Most people would agree that Bharathiraja was one of Tamil cinema’s foremost directors in the late seventies and eighties, along with K. Balachander and Mani Rathnam. But where KB and Mani brought an urban sensibility and sophistication to Tamil cinema, Bharathiraja reinvented the village on celluloid. He epitomized earthiness. The acting in many of his movies was raw, almost too staged to be real. But somehow, none of that seemed to detract from their emotional power. I think it is because the stories he told were undeniably powerful.
In terms of storytelling ability, the man had one skill that was unmatched by any of his contemporaries. He knew how to craft a powerful ending. His trick was simple: he placed his characters in environments defined by very restrictive social mores, and for the most part, he let it seem like they wanted to play by the rules. Even when they embarked upon something transgressive, like a love affair between two people of different religions (Alaigal Oivathillai), they craved acceptance. He did this long enough and well enough that you, as a viewer, wanted the environment to accept them as well. And then, right at the very end, he pushed his characters to a point where they no longer cared, and even a simple gesture of rebellion had the impact of a sledgehammer.
Of the lot, my favourite ending is the one in Pudhiya Vaarpugal, an otherwise unremarkable movie that features Bhagyaraj as a village schoolteacher who falls in love with a local belle (Rati Agnihotri). After having the teacher hounded out of the village, the local bigwig decides to have the girl for himself. He makes it seem that she is having an affair with one of his cronies, and gets her married to him. On the wedding night, he asks her husband to leave so that he could do the honours, so to speak. By this time, the girl has reached a state where all that remains is a grim determination to do what is right by her — a recurring leitmotif in Bharathiraja’s movies. Up to this point, whatever happens is familiar territory, so when she kills the bigwig to save her virtue, I was not too surprised.
What surprised me, though, is what happens next. The husband, who has by now developed something of a conscience, tells her that she did the right thing, rips her thali from her neck (signifying that their sham of a marriage is over) and helps her elope with the schoolteacher who has returned to claim her. He then takes his master’s body to a nearby hay pile and hides it in there, in time for the villagers to light it as part of a village festival, and then scurries away into the dark.
Maybe it is because he is played by Goundamani, an actor best known for his loud comic roles. But those last few minutes absolutely blew me away. Even today, when I watch that movie, it seems just as surprising and gratifying.