Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Repertoire of Padmarajan

Most of you must be wondering - who the heck is this Padmarajan? Well, I guess the name makes it amply clear that he was a Mallu :). Padmarajan was to Malayalam cinema what Mani Ratnam was to Tamil cinema, or Hrishikesh Mukherjee was to Bollywood. However, Padmarajan's movies were neither overly simplistic (like Mani Ratnam's own Bombay or Agni Nathathram), nor always rooted on a foundation of humor. Through the 1980s, Padmarajan showcased his abilities as a director par excellence, straddling the so-called parallel and commercial genres with utmost ease.

Being basically a novelist, Padmarajan displayed a phenomenal flair for characterization (he always wrote his own screenplays). Be it the hapless old man of 'Moonnam Pakkom' (The Third Day) or the compulsive-obsessive stepfather in 'Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal' (Vineyards For Us To Dwell), the characters he created could never be accused of being ordinary. To the contrary, many of the protagonists penned by him were delinquent, often sexually (which was being pretty daring in the 1980s, one has to admit). Another thing I loved about his movies were their titles - they were rather like the ones found for short stories, and always just so apt. Its rather difficult to pinpoint the best movies Padmarajan directed; he's done far too many different kinds of movies with more than a mere semblance of competence to make it that easy. Here I present my personal favorites from his oeuvre:

'Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal' (Vineyards For Us To Dwell - a whopper of a title, even if it's a self-confessed Padmarajan fan saying so) starts off like a simple love-story, but the characters take on a life all of their own after half an hour, and keep you engrossed until the very end. Thilakan plays the stepfather of the girl, and just oozes slimy menace. With more than a hint of sexual harassment thrown in, this movie was far ahead of its times. Great pacing, a truly DARK climax (I just love these - exactly why I liked the recent 'Being Cyrus') and amazing performances by Mohanlal & Thilakan make this an eternal favorite.

Much before Deepa Mehta, there was Padmarajan; much before 'Fire', there was 'Deshadanakkili Karayarilla' (Birds That Migrate Don't Shed Tears - a terrible translation, but it's the thought that counts, I guess!). Unlike Deepa Mehta, who IMHO sought to obscure the issue with how the protagonists became lesbians because of their uncaring husbands, Padmarajan made no bones about the fact that his protagonists were probably lesbians. Narrating a tragic tale of how the meek, submissive partner of the duo tries to break away from the influence of her dominant & brash other half, the director never once resorts to the familiar filmi trappings (such as a flashback exonerating the perpetuator of everything); unpredictable twists and turns make this an amazing ride all the way through.

When I first saw 'Thoovanathumbikal' (Butterfiles in the Rain
), I didn't like it much. IMHO, it still remains one of Padmarajan's lesser efforts; I mean, it somehow lacks that amazing completeness so many of his other movies boast of. But a re-watch of the movie by a better movie-literate me made me admire the hell out of the sheer ingenuity of the characterization - probably amongst the best ever attempted in Indian cinema. They (the characterizations) - especially that of Mohanlal - are so good that they linger in your mind eons after you have watched the movie. Moreover, there is a kind of poetry to the whole film that gets to you once the film approaches its all-too logical conclusion. Mohanlal magnificently depicts a two-faced personality, with the kind of nuances only he can even attempt without appearing to overact. In what had to be a real stroke of genius, Padmarajan gets footage of Mohanlal at his vintage best, showing the audience that there is more to it than meets the eye - after a boisterous session of drinking with friends after which Mohanlal leeringly arranges for one of his friends to lose his virginity with a prostitute, he suddenly sobers up and after carefully checking that nobody is watching him, composedly staggers down the stairs. I know it doesn't sound much on paper, but that one scene spoke volumes about the innate loneliness of the character. In yet another remarkable bit of inspiration, the director chooses to place rain in the background whenever the protagonists meet (hence the title), indicating, perhaps, the innocence of their love for each other; on the other hand, at another scene the rain stops and lingers, indicating that they are about to part (in a predictable finale, one of my chief grouses about the movie). Point and counter-point - amazing, subtle direction!

'Kariyilakattu Pole' (Like a Draft of Dry Leaves) adopts a story-telling technique that I didn't really appreciate at the time. When I chanced upon Nelson Demille's 'The General's Daughter', I was intrigued by the technique of knowing the victim through the investigator's eyes. When I commented on this to a fellow-bibliophile, he remarked that he had seen a Mallu movie (he was Tamilian) that basically did the same thing. His brief outline of the story triggered off my mown memories, and I went VCD-hunting. And o-boy - what a find I made that day. The movie is basically about an investigation into the murder of a prominent film-director. In a classic reversal of their onscreen images, Mohanlal (then, merely an upcoming star) and Mammootty (the reigning star then) play the investigator and the murder victim respectively. Though they never share screen time, one gets to know and empathise with the victim through the investigator's eyes, chiefly due to competent performances by both of them. Many years later, Mammootty would play the role of an investigator (well, a journalist investigating a murder) for the umpteenth time in a film of a similar genre; Uttaram (Answer) went on to become a huge hit with the critics, and played at several film festivals as well. Sadly, the pioneer of the genre remained unacclaimed.

'Season' is a personal favourite. It is widely regarded as a failure by most purists, but a rather unique screenplay plus Mohanlal at the peak of his acting prowess makes this a memorable experience, IMHO. The story is a one-liner, really; I imagine it this way. Padmarajan reads Stephen King's 'The Shawshank Redemption' and contemplates: what if Andy and Red had a history; what if Red had a personal agenda behind helping Andy flee prison? Mohanlal does the guy-who-can-get-it-done-for-you part with a straight face, never betraying his true intentions until the end. The film, though, is a tad predictable, and this may have accounted for its failure at the box-office.

I know I have missed out on many a perrenial favorite: Moonnam Pakkom (The Third Day), for one, is a haunting tale with some AWESOME acting. It is rather simply structured, though, and does not have the shock-value that his earlier films did. I discount 'Innale' (Yesterday) too, becuase I found Shobhana very, very unconvincing in the part of an amnesiac. Its all subjective, though. For all of you who have wanted to watch great regional cinema, you could do no better than getting a collection of Padmarajan DVDs with good sub-titles. The only movie I'd avoid would be 'Parannu Parannu Parannu' (Flew); well, everybody can make one mistake!

33 comments:

SloganMurugan said...

I owe my knowledge of Malayalam to this man. Growing up in Karnataka, my knowledge of Malayalam (my mother tongue) movies was limited to "Chemeen". Then, my folks happened to buy a VHS of "Namakku parkaan..." which hooked me on to Malayalam movies for a long time. This also helped me improve my Malayalam.

I love Padmarajan's films. There was a quiet little charm in each of his stories, the details are fantastic, the music - just too good.

My personal fav. are "Nammaku paarkaan.." and "Uttaram".

Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

Ranjit,
Stumbled upon your blog through Desipundit. Nice work!!
Keep writing.. :)

Jis

nevermind said...

Padmarajan wrote fiction too, in the best traditions of magic realism, only his fiction was a far more lyrical and beautiful thing than the stark imagery of the O. V. Vijayan variety. His final novella, Prathimayum Rajakumariyum (The Sculpture and the Princess, about a princess who falls in love with a man paid to simulate a sculpture on a resort island) which was being serialized in Mathrubhumi when he died, was laden with layers of allegory and almost painfully beautiful. As for the movies, the last one, Njan Gandharvan (I, Gandharva) about a Gandharava who falls in love with a mortal, predated City of Angels by more than a decade. Not a bad body of work for someone who died so young. Anyway, thanks for the memories:-)

Ranjit Nair said...

@sloganmurugan: Thank you. It is nice to know that Padmarajan's work was indeed appreciated beyond Kerala too. Btw, 'Uttaram' was not by Padmarajan, it was by K.G.George.

@Anon: Thank you. Continue giving your comments!

@Nevermind:Yes, I know Pappettan wrote great fiction too. I have read a couple of translated stories; I really have to read his stuff in Malayalam (my reading habits in Malayalam are the antithesis of what they are in English). I did see 'Njan Gandharvan' too, of course.

Happy-Go-Lucky said...

Hey Ranjit,

Me too a huge Pappetan fan. I started blogging just recently and have planned a write-up on him some times later. You have done half of my job already, so will link to this.

Nammukku Paarkan and Thoovanathumbikal are sheer poetry. While watching Season, my mind too went to Shawshank Redemption though there's no real similarity between the two. Mohan Lal's hunting for his prey is so ruthless yet clinical! Brilliance of Pappettan!

Keep blogging!

Prasadh said...

i couldn't appreciate 'Moonnam Pakkom', because i had expected lot , due to the hype from my malayali friend. But i am liking padmarajan choice of stories.

and again thanks for the list.

Srijith said...

Nice post. I would say "Deshadanakkili Karayarilla" translates to "Migratory birds don't cry".

Ranjit Nair said...

@Jis (Happy-Go-Lucky): Yes, Lal's clinical approach did make 'Season' special. What a screenplay! Promise to mail soon!

@Eswar: My biggest complaint with 'Moonnam...' (a haunting title, when one looks at its significance to the movie-again short-story like) is that its ending is a tad predictable. However, the acting was uniformly great (and to think that Amitabh beat Thilakan for the National Awards that year citing, of all his movies, 'Agneepath'! Preposterous). It still is a pretty good movie, though, you have to admit.

@Srijith: Yeah, but 'shed tears' sounded better :D !!!!

Anonymous said...

Categorizing "Deshadanakilli .." as a film about lesbians is, IMO, quite a stretch. There is not even a remote hint of romance or of a sexual relationship between the two girls. It is quite simply a close, inseparable friendship between the two girls - and this does not have to be put in the "lesbian" bucket.

In fact, the "dominant" girl is quite enthusiastic about the "submissive" girl's new love interest (a boy at that!) and even screens him to make sure that he is not a useless character ... her only concern is that her friend might get hurt by the romance.

I saw it again just a couple of weeks ago and I feel that it should not be viewed as a "lesbian" film - fashionable as it may be today.

In contrast, Deepa Mehta's Fire was quite open in capturing the lesbian relationship and even had one of the husbands "discovering" the relationship as one of the scenes. I also recall that some were actually calling "Main Khiladi, Tu Anadi" a gay film ...

Ranjit Nair said...

Anon: Of course, this was the way I interpreted the movie. Don't you think the relationship depicted between the girls bordered on obsessive, rather than merely 'close' or 'inseparable'? I certainly thought so.

Also, the sort of clinging behavior shown in the film is supposed to be 'classic' homosexual behavior, from what little I have read in books etc. I suspect Padmarajan purposely put in such hints, to depict a relationship beyond mere friendship.

As I said, this is just my interpretation of the movie.

anandm said...

I am halfway thru this flick and quite early on I was telling the better-half about the lesbian overtones. Padmarajan has used the typical symbols, having one girl (the so-called dominant one) wearing pants and having short hair in the typical butch fashion.
The degree of physical contact b/w the two is quite acceptable in India, I know (for example there were these 2 girls from TCS where I used to work who held hands all the time till someone told them that the GLBT group would come by for annual membership fees) But even within those acceptable limits, the frequeny of contact indicates the "L" word. Plus 10 years in the US have undeniably colored my outlook ;-)

Maybe the second half will prove me all wrong.

Sreejith Sasi Mangalath said...

Do you know where I can find DVDs with subtitles for padmarajan movies ?

Jobin said...

My personal favourites are Thoovanathumbikal and Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal.
His scripts have a lyrical quality found nowhere else.Mohanlal's portrayal of Jayakrishnan in Thoovanathumbikal was marvellous...also only Padmarajan could brilliantly employ bible verses in the beautiful lovestory Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal.

Anonymous said...

Ranjith,
Great - a close, sharp look at a man who many feel like studying for his special creative talent. I feel particularly satisfied to go through your article, as I believe Padmarajan is a lesser analyzed bright spot of Malayalam cinema, compared to fellow icons like MT or Adoor.

Padmarajan films to me are the most poetic films ever made in the language, with high literary and cinematic qualities, yet not looking intellectually complex to an average film viewer.

Padmarajan films are often noted for those beautiful names as well, that way I just have a bit of complaint about your translations of the name, if you don’t mind that! A more creative, not word to word, translation for ‘Thoovananthumbikal’ could be ‘Butterflies of the clear sky’ and ‘Innale’ would mean more like ‘The past’ than yesterday. And ‘Parannu Parannu Parannu’ could be ‘Flying Flying Flying’ like how we use in folktales.

That’s just a less relevant thought-Thanks for the well written post on my favorite film maker-writer!

Ranjit Nair said...

@Anandm: And did it?

@Sreejith: Depends on where you are, I guess. At Thrissur, Empire Videos at Poothole has quite a reasonable Padmarajan & Bharathan collection. Google them, and you get the address.

@Jobin: My fav' is 'Namukku Parkkaan..' ...it was just so poetic!

@Anon: Yeah, the translations were tough!! I like your translation of 'Thoovanathumbikal' better, though I still think 'Yesterday' somehow sounds more intriguing than 'Past'.

Anonymous said...

Wow its great to see some great comments about the greatest director ever to grace Malayalam cinema.Padmarajan was indeed a fantastic director and screenwriter.My favorites r Nammukku Paarkan and Thoovanathumbikal.Boy o boy what movies he made.And as someones said here his movies r sheer poetry.I have been hunting for a copy of namukku parkan for quite a long time.Does anyone here has a copy of the movie,would pay for it happily.

And thanks in Advance.Keep bloggin

Melvin said...

Interesting read!!
Living abroad most of my life, I for this time, regret not taking the effort to watch Malayalam movies.
Though a big fan of the movies in my childhood (late 80's and early 90's) I missed a lot of Malayalam movies partly due to 'censorship' by my parents (when I was a kid) and disinterest during the late 90's to present.
Cable TV far from making it more accessible has actually made things worse by showing only the latest movies at prime-time and condemning the truly great ones to early mornings or late nights.
IMHO , to put it bluntly, Malayalam movies of late suck big time.

Thanks for reviving my interest in Mallu movies. Will def be on the lookout for the above mentioned titles when I get back to India!!!

Christina said...

Padmarajan had that rare quality which you will find in movies of real legends like martin scorsese, kurosawa and de palma. You can never really describe the creative stimulation they have had to want to make such movies. I call them classic and movies every malayali can be proud of. K Balachander in Tamil, Padmarajan in Malayalam - they are a class apart!

E Pradeep said...

A couple more movies that I can think which are missing in the discussion here - Thinkalazhcha Nalla Divasam, Nombaraththippoovu and the 2 movies that established him - Peruvazhiyambalam and Oridaththoru phayalvaan - as a serious practicioner of cinema.

Kishor said...

This is a nice article on the genius Padmarajan. Great job!

By the way, I have a better translation for "Deshadanakili Karayarilla" - "Migratory birds never cry". Hows that? :-)

Alameen said...

wonderful effort mate. Innale among my all time favourites...

Keep penning
AlAmeen

Anonymous said...

Ranjit,

I know I am writing this comment alomost 2 years after you wrote the blog - happened to get this one as a google search result on my favourite Malayalam director, Padmarajan.

Completely loved the article. I can never get tired of watching his movies again and again. Thoovanathubikal , Namukku... and Deshadanakkili... are my personal favorites. Padmarajan was way beyond his times and I completely agree with your take on Deshadanakkili.

Keep writing...

Swanima

Ranjit Nair said...

@Anon I: Those are my favorites too, though I do prefer 'Namukku...' - to quote an oft-repeated cliche, its sheer 'poetry on celluloid'.

@Melvin: Even if you don't watch Padmarajan's movies, do avoid at all quotes any Malayalam movie post 2000 (better safe than sorry!).

@Christina: I am not that familiar with the work of K.Balachander. Other than that, I completely agree.

@Pradeep: Not a big fan of 'Nombarathipoovu' - certainly a bold film, but the exhaustive listing of symptoms etc put me off a bit - Padmarajan could certainly have done better. 'Thingalazhcha...' - my only complaint is that the climax is tiny bit too convenient, heart-rending though it certainly is. And I am ashamed to say that I haven't seen the other two (at least recently) :(.

@Anon II: Thx mate!

Anonymous said...

Some 10 years back, I was watching a coverage of Indian life on one news channel. The reporter was interviewing a bunch of college guys on campus. They were all sitting together, some with arms around each other. A guy had his arms around the neck of one of the guys who was answering. The reporter couldn't resist, and asked them, if the 'closeness' that Indian college guys show has to do with homosexual feelings. You wouldn't believe how embarrassed they all looked. Now how many Indian college guys have pictures with friends where they are hugging, holding hands, etc? Back then it seemed funny, but now I wonder...

From my perspective, nurture has more to do in characters than nature. Being raised in North America, there are many taboos that are normal back home. We are brainwashed to think in the way they do in the West.

Deshadanakilli did not look like it had homosexual tones, until reading this blog. Just one of two very different characters, one strong and bold, the other meek. I have seen numerous songs in Indian films in all languages with the same kind of scenes depicted in Deshadanakkili... Sharing food, sharing living space, etc.

Like I said, we are all being nurtured to view the world like the West.


-Kajan

Ram said...

hi ranjit,

its been a long time since u wrote about padmarajan...
the movies in ur list r truly masterpeices.. but i feel u have left of the best of his as said by pappettam himself.. the movie is arapetta kettiya gramathil.. amazing charecterization of mammokka, venu and asokan.. the movie can be downloaded from malluvision.com(the prints not really good) malluvision was runnin a pappettn film festival a few months ago.. search for it.. i think uve also missed out kallan pavithram for its sheer screenplay and simplicity... and aslo aparam, starring jayaram.. (all must watch)

i feel that its impossible to point out his best film... other than settin personal favourites

he's also written screenplays for kanamarayathu, karimbinpoovin akkare, sahalini ente kootukari, idavela, ee thanutha veluppankalathu and rathinirvedam..

i do hav a few of his movies on my hard drive
NPMT, Thuvanamthumpikal, arapatta kettiya gramathil, thinkalaycha nalla divasam, peruvazhi ambalam, karimbinpoovinakkare, oridathoru phayalvan, kallan pavithran, innale, idavela and also the video of the last interview pappettan gav to doordharshan before his tragic demise...

i hope next u w'd come up wit blog on bharathan, another poetic director..

in case ur in banglore, i can hand over the movies to you..
u can mail me at ramm.mohan@gmail.com

Anish Niranam said...

Last Day 22 Aug 2008 @ 9.30 P.m In We Tv i saw the Movie Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil By P Padmarajan.

Its an Amazing Movie.

Suresh Mathew said...

Utharam was directed by VK Pavithran and written by MT Vasudevan... nothing to do with KG George. I think you are confusing it with 'Yavanika' or 'Lekhayude Marnnam Oru Flashback'. Check out my malayalam favourites at www.filmaximus.blogspot.com

Feather said...
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Feather said...
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Feather said...

Ranjit,

I post comment almost four years after you have written this :-) But since am an ardent fan of the immortal Padmarajan, I couldn't help scribbling something here. Your post is good but I was kinda disappointed to see many films missing in this list. I know choice is highly subjective but still I must say that I expected either " Peruvazhiyambalam " or " Oridathoru Phayalvan " in this list. However, I disagree on one thing. I loved " Parannu Parannu Parannu ". Anyway, it was nice going through your blog. Nice to meet a fellow Pappettan fan

malayalam sms said...

She is a Very Bubbly and Cool Actress in South india . some Rumors are flyed in south was that she is running a very hot chemistry with Telugu young Hero . but she disagree these comments and says that she dont have any boy friend Yet . She says that If she didn't an Actress She become a Pilot.She says that She dont have enough Age to think about Love

malayalam sms said...

She is a Very Bubbly and Cool Actress in South india . some Rumors are flyed in south was that she is running a very hot chemistry with Telugu young Hero . but she disagree these comments and says that she dont have any boy friend Yet . She says that If she didn't an Actress She become a Pilot.She says that She dont have enough Age to think about Love

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