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5 Filmmaking Tropes of Mahendran

An analysis of the recurring themes and motifs in the work of the filmmaker known for hits such as Mullum Malarum (1978) and Uthiripookkal (1979)

Ram ChanderRam Chander

June 19, 2017 | 11:06 AM

mahendran, tamil cinema, Uthiripookkal, Mullum Malarum, Nenjathai Killathe, Poottadha Poottukkal

Name : J Mahendran

Original name : Alexander

Skills : Director, Screenwriter, Film critic

Language : Tamil

Active Since : 1966

Favourite Genre : Drama

Biggest hits : Mullum Malarum (1978), Uthiripookkal (1979), Nenjathai Killathe (1980)

Like François Truffaut, Mahendran started out as a film critic. His reviews of Tamil films for magazines like Thuglak were scathing. He went on to write screenplays and dialogues for several hit films, starring Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran, before making his directorial debut with Mullum Malarum (A Thorn and a Flower, 1978).

Mahendran took ample inspiration from literature for his screenplays. Ten out of the 12 films he’s directed have been adapted from literary works by Tamil writers. An avid fan of Satyajit Ray, his films portray villages, cities and characters as they are without romanticizing or passing judgements.

His Best Work

Uthiripookkal (Unstrung Flowers), 1979: Adapted from Pudhumaipithan’s Sittrannai (Stepmother), Uthiripookkal is the story of Sundaravadivelu, a sadistic manager of a village school who desires to marry his wife's sister. The film lures you gently into the rhythms of village life before it unleashes drama through the actions of Sundaravadivelu to attain his goal. It has one of the most understated yet haunting antagonists of Tamil cinema.

Poottadha Poottukkal (Locks that don't lock), 1980: Adapted from the short story Uravugal (Relations) by writer Ponneelan, this film focuses on the fissures in a married couple's relationship when they can't have a child. The wife falls for a young man who gives her attention and the drama that unfolds forms the rest of the story. It's a subtle meditation on the invisible forces of societal expectations that weigh on married couples.

Mullum Malarum (A Thorn and a Flower), 1978: Mahendran began reading a novel by Umachandran, set it aside halfway, and wrote this film's screenplay. It's about an orphaned brother and a sister in a village. The brother, Kaali, works as a winch operator at a power plant. His skirmishes with his supervisor lead to him losing his left hand. This was one of the first films in which Rajinikanth, who had done negative roles until then, played the protagonist. Mullum Malarum, Johnny (1980) and Kai Kodukkum Kai (1984) are 3 Mahendran films that provide a glimpse of a Rajinikanth devoid of the larger-than-life image that he's known for today.

Trivia: This film was later remade in Hindi as Pyaari Behna (1985) with Mithun Chakraborty playing Rajini’s role.

5 Filmmaking Motifs of Mahendran

Sharp Storytelling

During his days as a critic, Mahendran slammed Tamil movies for being 'talkies' rather than cinema. He abhorred melodrama and the monologue. So the first thing that strikes you about his films is his precision with words and images. The words and their understated tone maintain the drama at a realistic pitch. A character might be bursting with anger but in a Mahendran film, all you'll hear is a single line spoken calmly.

In Uthiripookkal, when he introduces a couple, the husband is seated at home eating his lunch, while the wife stands nearby. He bites into a pebble while chewing and his face contorts. He glowers at his silent wife and says, "Can't you be careful while cooking?" The entire bitterness of their relationship is packed into that single line and his contorted face.

Mahendran establishes his film's theme visually within the first five minutes. The opening title sequences of Nenjathai Killathey (Don't Pinch My Heart, 1980), show Suhasini jogging through city streets shrouded in mist. The film is about her running to and fro in relationships.

The opening shot of Metti (Toe Ring, 1982), shows two daughters waking up, admiring their mother's toe ring as she walks towards them. The film is about their yearning to wear the toe ring and how it shackles their lives.

Nature And Rhythms Of Life

When asked what kind of literature he liked, Mahendran said, "It's filled with limitless beauty, countless wonders and mysteries that man is yet to decode. It nourishes mankind and all living organisms. Nature is the best literature." You'll find his love for nature woven into the fabric of every film he’s made.

In Poottadha Poottukkal, cats purr on a sleepless night as a couple mutely stare at each other. A barber in Johnny lives and sleeps amidst animals and plants. A popular song from Mullum Malarum has a man singing of the breeze that played on a pandan flower and washed over him, its scent creating the illusion of a woman.

Mahendran has a keen eye for observing life and capturing its details with precision. The lines his characters speak sound real. A village woman bargaining with a cloth seller in Uthiripookkal, remarks, "Give us a good price. Don't try to cover your daughter's wedding costs by selling us this saree!"

A fight in Mullum Malarum takes place without the accompaniment of the typical "dishoom dishoom" of the 80s. And even if it's an urban setting, he captures its spirit well in films like Nenjathai Killathey.

Ripple Architecture

The supporting characters and songs in every Mahendran film echo its main theme. In Uthiripookkal, that explores a man's sadism and lust, there's a lunatic who pesters people to read out a letter from his runaway wife.

In Poottadha Poottukkal, almost every other male character ogles women, including an adopted child who's a peeping tom. In Nenjathai Killathey, a story about finding love and companionship, he has a comic character in his 40s who's still single.

Metti, a commentary on the institution of marriage, has a playful song, Kalyanam ennai mudikka (In order to marry me). A woman lays down her conditions for marriage like wanting the ceremony on a moving train with foreigners chanting hymns!

These characters and songs aren't sprinkled to make the film more interesting. He lays out these characters and songs in concentric circles echoing the film's core, like ripples in water.

Hidden Symbols

In the splendid climax of Uthiripookkal, it's only the men of the village who gather and force the antagonist to drown himself in the river. There's no woman to be seen. The villain represents the filth in the hearts of all men and the climax is a call to destroy that demon so that we can move on as a society. Seen this way, Uthiripookkal is much more than just the tale of a solitary sadist and how he meets his end.

Likewise, the toe ring in Metti and a poster in Nenjathai Killathey depicting children dressed as a couple are symbols that make a bigger point. The good thing about Mahendran's films is that you can enjoy them without really bothering about what these symbols signify. But when you look beneath the surface, you're sure to enjoy these films even more.

Silence

Mahendran loves to begin a scene in the middle of a conversation and linger on the characters during uncomfortable pauses. A classic example is a night panchayat scene from Uthiripookkal. The entire village is gathered to debate the villain's atrocities. His wife weeps silently and we get closeups of a lot of faces. The only sound you hear is the unconsoled wail of a child in the background.

In Metti, when a character's mother dies, she's seen sitting on the floor and sobbing in an empty space surrounded by flowers. That's the emptiness left behind after her mother's body has been carried away. Mahendran once remarked, "Ilaiyaraja wrote the dialogues for my silent scenes. He should be credited as my co-writer!"

In Uthiripookkal, there's a theme music to depict the antagonist's desire for his sister-in-law, one for the innocence of his children, and another for the unspoken desires of his wife.

In Conclusion

The great thing about watching Mahendran’s films is that a specific character, line or visual is bound to get imprinted in your mind. You can revisit his films at a later stage in your life and you'll get new insights. It happens because his films don't have a planned architecture to achieve an intended effect. They're complex, organic growths that mirror real life and so each time you enter them, you'll spot something new that's sprouted under your feet.