Can there possibly be a less hip director than Bharatiraja? Yes, you guessed it, that is most certainly a rhetorical question. For in an era when it seems that for most filmmakers the only market worth chasing is of the young, the upwardly mobile, and the affluent, Bharatiraja appears determined to persist in his old school ways. and to keep his traditional audience in mind. Nor does this appear to be the result of an inability to acknowledge newness (it surely says something that the man has engaged A.R. Rahman on five occasions since the latter burst onto the scene, which itself indicates not only that Bharatiraja can change with the times, but also that he has a true appreciation of Rahman's ability to produce music that is not only superb in some pan-Indian or internationalist sense, but also firmly grounded in a Tamil film idiom), but is, I suspect, the product of a certain ideology, and one suspects that for Bharatiraja making a good film is secondary to his principal aim: making a good Tamil film. In short, in a world where cinema from various countries and cultures appears to be running into one another, if Kadal Pookkal is any indication some filmmakers continue to strive to articulate cultural forms of expression that are proudly, unabashedly local. This is hardly an unqualified victory, of course, and the changing economics of filmmaking combined with the globalization of taste raise serious doubts about whether there is a market for the assertively "local" in cinema, and whether, even if the right audience exists, it is in the process of being priced out of the market.
Once one gets past the ideological baggage, Kadal Pookkal is actually quite an engaging film. Certainly, the film takes some getting used to for those weaned on a diet of big-budget Hindi and Tamil films: if beautiful bodies, sumptuous choreography, and thunderous dialogs are what you need (and there ain't no shame in that game), then this film isn't for you. However, if you're a somewhat jaded viewer ready for the old-school charms of a simple story, low-key drama, and a terrific ambience, you've come to the right place, for Kadal Pookkal has all that and more. The film revolves around two fishermen, Karuthaiah (Murali) and Peter (Manoj, the director's son), each with one sister -- Kayal (Uma) and Mariam (Sindhu), respectively -- and trying to eke out a living, get his sister married, and generally cavort around the fishing village where the film is set. Karuthaiah and Peter are fast friends, but just when it seems like nothing can come between them complications arise. First, Karuthaiah arranges a match for Peter with the daughter of the village headman, not knowing that Karuthaiah's sister Kayal pines for her brother's friend. For his part, Peter appears to be romantically oblivious to Kayal, preferring to spend his time saving up to buy a motorized launch to help him in his fishing, and beating up "outsider" men who get too close to "local" women. Second, Peter's own sister Mariam falls for a visiting city-slicker, a sleazeball named Selvin who merely wants a few rolls in the hay before returning to town. When Peter finds out that his sister is pregnant he is distraught -- but at the very moment that he is at his wits' end Karuthaiah inadvertently shows him a way out. For Karuthaiah has meanwhile learned that his sister loves Peter, leading him to break off the marriage he had arranged for her and to broach the topic with Peter; the latter agrees, but immediately asks Karuthaiah if he will agree to marry Mariam. The wrinkle here is that Karuthaiah knows of Mariam's indiscretion, having earlier spotted Peter's sister with her lover on the beach; but what Karuthaiah does not know is that his friend also knows the truth (indeed Peter knows that his sister is pregnant, whereas Karuthaiah does not). Nevertheless, Karuthaiah decides to sacrifice his happiness (he is in love with another woman) for that of Kayal, and the two friends get married to each other's sisters. Ultimately, of course, Selvin returns to the village, is beaten and dumped in the sea for his pains, Mariam reveals Peter's deceit to Karuthaiah, and after copious tears everyone is reconciled. The message, as Bharatiraja reminds us, is that the "complete human" is the one who is ready to show forgiveness.
Sentimental? You bet. Regressive when it comes to women? Absolutely. But for all that I found the film's evocation of a fishing village utterly compelling. Bharatiraja is a master at capturing the seaside ambience, so much so that one can almost smell the fish and salty air. And that alone makes the film worth viewing from my perspective: the sea is a constant presence in Kadal Pookkal, and the director never condescends toward those whose livelihood depends on grappling with the sea day after day, chronicling their lives, loves and anxieties sentimentally yet with utter conviction. And like all successful "local" cinema, Bharatiraja has succeeded in making a film that is utterly rooted in the sand and surf of a Tamil setting, and that nevertheless manages to draw in even viewers (such as this one) who are quite removed from that cultural mileu. In this the film has much in common with the great Malayalam films from the 1980s that I have seen, although Kadal Pookkal lacks the refinement and understated acuity of those films.
Kadal Pookkal won a National Award for Best Screenplay, and one does not begrudge it that award: it certainly takes out of the ordinary writing to make a tale so very hackneyed so very compelling to watch unfold. Kadal Pookkal will never be a fashionable film, and Bharatiraja might be on the wrong side of history with this sort of effort, but on the evidence of this film (my first encounter with Bharatiraja's work) some of our younger, hipper filmmakers could learn a lot from him when it comes to storytelling, characterization, and the elusive ability to create an ambience that envelops the viewer for the duration of the film.
Next stop: some of Bharatiraja's better known works from years past.