When AR Rahman sang,
"New York nagaram
"When New York city was sleeping
Loneliness engulfed me
And the mist enveloped the city"
in Krishna's Sillunu Oru Kaadhal (2006), we all knew that Vaali’s lines were a stand-in for words from Gautham's (Suriya) personal diary, in which he longingly writes about missing his wife Kundavi (Jyothika) when on a business trip to New York. Gautham comes with a bitter romantic past. After having married his college love Ishwarya, from whom he was forcefully separated, he meets and weds Kundavi. A disheartened Kundavi learns about her husband’s old flame through his diaries, and her world is shattered. But it is again yet another diary that ends up changing her life for the good, cementing her husband’s love for her. Vaali’s words in the song are proof enough: "Naat kuripil nooru thadavai, Unthan peyarai ezhuthum enn peyna.." (My pen writes your name 100 times in my daily journal).
Sillunu Oru Kadhal is arguably one of the earliest films that set the ball rolling for diaries being used as a pivotal narrative tool in Tamil romantic comedies, a tradition that we see alive and kicking in the films of today. Director Krishna, who looks at diaries as an intimate keeper of secrets, wanted to use it as a tool to introduce Kundavi to her husband’s past. “There are a lot of tools that can be used in the screenplay to bring out the past of a character. One way is to tell the story through another character who knows their past. But I wanted to make things a bit personal, so then came in the diary,” he says. The director was inspired by Bharathiraja’s Oru Kaidhiyin Diary (1985) to weave this concept into his film.
If Sillunu Oru Kaadhal was about knowing the past of your loved one through their own words, recent films Palnati Surya Pratap's 18 Pages (2022) and Ra Karthik's Nitham Oru Vaanam (2022) used the diary to unearth newer stories of self-discovery in the romance genre.
When Siddhu (Nikhil Siddhartha) is reeling from his breakup in 18 Pages, he comes across a diary written two years ago. The diary belonged to Nandini (Anupama Parameswaran), an avid journaler who doesn't believe in using phones or modern tech. When Siddhu reads her entries, he becomes part of her world and follows whatever she does. For instance, even if it’s scorching summer in Hyderabad, he wears winter clothes because that is the season mentioned in her diary. He also stops using GPS, spends more time with family and forgives his ex. The film delicately captures the concept of falling in love with someone's personality. Having not seen or spoken to her, he discovers all the lost joy in his life through her words.
Nitham Oru Vaanam, too, uses this technique to nestle smaller stories in a film format. When Arjun's (Ashok Selvan) bride elopes on the day of their marriage, he is heartbroken and turns to a diary filled with stories for rescue. The film uses the diary as a medium to help Arjun escape reality. “Diary is a character and in fact it is the film’s core,” says director Ra Karthik. “I didn't see it as a prop, for me, it is a character in itself and has certain traits. I wanted all the entries to be written only in ink pen. Irrespective of whether it is shown on the screen or not, I had written all the stories in the diary.”
The stories in Nitham Oru Vaanam play out like journals, chronicling small events in the characters’ lives. And both 18 Pages and Nitham Oru Vaanam use the diary to heal the hearts of these men and help take them on a different journey, which ends up changing their lives forever. Diaries act as an incredible tool to bring in unique emotions, says Karthik. “When we read a book, we are reading about people who are unknown to us. But when we read an entry, we end up empathising with people talking about their own personal experiences.”
We find a similar story of empathy and love in Balasekaran's Kadhal Sugamaanadhu (Priyamaina Neeku in Telugu), which unfolds amidst the backdrop of a lost diary. When Ganesh (Tarun) and his friends find a diary, they are initially reluctant to read it. But when they learn that the diary is of their former neighbour, Sandhya (Sneha), they are intrigued. For someone who keeps things to herself, the diary is Sandhya’s best friend. Depicting her one-sided love, the film is mainly narrated from her perspective and how she looks at the world. And a few pages into the diary, we understand that the man Sandhya has been talking about is none other than Ganesh himself. And thus Ganesh is overwhelmed with empathy and is bitten by the love bug, all just by Sandhya’s entries. In such stories, the reader follows the diarist's activities, habits, or philosophies. But in Kadhal Sugamaanadhu, Sandhya observes Ganesh from afar and slowly begins emulating his principles. And when Ganesh reads about it, the film comes full circle.
Using a diary as the narrative point is sometimes also about retaining a sense of ambiguity and suspense in the rom-com genre. Siddique's Kaavalan (Bodyguard in Telugu) does this by portraying how two people fall in love with each other through phone conversations (Meera poses as Ammukutty and talks to her bodyguard Bhoomi). Their identity, however, is revealed through a diary penned by a third person. The diary, in this film, reunites Bhoomi with his one true love. The journal acts as a confidant in this film, and as Bhoomi reads it, layers of truth peel away one after the other. Reading about the events that spurred an important moment in his life and about his own love from a different perspective, changes his reality.
Unlike the previous films in the list, the diary becomes a central character in AR Murugadoss's Ghajini in a different sense. Sanjay Ramaswamy (Suriya), who suffers from short-term memory loss, is out to avenge the murder of his girlfriend, Kalpana (Asin). With no one left to tell his story, the diary doubles up as the narrator to reveal Sanjay’s troubled past and romance. In other films, the diarists most often are the answers that tied the loose ends of the story. But in Ghajini, neither the diarist nor the characters he writes about, have any control over the narrative. The readers, Ravi (a policeman) and Chithra (a medical student) remain passive, and are mere tools to tell viewers the story.
What if Sanjay had not written a diary? We wouldn't have had a story in the first place, and he would have carried on with his life. But in other films, the diary and its details have united couples, revealed hidden pasts, helped strangers turn friends, and created a better life for many. When executed beautifully, such films have told stories that touched you, made you sit on the edge of your seat, had you smile and cry when the diarists did and took you on a story within the story. “As a reader, we are always curious to know what's next when it comes to any character. Diaries bring about that emotion in you,” says Karthik. There is no better feeling than knowing the end to a story that you have waited so long for, isn't it?