On this past Tamil New Year’s Day, Vasanth TV had the good sense to play the greatest Tamil movie ever made, naturally I sat down to watch it.
Telling Thiruvilayadal is the greatest tamil movie EVER made to people who worship realistic social films and the like has been my go to entertainment option for some time now. Apart from being a very entertaining game that you can play with people who revel themselves in boring classical tastes, Thiruvilayadal is really the greatest Tamil movie ever made.
Normally I would add the words “I feel” to the previous sentence, but then this is after all my blog and what I write here is the truth, I feel.
Okay okay, let me stand on a soap box and throw (soap?) stones at boring movie fans later, but now I am here just talking about the last fourth of Thiruvilayadal. Yes, just the fourth from the quartet. So clutch your armchairs tightly as we dive deep into the AP Nagarajan Experience.
The AP Nagarajan Experience
Thiruvilayadal was the magnum of magnums, an instant greatest hits of Lord Siva based on a 16th century work captured in Eastmancolor by perhaps Tamil cinema’s greatest director AP Nagarajan. The movie features Sivaji Ganesan and Savithri as Lord Shiva and Parvathi. In short it is the cinematic equivalent of having participated in any of the Maha Kumbhs.
For once I would go as to use the word “experience” along with cinema, if ever there was one it was in the mythological power of Thiruvilayadal and some of the movies that APN made after that.
But I am not going to play the greatest hits- I am not going to talk about the first ten minutes that drum beat laden aural invocation of not just Lord Shiva but a recreation of Mount Kailash. APN goes against the grain and does not leave the best for the last, a true believer, he knows nothing is going to top the world waiting for the clouds clearing-cymbals banging reveal of Sivaji Ganesan fully in costume and meditation as Lord Shiva.
The first ten minutes also encapsulates what is going to happen through the course of film- multiple levels of buildup followed by a reveal.
Angry Kids Are Difficult To Deal With
If you divide the movie by running time, Thiruvilayadal is a stringing together two mini plays sandwiched between two almost one hour episodes.
The longer and the important ones (emphasis mine) are the stories concerning humans and how obstacles are hurled at them by the lord to test them and how he reveals himself to them(always at the end) much like the build up and reveal of the lord himself in the first few minutes.
The shorter ones are the stories of the Gods themselves. Don’t forget that there is the connecting tissue of the telling of the tale (the meta story) itself which begins with Parvati telling her husband’s tales to her indignant son, Kumara- who did not get the fruits of his labour.
Indian epics are literally stories within stories, a device that would pull the listener to the central point further and further into the story to illustrate the base point, in Thiruvilayadal the stories told to Muruga (same son, different name) reinstate that playing games is what Shiva does and tell Muruga that being angry at this is a waste of time.
But then angry kids are difficult to deal with and need more convincing. Here four episodes.
Parvati even at times shows some playful disdain at her husband’s activities, but these are not futile plays as we shall see.
Interestingly before Shiva and Parvathi could convince their son, there is the poet mystic Avvaiyar, as a personification of the language tamil itself trying to cool him down. Tamil as a personification is a recurring theme too.
Episode 1: Nakkeerar, Court Poet and Designated Grammar Nazi (genre: comedy drama)
God tests your resolve and commitment to your passion, even if it means to question God himself. Nakkeerar actually spoke truth to (fire) power.
The first of the quartet is more popular as the Dharumi episode, because Nagesh steals it from everyone’s feet , but is really about the skills (and passion) of Nakkeerar. Nagesh’s performance has contributed to the endurance of the film.
But I am not here to talk about Nakkeerar here, nor am I here to write about Sivaji, who played both the poet and the lord in an earlier film also written by APN called Naan Petra Selvam
How APN has updated the scene is for everyone to see.
Episode 2: Even The Gods Quarrel At Home (Genre: Family Drama)
The second and the third quartet can be seen as one unit, both as reasoned above deal with the stories of the Gods and there is no “devotional” element in it, but both differ in terms of the story they want to tell.
Parvathy wants to visit her father’s yagna, but Daksha is not just her father but also Sivan’s sworn enemy, so naturally he won’t allow it. What follows is the divine domestic battle which ends with the Rudra Thandavam, basically Shiva going berserk and giving his half to his better half.
It’s about ten minutes of Shivaji doing an earth shattering dance and I’m not even going to go in detail about how much of a visual treat it is.
Nor I am a going to talk about —-
Episode 3: When APN made Jaws before Spielberg (Genre: Romance, Horror)
So let’s just skip to episode 4 because otherwise we are going to need a bigger blog post.
Episode 4: The Ballad Of Banabathirar (Genre: Musical)
Now of course, this is what I really wanted to talk about, you might have guessed it too because there is no other episode after this.
Paraphrasing what philosopher-gangster Maanik Baasha said, “the lord gives everything to the bad except himself. Aana, the lord gives many troubles to his devotees, but never forsakes them”
Yes, the troubles that Shiva gives to those who follow him IS the movie (all episodes) and NO this is not about curbing the arrogance of Hemanatha Bhagavatar.
<Enter Hemanatha Bhagavathar in all pomp and splendour>
Hemanatha Bhagavathar: Hello people of Madurai, I am the greatest singer in the world, even God pays attention when I sing, from now on I own you!
You Don’t Mess With Madurai
Yes I can see the arrogance, but it is mentioned that this has been the practice of Hemanatha Bhagavathar, he goes to kingdom after kingdom with his troupe and talent and then wins them over. Shiva did not mind then. He was probably happy listening to the honey like voice of the Bhagavathar too (Dr. M Balamuralikrishna) and didn’t mind it at all.
Maybe he shouldn’t have challenged Madurai. Maybe he shouldn’t have so lowly judged his competition: Banabathirar.
The hero of this episode Banabathirar is introduced with one shot to establish his unshakeable faith- the bronze of Uma Maheswarar, he at the moment believes that from the grass to the skies, everything rests within Shiva.
“For those who praise you” he sings “you give nothing but ascent”
Hmm but Banabathirar doesn’t seem to be on the ascent in any material sense, he doesn’t have a long line of disciples and even the king doesn’t have him in his consideration set for possible competitors to Hemanathan.
What ascent is the content Bhanabathirar talking about? It’s definitely not riches. It’s probably the ascent to Mount Kailash where all wait to catch his glimpse.
Yes, it reminds me of the first sequence. Great work APN!
But as we all know, Shiva is going to test Bhanbathirar but never going to forsake him (but our poor singer doesn’t know that yet) with this competition, which he will never win. Everyone knows the talent of Bhagavathar.
Can He? He Cannot
The poor temple singer asks his wife, how can he? There is no way.
Add an extra layer of difficulty, the whole of Madurai will be shamed if he loses.
How can he?
Surely you cannot, says his wife.
Shocking right? This is usually the point where we expect the motivating female lead to motivate the male lead and how with self belief and confidence anything can be overcome.
APN calls bull (not to be confused with the Nandi) on all these usuals.
“Go at once to Sokka’s shrine and give yourself to him and don’t even think about running away.”
That’s what she says.
APN simply makes a classic by not following any of the conventions of screenplay, our Bhanabattar never really learns anything (just got reminded by his wife), he doesn’t overcome any obstacle ( heck he never even meets Hemanathan) and is not even a changed man by the end of the film.
Bye bye Joseph Campbell.
Also I forgot to mention that this episode alone consists of five songs and APN shoots mostly stationary men with simple pans, nothing very extraordinarily, but still makes it arresting.
APN still shoots Bhanabhatirar at a low angle when he is down and slowly trolleys up when he offers himself completely to Shiva to the god angle, all this before even decoding cinema was thought about in Kodambakkam youtube channels.
Techniques anyone can do, but conveying Hindu philosophy is difficult.
Each song in the movie is a gem, but Isai Tamil is my favourite. But why?
Some readers might be aware that there exists certain hacks to passing engineering exams, these come in the form of badly printed guide books which are just answer compilations of questions past.
If I didn’t know anything, I would go to the guide and just see instances from previous years and walk into the exam hall. If I had at least read the guide, I had a chance.
Isai Tamil is that. If at all there is something of a takeaway (there are many) that you quickly want to take away from Thiruvilayaadal, it would be this- just surrender to God.
That simply told, in so few minutes.
Sokkan himself comes posing as a wood cutter to remind Hemanatha Bhagavatar that great talents can be found in the most unlikely places. Thereby humbling him, but mainly protecting Bhanabhatirar, Madurai and Mother Tamil herself.
I promised earlier, that I would come back to how Tamil is personified in Thiruvilayadal and here I am now, first of course it is in the form of Avvaiyar who says that she (as tamil) has the right to correct a wrongdoing Murugan.
In the Ballad of Bhanabatirar, it stands for the state of Madurai itself and the failure of the Tamil poet represents the fall of the state itself.
Shiva is her son who must protect her.
Maybe we can look at the devotee Thiruvilayadal episodes itself as Shiva coming to save Mother Tamil in testing times.
Why is it great?
That’s a sign of greatness, to look at a movie at different points from different times and arrive at another strand of truth. Not general truths but great movies are personal lessons with personal truths.
The very mention of great movies would immediately take me back to Chinatown whose unfading truth that gleamed to me “do as little as possible” because all else done by humanity is in vain and would only cause more worry.
A personal truth, albeit one does that does offer nothing more than the bleak fall of western civilization. But by combining the nihilism of Chinatown with the eastman color of Thiruvilayadal I get: do as little as possible and leave everything to God.
Or any higher power.
What’s an indicator of a great film? Like a great quote, a great movie, comes to my rescue when I need it the most. It is a prism, but I am the seer. Good movies show me the colour, great ones show me the light.
Thiruvilayadal will live long even if people stop looking for philosophical undertones and bury themselves in secular interpretations, because with acting and music this good and stories this engaging, I could switch on to any episode of my choice- eternally rewatchable. I hope it was the same for those who caught the telecast on TV. The innate Tamilness and the unflinching rootedness to mythology plays no less a part in this movie’s endurance.
Thiruvilayadal-It does not offer me mindless entertainment, but it is entertaining. It makes me forget any of the problems, yet also awakes me with a solution. The light.
There are several movies that came after Thiruvilayadal that can claim technical mastery, ambitious scale, audience enjoyment and even to an extent wide acclaim, they are all great but how I differentiate between the great and the greatest is when I am able to catch on to one of these personal truths.
Hopefully I have been able to pass them on to you, if not I would try next time, in a different game.