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!