Monday, September 20, 2010

Pithamagan: Where have you been all my life?

I had never seen a Bala film before popping Pithamagan into the DVD player last night and now I can’t imagine my world without him. Pithamagan is a serious film made for an audience that watches masala films. In other words, while it may be artsy, thankfully, Pithamagan is about as far from Western art house as you can get.

But let me start at the beginning.

The film opens with a pregnant woman slowly making her way to the cemetery, where she gives birth to a baby boy and then promptly dies. The boy is raised by the cemetery caretaker
in the cemetery and grows up to be exactly as well-adjusted as you might expect a small child to be in that situation (in other words, not very). When the cemetery caretaker dies, the boy, who has grown up to be “Chiyaan” Vikram, is thrust out into the world with absolutely no idea how to behave himself or how to interact with people in an appropriate manner but a local cannabis peddler (Sangeetha) senses that he is a kindred spirit and takes him under her wing.

Meanwhile, a parallel track begins up with Surya playing a petty con-artist who keeps running into a pretty young co-ed (Laila).

Eventually the cemetery boy, who we learn is named Chithan, and the con-artist, who is named Sakhti, meet up and form an unlikely but strong friendship.

Chithan is an odd duck. He doesn’t speak; he doesn’t understand money; he will stare off into space just as soon as look at you. Some reviews I read suggested that Chithan is probably Autistic but I think that is too simple an explanation.
Pithamagan isn’t a ‘realistic’ film and ‘autism’ is far too mundane a label to slap on Chithan. What he is, in the film, is a Holy Fool. Chithan is pure-hearted and loyal until death. Chithan doesn’t understand deception or guilt or commerce. To the extent that he manages to fit into the community, it’s through the kindness of spirit of his fellow orphans, outcasts, and misfits. And they find their lives improved, knowing him.

It’s through loving Chithan that Sakhti discovers what it is to love. And it’s through loving Chithan that the local cannabis peddler lets down her protective walls.

Pithamagan rocked the Filmfare Awards South and won Vikram the National Award for best actor in 2004 and I can honestly say that it deserved every single one of them. Watching Vikram’s performance as Chithan, I was blown away by how completely he captured the oddities of the character and made him believable. The way his eyes would go glassy and then come to life again or the way he held his shoulders when he walked... all these things added up to a nuanced performance that not only had me completely mesmerized but also allowed me to empathize with Chithan and to understand him, even though Vikram had maybe one line in the entire film.

Watching Vikram perform, and especially as they romped through the forests and swamps, I couldn’t help but think back to question what Mani Ratnam must have been smoking to cast Abhishek Bachchan in a role as complex as Beera, when Vikram is this good. Obviously there is no contest! Vikram is a powerhouse; and I’m going to go out on a limb and just say it: Vikram is India’s greatest working actor right now. (I hope the extra publicity from the Aish-Abhi pairing was worth it, Mani-sir.)

Vikram’s performance is the meat of
Pithamagan but there are other excellent things about it. The rest of the cast was top-notch. Surya sparked every scene he was in with a cheeky wit; Laila played a nice twist on your stereotypical wet-sop heroine; and Sangeetha won my heart as the run-down drug peddler.

And the story was superb. Just to give an example of what I meant at the beginning of the review by saying that it was artsy but not Western art house, the film neatly subverted my expectations of the comedic subplot by having the story with Surya begin like a comedy track, only to dovetail neatly into the main story with Vikram and Surya’s character ended up being very important to the plot. The song placement was also superb. It was mostly montages but there is one number picturized on the actress Simran that worked very, very well. The number was so good and placed so well, that I grinned all the harder at it knowing that tragedy
must be coming soon for Bala to raise our spirits like this.

Bala’s direction was, yes, superb. The fight scenes were clean, fluid, and easy to follow; and he has a talent for picking out unusual faces and making the background crowd seem like real people and not just a pile of junior artists. I don’t want to give away the ending but I’ll say that the last 20 or so minutes of the film are a masterpiece of direction (and acting) in a film that is already a masterpiece among films. It’s just that good. Bala brings snippets of light into a dark situation.

After watching
Pithamagan, I can’t imagine having never seen Pithamagan. And now, I’m going to watch everything Bala has ever done.


Daniela said...

Thought you would watch this movie much earlier but great review.

Bala has it´s way to drag you in the story and chooses the right actors for it.

So you have 3 more Bala movies waiting for you.

Sethu, Nandha and Naan Kadavul

Go Girl

larissa said...

I totally agree that "Vikram is India’s greatest working actor right now"! Btw, it was Bala's debut film, Sethu, that was Vikram's breakout film and earned him the nickname Chiyaan (his character's name in the movie).

Filmi Girl said...

@daniella I will watch those!!

@larissa I'm glad you agree! I was just blown away by his performance - there is nobody that can do what he can do. I'm definitely going to watch the rest of Bala's films!

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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