An edited version of this article has been published on Film Companion.
Name : J Mahendran
Original name : Alexander
Skills : Director, Screenwriter, Film critic
Language : Tamil
Active Since : 1966
Favourite Genre : Drama
Biggest hits : Mullum Malarum (1978), Uthiripookkal (1979), Nenjathai Killathe (1980)
Like Francois Truffaut, Mahendran started out as a film critic. His reviews of Tamil films for magazines like Thuglak were scathing. He went on to write screenplays and dialogues for several hit films, starring Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran, before making his directorial debut with Mullum Malarum (A Thorn and a Flower, 1978). Mahendran took ample inspiration from literature for his screenplays. 10 out of the 12 films he directed have been adapted from literary works by Tamil writers. Being an avid fan of Satyajit Ray, his films portray villages, cities and characters as they are without romanticizing or passing judgements.
His Best Work
Uthiripookkal (Unstrung Flowers), 1979
Adapted from Sittrannai (Stepmother), written by Pudhumaipithan, Uthiripookkal is the story of Sundaravadivelu, a sadistic manager of a village school and his desire to marry his wife’s sister. The film lures you gently into the rhythms of village life before it unleashes drama, through the actions of Sundaravadivelu to attain his goal. It has one of the most understated yet haunting antagonists of Tamil cinema.
Poottadha Poottukkal (Locks that don’t lock), 1980
Adapted from the short story Uravugal (Relations) by writer Ponneelan, this film focuses on the fissures in a married couple’s relationship when they can’t have a child. The wife falls for a young man, who gives her attention and the drama that unfolds forms the rest of the story. It’s a subtle meditation on how the human mind works in relationships and how the invisible forces of societal expectations weigh down heavily on married men and women.
Mullum Malarum (A Thorn and a Flower), 1978
Mahendran began reading a novel by Umachandran, set it aside halfway through and wrote this film’s screenplay. It’s about a brother and a sister in a village, who’re orphans. The brother, Kaali, works as a winch operator at a power plant. His relationship with his supervisor is strained from the beginning and their skirmishes lead to him losing his left hand. This was one of the first films in which Rajinikanth, who had done negative roles until then, played the protagonist. Mullum Malarum, Johnny (1980) and Kai Kodukkum Kai (1984) are 3 Mahendran films that provide a glimpse of a Rajinikanth devoid of the larger-than-life image that he’s known for today.
Trivia: This film was later remade in Hindi as Pyaari Behna (1985) with Mithun Chakraborty playing Rajini’s role.
5 Filmmaking Tropes of Mahendran
During his days as a critic, Mahendran slammed Tamil movies for being ‘talkies’ rather than cinema. He abhorred melodrama and the monologue. So the first thing that strikes you about his films is his precision with words and images. The words and their understated tone maintain the drama at a realistic pitch. A character might be bursting with anger but in a Mahendran film, all you’ll hear is a single line spoken calmly.
Take for instance, the scene in Uthiripookkal that introduces a couple. The husband is seated at home eating his lunch, while the wife stands nearby. He bites into a pebble while chewing and his face contorts. He glowers at his silent wife and says, “Can’t you be careful while cooking?” The entire bitterness of their relationship is packed into that single line and his contorted face.
Mysskin revealed in an interview with Baradwaj Rangan that he considers the opening shot of his film to be critical. The opening shot dictates the shots that follow. Likewise, Mahendran establishes his film’s theme visually within the first five minutes. The opening title sequences of Nenjathai Killathey (Don’t Pinch My Heart, 1980), show Suhasini jogging through city streets shrouded in mist. The film is about her running to and fro in relationships.
The opening shot of Metti (Toe Ring, 1982), shows two daughters waking up, admiring their mother’s toe ring as she walks towards them. The film is about their yearning to wear the toe ring and how it shackles their lives. In Mullum Malarum, Kaali’s resentment against authority is established within a single minute in this scene. He feels the same resentment later against his superior officer.
Nature & rhythms of life
When asked what kind of literature he liked, this was Mahendran’s reply. “It’s filled with limitless beauty, countless wonders and mysteries that man is yet to decode. It nourishes mankind and all living organisms. Nature is the best literature.” You’ll find his love of nature woven into the fabric of every film he made. In Poottadha Poottukkal, cats purr on a sleepless night as a couple mutely stare at each other. A barber in Johnny lives and sleeps amidst animals and plants. A popular song from Mullum Malarum has a man singing of the breeze that played on a pandan flower and washed over him, its scent creating the illusion of a woman.
Mahendran has a keen eye for observing life and capturing its details with precision. The lines his characters speak sound real. A village woman bargaining with a cloth seller in Uthiripookkal, remarks, “Give us a good price. Don’t try to cover your daughter’s wedding costs by selling us this saree!” A fight in Mullum Malarum that churns up dust, with mediators and silent onlookers takes place without the accompaniment of the typical “dishoom dishoom” of the 80s. And even if it’s an urban setting, he captures its spirit well in films like Nenjathai Killathey.
The supporting characters and songs in every Mahendran film echo its main theme. In Uthiripookkal, that explores a man’s sadism and lust, there’s a lunatic, who pesters people to read out a letter from his runaway wife. And an old woman sings a song, during an engagement, with the fond memory of her dead husband. In Poottadha Poottukkal, that plunges into the darker crevices of marriages, almost every other male character ogles at women, including an adopted child who’s a peeping tom. In Nenjathai Killathey, a story about finding love and companionship, he has a comic character in his 40s who’s still single.
Metti, a commentary on the institution of marriage, has a playful song, Kalyanam ennai mudikka (In order to marry me). A woman lays down her conditions for marriage like wanting the groom to play the nadaswaram and the marriage ceremony to take place on a moving train with foreigners chanting hymns! Johnny’s protagonist is a thief for whom stealing is an emotional burden and the release he finds in a singer’s voice is succinctly expressed in this song.
These characters and songs aren’t sprinkled to make the film more interesting. They’re deliberate choices that grow organically out of the film’s theme. He lays out these characters and songs in concentric circles echoing the film’s core, like ripples in water.
On the surface, having Kaali as a winch operator in Mullum Malarum adds a touch of realism. But, looking closely at how Kaali’s relationship with his superior slides steadily downhill, you realise that perhaps the winch is a symbol. There’s a scene that shows Kaali playing uriyadi, the traditional game of hitting a moving target with a stick while people hurl water at him. In a way, that’s a visual summary of Kaali’s life. He grew up as an orphan fighting against the society and taking care of his sister all by himself. He bears a boiling resentment against people in power, since their position is always out of his reach, just like the moving target.
In the splendid climax of Uthiripookkal, it’s only the men of the village who gather and force the antagonist to drown himself in the river. There’s no woman to be seen. The villain is a demon who represents the filth in the hearts of all men and the climax is a call to destroy that demon, so that we can move on as a society and live a better life. Seen this way, Uthiripookkal is a much larger film than simply the tale of a solitary sadist and how he meets his end.
Likewise the toe ring in Metti and a poster in Nenjathai Killathey depicting children dressed up as a couple are symbols that make a bigger point. The good thing about Mahendran’s films is that you can enjoy them without really bothering about these symbols or what they signify. But, when you watch his films closely and look beneath the surface, you’re sure to relish them even more and inch closer to their underlying themes.
Mahendran loves to begin a scene in the middle of a conversation and linger on the characters during uncomfortable pauses. A classic example is a night panchayat scene from Uthiripookkal. The entire village is gathered to debate the villain’s atrocities. His wife weeps silently and we get closeups of a lot of faces. The only sound you hear is the unconsoled wail of a child in the background.
During an emotional moment in Metti, when a character’s mother dies, she’s seen sitting on the floor and sobbing in an empty space surrounded by flowers. That’s the emptiness left behind after her mother’s body has been carried away. Mani Ratnam, who later became known for such powerfully visual moments, can be seen as carrying forth the torch of silence from Mahendran’s hands.
Mahendran once remarked, “Ilaiyaraja wrote the dialogues for my silent scenes. He should be credited as my co-writer!” It’s exhilarating to study the musical themes that Ilaiyaraja develops for various characters and subplots in each film. In Uthiripookkal, for instance, there’s a theme for the antagonist’s desire for his sister-in-law, a theme for the innocence of his children and a theme for the unspoken desires of his wife. And there’s silence in his songs too. ‘Senorita I love you’ shows a couple play-acting as husband and wife. Later in the film, the girl ditches the guy for someone else. So there was never any love between them. Everything was make-believe, just like their silent mimes.
The great thing about watching Mahendran films is that a specific character, a specific line or a specific visual is bound to stick in your mind and not leave you. You can revisit his films at a later stage in your life and you’ll get new insights. It happens because his films don’t have a planned architecture to achieve an intended effect. They’re complex, organic growths that mirror real life and so each time you enter them, you’ll spot something new that’s sprouted under your feet.
“We must learn cinema from the people around us. It’s important to express naturalism with an aesthetic sense. One doesn’t need to rack one’s brains for aesthetics. If you look through the eyes of people around you, you can acquire an aesthetic sense naturally.” This is Mahendran’s cinema in a nutshell – real characters in their natural habitats, their natural behaviours, their emotions, their interactions, captured through an aesthetic lens that doesn’t judge.