A couple of years before the release of Super Deluxe, I did a profile-ish piece on Thiagarajan Kumararaja. One of the things he said surprised me as much as the sight of an alien creature in a Tamil movie. He said the film was his homage to Samsaram Adhu Minsaram. But now that we’ve seen Super Deluxe, we can kinda-sorta see what he meant. Kumararaja should have probably been more accurate and said his film was a mindfucked homage to the family drama that transformed Visu into a brand — but the criss-cross of plots and relationships, the efforts to rehabilitate sinners and help people un-judge the choices of others, the big summing-up “lecture”, it’s all there. The superstructure that Kumararaja built was a universe away from the “Visu sensibility”, but the foundations are similar.
Visu, who died on March 22, is an important name in Tamil cinema. Along with K Balachander (who came earlier) and V Sekar (later), he was among the last few filmmakers to cater to the “family audience”, which meant both that (1) entire families would go to watch their films and that (2) you could see, in their films, the stories of entire families. Samsaram Adhu Minsaram came in 1986. It was pre-Liberalisation. There was just one television channel, and it would air just one Tamil film a week. People, therefore, went to the movies a lot, even if they waited for the films to land up in a second- or third-rung theatre nearer their homes.
What explains the popularity of The Visu Film™? For one, it wasn’t as uncomfortable as a K Balachander drama — say, Arangetram (1973), where a young Brahmin woman becomes a sex worker to feed her large family. When Visu took up a similar subject in Oorukku Upadesam (1984), it somehow seemed… “safer”. The sex worker (played by Urvashi) was part of a pair of separated twins, and her sister was the one married into a conservative family. The drama revolved around how the “good” sister suffers because she is mistaken for the “bad” one. But at least until the end, the family unit itself remained untouched, unpolluted. The audience didn’t squirm.
When Visu took up these subjects — even as just a plot point, like “abortion” in Kudumbam Oru Kadambam (1981), which he wrote but SP Muthuraman directed — he wove them casually into the melodrama. He didn’t make you squirm (like K Balachander did). He didn’t wink at you (like K Bhagyaraj did). He was just trying to talk about different aspects that make up middle-class families, middle-class life, middle-class society. Seen today, of course, some of this looks terribly overwrought. This is how The Visu Character™ in Oorukku Upadesam tries to prove to the “good” sister’s in-laws that she is indeed “good”: because she is pregnant, and “pala peru nadakkara edathula lesu-la pullu mulaikkaadhu”. (Grass won’t grow on a ground that many people walk on.)
The Visu Character™ was a fixture in The Visu Film™. He is to families what a skilled mechanic is to a car: however bad the damage, he fixes it. The small difference is that… well, no one really asked him to interfere. But I suspect that this, again, was no big deal in the Tamil Nadu of the time, where the large joint family was the norm and everyone’s business was everyone else’s. In his first big hit, Manal Kayiru (1982), The Visu Character™ was even named Naradar Naidu, after the celestial sage famous for interfering in and fixing human affairs.
Seen today, many of these films are a weird combination of the progressive and the regressive — but then, The Visu Film™ isn’t so much a film as a time capsule. There’s very little cinema here, unless you count, say, the camera being mounted on the swing The Visu Character™ sits on while lecturing his family in Samsaram Adhu Minsaram. But despite their overall crudeness, these films hit home harder than many of today’s “message movies”, like the ones Samuthirakani makes. That’s because Visu kept things within the family unit, which all of us identify with in some shape or form — he’s not talking about something external, say, medical corruption or an unbalanced education system. Plus, the sharp dialogues were their own entertainment.
For a while, it wasn’t just The Visu Character™ and The Visu Film™ that were popular — it was also The Visu Title™, which consisted of two rhyming words separated by a joiner. Samsaaram Adhu Minsaram was quickly followed by Thirumathi Oru Vegumathi, Kavalan Avan Kovalan, Penmani Aval Kanmani, Varavu Nalla Uravu, Vedikkai En Vadikkai… Visu had a solid stage career, a solid television career, he contributed to several Rajinikanth films as a writer (and acted in a lot of these films). But it’s for this handful of middle-class dramas that he is important, that his brand of cinema will survive. Maybe you don’t want to live in that kind of household anymore, but it’s nice to pay a visit every now and then, recalling a time a random “uncle” would walk in and wave a magic wand and make everyone’s problems disappear and send the audience back home with a smile and the belief that, yes, their problems could be solved, too.