Conventional motivational films often involve an ordinary person who reaches unimaginable heights by the end of the story. While this extraordinary journey proves to be enjoyable cinema, it centres on a protagonist who is one in a million. Stories of rags to riches are enticing but they don't exactly cater to the remaining population consisting of common people with common goals, do they?
After watching quintessential commercial films back-to-back, I had almost concluded that Tamil cinema had nothing more to offer than unrealistic action sequences, manic pixie heroines, and discriminatory jokes. Then one fine day I stumbled across a hidden treasure, a vault of gold that is the filmography of the legendary K. Balachander.
Varumayin Niram Sivappu, which translates to 'The Colour of Poverty is Red', is quite intriguing as it tells the realistic story of a common person with a simple goal, to live based on his idealistic principles. It is an unapologetically honest tale set in Delhi which portrays unemployment, poverty, and starvation, and the approaches different types of people take for survival. I can confidently say this film expanded my outlook on life by shedding light on a dimension of the world completely foreign to me. It felt as though, through his protagonist, K. Balachander was saying this dialogue from the film to me, "Ungala maathiri kenatru thavalaigala seer thirutha ungaluke vanthu piranthiruka puthiya Bharathi naan."
The protagonist Rangan, essayed by Kamal Haasan follows the archetype of an angry young man. He is an unemployed youth who has defiantly left home to prove a point to his father. Rangan is an admirer of Subramania Bharathi, is extremely principled and, by consequence, infuriated with the corrupted society. What left me flabbergasted is the fact that he has a master's degree in philosophy, brilliantly recites Bharathiyar poetry, and fluently speaks a handful of languages yet is still unable to find a job. (Perhaps Rangan's extensive skill set was intentional to emphasise the severity of unemployment in the '80s.) With this description, you may have pictured someone along the lines of the character Ambi from Anniyan who goes to great lengths to reform society, but that's not the case here. Although Rangan does openly voice his opinions it often ends up working against him, particularly when he is searching for a job. Rather than having a larger-than-life hero who miraculously manages to implement drastic changes overnight, this film illustrates a microscopic view of how poverty can change one's life.
As always, Balachander's characters are far from perfect and he does not forcibly preach motivational messages; in fact, he does the opposite. No character is put on a pedestal and the audience isn't exactly coerced into supporting the views of one particular character. Instead, we are presented with a spectrum of characters, ranging from a naïve Thambu to the mute painter Bharani to a theatre actress Devi, played by Sridevi. Additionally, Balachander creates a foil for Rangan in his street smart roommate who apparently follows the advice of an unknown Dileep to make money through crooked means. It is later revealed that Dileep is fictional, and is the alter ego of the unnamed friend. What I found interesting was that Rangan's way of life is not falsely shown as a bed of roses and 'Dileep' is actually the only character who ends up with a wealthy lifestyle that he achieves through his cunning. Though 'Dileep' is willing to dent his moral compass to make money, given his dire circumstances, I believe it would be unfair to villainise him entirely. Balachander merely uses him as a tool to showcase the other side of the coin, emphasising that in such situations, it is possible to go to great extremes for survival (or in this case, to thrive).
In a film that is infused with Bharathiyar's verses, you might expect to have a female protagonist who falls under the category of Bharathi's "puratchi penn," but that is not the case with Devi. She is representative of the average Indian woman of the '80s. Though she is the breadwinner of her family, she is essentially enslaved to the men in her life. Devi unwillingly provides for her alcoholic father who squanders her hard-earned money by gambling. Meanwhile, at the workplace, she reluctantly has to put up with the advances of her boss, Pratap, to sustain her livelihood.
The force driving the characters is undoubtedly hunger, which Rangan describes as "the omnipresent and the omnipotent", and Balachander ensures that every nuance of this idea is explored. From depicting the three unemployed roommates smoking cigarettes to suppress their appetite to having a famished Rangan desperately lunge for a muddy apple at the heart of the story, we are shown the full potency of hunger.
To a standard audience, Varumayin Niram Sivappu, as the title suggests, may be rather grim because Balachander gives very little room for catharsis, except in the climax and a few lovely melodies. Whether or not you're able to see the silver lining of hope purely depends on the way you view the story. In one particular scene Devi tells Bharani that when the roads are curved, we must take that route to reach our destination rather than trying to establish a straight path of our own. She was partially correct as Rangan's righteousness does not get him a job he is qualified for nor does it help him reform society. However, the beauty of the film lies in the fact that despite having to sell his precious Bharathiyar books for the meagre sum of three rupees and undergoing prolonged starvation, Rangan stands by his principles until the very end.
The climax is the light at the end of the tunnel, as Rangan and Devi finally find jobs that do not require them to disregard their principles and are content with their lives. The moral of the story is regardless of how dishonest our surrounding environment may be, it is up to each person to choose their path in life. No, Rangan didn't fix the unemployment crisis, nor did he become a famous philosopher, but he achieved a goal that many other common people may share. To me, Rangan, Devi, Bharani, 'Dileep' and all the other characters of Varumayin Niram Sivappu come across as real people. To see a common man like Rangan have the conviction to maintain an unwavering moral compass even while withstanding societal pressure to conform is truly inspiring. It is not a phenomenal tale of rags to riches but instead a viable story that reassures us that we do not have to become a product of our environment. "Eppadi venaalum vaazhalaamnu naan ninaichirunthena eppadi elaamo vaazhthirukalaam, aana ippadi thaan vaazhanumnu ninaichen," which is exactly what he does: live life without compromising his principles.