The recently held D40 event in Tamil Nadu,
What ticked me off was a short film that glorified him and began with the line (in Tamil): In 1977, Tamil cinema gained its independence…” The loving, nay, lusting tribute showed clips from his films, amidst recent shots of Bharathiraja, walking, sitting, reading, writing, thinking, making love to furniture, etc. If it doesn’t make you nauseous, it would certainly want to make you take another shower. Especially, when the narrator lovingly detailed a technique where our director intercuts a shot of the heroine 20 or so times with a shot of a flapping butterfly. The insect could be male, but Bharathiraja is not a certified entomologist.
One of the credits often offered to Bharathiraja, who have not denied it, is that he moved the camera from studio to the rustic village site as per the 1977 debut, 16 Vayathinile. In short, in actual location. Wrong. It has been done by the filmmakers of the past, just take a look at Bheem Singh's Pazhani, the paddy field is beautifully shot for Aarodum song. Ditto, Mr. Singh’s Bhagapirivinai. Want to go back? How about the fabulously popular Manapaara Madukatti song in Makkalai Petra Magarasi.
But they are only song sequence, you might say. Actually there are other shots where the director painstakingly have taken the camera out of the studio and laid the tripod on actual ground. The thing is, it was very costly, and labour intensive to take the camera out, and as with
Most of his films are just plain romance themed, love stories, couples from various background and age group facing objections. 16 Vayathinile talks of a forbidden love between a simple village girl and a handsome (70s effeminate way) doctor and a limping simpleton, or was it a simple limpaton? Likewise, Kizhakke Pogum Rayil, this time he added train, classical dance by someone who can’t dance for nuts, and introducing Sudhakar who will go on to be a successfulsmall time comedian in Telugu films. Puthiya Varpugal is yet another love story set in the village.
He took a break from village, came up with excellent Sigappu Rojakkal, one of the very few film of his that didn’t age, thanks to well preserved Kamal Haasan and awesome soundtrack. Not that it was original, but nobody has seen a suspense thriller ala Psycho before in the industry.
Then, it was back to village romance for Bharathiraja with Niram Maratha Pookkal, and, straying a bit unsuccessful with Nizhalgal which deals with unemployment and awful looking costume. The films songs were excellent and are still enjoyed today if one were to remove the image of Chandrasekhar flapping his bell bottoms.
I would go on, but I assure you most of his films later dealt with love between a young girl and a young man facing opposition, with religion, caste or anything Bharathiraja can grab and make it with his own style, where the hero and the heroines crank their collective heads up and down to laugh (he even made Sivaji Ganesan to do it, that criminal), have the heroines speak in Radhika’s voice even if it is Radhika herself and even when Radhika is not dubbing. You get the loud mouthed old women beginning with Ghandimathi, succeeded by Vadivukarasi and the most recent was, well, Radhika herself.
You get variety of characters that seemed original back in 1977, only to turn up here and there in form of other underpaid character artistes, sometimes blown up as in case of the dad character in Karutamma, a film that could have been a lot more awesome if it not the case of Bharathiraja imposing himself on everyone on screen and hiring Raja.
Oh did I tell that most of the films have a central character committing an act of violence, screaming, “Deeyy……”? towards the climax. Followed by another character waiting for the central character to return from jail.
One of the biggest crime he committed was to make Sathyaraj in Kadalora Kavithaigal a wimp towards the end when he started the film showing him to be a tough, lovable rogue. Somewhere, I get the feeling that Bharathiraja loathed tough guys, or probably bullied by one when in school. The toughest guy in 16 Vayathinile gets rock on his head, the hero is a wimpy limp. Any films with Sudhakar goes on to show that softies takes the centre spot, as with K. Bagyaraj’s self written Puthiiya Varpugal where the toughest thing he did was to grab the girl and elope. Kamal in Sigappu Rojakkal killed women, not M.N. Nambiar. Oh yeah, he killed a guy, K. Bagyaraj, a lowly waiter, in the loo. They did it to you there, didn't they, Bharathiraja?
Sivaji Ganesan in Muthal Mariyathai was not only henpecked by mealy mouthed Vadivukarasi, but had to endure the show of strength by lifting rock. Yes, the same man who roared as Veerapandiyan Kattabomman, swashbuckled as Vikraman, broke bones as Raja, shot fireworks from his third eye as Lord Shiva, and even few years before was a regular ass-kicking ageing hero, had to lift a papier mache rock to impress a young girl in that movie. That is Bharathiraja’s idea of macho.
His insecurity is spilled over another annoying trend he employed in his films: voiceover. By him. He has the gravely voice that does not suits his whiny heroes and as a result, in most of his films, it was the case of mouse that roared. In fact, the biggest crime (how many biggest crimes already?) was to dub Nizhalgal Ravi in one film where
To be fair, Bharathiraja was instrumental in introducing many talents. Actors like Karthik, and greatest comedian ever to be part of the film industry, Goundamani benefited from appearing first in Bharathiraja. The director also spawned assistants who will go on to be fantastic directors of their own, like Bagyaraj and Manivannan who are wonderful on screen performers themselves. Manivannan, underrated he was, made some of the best thrillers to come out of the industry.
Not all his films are typical Bharathiraja mess. The abovementioned Sigappu Rojakkal was one, and there was Vedam Puthithu that presented a searing look into caste system, En Uyir Tozhan, a powerful meditation on politician/follower relationship, and the quiet Anthimantharai, an ageing romance affair which was better handled than Muthal Mariyathai would have stunk without Sivaji and Ilayaraja. Plus great local locations, especially the beachside ones.
Speaking of whom, ever since the partnership with Ilayaraja faltered, so did the popularity of his film despite, or is it, in spite of occasional alliance with A.R. Rahman. The greatest Bharathiraja film has never been made, simply because he is not that great.