Southern Lights: Adimai Penn

Scattered thoughts on the 1969 MGR-Jayalalithaa starrer that was re-released in theatres last weekend
Southern Lights: Adimai Penn

Language: Tamil

Director: K Shankar

Cast: M. G. Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa

A couple of times a year, a big splash is made around an old film getting a "digital" makeover and being released in theatres again. The quotes are because it's usually a half-hearted restoration, and you can see why. With these films being available on YouTube, who but the hardiest fan is going to make the pilgrimage to the theatre? (The breakout hits – like the Sivaji Ganesan-starrer Karnan, which was digitally remastered and re-released in 2012 – are rare.) Why, therefore, waste money? And so, the colours are inconsistent, and the sound is horrible because they superimpose sharp synth tones over the lush instrumentation from earlier. All of which is to say that my experience of Adimai Penn 2017 (the original was released in 1969) was a bit of a bummer.

But the film itself, one of MGR's biggest hits, is a bit of a bummer. Unlike other MGR starrers of the 1960s – Kudiyirundha Kovil (1968), Aayirathil Oruvan (1965) – it has dated badly. The efforts to seem contemporary are laughable. At the beginning, we get MGR's sobriquet (Makkal Thilagam, or People's King) appearing on screen like how "Super Star" appears in a Rajinikanth movie, and there's even a dig at the Baahubali movies in this film's tagline: The real beginning. Never concludes. It's an unfortunate comparison. In SS Rajamouli's hands, fantasy took flight. Here, it remains earthbound.

The story gets going with the image of the evil, one-legged king, Sengodan (Asokan), hobbling on crutches. A quick flashback shows us how he came to be this way. He tries to molest the virtuous Mangamma (Pandari Bai), who's married to the chieftain, Vengaiyan (MGR). She chops his foot off with an axe, and we return to the present, where Vengaiyan challenges Sengodan to a duel. The film's problems begin right here, because the timeline isn't clear. (Just how much time has elapsed between the attempted assault on Mangamma and Vengaiyan's appearance now?)

MGR wins the duel, but Sengodan hurls a spear into his chest and kills him – not realising that, according to the law of masala movies, Vengaiyan's son will grow up to be MGR too, and will avenge his father's death by hurling a spear into Sengodan's chest. Or maybe Sengodan realises this, for he imprisons the child – and we get to a great masala conceit in the first half. This is something you find in the films of the era. Even the bad ones have intricately worked-out "big" moments (what we call "mass" moments, today).

Because he's grown up in a "cage," Vengaiya is like an animal. He crouches on all fours and laps water from a bowl. He's rescued by a man loyal to Mangamma, taught to speak and fight by the man's granddaughter Jeeva (Jayalalithaa) – what a sweet twist; the real-life mentor becomes the mentee on screen – and his spine straightens when he lifts the wooden bar on a pillory to free an innocent woman. He uses his might for the right, and he becomes a man. Unfortunately, the other masala tropes – Jayalalithaa's double role (there's an evil twin), Vengaiya's Baahubali-like rescue of his long-suffering mother in chains, the fight with the lion (not unlike Bhallala Deva's fight with a giant bull) – are perfunctorily tossed into the mix.

The film itself, one of MGR's biggest hits, is a bit of a bummer. Unlike other MGR starrers of the 1960s – Kudiyirundha Kovil (1968), Aayirathil Oruvan (1965) – it has dated badly. The efforts to seem contemporary are laughable.

Seen today, then, the film is memorable for the SP Balasubramanyam-P Susheela duet, Aayiram nilave vaa, which props up one of KV Mahadevan's more underwhelming soundtracks. And of course, we have the resonances from the era, as in the scene where Vengaiya points to a ball of fire in the sky and asks Jeeva what it is, and she says it's the rising sun, which sustains everything around us. (That was the symbol of the DMK, the party MGR was affiliated to at the time.)

It's these lines, really, that sustain the film, and many of them fit right into the present-day political scenario. Like when Cho remarks, slyly, "Thalaivan pera sonna odane enna bakthi, enna bayam." (As soon as the leader's name is mentioned, everyone shuts up.) Or when Jeeva says, "Thalai irukkaravan ellaam thalaivan aaga mudiyadhu." (Just because you have a head, you cannot become the…. head.) Jeeva/Jayalalithaa's lines, eerily prescient of the actress-politician's future, seem most poignant now. "I'll make every sacrifice for his sake, but I won't sacrifice him." Or this one: "I know politics too." Saddest of all, the line where she says she suspects those around her of trying to bring her down. As cinema, Adimai Penn may be nothing much, but as a crystal ball, it has its moments.

Watch the trailer of Adimai Penn here:

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