An old man and a solitary man: Thoughts on Bharathiraja’s OM & Parthiban’s Oththa Seruppu

Featured in the September 2019 issue of The World of Apu film magazine.

Throughout Bharathiraja’s latest film OM (Old Man), you can sense a filmmaker who wants to tell you a very personal story, one that he feels strongly about. The only catch is that his filmmaking grammar belongs to an older generation. For instance, a slow motion introductory shot: the “heroine” turns her head around, she is smiling, her long hair swishes; this is intercut with a basketball sliding along the rim of a hoop before falling in. And then we get a freeze frame of the heroine’s face alongside the text “Introducing Rasi Nakshatra.”

It is easy to dismiss this as an age-old cliche of Tamil cinema, but there are two points to keep in mind. One, the number of actresses who have been introduced to Tamil cinema through Bharathiraja’s films (Revathi in Mann Vasanai, Radhika in Kizhakke Pogum Rayil, Sridevi in 16 Vayathinile). Against this backdrop, the freeze frame could be seen as a veteran’s blessing, a director’s fare-thee-well wish to a newcomer.

Two, in Bharathiraja films, these introductory shots of the heroine are not perfunctory, they are not snippets shown to us before dumping her from the plot and focusing on the hero’s problems—a fairly common ritual. In almost every Bharathiraja film, female characters have made their presence known. If the story presents a man and a woman, Bharathiraja strives to tell you both sides of the story. He has managed to do this consistently in mainstream cinema, while creating characters that remain imprinted in the minds of a movie-obsessed audience. Other mainstream filmmakers seem to have borrowed specific traits of his female characters (smiling when holding a flower, becoming angels in the songs), confusing them for character and personality.

The female protagonist of OM is a teenager trained in Bharatanatyam. She is a Tamil girl born and brought up in a foreign land. She lives with her sister and does not find peace at home. She wants to end her life. That is when she stumbles upon an old man (played by Bharathiraja himself), whom she affectionately calls OM (short for old man). The old man isn’t in the best place either—his son has betrayed him, he has just left an old age home with a mission entrusted to him by a dying friend. But he still has hope, and a zest for life. The rest of the film is the journey these two unlikely companions go on, from London to a remote village in Scotland. OM tells the girl that if by the end of their journey she does not wish to live, then he will kill her.

Although the film is filled with over-the-top acting (except for Bharathiraja and Mounika in certain sequences) and has many contrived moments, by the end, the two characters get close to your heart. During the post-screening Q&A session, Bharathiraja revealed that he was inspired by a real-life experience of a friend, who was a doctor. He was going through a difficult phase in life when he met a patient undergoing similar trauma. During the course of treatment, the two of them developed a sense of attachment to each other.

“It’s not the typical emotion that we call love. A hurt bird seeks refuge on the branches of a withered tree [பட்ட மரம்] for a while. Once it recovers, it must fly! It may have developed an attachment to the tree but that does not mean it should stay on the tree forever.”

There is a nice moment when the girl asks OM to close his eyes and count to ten, at the end of which she promises to tell him something special. As OM counts each number aloud, we see visuals of the girl running towards something, and hear her uttering a word in her mind. As the numbers increase, each word she utters begins to denote a closer sense of attachment. When OM reaches ten, the tenth word is left unsaid. We see the girl panting for breath in front of a beautiful sunset and whispering something to the setting sun. This sequence summed up their relationship; it was the most interesting segment of the film for me.

As OM and his teenaged companion walk across a plain, his hat and her umbrella get swept away by the wind. OM points at them rolling along and they share a laugh. A single reference would have been memorable, but the hat and umbrella keep recurring. In fact, this kind of constant underlining irked one of my friends so much that after the film she exclaimed, “Perhaps it’s time for Bharathiraja to stop making films!” I don’t agree though.

I am fascinated by his love for freeze frames. I love the song Kannukkul Nooru Nilava (linked below) from one of his older films, Vedham Pudhithu, in which an entire crowd of people stand frozen, as the leads play hide-and-seek. You have handkerchiefs (the objects of focus in the song) flying all around. You also get rapidfire cuts to closeups of flowers, which can be seen in other songs too, like Aathangarai Marame from Kizhakku Cheemaiyile. We see a similar rapidfire cut in OM too, when OM and the girl collide into each other. He uses a bang to denote their collision, which dies away with echoes, and the rapidfire cuts are in sync with these echoes. The cuts felt as if the film itself was jolted by the impact of their collision, and I enjoyed it. OM is peppered with many little flourishes like these; I am not able to write off Bharathiraja as a director of a bygone era.

Mounika and the jewels

When Mounika makes an entry somewhere in the middle of the film as OM’s wife, and a doting grandmother visiting her grandchildren in London, I could not hold back a smile. Having seen many of her roles in Balu Mahendra’s Kadhai Neram (a series of 52 shorts made for television), I found myself wishing she’d continued to act in mainstream films. The acts of affection by grandparents from a remote village in Tamil Nadu feel alien to their Tamil-British grandchildren. When Mounika cajoles her grandson to take off his clothes for an oil bath on Deepavali, his baby sister misunderstands the situation and calls the child abuse helpline. The dazed grandparents are the only people at home, their son and his wife are away at work. One thing leads to another, and Mounika is imprisoned for investigation.

As you would expect, it happens to be a weekend, so Mounika must stay in prison until Monday. Once she returns home, she dies. If these were the only events that happened, I would have been flustered. But just before her death, Bharathiraja weaves in a beautiful moment. After they reach home from prison, Bharathiraja and Mounika sit on the couch, she is leaning on his shoulders. The little girl, hesitant, walks up to her and apologises. Mounika strokes her cheek and passes something to her in a balled fist. The little girl receives it, confused and sad. Bharathiraja is looking on and breaks down when he notices that Mounika has just passed on her ornaments. He had seen her removing her earrings and necklace, one by one, as they returned home in their son’s car. The moment he recollects this, she is leaning on his shoulders, dead. I learnt from my friend later that there is a custom—if a person were to die wearing jewels, then these jewels are discarded and not passed on to the next generation. The sensitivity in the scene became apparent.

During the Q&A session, Bharathiraja called himself a son of Tamil soil. But in OM, you do not find him passing judgments on Western culture. He does not resort to the usual idea of the younger generation “being spoiled” by Western mores. He does not dismiss suicide as a selfish, Western idea. The opening shot of OM is a working wife frying vadai for her children, who are waiting eagerly. We notice a ready-to-make vadai mix in a corner of her kitchen. It is shown as part of their routine life, a snapshot of the life of emigrant Tamils. In OM, both director and film accept this reality of Tamil people living in a foreign land, asking us to look at their problems through a benevolent lens. I was reminded of A Muttulingam‘s short story Americakaari. It starts with the love life of a Sri Lankan Tamil girl studying in an American university, her marriage to a Vietnamese student and the birth of their baby, thanks to an African sperm donor. With her just-born baby in her arms, she wonders aloud what the identity of her daughter would be. A nurse replies without pause, “She’ll be an American.”

The solo act

I kept wondering how would Parthiban manage to hold an audience for more than an hour as a solo actor, but it was a pleasant surprise to find that Oththa Seruppu was engaging throughout. The use of sound coupled with clever use of camera angles (especially point-of-view shots) places us in the interrogation room with Masilamani, played by Parthiban. Although we only hear the voices of other actors, we are able to quickly make out their characteristics and follow their actions.

This film could be called a modern retelling of Parasakthi, which was a turning point for dialogue-heavy Tamil films. Like Gunasekaran (played by Sivaji Ganesan) in Parasakthi, Masilamani in Oththa Seruppu makes allusions to the many corrupt men who destroyed his life. The narrative also makes references to several real-life incidents like the much publicised murder of a politician’s brother. An analysis of Oththa Seruppu‘s political references would make an interesting video essay.

A few questions for Parthiban and Bharathiraja

I almost interviewed Parthiban and Bharathiraja at SGSAIFF, but it fell through at the last minute. So I thought I might as well list out some of the questions I wanted to ask them!

I would have loved to ask Parthiban why he chose to smash a photo of Gandhi, an act if done by a bigger star would definitely have stirred protests, maybe even a ban. He does say in the film that his angst is not directed at Gandhi himself, but at what Gandhi has come to represent—money. But I sense that isn’t the complete answer.

Another question I had in mind: Why do murder mysteries or thrillers in Tamil love to have an adulterous woman or a wronged woman as the central plot point? Do scriptwriters believe this justifies the crazy things their male protagonists end up doing? Does throwing in an affair or a rape make resolution easier? Oththa Seruppu too falls prey to this syndrome.

Consider a few recent films in this genre: Super DeluxeThadamAaranya Kaandam or Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru. Either the woman has an affair, or she is wronged, and this sets the film in motion. If you extend this list to the past, you may chance upon Whistle (2003) and Adhey Kangal (1967) too! If you go all the way back to The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe, considered to be the first modern detective story, you will find the brutal murder of a mother and daughter. Although the scenario is ripe for introducing an affair or a wronged woman, Poe does nothing of that sort.

I would have loved to ask Bharathiraja if he ever wanted to make fantasy films. OM begins with Bharathiraja’s trademark introductory voiceover, telling us that he is venturing into new territory this time, stepping away from his usual rural backdrop and flying overseas. Did he ever dream of flying into other worlds?

I would love to know if Bharathiraja had ever wished to be a writer in his real life. He expressed his admiration for writer Jayakanthan in an interview to Thadam magazine. His character in OM is a writer, who has written a novel named Mayilu [Peacock, also the name of the female protagonist in his directorial debut 16 Vayathinile], a book of poems and a collection of rural folk songs. He mentioned in the same Thadam interview that he wanted to adapt Jayakanthan’s novel Samoogam Enbadhu Naalu Per [Society is Four People] into a film. Why that particular book?

Parthiban published a collection of Tamil poems titled Kirukkalgal [Scribblings] almost two decades ago. I wanted to ask him why did he not publish any writing after that, and if he ever had plans of adapting a short story or novel into a film. What about the sequel to Azhagi he once said he was working on?

Finally, I would have asked both of them…

What makes an award?

This question cropped up in my mind during Singapore South Asian International Film Festival’s opening night, when Bharathiraja was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award. I’m not against presenting an award, but it is important to emphasise why the award is being given. It would have been great if the festival had organised a panel discussion on Bharathiraja’s films, perhaps a retrospective of some of his films as well.

Many Tamil cinema awards today introduce newer and newer categories of awards (like Best Foley Artist or Best Dubbing Engineer), simply to cover a wider range of artists. What makes me sad is that even though these ceremonies claim to appreciate “true talent” by giving awards to lesser known technicians, they do nothing for us to get to know more about their work. Just calling them on stage, giving them an award, and asking them to say something hagiographical about a celebrity they worked with—this is not how you encourage talent. Tell us what a foley artist does, show us the process, make us see how valuable it is to the finished film.

Take for instance the Vishnupuram Award, given every year to a Tamil writer. As part of the award ceremony, a series of panel discussions are held over two days, to analyse and dissect the awardee’s body of work. A documentary is made on the writer, and a book of collected essays on the writer’s work is published. I feel like this is a meaningful way to bestow a lifetime achievement award, rather than simply announcing a name. The audience sits back, applauds, goes home after clicking a few pictures with celebrities. They too were here.

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