I was not in India when Sethu was released, on December 10, 1999. Those days, Tamil movies did not get a huge release outside the State — unless they had really big stars. And Vikram, of course, was hardly a big star, then. His highest-profile films — Meera, Puthiya Mannargal, Ullasam (can you imagine Ajith and Vikram together today?) — were more famous for their songs. But suddenly, there was news about this amazing new film that had become a sleeper hit, and then this film went on to win the National Award for Best Feature Film in Tamil, and Vikram became the poster child for perseverance. Every starry-eyed struggler now had a new idol to worship, a new mantra to chant. How many sad little films he struggled through! How many other stars he dubbed for! How much he believed in himself! Keep at it, and you could be the next Vikram!
Twenty years on, there still hasn't been another Vikram. I would argue that even Vikram isn't the same Vikram. His blazing talent is not up for debate. He's the best masala hero of his generation. He's also the best actor of his generation. But oh, his films! Something keeps going wrong… but let's not go there. Let's stick with Sethu. I watched it again for this piece. I hadn't seen it in a while and yet, I remembered every little bit. Maybe that's how you know a movie is stuck in your head. And maybe it's also because it's a very simple story, really: it's a tragedy about star-crossed lovers. It's more about the performances and the treatment.
Today, a story about a brutish college stud deciding that a docile fresher is the love of his life may seem familiar. (You may have heard about a recent film that did this? Yes?) But back then, it felt new. Yes, the romantic track with a rowdy and a devout TamBrahm woman had been seen in Thalapathy, but that was a more mythical movie. Yes, the rowdy as the protagonist had been seen before in Puthiya Paathai, and even earlier, in Thappu Thaalangal, but those were more messagey movies, with social reform or social critique on the mind. Sethu pushed elements from these films into a very raw zone, a very Bala zone.
At first, we just seem to be watching the usual "I know you're saying no, but I know your no actually means yes, and in your heart you love me" romance, between two very different people. One of the most brilliant stretches of Sethu is the opening, which is — thanks to Bala's writing and Ilaiyaraaja's composing — filled with genuine musical invention. Over the credits, which appear on a plain black background, we hear a "vote for Sethu" song. Even without seeing a single character, a single scene, we are pulled into the world of this protagonist, who is standing for the post of Students' Union Chairman — just through the music and lyrics.
Earlier films have used the title sequence to take us into a story — say, Michael Madana Kama Rajan. But the credits, in such films, are almost always superimposed over scenes and characters. Has an earlier film used the title sequence for "storytelling", with just credits and some kind of audio playing over a stark black visual background? I can think of Roja — but it's not a song, here. It's more about atmosphere and setting. We hear sounds of the army and aircraft and artillery, and the first scene deposits us in Srinagar. I can think of 'Maan iname' from Mullum Malarum — but the lyrics, here, are a little abstract. They speak broadly, generally, of a brother's love for his sister, and thus lay out the broad narrative arc.
Sethu is far more specific. It's not a general song about elections. It's about this particular election, this particular character. The first scene, in a sense, is actually the second scene — for what we get over the credits is a legitimate "scene" in itself, something that could have actually been staged on its own. (Did Bala plan it this way, or was he forced to resort to this "musical invention" because he couldn't shoot this footage due to budget constraints? It doesn't matter.) Sethu wins. We get the hero introduction shot. He turns to the camera, smiles and exhales cigarette smoke. A bit of banter follows between his friends, for about a minute-and-a-half, and we segue right into another song: the magnificent 'Kaana karunguyile'. It's a deliberately "crass" song. The old-time cabaret dancer Jyothilakshmi — described by one of Sethu's friends as "kulukkal sundari" — is brought in to dance. The stylish sway of her hips as she walks into the scene is something to behold.
After the song, we get a fight, and after the fight, we get another song — but this time, it's a "chaste" song, a classical song. We are now in an agraharam, as Abithakuchalambal (Abitha) sings 'Sharanam bhava'. (Like the song, her name, too, is a universe apart from that of Sethu, who is called "Chiyaan".) This is a verse from Narayana Teertha's 'Krishna Leela Tarangini'. I've always wondered if Bala chose this Sanskrit composition by this composer born in the 17th Century, or if he just told Ilaiyaraaja "I want a religious-sounding number here", and the maestro chose this verse. Whatever the case, this is an extension of a musical technique Mani Ratnam and Ilaiyaraaja used in Thalapathy, when the "crass" 'Raakamma' number segues to the "chaste" 'Kunitha puruvamum', by Thirunavukkarasar — but again, Bala pushes this technique into a new zone. Where it was a fleeting contrast between the hero's and heroine's crass/chaste worlds in Thalapathy, here we are immersed in these respective worlds for long stretches, as each song is a whole song in itself. So by the time these characters meet, Bala has already established a significant amount of detail — all through song, and Rathnavelu's cinematography. Sethu's portions are shot in natural light. Abitha is lit with diffused light, almost as though she's divine.
It's surprising, today, to see this avatar of Bala. Sethu is the mildest Bala movie ever. This isn't yet the Bala who would chop Suriya to bits and stuff his body parts into a sack. The most Bala-esque character, in Sethu, is a minor one, a woman (Rajashree) — presumably mentally challenged — dressed in a paavadai and loose shirt. She has unkempt hair. She picks food from a garbage bin. She cannot speak, and seems to have Sethu (Vikram) as a protector — for he beats up a man who unties the naada of this woman's paavadai and exposes her in public. But she gets beaten up by Sethu, too. In two separate scenes, she tries to prevent him from fighting with others. The first time, he shoves her without even looking in her direction. The second time, he kicks her face.
Now, this is not "hero behaviour". This is Bala behaviour. Three years later, in Thulluvatho Ilamai (2002), we'd get Selvaraghavan behaviour. In a way, this generation of filmmakers, beginning with Bala, would go on to shape the Tamil hero we see on screen today. Imagine the top "young" actors of the eighties and nineties: Mohan, Suresh, Karthik, Murali (who, in news that boggles the mind, was reportedly considered to play Sethu!), and later, Vijay, Ajith and Prashanth. The characters they played were almost always imbued with "hero behaviour". There were things a hero did and there were things a hero did not do — and those "rules" were strenuously adhered to. And then we get Sethu, where the hero's best friend (an excellent Sriman) smokes ganja in the morning, and the hero himself abducts the woman he loves. (In an earlier era, such a plot development would have had to be explained away by the fact that the man was a "mental case".)
The earlier generations of filmmakers either came from privileged backgrounds, or they were well-read, or they were exposed to world cinema — and their leading men reflected a lot of these genteel values. I cannot imagine a Bala being hugely influenced by, say, Pather Panchali, as Balu Mahendra so often said he was — in the sense that Bala may well have been a connoisseur of world cinema, but his work is very far-removed from how we imagine (or narrowly define) "world cinema". This is not to say Bala isn't cinematic. This is to say that Bala, as a filmmaker, is very much like Sethu, a very unique kind of brute force. What he lacked in elegance, he made up for with raw power. And that raw power is still visible in Sethu.
It's in the shocking scenes where Sethu abducts Abitha and takes her to a desolate building. When she becomes conscious, she finds herself tied to a chair, a plaster tape over her mouth. Later, she cowers in fright as Sethu says he has imagined their family life. He says this relationship is not just for him. He's convinced she wants it, too. And if she still doesn't agree? He lifts up something heavy (it looks like a shard of stone) and holds it over her head. He will kill her. And then, he will kill himself. A few years later, Dhanush would add more disturbing shadings to his stalker-lover in Kadhal Kondain. You can only wonder what the conversations around these films would have been had Twitter existed then.
Another Bala-ism in Sethu (which was reportedly inspired by Bala's friend): the brothel within the agraharam. At one point, we find Abitha's older sister (played by Lavanya) here. (Later, Mysskin would expand on this idea in Chithiram Pesuthadi.) This is another terrific character. On a screenplay level, she exists solely so that Sethu can "save" her and become a hero in Abitha's eyes — but even so, there is so much naked desperation in this woman, whose husband demands more dowry and has kept her from meeting their son. Her father's reaction when she returns home is one of the best instances of parental helplessness I have seen on screen.
Here's another example of a scene that exists in order to glorify the hero, build him up as a good guy. The man engaged to Abitha — he's another impoverished priest in the agraharam — finds out that Sethu "saved" Abitha's sister. Now, he says she should marry Sethu. Their engagement was one of those things decided when they were children. It doesn't matter anymore, he says. Someone strong (and also, good-hearted, behind that rough-and-tough facade) like Sethu will make a far better partner. ("Nammala vida avan osathi.") Bala's beautiful writing makes this transcend the typical "hero build-up" scene. It's the result of a series of accumulated events, and we see the priest not as a loser but as a realist. He knows what he is when compared to Sethu, what he can offer Abitha when compared to Sethu — and the scene plays out without a single false note.
I can't say I'm the biggest fan of a peacock feather being used as a symbol of ethereal love — but it, too, becomes a measure of a different world by the time we get to the scene where Sethu's head is smashed into a rock by his enemies. This happens just after Abitha falls at his feet and says she loves him, too. Sethu's happiness is so short-lived — he is packed off to an asylum for the mentally ill. Rathnavelu changes the colour palette. From vibrant earth colours, we get to depressing greys and greens — and this change in tone paves the way for Vikram's earliest transformation. He lost 21 kilos. He shaved his head. During 'Enge sellum intha paathai', when Bala cuts from this Sethu to the happier-times version, it's the starkest of contrasts.
I won't call Sethu Bala's best film. But it's certainly a superb signature work. Very few filmmakers start off with a work that comes with a voice. I love the scene where Sethu attempts suicide and falls on a poor watchman — Sethu survives, the poor watchman battles for life. Your brain needs to be wired a certain way for you to be able to write such a scene, which wobbles between genuine sadness and tar-black comedy.
There's also, for a Bala film, a surprising amount of "normalness" around the protagonist, who lives with his very normal brother and sister-in-law, played by Sivakumar and Vijaya Bharathi. In a breakfast scene, Sethu joins his brother and starts banging out a beat on the table. He is singing 'Thanni thotti thedi vandha'… He is mocking the brother. I suspect this scene is also about Bala mocking Sivakumar, who sang this song on screen. What seemed "aberrant" behaviour in Sindhu Bhairavi is the norm for Sethu, who smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish.
And this has become the new norm. In an earlier era, the protagonist had to "fall" to the state the present-day heroes find themselves in, in default mode. Sethu didn't just change Vikram's life. It changed a lot of (or "normalised") what could be shown on screen as "acceptable" in a hero. Urban Tamil cinema slowly began the shift from "South Madras" to "North Madras" — if not literally, in terms of location, then certainly figuratively, in terms of feel. And this much-needed transition — which would diversify the kinds of people we'd see on screen, the kinds of stories that would be told, and the tone and the language of the storytelling — would be furthered, a little later, by the "Madurai cinema". That's a lot of accomplishment for a movie with an unknown director and an actor who'd almost given up his dreams. They just wanted a hit. They ended up changing an ecosystem.