Greatest Tamil Films 2. Mudhal Mariyadhai

‘No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings,
deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.’

– Ingmar Bergman


Imagine the scene where Malaichami (Sivaji Ganesan) helps Kuyilu (Radha) to catch fish using his veshti (dhoti). Or when he adoringly invites a house sparrow to build a nest in his house and then hears the relay-singing from someone on the street. Or when he angrily throws the machete in front of Kuyilu’s hut as a gesture of protection and laments about his relatives: Mudhal Mariyadhai is poetry in motion. It is an anthology of great poems weaved together by Bharathiraaja, ably assisted by Sivaji Ganesan, Ilaiyaraaja and Vairamuthu, a greatest symphony combining direction, acting, music and poetry. Yet, unlike other symphonies, you could separate one from the other and relish each independent strand of work in isolation. Mudhal Mariyathai is simply poetry on celluloid.

Easily Bharathiraaja’s biggest achievement, the film is also a lesson on subtlety and sensitivity. It could have gone the other way. It could have been a flat, diluted story or an over-the-top emotional drama about a village elder’s illicit relationship with a lower caste . With a name like Sivaji Ganesan at stake, that’s a huge risk to take, but then, no one else could have done justice to that role. Many sections of Tamil film critics used to term Sivaji Ganesan as the epitome of melodrama and overacting. Mudhal Mariyadhai was a neat stroke which he silenced all of them. His Malaichami was one of the performances in Tamil that can be called ‘just perfect’. We cared for the village elder so much that we laughed with him; we felt his pain, his joy, his love and, when he dies in the end, we cried in buckets. We carried his anguish in our hearts long after the film ended.


When I wrote, on 16 Vayadhinile, that ‘it will be years before Bharathiraaja would perfect his art’, I meant his Mudhal Mariyadhai. A trendsetter then, 16 Vayathinile jars at places now. Mudhal Mariyadhai flows as rhythmically and poetically as it did then. When I saw it in 1985, as a child, I couldn’t understand the film much. Of course it had great songs and many funny moments such as Malaichami trying to lift a rock to prove his agility or chasing a relay-singing girl only to realise he had been following his own wife. Those moments kept the movie entertaining, but beyond my grasp. It would require many years and much maturity to understand and appreciate the depth, subtlety, poetry and pain the film had in its soul.

These days, rural-themed films have become an excuse for making violent action films. Watching them, we end up thinking that our villagers are illiterate, chauvinistic aggressors who brandish their machete at the slightest excuse. Mudhal Mariyadhai too waves its machete. But when it does, we experience the redemption of that unrequited love. It has its violent moments too, such as Sengodan revealing the ‘secret’ he holds about his daughter’s death. But that’s when we admire the moral assertiveness of Malaichami and perform ‘we are not worthy’ act at Sivaji Ganesan!

Mind you, these scenes could have easily become shocking horror in the hands of ‘disturbed’ directors who, these days, think violence is ‘action’ and ‘entertainment’. But, thankfully, Bharathiraaja’s focus remained clear even in those moments that any ‘action’ element would have torn the fabric of fragile sensitivity being woven every moment in the film.

Mudhal Mariyadhai is not intellectually loaded like Aboorva Raagangal. It is not rebellious like Parasakthi. It is not path-breaking like Kadhalikka Neramillai. If anything, it revels in its innocence and simplicity. It believes that a bird flying through dusky sky could be beautiful. That a simple flute played with the visual of a dry meadow could be emotionally stirring. That even a walk through a noisy rural market could be heart-warmingly fulfilling.

In one angle, it is just an ordinary rural musical. But then, every ‘ordinary’ moment would end up becoming an iconic moment. Last time when we saw everyday moments and the pain of poverty becoming achingly poetic was in Pather Panchali. Mudhal Mariyadhai is perhaps the only Tamil film that can compete with the greatest Indian film on emotional integrity, rural aesthetics, rustic sensitivity and human drama. It made extraordinary out of ordinary; the first Tamil film to provide such a cohesion of greatness in every department, drama, love, emotions, subtlety, sensitivity, poetry, music and performance. In a nutshell, Mudhal Mariyadhai is simply 160 minutes of pure artistic orgasm.