On 14th April, 2000, we got the second instalment of Mani Ratnam's "love trilogy". (One should technically say "love trilogy in Tamil", because Geethanjali and Pallavi Anupallavi are love stories and relationship dramas, too.) Depending on where you fall on the age/generational spectrum, you will make your choice between Mouna Raagam, Alaipayuthey or O Kadhal Kanmani, each film separated by roughly 15 years. That the same filmmaker has — over a 30-year period — made a defining love story for three generations is itself something special. (All of them were shot by PC Sreeram.) What makes Alaipayuthey even more remarkable is the way it shows that a "light and entertaining and audience-pleasing" film need not, in any way, compromise a filmmaker's personal creative ambitions. Recalling 10 moments, or scenes, from the beloved film…
Endrendrum punnagai: Everything is labelled "iconic" these days. But you know what really is? The opening shots of this film, the tight shaky-cam close-up of Karthik's (Madhavan) face, with earphones spilling out this catchy song. And yes, the famous Maddy smile — the punnagai — is on display, full wattage. And yes, this alone would have been a great opening image. A young man, in a young denim-blue shirt, a young song, a young smile…
But two things make this song more than just a catchy, cool, over-the-opening credits number. One, we don't yet know about it, but we are already being told that this is a story about marriage. Later, when Karthik marries Shakthi (Shalini), we will discover that this tune, this 'Endrendrum punnagai' tune, is an extension of the tune of the traditional wedding mantra, 'Maangalyam thanthunanena'. (See clip below.)
And two, the punnagai is not an empty punnagai. Had the film proceeded in chronological order, we'd have seen that Karthik's fledgling company has landed its first big contract. ("Rendu million dollar! Ombodhu kodi rooba!") We'd have also seen that he has reunited Shakthi's sister Poorni (Swarnamalya) with Raghu, the man she was supposed to marry but couldn't because of the confusion created by Shakthi's revelation that she was already married. (She had kept it a secret.) No wonder Karthik is beaming. Behind that punnagai, there's a sense of professional and personal achievement. This punnagai is saying: "I can't wait to break this news to Shakthi!"
Today, a nonlinear narrative may not be big news, but back in 2000, this was a fairly major deal. (Alaipayuthey marked the beginning of Sreekar Prasad's auspicious entry into Mani Ratnam's world.) In any relationship, people change over time. There's friction. There are fights. There are things you see that you didn't see earlier. You sometimes wonder, "Who is this person I married?" Here, there's the additional question Karthik will soon face: "Where is this person I married?" In the present-day timeline, this is the last we will see of this punnagai until the closing scenes.
Ava en ponnu: This is an extremely economical screenplay. (I would perhaps say a little too economical. I would have liked more scenes with Karthik and Shakthi, especially after the marriage begins to sour.) So every character, every relationship is defined in sharp, swift strokes. During the 'Yaaro yaarodi' song sequence (the chartbusting music is, of course, by AR Rahman, but then, you already knew that), Karthik meets not just Shakthi but also her father. He sees this frisky girl, asks a man nearby who she is. The man says: "Ava en ponnu." Oops! This minor friction already hints at how the relationship between Karthik and his future father-in-law will shape up.
Also, this man works in the Railways. In some tangential way, therefore, he is connected to the motif of trains running throughout the film. Back in Chennai (as Madras had been renamed just four years earlier, in 1996), Karthik first re-sees Shakthi on a train. A train passes in front of Shakthi when she sees Karthik with another woman. (Does she know he is embracing her sister? I'm still not clear about that!) After marriage, Shakthi meets her mother and sister for the first time in… a train. So on, so forth.
Sambaathichu kottara machine-aa? And similarly, Karthik's father ('Pyramid' Natarajan) is defined by his wealth. He keeps talking about the time his father would give him 25 paise, and no more. When he relates a story about Karthik's smoking habit, he comments that his money is being turned to ash. When Karthik tries to sneak out for his thiruttu kalyanam, he says he'll drop him by car. (Why waste money on an auto?) Most shockingly, when he goes to Shakthi's house to ask for her hand for Karthik, he speaks of youngsters falling in love and therefore "appa-kku selavu vekkaama…" His first scene has this line, uttered to his family: "Enna pathi ellaarum enna nenachittu irukkeenga? Sambaathichu kottara machine-aa?" The newspaper lying next to the man when he is sleeping? The Economic Times, of course.
And just as Shakthi's father (a middle-class man somewhat ironically named… Selvaraj) tangentially evokes the trains running throughout the movie, Karthik's father evokes the fact that money/class is always a factor in this love story, even if — sometimes — only in the background. Poorni works in a bank. Shakthi's mother speaks of how her medical education would not be possible without a loan Poorni was able to get. When Karthik speaks to Shakthi at her college, for the first time, she asks him his name and then says, "Karthik, nee panakkaaran-aa?" So on, so forth.
Summa paatha kaadhal varuma? It's my contention that Shakthi is Jessie before there was a Jessie. She just cannot make up her mind (though her vacillations aren't as wild as those of the heroine of Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya). She doesn't seem to believe in love at first sight: "Summa paatha kaadhal varuma?" And yet, she is unable to stop talking about Karthik. As Poorni says, "Pinna edhukku kaalai la ettu ambathanju-kku paathatha pathi night pathara manikku pesittirke?" She's the one who calls things off with Karthik. And yet, she's the one who pines. He's moving on. We see him playing basketball. We see him starting a company with friends. Until his niece calls Shakthi's number (a plot contrivance I have never been able to buy) and he feels Shakthi at the other end, he seems to be fine.
It makes sense. He does seem to be someone who can switch off a tad easily, and many of us know people like that. When he meets Shakthi at the railway station, after the disastrous meeting of the parents, he says he is ready to leave his home. But she's the one who says she wants "appa, amma, veedu, naai-kutti". But later, when her father throws her out of the house (he literally throws her suitcase on the street, another plot contrivance I have never been able to buy), she tells Karthik, "Avangalukku namba vendaam-na namakkum avanga vendaam."
But my favourite contradiction — the most awww-some contradiction — is when she reverses her stand on their relationship. At first, when Kartik says he loves her, in the train, she asks what that means. He says, "Unakaaga edhu venum naalum seiven-nu artham." Her instant response: "Train-lendhu guthippiya? But after 'Yevano oruvan', after the pining, she appropriates his line. She asks, "Enakkaaga edhu venaa seiviyaa?" Then, she drops the smallest, the sweetest of bombshells: "Enna kalyaanam pannikko."
Hi pondatti! Did I mention the charm quotient in this film is off the charts? After the thiruttu kalyanam, Karthik calls Shakthi and says: "Innikku namma first night, theriyuma?" Without blushing, without blinking an eyelid, Shakthi instantly replies: "Naan maligai kadai-la irukken." The next morning is when he hops into the bus she's on, sits next to her — in the "ladies' seat", as an irate woman will soon remind him — and says: "Hi pondatti!" Hey, if you're not smiling, you may want to have that heart checked. A little later, we get her song, her solo song. First, we got his song, his solo song: 'Sakhiye, snehidhiye…' Now, she returns the sentiment: 'Snehidhane, snehidhane…' How lovely it sounds to call your partner not a "lover" but a… "friend"!
Also, this may be the only romantic film, the only film about love in its myriad forms, that has zero duets between the leads. Yes, zero. 'Endrendrum punnagai' (and its complement, 'Maangalyam'), 'Pachchai nirame', 'Kadhal Sadugudu' — they're all sung by men. 'Evano Oruvan' is Shakthi's song (she's the one who's pining, remember?). 'Yaaro yaarodi', 'Alaipayuthey' and 'Snehidhane' — they're sung by women. The only duet? That's 'September maadham'. I have never been sold on the whole "Shakthi suspects Karthik of infidelity" angle, but what better way to signal that than having the album's only duet play out between Karthik and… another woman.
Ungappanukku neeye yamana vandhittiye di! The one aspect of Alaipayuthey that does not work: the melodrama. This line is uttered by Shakthi's aunt, after her father dies. It's not the line itself that feels odd. It's the fact that this line is in a Mani Ratnam movie. I even understand the logic behind such a line: the heavy-duty middle-class-ness of Shakthi's side of the family needs to be separated from Karthik's in terms of speech patterns, too — someone in Karthik's house would never say something so "theatrical", so "cinematic". And yet, it's the fact that this line is in a Mani Ratnam movie…
But it's really the other bits of melodrama. The fact that Karthik's niece re-connects the couple through a random phone call. The fact that Shakthi suspects Karthik of having an affair. (I admit that this plot point is hinted at in a much-earlier line, when Shakthi tells Karthik, before marriage: "Inniku oru ponnukkaga appa amma ellarayum vittu varuve. Naalaikku innoru ponnukkaga ennai vidamatey-nu enna nichayam?") The fact that the Vivekh character just happens to be in the same hospital that Shakthi is admitted to. And — most distressingly — the fact that Shakthi, after marriage, loses touch with not just her parents but also her most beloved sister. Yes, the families have split. But surely sisters who were so close would find a way to be in touch! Then again, maybe at least this last point is a sign of the times. Shakthi says she did try calling the "Nadar kadai" a few times but couldn't get a hold of Poorni. Maybe in those pre-cell phone days, keeping in touch was a different beast, altogether!
Still, this melodrama really clashes with the film's other moods. The sudden reappearance of cuteness in the reunion of Poorni and Raghu. Or even the out-of-nowhere 'September maadham' number', the five minutes of which could have been devoted to a couple of more scenes between the central couple. It must be said, though, that these mood flips are a result of the ambition in the screenplay, which prefers short vignettes instead of long-drawn-out scenes, giving us a taste of an emotion rather than making us wallow in it. The idea is great. But again, the fact that that line is in a Mani Ratnam movie…
Adhu kaadhal illa! Adhu premam illa do! In O Kadhal Kanmani, we saw an older couple as a counterpoint to the younger one: long-lasting, steadfast love versus in-the-moment, of-the-moment passion. In Alaipayuthey, we see something similar, but with two such couples. One of them is played by Arvind Swami and Khushbu. Here's a man who is willing to do anything for his wife, including take the blame for an accident she's caused. Imagine what that must make Karthik feel. He wasn't even willing to take Shakthi to meet her father in the hospital. (Yes, he changed his mind later, but by then, it was too late.)
The other couple is played by Azhagam Perumal and Nithya. They own the under-construction house Karthik and Shakthi move into during the early days of their under-construction marriage. This man delivers the film's "message", though this is not really a "message movie". One evening, on the rooftop, he tells Karthik: "Marriage is about compromises. We should place their desires before our own. Throw away all this ego stuff. All those meetings in the beach, in the park, in the cinema halls… "Adhu kaadhal illa! Adhu premam illa do!" What happens before marriage is an infatuation. It's a flower. It's a beautiful flower with a beautiful smell. But it will wither away. What comes after marriage, that's like the root. It runs deep."
Ippo andha rosham-laam engitta illa: Shakthi's mother, Saroja (Jayasudha), rarely seems to have a good word for her younger daughter. Theirs is a fascinating relationship, filled with bickering. In two instances, we are told how Shakthi has been the family's spoilt child. The first time is when Raghu comes to their home to see Poorni and Shakthi speaks out of turn. Holding back her irritation with a smile (Jayasudha is superb here), Saroja tells the visiting family, "Shakthi kadaikutti-nu avanga appa chellam kuduthu oru maadhiri valathuttaru." You almost feel like she's apologising for her husband's "mistake", for the fact that he brought up a girl child this way. And her refusal to indulge Shakthi at other times, the constant snubbing — it all comes across like a too-late attempt to undo that "mistake".
The other time we hear about this is after Shakthi's father dies. Shakthi tells her mother: If you had punished me the first time I talked back, would all this have happened? Or maybe, it's just that Saroja saw a lot of herself in Shakthi. There's a scene where Shakthi gives Karthik a newspaper after setting it on fire, so he can read the day's "hot headlines". (She's angry that the newspaper seems more important to him in the morning than the fact that she is beside him.) Vairamuthu hints at this angry streak brilliantly in 'Pachai nirame': Putham pudhidhai ratha roja, boomi thodaatha pillaiyin paadham… Ellaa sivappum undhan kobam! Perhaps Saroja was this way, too. Every time I watch Alaipayuthey, I wish for more scenes between this mother and daughter, and in the end, by Shakthi's hospital bed, when Saroja says, "Ippo andha rosham-laam engitta illa," she's a broken woman. After a lifetime of harsh words, the sight of her broken daughter makes her wish things had been different.
I love you (Karthik's version): Two years earlier (from the present timeline of the film), Karthik met Shakthi at a wedding. They flirted (mildly) during a song. There was definitely attraction: both sides. While the groom ties the thaali around the bride, PC Sreeram's camera moves the couple to the corner of the frame. In the centre of the frame, we have Karthik looking at Shakthi (and yes, smiling). Shakthi quickly turns to see him checking her out, mutes a smile and turns back to the bride. So there's definitely a spark.
Back in Chennai, Karthik's friend says this is not love but lust. But it's not. He's really smitten. He wants to marry her. He wants to marry her so much that his first call to her — at that Nadar kadai — is not to invite her to a park or a beach or a cinema hall or to Mahabalipuram, but to his house, for a family function. This is where you know you are in a Mani Ratnam movie. Shakthi comes. She sings. As Karthik's mother wonders who this girl is, he says, "She's the girl I'm going to marry." It's only after he declares his intention to marry her — to the world — that he actually tells her: "I love you." This is a lovely reversal of the typical progression of a romantic arc, which goes from love to marriage. And where does it occur? Yes, on a train!
I love you (Shakthi's version): It takes a while for Shakthi to say "I love you" back to Karthik. In fact, it takes Shakthi all the way up to the very last scene of the film to say "I love you" back to Karthik. When he tells her "I love you" — the first time — she simply asks him what he means by that. ("At one point, she tells her sister: "Naan engeyaavadhu kaadhal keedhal-nu vizhuvena?") So the entire film, in a way, is the story of Shakthi beginning to feel for Karthik the same mad-passionate way that he does for her. It's about her saying "I love you" back to him.
A few days after their thiruttu kalyanam, he calls her at work and says, "I love you." (This is the second time we hear it from him.) She glances around and says, "Theriyum." But that's not enough for him. He wants those very words from her, the very words he uttered. But she says she cannot utter those words now, she's on duty. Plus, doctors and nurses are around. The maximum he gets from her is "Amaam." (Yes.) She hangs up and at his end, he smiles: "Solla maattaaley!"
But she will, after she opens her eyes at the end — in the hospital — and finds him beside her. This time, he doesn't even ask her to say those words, he doesn't even have to prompt. He places his head beside hers and she says, "I love you." He raises his head in a mix of surprise and happiness. He repeats the banter from earlier, from the first time he said "I love you" to her. He says, "Enakkaga edhu venaalum seiviya"? She says, "I love you." He says, "Enakkaga train-lendhu gudhippiya?" She says, "I love you." He says what she asked him then: "Apdina enna mean pannare?" And she says what he said then: "Theriyaadhu… aana… I love you."