome scenes. One of them is when Srividya slaps the kid who was being stupid. In our family, we call it The Srividya method. :D

Great review BB. As Rajesh said, I hope this restarts your review of old classics.


At 4:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent review balaji. another thing u reminded me of in it is that vj used to act in some pretty decent movies with pretty decent storylines and or messages...poove unnakaga, kadhalukku mariyadhai, priyamaanavale, nilaave vaa, ninaithen vandhai, priyamudan...was thirumalai/ghilli the worst thing to happen to him?

At 5:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought the ending of the movie was everything. It can be summed up as a story of a person who couldn't die when he wished and couldn't live when he wished, later on.

Is this the best KB movie among everything ( I'm sure everyone will have their own ).

At 7:20 AM, Blogger *chutz* said...

i think anonymous ^^^ has put it quite beautifully; not being able to dictate when he could die and live. i thought it was all very profound.

i personally hold this movie close to my heart because as i grew up, i watched the songs on replay (albeit back then it was less of a music video and more of a shoddy compilation my dad made on the VCR). this definitely wins all time favourite KB movie in my books :)

At 9:33 AM, Blogger mitr_bayarea said...

Lovely analysis of Punnagai Mannan, the songs and chemistry that Kamal has with both Rekha and Revathy and of course the dances make it all a classic movie. Illayaraja's BGM is unbeatable in this film. A remake of this movie would be impossible to live up to its original, as is the case most of the time.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Ven Sharma said...

LOL Balaji - Director Bala and his mentees kill characters in their movies like its nobodys business, why question this legendary director?

advanced aluth avurathe subabatoome!
eniye puthaandu vazthukkal endinida karuthu master!

I watched this movie alongwith my friend from undergrad days(revealing my age here...) 13 times, in the movie theater. That includes 2 back to back shows, matinee and first show.

SPB can never ever come even a mile close to his own rendition of enne satham ende neram. IR and SPB smoke in this song.

All in all I liked this movie so much that I watched it 13 times.

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Swamy Srinivasan aka Kittu Mama said...

Spectacular review Balaji.

Your reference to Bala is a great thought but KB according to me is a genius in handling characters. Though some might be dramatic, he still was able to create majical characters. No one can match kamal when it comes to a romantic subject. Ek dujhe ke liye is a monument to prove that.

Love punnagai mannan and its every detail. Illayaraja numbers in this movie are still ringing on millions of ears till date.

Fantastic review.

Kittu Mama

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bb, very, very nice review of punnagai mannan...i really liked the way u described the notion of "once-only nature of love"...kamal performance pathi innum konjam sollirukalaam :-)

here's my review...

A well-acted musical is a rare commodity. A well-acted, well-made, well-directed, well-written musical with great songs is as rare as honest politicians! Such a rare gem is "Punnagai Mannan." Made in 1986 by a formidable team, this classic works on all levels--as a character study, as drama, as a musical, as a romance and even as a tragedy. I would be at a loss if I was asked to decide which aspect works best because all of them blend in so smoothly in Balachander's screenplay (Story, Dialogues and Direction are also by him) to not just entertain the viewer but also to haunt the viewer. The powerful images, the sharp dialogues, the top class performances, the musical delight in Illayaraja's tunes all combine to make the movie a treasure.

"Punnagai Mannan" is about Sethu (Kamal Hassan), a dancer whose life is full of ups and downs. He loses his sweetheart in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, is wrongfully accused of murder, sent to jail, is released, and then falls in love again with another aspiring dancer. The movie is unique in its characterization of Sethu in that he does not have the usual confidence, none of the male chauvinism that movies in the 1980's exhibited (in fact, Revathi's is a very strong character) and above all--this movie's psychological reasoning is sound. The changes in Sethu's behavioral patterns are very well done--the circumspect, depressed person in the portions with Revathi is in stark contrast to the charming hunk in the portions with Rekha.

The focus of the movie is the romantic rebirth of the Sethu character after he is released from prison. Two other characters--Sethu's Uncle Chaplin Chellappa (Kamal Hassan again) and a SriLankan dance student Malini (Revathi) who falls in love with Sethu--dote on him in spite of his 'touch me not' attitude. How the two, especially the latter, provide him light at the end of the tunnel is what "Punnagai Mannan" is all about.

Balachander has several twists up his sleeve and this makes "Punnagai Mannan" a racy motion picture. Apart from the main twist that comes at the end of the "100-minute" sequence with Rekha, the one where Kamal argues with Revathi's parents is the other one that provides a spark in the second half (Kamal's altercation, in English, with Revathi's father is a gem in its own right). Chellappa's advice is sensible and his argument with Revathi's Dad (again, in English--notice how Kamal has used different speech patterns for the two roles) is fantastic. He also manages to insert some lightheartedness with his comments ("Suddenly my English is doing very well, Sir!"). But inspite of all the magic woven in the first 2.5 hours, Balachander, like a skilled long-distance athlete messing up the last lap, concludes this movie with a horrible climax. Some people might get a sense of closure or irony in it. This is one movie which begs for a positive ending but not with KB--he brings in a totally unwarranted twist which shakes us up no doubt, but also feels very contrived. But this is one classic that remains a classic in spite of an unconvincing finale...

The performances: Kamal Hassan was at the top of his game in the mid 80's and this dual role is among his several memorable turns during that period. The number of dimensions he gives the Sethu character is astonishing. The 15-minute sequence before the suicide attempts of Rekha and himself brings out the best in him in terms of facial expressions. His struggle to sport his "Pon Sirippu" shows how potent a close-up of a fine actor can be. Later his struggle to come to terms with his new life is brought out by his gruff exterior. His gradual melting culminates in the sequence where he confesses to Revathi that he has succumbed to her love. The casual arrogance with which he says "I love you" is a telling nuance--Sethu is not a hotheaded guy; its just that he finds it so awkward that he has fallen in love again that he shields himself with an impenetrable exterior. The other role--Chaplin Chellappa--is a stroke of genius. In using Charlie Chaplin's mannerisms, dressing habits (replete with that hat!) and silent comedy, what Kamal does is not an imitation but a tribute to the legendary comedian. It is amazing how he makes this character a lot more than a clown.

Revathi plays second fiddle to Kamal and is not given as much scope as Kamal but makes her character a memorable one with her trademark mix of fun, cuteness, sensitivity and grace. This is one of the few movies that gave good fodder for her dance skills, her poise and balance being a delight to watch. Rekha is sweet and does well in her short role. Delhi Ganesh and Srividya lift their one-dimensional, underwritten roles with good acting.

Apart from the performances, Illayaraja's music is the real backbone of the movie. The fast-paced "Kaala Kaalamaaga" has some amazing beats, with Raja's penchant for the fast paced violin music bringing in rapture to the listener. "Edhedho Ennam," "Enna Saththam Indha Neram" and "Singalathu Sinna Kuyile" are some of the sweetest melodies contributed by Raja to Tamil cinema. But what stands tall among these peaks is the 'theme music' that plays for about three minutes in the scene where Kamal and Revathi 'unite' in love. This dance sequence is an absolutely mesmerizing, aesthetic piece. Kamal's graceful steps synchronize so well with the tune and the rise to the crescendo when they eventually hold each other in their arms is unforgettable. Attaboy!

In the final analysis, "Punnagai Mannan" is one of the greatest ever music-centric dramas committed to celluloid.

At 10:31 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

babs, thanx. will correct in next update :)

skanda, thanx. probably 3 *. though star ratings r kinda skewed in case of older movies :)

rajesh/sriram, hoping to see and review more older movies this yr. lets see :)

anon, yep i think it was 'thirumalai' that started him off on his current masala streak :)

anon, that was beautifully put. it does shine a new light on the ending. then again, it wasn't the ending i had a problem with. it was the way KB built it up :)

chutz, yeah we always have special memories of movies we watched when growing up. thats why these reviews tend to be longer :)

mitr, yes the BGM was phenomenal throughout the film :)

ven, considering that KB kills off his 3 main characters here, i'm not surprised i thot of Bala.

kittu, the characterization is what stands out in Bala's movies too :)

ram, thanx :)

At 11:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

bb, I agree with you. A tragic ending suits some movies fine (e.g. Guna), but it seems a bit forced in this one. Nevertheless, pretty good movie.

The computerized theme music is awesome. I used to wonder (after AR had become popular) if AR Rahman had something to do with it, since he was supposed to be a keyboard player in IR's troupe. And in one of the post-Slumdog shows, they did mention that AR had done that piece, but anybody know for sure?

I only saw the movie when it was first reason. But I still remember a couple scenes very well.

One is the 'Srividya treatment' scene that Sriram spoke about.

The other is when Revathy writes something in the dusty car in Singhalese, Kamal chides her for writing his name, and she responds that she has written 'Maruti'.

Both the scenes just cracked me up.

At 11:38 PM, Blogger Bart said...

A very good musical with wonderful visuals too (for that time). The lush green atmosphere with the waterfalls, tea estate, mist etc makes the movie much more pleasantly memorable. I thought the photography deserved a mention for sure.
Also I remember this movie for bringing the first authoritative majestic stamp of western music in tamil cinema. The theme music and "1,2,3,4,5 .." number. There was the usual Balachander drama behind some characters (Chellappa and Delhi ganesh). Revathi's character from Srilanka didn't help much to the story I thought. As you pointed out, the love story of Rekha and Kamal was far more convincing than that of Revathy's. The intense first 15 mins is a class movie by itself. Overall a memorable movie for sure.

At 1:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While exiting the theatre after watching the film, an old lady was remarking to her euqlly old friend "Rekha-kku epdi irukkum, ivan paattu chakkalathiya sorgathukku kootittu vanduttan..."..totally cracked me up.


At 5:07 AM, Blogger Kaarthik said...

Nice review of an Old Classic.
By the way Rekha's name is Ranjani and not Nandhini.

KB is not his time Bala. U cud have said that Bala is this generation KB.

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Me too said...

If I remember right, 'Mauna ragam' and 'Punnagai Mannan' were the last couple of films of Revathy before her marriage when she almost bid goodbye to movies and both came out at around the same time and at that time for me, 'MR' almost overshadowed this one! But nevertheless, a gem from KB-Kamal-IR combo!

Like Prakash pointed out, the scene where Kamal gets irritated when Revathy writes Maruthi on the car("appo, road-le poi roadunnu yezhudhuviya?") and when Kamal struggles to read her New year wish in Singalam are super scenes!

LOLed on Shwetha's comment!

At 6:02 AM, Blogger Ganesh said...

A really good film from K.Balachandar.He's one Tamil director who's shown his worth in all genres(From a thriller to comedy);though not all his efforts were upto the mark.:)

At 6:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

finally the old movie reviews are back. Will the movie-of-the-month be back too?

gr8 review by Ram too.

At 12:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yasodha, thank you.

bb, en review padicheengela?

At 3:23 PM, Blogger ரவிஷா said...

I was in college when this movie came and those days I was not a fan of watching movies; though, would listen to all Ilayaraja's music. I was able to get hold of a walkman at that time and my uncle got me a cassette for Rs.29/- (or 19 I forgot) and I literally wore out the tape by listening to the songs. I listened to "Vaan Megam..." song for, I don't know, may be 250 times. You could hear the sound of "saaral" in one of the ears if you listen carefully. Especially when it used to rain, I used to play this song in our tape recorder those days :) Your review kinda rekindled my memories :)

At 5:43 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

prakash, yep that's an amazing piece that deservedly accompanies the most important scene in the movie. not sure who was behind it though :)

bart, for some reason i missed this one on the big screen and recently saw an average print on the computer. thats probably why I forgot to mention the cinematography. but yes, it certainly deserves a mention. the shots of the falls were esp. breathtaking :)

shwetha, wow what a completely different perspective on the ending. a gem :)

kaarthik, that point was just to emphasize the -ve tone throughout this movie. otherwise bala and kb have totally different styles and I don't think they can be compared :)

me too, long time no see. needed a kamal movie review to bring u back here!
yeah this was among the last few movies of Revathi I think :)

ganesh, yes, he's definitely displayed a real versatility :)

yasodha, I'm hoping to review more older movies but will probably combine the rewind and movie-of-the-month sections :)

ram, ofcourse. i've read it a long time ago on ur website too. hope the 'romantic rebirth' phrase' wasn't internalization on my part :)

ravi, each of us has our own memories around such movies that came out when we were growing up. thats why i love to catch up on such movies too :)

At 6:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review. However, I still remember walking out of the theater speechless after the ending. Have to watch it again to determine if I agree with you!

Ippo itha Vishnuvardhan or Venkat Prabhu direct pannirnda... i think they would have shown the car blow up first as the merry medley goes on.... then the uncle with the apple! then Chaplin Kamal shown crying. :)

At 7:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

“But what stands tall among these peaks is the 'theme music' that plays for about three minutes in the scene where Kamal and Revathi 'unite' in love. This dance sequence is an absolutely mesmerizing, aesthetic piece. Kamal's graceful steps synchronize so well with the tune and the rise to the crescendo when they eventually hold each other in their arms is unforgettable. Attaboy!”

“prakash, yep that's an amazing piece that deservedly accompanies the most important scene in the movie. not sure who was behind it though :)”

==> I read in a magazine some time after the movie release, that Illayaraja used this piece of music from some personal compositions of Kamal haasan. I don’t remember clearly whether this was told by Kamal himself in an interview. It would be good if anyone else can substantiate this. btw I was recently thinking about the movies of the 80's and felt that most movies in that period were classics as compared to the number worthy movies released these days. And KB's many movies fit this bill.

At 8:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

last few movies of revathi?? really?? i thought MR was one of her firsts.......she did a few in 90's with karthik and some others....she's such an unbeatable actress...

At 9:21 PM, Blogger Shankar said...

The theme music composed in this film was done by IR. Knowing his penchant for having a tight control on his compositions, it is highly unlikely that somebody else actually composed it. Sure, the instruments were played by IR's troupe and was also probably arranged by someone else but the orchestration and composition are surely IR's!! His signature is all over those pieces...


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