Avargal (1977): A Melody Of Human Understanding

Language : Tamil | Running Time : 159 Minutes | Director : K. Balachander

Avargal PosterA few minutes of a train journey in Avargal and you have family dynamics come alive. You see a young woman in love, her man has proclaimed to wait for her no matter how long it takes, her parents themselves fell in love and got married, so she is sure that there will be no opposition. They are the kind of people who can make fun of each other and still be together, their daughter always taking the dad’s side. This is family dynamics you see at your home, when your sister teases your mother and holds your dad’s hand when she is doing it. This family dynamic is ever present in a K.Balachander movie where people in the family talk like  regular people do. In a K.Balachander movie, people always feel real, the canvas may seem like a theater stage, sometimes over the top but the people are never over the top, they are underscored, real, the neighbours and family members you have heard of and seen. Somewhere along the way, our movies failed to hold on to such writing, we started approaching writing differently, the themes changed and have kept on changing. I am not sure I’d say that our writing has evolved better but our staging certainly has.

Avargal is the story of a divorcee, Anu(Sujatha),trying to right her life. She is going away from her sadistic husband Ramanathan(Rajinikanth), searching for companionship again, trying to bring back the melody in her life. It is testament to the writing skills of K.Balachander that he can evoke what her life’s lost with words like how even the train has its own melody but my life doesn’t anymore. These are simple yet monumental words that evoke emotions even before you get to know the character.

Avargal-Kamal Haasan and SujathaFor a movie set in 1977, this is a radical film. Not just because it has a divorcee going away from her husband but also because it has her seeking companionship and love after it and she isn’t ashamed of having divorced her husband. On the first day in her office, she carries her son along with her because she doesn’t have anyone or anyplace to put him where he would feel safe. She has no qualms in accepting this in front of 20-30 people. There’s no guilt here. K Balachander frees his woman from the normally associated stigma that a divorced woman is guilty of the act of leaving her husband, like men make no mistake and it is a woman’s duty to put up with anything and everything. He shows us the stigma through the eyes of an old house owner, the judgement and the distrust. He shows us the compassion through the eyes of Janardhan alias Johnny(Kamal Haasan). He brings the same understanding through Leelavati‘s brilliant character as Ramanathan’s mother. When she tells Anu that she is absolutely certain that her son cannot change, we feel for her. That finality in her tone indicative of every mother’s angst and also here, Leelavati’s disappointment and good heart.

K. Balachander’s movies always had these opposites coming together. This is something from the theater where you throw the opposites at the audience and let them choose whatever they are more comfortable with. This is not the only thing that Balachander brings from his theater background. He has a dummy break the fourth wall at the start of the movie, at the interval and as the film comes to an end. A point of narration, this again used to be a very intricate part of theater. It also happens to be a technique I am very fond of. I am unsure of whether this was the first Indian film to use it or if there were many other before it. I have heard many people complain that K.Balachander’s movies look very “staged”. Avargal has production that looks very stagey but the way the screen’s lit up and the story unfolds, this becomes very minute and hardly a concern.

The talking point for me is the brilliant dialogues and plot, the backbone of a K. Balachander film. Every little comeback is filled with wit and every word uttered is more than merely a point of conjecture, they evoke many thoughts. When Ramanathan asks Anu if she likes being held in one position or another in his arms, it isn’t about how good it feels but if he comes close to her ex -lover. In his head it is a competition and another way to attack her and satisfy his sadistic pleasure. The words follow to effect but even before they come, you realise the effect, the way the fish is being reeled in. The words come to your mind the very moment they are being delivered on screen and the impact stays with you. For a moment, you can place yourselves in Anu’s shoes and that is how Balachander has you sinking in the film, accepting his melodrama too, without batting an eye.

The best of directors always understand the intricacies in human relationships. K. Balachander is one of the very best in that and Avargal is prime example of how we gallivant towards affection, love and a sense of security. Anu is a woman who one loved and had a flow in her life. After marriage, everything disappeared slowly. One after the other, everything was taken away from her, starting with her self-respect and then even her dance. As she breaks away from her husband and lives alone, she embraces these things again. She becomes strong in spirit, embraces music and loves her old lover Bharani(Ravi Kumar) again. In the beginning of the film she answers that her son is the male companion accompanying her. Society always tries to project a man to be the security that a woman requires in life, her social life under him. Even though K Balachander projects an independent woman who is growing into herself again, you see her looking for an emotional attachment with a man her age, searching for lost love. It is an understandable response. It doesn’t begrudge her independence. It only strengthens it, until the scene in the climax.

I was disappointed that she went back trying to salvage what she had thrown away in the climax. It does give you a more sinister picture of one character but we didn’t need that to realise the sadism. It’s been there throughout. When it is shown that Ramanathan is seeking redemption, we know that it is only wolf in sheep’s clothing. His conversation with Bharani and Gayathri are indicators. His behaviour with his mother also points to the same. As we already have that sadism part clear to us, the climax misses the opportunity to paint Anu better. It almost undoes all the good work in trying to clarify everything when there actually is no need for one. Had Anu just moved on in the end without the tracking back, Avargal would have been almost perfect. It had hit the right notes of characterisation throughout. It had a female lead you could root for, it had a sly and wily sadistic husband who makes your skin crawl, it has the lover who seems mystical and a tad clouded with doubt, it also has a man who is too nice and sad and it has the most impressive mother-in-law in the movies. It paints them to perfection till that one scene where it makes the female lead miss her step.

Avargal-Sujatha and RajinikanthI wonder if it is the case of human error in judgement that K Balachander is pointing to; the desire to find something constant, the invariant in life despite the changes that surround us. Even invariants move on, when they are forgotten or sidelined, when there are too many clouds hanging. I would like to think that K Balachander was aiming for this but it is too over the top, unlike everything else in the movie except for that song picturised as a team playing cricket. Nevertheless, Avargal is a story that is told well, with a lot of intelligence and understanding and one which is brilliantly acted, directed and scored.

As Anu leaves, Johnny realises that he has lost his love and he was never a candidate for her love, his eyes speak a sad story, one of never finding shore or ever-lasting love. It is one of the most beautiful scenes in the film where you get to see how extraordinary an actor Kamal Haasan is.Even though I have watched him cry on-screen ever since I was a little boy he can move me more often than any other actor, as soon as his face starts crunching. This isn’t his movie though, even if he is perfect every time he is on-screen. Sujatha is, as usual very “correct”.She always has the right tone in a movie but I’ve never been an admirer. Here too, it is no different. She makes Anu a character I love but I also realise that Sujatha is playing that role. The actor playing that character shouts out almost as much as the character does. The character is never alone. It is something I associate with Meryl Streep too but a little more coldly with Streep. The standout for me has to be Rajinikanth. Quite simply, he excels at being the cunning sadist. Even in “Aval Appadithan”, he plays the male chauvinist to perfection. In “16 Vayathinile”, he is again brilliant as a chauvinist. He is supremely comfortable being the vile man. He made me realise that he can make my skin crawl with just the way he throws around his dialogues. This is the period that Rajini, the actor is visible and outdoes Rajini the entertainer. This is the period we should celebrate among his films because simply put, he is majestic.

“Avargal” is what you exclaim about after watching as “What a movie! By Jove, what a movie!” It is one such great movie. It is an understanding of the society, how intricate human relationships are and how people keep shifting to and fro searching for invariants. It is one of the great movies to have come from our shores and one which enriches our understanding of what cinema can be and should be. By all means, it is a melody of human understanding.

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