When watching the New Years special of “Neeya Naana”, in which directors and actors gathered to discuss the merits of art films versus commercial cinema, it was simple to notice one film whose name kept being repeated in the discussion. Uthiri Pookal. It seems that simply mentioning the name of Mahendran’s film elicits a clear idea in everyone’s mind of the kind of filmmaking the other person wishes to discuss. Mani Ratnam once said that he would be satisfied if he could make a film like Uthiri Pookal, and it is extremely common to hear directors discuss how they entered the industry with inspiration from that film. Uthiri Pookal did not, as one might hope, suddenly bring forth a wave of sensitively told stories but it had its impact all the same.
The reason that Uthiri Pookal, and Mahendran, is so often vaulted into a higher realm of praise is not due to a superficial differences – for example, a quick description of the film plot may not sound particularly offbeat (it is ostensibly a film about a cruel man who mistreats his wife and eventually has his comeuppance). It comes down to the filmmaking itself – the entire approach to storytelling that Mahendran uses. The grammar of his filmmaking is simply on a different path from all the films of the surrounding period and even those until now. That is to say, an utter lack of sentimentality or exaggeration, complete absence of melodrama, a slow and deliberate pace, and a focus on building each individual character as a believable person rather than to simply fill a role in the story. He communicates the emotions of characters through subtle expressions rather than through dialogue or music. He shifts the camera away from scenes of violence or cruelty, because he realizes the implication can have more effect than the act itself. It is these sorts of approaches that make Uthiri Pookal feel so different from what is commonly regarded as mainstream cinema.
But what people generally remember the film most for is the climax, that is, the very final shot of the film. After two hours in which the audience has slowly been more and more revolted by the heinous actions of Vijayan’s character andwould gladly take joy in his punishment, we suddenly find ourselves in the position of sympathizing with that same character. And that subversion of the audience reaction is only possible because Mahendran has slowly developed a character who is not a villain in the black-or-white sense, but rather a flawed and ultimately weak person whose villainy comes as a result of such weakness. Thus, when thrust out of his position of power, and exposed for the pitifully all-too-human underneath, the sense of revenge that we expected to have seems to evaporate beneath us, and this scene of justice feels empty and meaningless. The other major characters receive equal care in their development. Myself, I’ve always had to face a certain detachment when it comes to village-based films, because as I am a hopelessly city-bred type of guy, relating with the rural people and stories is sometimes difficult. It is a testament to Mahendran’s character building that such a thought never crossed my mind during the film.
Of course, none of this could be done without the excellent performances of the actors involved. Though Vijayan gets most of the spotlight for his layered performance of the despicable lead character, Ashwini and Charuhasan have rendered their characters in an equally memorable way. Ashwini’s portrayal of Lakshmi, Vijayan’s wife in the film, is subtle and believable. The sadness of her character is etched in the lines of her face rather than any overt histrionics, and she is able to convey so much through her eyes alone. Charuhasan, as Lakshmi’s father, plays his role in a dignified manner, with the underlying helplessness of his character only faintly visible underneath his weary, unreadable smile. The supporting actors, including Sarathbabu in a characteristically gentle role, bring their best efforts to the table.
With all that being said, there is one unavoidable complaint that I have heard brought up numerous times around the net, and that is regarding the third act of the film, where Lakshmi’s sister sings a sarcastic song as Vijayan, whose wife has died through his actions, remarries. It unfortunately feels rather out of place in the story thus far, particularly when the death in question had occurred only shortly before. Thankfully, Mahendran doesn’t allow the film to wither off towards the end, and as I mentioned before, the ending remains one of the most oft-quoted and remembered endings in Tamil cinema altogether. Decades later, Uthiri Pookal is still considered one of the best films in Tamil, and there have not been many films in the subsequent years which have given it any serious challenge.