Back in the 80s, when I'd entered my first decade, cassette players were the rage, and player-recorders a luxury. The National Panasonic 543 was the sibling I never had; it accompanied me everywhere — from the steps in the backyard in my Coimbatore home where I laughed with my grandparents over some comedy play to Sunday afternoons when I finished homework early and waited for the children's special.
If I behaved really well, I'd get a chance to play a 'dialogue cassette' — basically, the entire film, with background score and dramatic dialogues, on audiotape. These would invariably be recorded by the local cassette shop anna or the one in Paramathi Velur, my mother's native. The latter would write the name with ball pen on the cover, ending with a flourish. There'd be a kolam design on the edges, and the jacket would bear the name of the film in yet another font. He'd also double up as audio editor, snipping off songs, to save space. These invariably came on a TDK 90, or sometimes in a set of 2 TDK 60 tapes. One of the earliest such cassette I listened to was Marina's medai naadagam (play) Thanikudithanam, starring the inimitable Poornam Viswanathan as Athimber. Magazines would have occassionally photographs of the cast of plays and movies, and so I'd put face to the voice in my mind. The eight conditions of Visu's Manal Kayiru were registered in my mind in a way science formulae refused to. Even today, I can happily reel them off in any order. Vaali's poetry in K Balachander's Agni Saakshi too, and the fiery dialogues of Vidhi; one could almost visualise Sujatha saying it on screen. They all sit in a corner of the mind, still crystal clear. Years later, I watched these films on television, and then YouTube, and realised that 'Hey, these had songs' too. Here's a listing of five such films, first heard and then watched. I still go back to them often, just to travel back to simpler times.
Director: K Vijayan
A film that made many of us kids listen and then watch in awe as vakkeel Sakunthala, played by the majestic Sujatha, takes on her colleague and former lover Tiger Dayanidhi (Jaishankar) in court. The film, a remake of the Telugu Nyayam Kavali, is narrated in flashback mode as Raja (Mohan) and his wife realise he has a son from a previous relationship. Years earlier, Raja had courted Radha, a minor, tailing her wherever she went, including the typewriting centre (this allows for a good humour track with Manorama). Later, Radha (Poornima Jayaram), his pregnant lover whom he abandons, takes him to court with the help of Shakuntala. In her fiery 'court speech', Shakuntala speaks of the plight of women left in the lurch, and demands that things must change and that women must not ever be slut-shamed. The judge lauds her progressive argument, and says Raja must marry Radha or face imprisonment, but leaves the choice to Radha. She chooses to go single, in a departure from what unwed mothers on screen usually did till then, and says she filed a case only to get legitimacy for her child.
Director: K Balachander
This was probably one of those rare films where the heroine falls in love with the hero for his ideology. And when Ulaganathan (Rajesh) stands on the slippery slope called politics and gives up his ideals bit by little bit, Thenmozhi (a marvellous Saritha) is broken. The textile worker, who sang in joy seeing him, and used a stream scented with fresh sandal ("Odugira thanniyile orasivittaen sandhanatha") as a messenger to let him know how much she loves him, decides there's only one way for this to end. In an interview on Doordarshan, KB once spoke about how Saritha was one of the very few actors who could hold a close-up well. Check out her expressions for nearly two minutes, from the '1 hour 48 minute' mark. The camera tracks her face, her eyes and her reaction as she hears her husband walk into a domestic crisis. When the woman who's taken her place berates her child, she's shaken, but not as much when the man she once loved beats his own father. With this, her love flies out of the window. And, we got a heroine who'll do anything to keep alive her idealism.
This film was not as popular as his other mammoth hit Samsaram Adhu Minsaram, but this is perfect for a repeat watch. There's enough emotion in it to leave you teary-eyed, there's enough laughter in the form of the hapless son who has no way to control his father, who loves poking his nose into everyone's affairs, and there is talk of women's rights too, even if it sounds more of an apology when seen through the lens of today's world.
As always, Visu, who wrote and starred in the film as Radio Mama, is the star around which every other character revolves. The film touched upon the burning issues of the time — a daughter-in-law (Seetha) being tortured for dowry; a working woman (Aruna) who foists a cheating case on her father-in-law; and two alcoholics (Kishmu and Ramesh Aravind) who ruin their lives before better sense prevails. As is Visu's style, life is in distinct shades of black and white in this film too. Of course, Visu is the person who untangles all these strands before the film ends on a happy note. For a film so steeped in its times, it also pushed the envelope a wee bit, and showed a woman can feel desire too.
Director: K Balachander
An eternal favourite, this is a film that takes a peek into the mind of a deeply sensitive woman Kannamma (Saritha) who loves Bharathi's poetry and dotes on Aravindan (Sivakumar) whom she later marries. Her mother-in-law is not very happy with her, and the film even has a song dedicated to the mosquito biting her mother-in-law: 'Kosuve Unakku Kodinamaskaram'.
The world is rarely kind to sensitive folks, and this film is proof of how misunderstood Kannamma is. She's unable to rein in her thoughts and blurts out everything. She could have formed a good bond with her sister-in-law, but can't resist telling her she's cruel when she lights a candle shaped like a child. For the world, it's a candle; for Kannamma, it's a real child. She hallucinates, and once rushes to Rajinikanth's house, because he was a bad man in Avargal. And so, Aravindan struggles with a child-woman who loves him but cannot really get along with anyone else (except a little girl). The film used a lot of pudhukavidhai to stunning effect, and till it lasts, the happy bubble that Kannamma and Aravindan inhabit is a treat to watch.
This was possibly the most popular of the dialogue cassettes. Naradhar Naidu (Visu) takes on the responsibility of finding a bride for Kittumani (S Ve Shekher), who has a list of eight conditions for his wife-to-be. Yes, the ones I know by rote. And so, Naidu decides to take the help of white lies to find a bride. Helping him in the charade are Kittumani's sister Durga (Manorama) and her husband, played by Kishmu.
While some of the conditions are regressive, the last one, number 8 relating to remarriage, gives Naidu the confidence that he can bypass every rule and still ensure Kittumani gets married to Uma (Shanti Krishna). So, in a sea of tradition, a mild breeze of modernity. Eventually, when you realise why Naidu goes to such lengths for the wedding, tears do flow.