Serendipity nudged me towards Bala's Pithamagan. The year was 2004 and I was rummaging through a friend's DVD collection out of sheer boredom. It was chance that most of the films in his collection were ones I had already watched and the remaining were not suitable for pre-sunset viewing. And then I found this DVD that had pictures of actors I did not recognise, and the name printed in a language I did not understand. As I decided to watch the movie just to get out of ennui, I could never have imagined this would be one of my most memorable movie watching experiences. The tale of Chiththan (Vikram), an undertaker in a graveyard, was primal to the point that it did not need the crutch of a language to mesmerise me.
The protagonist Chiththan does not get any lines as he interchangeably appears as a man who skipped a few rounds of the evolutionary cycle or an innocent child yet to be corrupted by the vagaries of existence. Until the opening sections of the movie, his interaction with humans is restricted to the funeral rites. It is as if the outside world comes into his life only at the end of life itself. It is only when Chiththan steps out of the graveyard into society that we get to see the outside world, and through his perspective. Love and the legal system make as much sense to him as to an animal in the wild. For all matters of mind, Chiththan is closer to an animal than other men in the civilised world. When he works at a marijuana plantation, he does it as just another piece of work that provides food, no different from burning corpses. The ethical and legal aspects of the work do not register in his mind. His revolt against the antagonist is only when this business threatens his existence and that of his loved ones. All his reactions are acts of self-preservation or revenge; his every movement is feral.
The ties he forms with Sakthi (Suriya) and Gomathi (Sangeetha) are based on the reptilian instincts. He sticks to them because they shield him from danger and provide him food and shelter. Sakthi's hyperactive, streetwise con man is the perfect counter to Chiththan's lack of social skills. Gomathi, who peddles marijuana for a living, becomes the nurturer in his life. None of these characters has a family of their own, all of them are miscasts in the eyes of the society. Pithamagan is a tale of these broken characters coming together to form a cohesive family unit. The film moves at a soothing pace as the relationship between these characters develops and Chiththan starts learning about emotions, the same way a child learns in the growing years. The background score is hopeful, the songs are emotional, and there is a detour to an item number featuring Simran. Bala establishes a damaged protagonist, bringing rays of hope and light into his life, before mercilessly pushing him down the abyss of eternal darkness in the final act. In the climax, Chiththan goes back to his past barbaric self, having rushed through the cycle of human emotions. While one death (of his guardian in the graveyard) pushed him towards society, another (of his guardian angel in the 'civilised' world) makes him turn his back on it.
In Pithamagan, Bala creates a palimpsest of social commentary and human emotions, where tragedy is the dominant layer. This masterpiece was my introduction to Tamil cinema, and it has since led to a long tryst with the language and the films made in it. I have revisited Pithamagan multiple times over the years (with a better understanding of the language) and yet my first reaction to it remains the overarching one: lodged firmly in the reptilian brain – undiluted by intellectual analysis. Maybe that is the best way to remember Chiththan and the world of Pithamagan.