Southern Lights: Two Shots, Two Songs

Southern Lights: Two Shots, Two Songs

Director: K Viswanath

Cast: Kamal Haasan, Radhika Sarathkumar, Sarath Babu

K Viswanath, this year's recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, made three films with Kamal Haasan. Sagara Sangamam is the best, Subha Sankalpam the weakest – and between these two films, chronologically and quality-wise, lies Swathi Muthyam (White Pearl). It makes a fantastic complement to Moondram Pirai (Sadma in Hindi), where the heroine was a grown-up with the mental faculties of a child. Kamal Haasan played the adult who took care of her. Here, it's the opposite. The heroine takes care of Kamal Haasan, whose childlike state is attributed to a long-ago accident. It's fascinating to place these films side by side and see how they overlap, how they diverge – but for now, let's just look at Swathi Muthyam.

The Kamal Haasan character is named Sivayya. He first meets the widow Lalitha and her son Balasubramaniam (Balu) as they climb the steps to a temple. In the next scene, mother and son are inside the temple, standing beside a pillar, waiting for the aarti to get done. Sivayya walks in and starts reciting mantras loudly. He's shushed by a man standing in the line opposite his. Like a schoolboy reprimanded by the teacher, Sivayya sinks to the floor. This is the "audio" part of the scene.

Here's the visual part. As Sivayya begins reciting the mantras, he's standing beside Lalitha and it's a medium close-up – we see their heads and shoulders. The camera isolates them from the others and frames them at the same level – they're equals, both adults, man and woman. (See Pic 1.)

After Sivayya is shushed, we get a medium long shot. We see Lalitha turned towards the shrine. We see the surroundings: the walls, a gate. And we see another devotee – another grown man, at Lalitha's level. In between these two, at a lower level, we see Sivayya and Balu. The framing contrasts them with the two adults. Sivayya and Balu are the same height now – they're equals, both children. (See Pic 2.)

Two shots is all it takes to show us, visually, the two states of Sivayya – an adult by age, and yet a child. He's at once Lalitha's equal (the first frame) and Balu's equal (the second).

Which is why women think he's harmless. When, at night, he peers into his uncle's bedroom, through a window – he wants a hundred bucks at once – the uncle tells him that he shouldn't go peering through windows at night, but his aunt says, "It's okay, come inside." And when Sivayya stumbles on Subbulu, the washerwoman, bathing by the river, she asks him to soap her back. He does so, she continues the song she was singing. But when her fiancé arrives, she crosses her hands over her chest, suddenly overcome by modesty, suddenly aware that a man is in the vicinity.

All of which leads us to the night Lalitha and Sivayya consummate their marriage. When Sivayya marries Lalitha, he just wants to take care of her and Balu. And for the longest time, Lalitha has looked at Sivayya the way the aunt did, the way Subbulu did – but no longer. They make love to the backdrop of Ilaiyaraaja's Manasu Palike. Lalitha sings a line. Sivayya repeats it. She sings the next line. He repeats it. The song mirrors the scene. She's leading the way, showing him how it's done – he's following her instructions.

This is just one of many stunning musical moments in K Viswanath's oeuvre – and there's more to this song. The first duet between Sivayya and Lalitha (Suvvi suvvi) is in the raga Madhyamavathi. This second one is in an allied raga, Suddha Dhanyasi. Grossly simplifying the technique known as graha bedham, the latter raga can be obtained by shifting a note of the former and nudging it into a new dimension – it's a different facet of the older raga, if you will.

But this isn't about Carnatic music. This is about cinema. For our purposes, this is all that matters: the older relationship between Lalitha and Sivayya, similarly, has been nudged into a new dimension. Now, there's a new facet, a new note. They're making a different kind of music together.

Watch the film here – 

Photo credits – iDream Media

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