Greatest Tamil Films 4. Aboorva Raagangal

 

My films are therapy for my debilitating depression.

In institutions people weave baskets. I make films.’

       Woody Allen

 

That nerve. That audacity. Who else but Balachander could dare commit such atrocity? It is difficult to find out what effect the film had on the mid 70s audience, but it was clear enough that they were shocked. Strangely, he got away with it. Aboorva Raagangal should have become a huge flop. Or at least the theatre screens should have been burnt. How it became such a hit, how the audience went to see it in droves is a mystery. Today’s directors, who incessantly complain that the people want ‘mass masala’ and they ‘don’t want to think’ should rent the DVD of Aboorva Raagangal. Yes, it was melodramatic, yes, it was in-your-face and, hell, yes, it was egotistic, but, above all, it was obstinately audacious.

From the word ‘go’, with first explicit use of a swear word in Tamil cinema, it becomes clear that all Balachander wanted was to shock and provoke the audience. And then with the first references to copulation, nude statues, sexual prowess over ideology and, of course, the first handling of absurd relationships, Aboorva Raagangal had ‘REBEL’ written all over it; in capital letters, font size 72. Balachander didn’t use the word ‘incest’ but he left no room for guessing for a conscious viewer. I can’t think of any other Tamil film where we came as close to that term as in this film.

Aboorva Raagangal, inarguably, is the first film to use motif, melodramatic objects and symbolic references for plot progress. Notice the scene where Bhairavi (Sri Vidya) returns from her concert after having tied Prasanna (Kamal) to a pole with a string. She finds him missing, but as soon as she steps in to the corridor, the mridangam begins to play. We know instantly. There’s another scene where Ranjani (Jayasudha) shows the smaller chair placed next to the big one in the pooja room. We know what is conveyed. Of course, she takes pains to explain, which is a bit annoying, but then hey, it’s 1975!

K Balachander

Although the plot is delightfully musical, Balachander didn’t use strong music, and very many places, used stark silence, another first. Imagine the scene where Prasanna, through a song, expresses his love and ends it with her name; there is only silence. There are great songs, but what makes it uniquely musical is the plot progress using carnatic terms; the first full-scale artistic allusions in Tamil cinema.

Aboorva Raagangal is the first film to try to convey things visually (I lost count of the word ‘first’ in this piece). The purpose of cinema as the visual medium was effectively utilised by Balachander. Although Sridhar did use shadows and light to play with your mind in Nenjil Ore Aalayam, Balachander’s heavy use of melodramatic objects, strong close-ups and gestures (Ranjani rolling her tongue) to convey expressions and decisions would have been a huge challenge for the audience, normally used to reams and reams of dialogues. It’s a wonder how they even responded positively to this film.

Some may think the end is a compromise, but, on hindsight, it doesn’t seem so. Balachander maintained this kind of ending well into the late 90s, so we can deduct that it’s just his ideology at work. His characters are often loners who rebel and walk out of the house. They find four walls as restricting as a prisoner’s cell. They sleep on pavements and some even take delight in picking a fruit  out of drain trough and eating it. Not because of poverty or helplessness, but simply out of their own rebelliousness. They’d rather starve and end up lonely than compromise. Aboorva Raagangal was one of those early manifestations of this psychology.

The above paragraphs would give an impression that Aboorva Raagangal is all art-house drivel. Well, it’s not. Surprisingly, it’s a hugely entertaining fare from the first scene; astonishing at every scene, holding out a tiny explosive for every sequence and keeping you hooked till the word ‘End’, even there adding a tongue-in-cheek punctuation. It constantly tests whether your nerve matches that of the director. You ought to be careful in not getting lost in the entertainment of these miniature explosions or else you’ll fail to notice the big things the film has in store, both in surprises and shocks. And, of course, one of the most unforgettable surprises being the spectacular entry of Sivaji Rao Gaekwad.