Pithamagan is not a film for the faint hearted. Like other Bala films, it deals with society’s poorest and most disadvantaged – in this case, he delves into the world of cremators, petty con artists and drug pedlars.  And yet it’s very watchable, with excellent performances from Vikram, Suriya and the rest of the cast making Pithamagan much more than just another film about the miseries of being poor and outcast.

The focus of the film is the relationship between Chittan, an orphaned cremator and Sakthi who is a small time criminal. Chittan is born in a graveyard and brought up there by the cremator who seems to do his best for the child. However Chittan grows up to be unable to deal with society; he cannot communicate in words, and is unable to understand the basic tenets of normal behaviour.

After his guardian dies, Chittan ventures into the local town where he creates mayhem before being rescued by Golmathi, a local cannabis dealer. He ends up following Golmathi home, and since she has a kind heart and feels sorry for another orphan like herself, she helps him to find a job. This turns out to be at a cannabis farm and when it is raided by police, Chittan ends up in jail. There he meets Sakthi who also feels sorry for Chittan and tries to help him cope with life inside prison. Sakthi is a petty crook who runs street tricks and confidence games which seems to have given him a performers approach to life. He has a sunny disposition and a positive outlook despite his circumstances and occasional rather interesting dress sense.

After Sakthi is released from jail he works with Golmathi to secure Chittan’s release, and along with Manju, a student who was once victim to Sakthi’s confidence tricks, the friends then spend most of their time together. They work on improving Chittan’s appearance and behaviour, and try to get him away from the drug trade with mixed results.  However, the local drug baron has other ideas and the final conclusion is as bloody and gruesome as you might expect.

While the story itself is rather predictable, overall the film works well and this is down to the chemistry between Vikram and Suriya. Vikram seems to be able to take any disability and make it instantly realistic. I really believed that he was blind in Kasi and here he is totally convincing as the mentally disturbed Chittan. His facial expressions are just perfect and he really does appear to be totally wild and uncontrolled. It’s hard to define exactly what Chittan’s problem is, but as a scientist (and brain researcher!) I’m immediately intrigued and want to analyse the cause of his condition.  Is he simply a wild child – raised without the benefit of society and therefore unable to function within its rules? Or is it more organic and he has a functional neural developmental problem? I tend to favour the latter as the cremator who took him in was able to speak and obviously had some idea of how to interact with the townspeople. So the total inability of Chittan to communicate and relate seems to be something more than just growing up with little social contact. It also doesn’t explain why he was able to fight so well, but obviously that was essential to the plot and we can’t ask for too much realism I guess. I love that he left the policeman upside down in the shot below – the fight scenes really were good in this.

I also find it interesting that in so many of Vikram’s films, his character is somewhat crazed, and he is completely convincing each time! But as good as Vikram’s performance here is, I think that Suriya manages to equal it. This is the first film where I have really ‘got’ Suriya’s appeal. I’ve seen him in a number of films and while I thought he was good as the cop, or the good guy, or even as the bad guy, I’ve never felt that he’s been anything more than that . But Suriya is absolutely fantastic in this film. He is funny and charming, and breathes life into the story. Most of the comedy comes from Sakthi and his various cons, and without this balance Pithamagan would have been very grim indeed. Suriya’s character has plenty of flaws but at heart he is kind and his relationship with Chittan allows this side of his character to flourish.

Sakthi’s friendship with Chittan is cleverly developed throughout the story and makes it credible that the two would end up as constant companions. Chittan seems initially perplexed by Sakthi’s benevolence towards him but soon realises the benefit of a friend. And later, Chittan’s obvious jealousy when Manju is spending time with Sakthi is both childlike and logical since Sakthi has become the centre of his world.

Sangitha is perfect as Golmathi with her paan-stained lips and philosophical approach to life. Her character is another orphan and her initial pity for Chittan seems similar to how she would feel for a stray dog. But as a drug dealer and someone who is shunned by the local community (unless they want her product), she is able to empathise with his alienation and is the first person to start opening up his world. Golmathi’s emotions and reactions are all plain to see on her face which helps make her character much more sympathetic.

On the other hand, the first time I watched this film I really didn’t like Laila’s character and felt that she over played the schoolgirl. But on re-watching, I think she was supposed to be a fun character with a sense of adventure and an awareness of the possibilities of life which was intriguing to Sakthi. However I think Manju is a much less believable character than the others, and her presence is often more irritating than anything else. Initially her father seemed to be quite strict, even taking her to the jail to beg for Sakti’s forgiveness for her actions, which in itself seemed a really strange thing to do. But then later on in the story, her family seem to let her do whatever she wants, despite knowing that the man she is involved with is a convicted criminal. They do turn up to support Manju in the end, by which time it seems to be too late and is perhaps just a way to make a contrast to the other characters  whose only family is each other. Manju’s presence also provides another dynamic to the relationship between the two men since she becomes a barrier between them. But my biggest issue with her character is her inability to articulate what had happened to Sakthi, and this is a major flaw in the story for me. While I’m quite sure that in real life people become too distressed to be able to communicate, here it just didn’t seem to suit her personality, even allowing for her youth. It was also just a bit too over the top and filmi for a story that relies so much on gritty realism – at least for most of the film.

There is one other odd note, which is the protracted interlude with Simran. This completely changes the nature of the film and lasts just a bit too long. In fact it reminded me of the Hindi film Shakti, where Shah Rukh Khan turns up for an item song and ends up taking over a large part of the final scenes. While the song here is fantastic, and I love it, it stops the flow of the story and the subsequent scenes initially feel out of place as the pace abruptly changes again. But here it is anyway, since both Simran and Suriya are brilliant and it’s very funny.

I think Pithamagan is an excellent film despite a few flaws with the pacing. The friendships are successfully portrayed and the action is fast and well choreographed. Vikram’s grunting and animal noises are interesting and effective, and so much better than his singing which is absolutely brilliant in its tonelessness. I wonder just how hard Vikram had to work to make it sound that bad! The music by Ilayaraja is quite beautiful but not particularly memorable, especially since it’s often used as a backdrop for more of the story. Overall though it’s the performances that make this film worth watching and I would recommend it for Vikram and Suriya who are both outstanding. 4 stars.

Kannathil Muthamittal

I watched Kannathil Muthamittal when a number of people recommended it to me after I worked in refugee camps in Sri Lanka. I think that my experiences there have really coloured my view of the film as I do focus more on Shyama’s story and less on the main characters. That said, I think the story is well told and the actors all do a good job – it’s just not the story I wanted to see.  It’s a classic Mani Ratnam film with strong female characters, great cinematography and attention to detail, so it’s no surprise that the film won six National Awards.

The film opens with the wedding of Shyama (Nandita Das) and Dileepan (J. D. Chakravarthi) in their village located in northern Sri Lanka. Despite this happy start it’s not long before Shyama is pregnant and on a boat heading for a refugee camp in India while her husband is missing, presumably fighting for the LTTE. Once she gives birth in the refugee camp, Shyama leaves her daughter behind and heads back to Sri Lanka to try and find her husband.

From here the film skips forward in time to introduce G. Thiruchelvan or Thiru (Madhavan) and his family, as seen through the eyes of his adopted daughter Amudha. Convincingly played by P S Keerthana, she appears to be a typical precocious 9 year old; playing with her friends at school, teasing her two younger brothers and very definitely the princess in the family. The story of her adoption is told in flashback and shows the development of the romance between Thiru and Indra (Simran).  I really like this part of the story as the two leads play their parts well and the intertwining of the adoption story and the romance is really sweet.

After she is told by her father on her ninth birthday that she is adopted, Amudha becomes moody and withdrawn and finally demands a chance to meet her real mother in Sri Lanka. For some inexplicable reason her parents accede to her demands and the family head off to the war-torn nation, although they did have the good sense to leave their other two sons behind.

The scenes in Sri Lanka make me cry every time I watch this film. I have seen the same mix of resignation and total despair on people’s faces that is shown here when a village is evacuated. I worked on the East Coast and regularly travelled between LTTE and government controlled areas. The incredibly young soldiers with their automatic weapons shown in the film is very much true to what I experienced and for me this total realism clashes with the more idealistic search for Shyama. Mani Ratnam wisely doesn’t attempt to explain any of the conflict, only showing its effects on Indra and Thiru as they realise why Shyama left her baby behind.

Amudha becomes bratty and rude as she deals with her feelings of alienation from her family and as a consequence I lose much of my sympathy for her. I also disagree with her parents’ decision to try and find her birth mother, no matter how essential it is to the plot. However both Simran and P S Keerthana convey their conflicting emotions and fluctuating relationship well and Indra’s  inner conflict as she worries about her two sons left behind in India is effectively depicted. Although Amudha is irritating the young actor does hold her own against the more experienced cast and it may be more due to the over emotional story that I lose interest in her search. Madhavan’s character, although impressive in the beginning, seems to have little impact in the latter half of the film and Prakash Raj is wasted in his role as the doctor taking the family around Colombo. So while I enjoy the first half of the film, the second half tends to drag with the adoption story and the peripheral action is more engaging . Some of Amudha’s rebellion in this section could have been cut without losing the feeling of her isolation and separation from the rest of the family. The ending is also a little disappointing but Mani Ratnam shows restraint in not turning the final scenes into melodrama, which could easily have occurred given the subject matter.

What I do like about the film is that it looks beautiful and is well shot by cinematographer Ravi K Chanran. Lighting is used to good effect as the early scenes in the family home are filled with warmth in contrast to the rain and grey skies in the later part of the film. While the background score of the film by A. R. Rahman is both beautiful and haunting, some of the songs are a little intrusive. The story doesn’t really need dance numbers and they seem to interrupt rather than move the film forward.

This isn’t a film I particularly enjoy watching, probably more because of the memories it evokes, although I can see why it won awards and I do think it’s generally well acted. It’s just that I would have preferred to see more of Shyama’s story and less of the family drama.  3 stars from me, mainly for the first half.

Temple says: This is one of the first Tamil films I saw a few years ago, and I was prompted to pick it up because of the storyline and for Madhavan.

Thiru (Madhavan) fell in love with the idea of giving Amudha a home and family, and I always feel that if Indra hadn’t agreed, then someone else would have been procured to play wifey. His decisions all revolve around what he wants – the way he courts Indra, the adoption, telling Amudha and persisting when it was clear she wasn’t ready for this birthday surprise, and on it goes.  The job of explaining and reassuring was left mostly to Indra, and she had to bear the emotional burden of seeing her little girl in torment as she herself struggled to cope. Simran is lovely as Indra, but her character is surprisingly weak considering the way she met Maddy, and her being a news anchor. I expected more backbone, but the women in Mani Ratnam films are often written like this – a strong outline and not a lot of finer detail to make them seem more real.

I was adopted and my mother told me every day, long before I even knew what words were, so it would never come as a shock to me and to make it clear that ‘adoption’ isn’t a dirty word. My perspective is coloured by that and while I can understand the bratty Amudha wanting to know her own story, I will never understand her adoptive parents taking her into a war zone no matter how much she sulked.  Still, the treatment of her story in terms of her developing understanding, the legal adoption process, and the fallout once the truth emerged was handled in a much more credible manner than many other films with orphans scattered around the streets, under cabbage leaves, going free to a good home.

The prologue was excellent in setting the scene, but beyond that Shyama and Dileepa didn’t really fit. The context of the Sri Lankan conflict added another dimension, but also made the second half of the film too dramatic and improbable when they went looking for Shyama. So although a fascinating and moving topic, here it is just used as a background for the  family weepfest.

The soundtrack works well in the film, but I find the songs bland. The picturisations are beautiful, most are very stylised, however I can only take so much fabric blowing around and children running on the beach. They suit the mood of the film, but having seen them before, I made a cup of tea during a couple of songs this time. I felt the same about the story device for the flashback – the handwriting and drawings became a distraction and took my focus off the action. Pretty visuals just aren’t enough to keep the film on track.

When Mani Ratnam wants to belt you over the head with a message about peace, unity, love and what makes a family, he can make Bono seem subtle. I give it 3 stars.