Freeze Frame #116: Pudhiya Vaarpugal

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.

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5 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #116: Pudhiya Vaarpugal

  1. Rajendran says:

    Brilliant analysis. I haven’t seen this film but I am ultra curious now. I have seldom come across a rustic Tamizh village sequence being understood and analysed so beautifully. More often than not, we miss the finesse and the complexity of such a scene owing to an urban prejudice of controlled exposition. I have seen numerous Tamizh films set in the village milieu that I loved but this freeze frame post has given me a new perspective to understand them.

    People like Sarath Kumar have made a career out of the “Mora Pillai” idea but there is surely is a lot more to films set in rural Tamizh Nadu. I particularly recall being impressed with Bharathiraja after watching Vedam Pudidu, Kizhake Pogum Rail, Alaigal Oyivadhulai and Seegapu Rojakal. The last one being significantly different in story telling and execution compared to the other ones.

    On a slightly different note, I am unable to recollect many Hindi films post 1990 set in rural India. Lagaan and Jodha Akbar being period films are not exactly in this category and neither is Swades.

    Lovely post Ramsu. Keep going.

  2. Thanks, Rajendran. I’m glad it struck a chord with you.

    You’re right – I can’t think of a great village film in Hindi in recent times. Virasat probably came close, and that too was a remake (of Thevar Magan).

    There isn’t much by way of groundbreaking village cinema coming out these days in Tamil either. There is the occasional Pithamagan or Paruthiveeran — a different kind of film to be sure, but thankfully just as fascinating. Then again, the proportion of crap to good cinema was probably just as high back then — we just pick the good ones in retrospect.

    In some ways, what Bharathiraja brought to the table was a view of the village as a world of its own, with its (sometimes strange) beliefs and customs. Some of it still exists — I remember watching the female infanticide portrayed in Karuthamma with a sort of horrified fascination. While he used these customs sometimes as a plot device (notably in Kizhakke Pogum Rayil), it was clear that he took it all quite seriously, and that honesty somehow shone through. Later movies mostly took the formula, but shortchanged the sincerity.

    Somehow I don’t think Bharathiraja was as successful in making an urban film. Sigappu Rojakkal was more of a notable exception. Movies like Tick tick tick or the later Captain Magal turned out to fall woefully short of the mark.

    ~r

  3. Semi-urban, I think. Kesu is chosen over Langda because of his connections t5o the student body, if I remember right. And that sort of a plot point might not make so much sense in a completely rural setting.

    ~r

  4. Anonymous says:

    More recently, there have been movies like Ishqiya, Peepli Live, Dabang, Well Done Abba, Welcome to Sajjanpr etc which had a rural setting. On Bharatiraja’s powerful endings, I watched this movie Kallukkul Eeram (in which he’s given credit for screenplay & Direction Supervision) which too had a dramatic and unexpected twist. Ilaiyaraja’s brilliant BGM in the last 10 mins led one to think there was going to be a predictable happy ending only to be jolted with a shocking denouement

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