A birthday tribute to Padmarajan.
In the 1987 cult classic Thoovanathumbikal (Dragonflies In The Spraying Rain), there’s a scene where the Delphic Jayakrishnan, a character immortalised by Mohanlal, and the sensual Clara (played by Sumalatha) are seen strolling through Thrissur town in the dead of the night to Johnson Master’s hauntingly melodic background score that still instills romance in most Malayali hearts. At one point, they briefly settle on the pavement next to Sego bar, literally a stone’s throw away from my own house in Kerala.
There are times when I wonder where I was when one of the greatest filmmakers was directing one of the greatest actors in my neighbourhood. Sleeping or slaving over my homework or dreading the next day of school I guess, since I must've been around 8-years-old; and clueless about the existence of one of the greatest weavers of Malayalam cinema—screenwriter and author, the late P Padmarajan, who would’ve turned 73 today.
My first Padmarajan experience was when VHS tapes were the rage. During one of his annual visits from 'Gulf', my father had unloaded a bunch of tapes that, in hindsight and to my great good fortune contained some of his classics. Suffice to say, I watched and re-watched those tapes a hundred times before getting pedantic about his cinematic work. Soon, VCDs would become the rage.
The earliest memory was watching the relatable family drama, Thinkalazhcha Nalla Divasam (Monday, An Auspicious Day) followed by the romantic yet incestuous Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (Vineyards For Us To Dwell) and then Moonnampakkam (On The Third Day), a movie where the tragic turn of events will make you cry a river. Not to mention the haunting hangover it leaves behind.
One of the greatest filmmakers Kerala produced. Image source: WtzupCity Kochi
Padmarajan surely had an eye for spotting talent or making an actor out of someone. Hell, I’m sure he would’ve made an actor out of Uday Chopra if there was ever a chance. But I’m mighty pleased such a scenario didn’t happen. Malayali actors such as Jayaram, Suresh Gopi and Ashokan can thank Padmarajan for filtering out some of their finest performances. Jayaram’s debut, Aparan (The Imposter), will give you the creeps. The imposter is never shown but for his voice, till the end. It was also an introduction to open endings in Malayalam films.
In other useless trivia, the year I was born coincided with the year of Padmarajan’s debut film as a director. The 1979 Peruvazhiyambalam (Highway Shelter) also marked the debut of a young actor Ashokan—the black and white film revolved around disturbing and violent realities of society.
In a way I’m glad that I didn’t discover most of his movies before coming of age. And by that I mean the age when you first discover the deadly combination that is beef fry and rum, or that there exists this world rolled inside a joint.
The scene next to my house in Thoovanathumbikal. Image source: Hotstar.com
It could be said that by breaking stereotypes and conventions, while tackling bold themes related to sexuality and societal complexities, the likes of Padmarajan, Bharathan and K G George ushered in the golden eighties of cinema. But what set Padmarajan apart was his ingenuity in turning the mundane into the extraordinary. He could make conservative Malayalis go into arrhythmia, but at the same time and with equal panache, exercise his storytelling prowess to plot a family drama or a mystery or action film without losing the quintessential ‘Padmarajan touch’. He didn't shy away from delving into themes around violence, impotency, borderline incest and lesbian relations. In Oridathoru Phayalvaan (There Lived A Wrestler), the protagonist’s masculinity in the wrestling pit serves as a cruel irony to his soldier down situation in the bedroom. While Desatanakkili Karayarilla (The Migratory Bird Never Cries) tells the tale of two girls who elope.
Although there’s underlying humour in some of his films akin to normal life, a Padmarajan flick that checks all the boxes of a good comedy is Kallan Pavithran (Pavithran, The Thief).
You know by now that for me it’s hard to pick a favourite. But the 1986 film Arappatta Kettiya Gramathil (In the Village Which Wears A Warrior's Belt) that chronicles life in a brothel unfolding against the backdrop of communal tension in a rustic neighbourhood, is a close first. Apparently, this is the filmmaker’s favourite as well, along with Moonnam Pakkam.
Padmarajan is a master when it comes to playing with human ego that can breathe life into the tension on screen. Like the ego trade between the characters of AKG where a group of middle aged friends sitting in a bar ponder over a possible visit to a brothel in a nearby village.
Anecdotes from actors suggest that Padmarajan was such a stickler, he rarely deviated from his script, screenplay and dialogues, all of which carried an alternative whiff of lyric and literature. Such is the man’s oeuvre that whenever his name pops up in conversations or Whatsapp group chats, a long and cerebrally-charged conversation is in order.
The 1991 Njan Gandharvan (I, Celestial Lover,) his last movie dealing with the realm of fantasy, was the only film that didn’t hit the spot when I first watched it. Though it was good to see Nitish Bharadwaj, who plays the celestial protagonist, after his Mahabharata days where he played Krishna.
And just like that it was over. Even though it was a cardiac arrest in a hotel room in Calicut that took his life in January 1991, it was the Malayali conscious that collectively shared the heartache. Once again, I was too young to have lived that experience. And I can only wonder what it would be like if he was still around making movies. Like how I wonder what it would be like if Morrison or Lennon were alive. It would’ve been a magical time for Malayalam cinema. A void yet to be filled.
My biggest dismay is that not much is being done to keep his legacy alive, by making his movies accessible to the non-Malayali audience. On the other hand, monsoon is almost here. So here’s my simple recipe for some subliminal magic. Rain in the background, beef fry on a plate, alcohol to wash it down and a decent print of Thoovanathumbikal.
Or you know, you could just stream it on Hotstar.
Happy Birthday, Padmarajan.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com.
By Mohan KK
Cover photo credit: Hotstar.com