Director Bharathiraja’s film, scored by Ilaiyaraaja, released 35 years ago on August 15.

The 1985 film Muthal Mariyathai stars Sivaji Ganesan and Radha in the lead rolesScreenshot
Flix Flix Flashback Saturday, August 15, 2020 - 13:58

In a scene in the film Muthal Mariyathai, the lead character Malaichami, an aged village chieftain, catches up with Kuyilu, a very young girl who has just recently shifted to the village in search of work and shelter. She challenges Malaichami, who claims to be physically fit in spite of his age, to lift a boulder lying by the side, to prove his manliness. Malaichami, while accepting the challenge, asks her with a streak of naughtiness if she will marry him in return. Kuyilu agrees to this perhaps, equally naughtily. Malaichami doesn’t attempt to lift the rock despite Kuyilu pursuing him, as he doesn’t want to put her in a spot and with that they move on from the scene. After Kuyilu departs, Malaichami, to satisfy his own ego, tries to lift the rock but struggles. He leaves the spot in a hurry feeling disappointed but also relieved that he didn’t try it in front of Kuyilu. I still vividly remember the priceless expression on the character’s face as he leaves the place quietly.

The actor is Sivaji Ganesan and the film is Muthal Mariyathai, which hit the screens on this day, 35 years ago. This one scene in the whole film is enough to justify why director Bharathiraja opted for Sivaji Ganesan to portray the role of Malaichami in the film. Around that time Sivaji, one of the greatest actors this country has ever seen, was already past his prime. Filmmakers still cast him as a young hero and made him dance and prance around trees in song sequences with relatively young heroines. For those who started watching Tamil films post the 80’s like me, the enduring impression of Sivaji was that he was “overacting.” The generations before that who have seen Sivaji at his peak in films like Karnan, Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Vietnam Veedu Sundaram, Paasa Malar to name a few, however, swore by his acting and maintained that none could match his histrionic skills in Indian cinema.

I would go on to say that Muthal Mariyathai and later, films like Thevar Magan and Padayappa, helped to reinstate Sivaji as an actor par excellence to a whole new generation of Tamil film viewers. In Muthal Mariyathai, he demonstrated that he can act with restraint and play the part in tune with the times, if the filmmaker desires. The film also demanded that Sivaji act like a respected village chief outside but within the house, as a hen-pecked husband bearing humiliation from his wife. Once he steps out of the house, he is seen as a different man, even attempting to flirt with women who work in his fields, but all without a semblance of haughtiness. Looking at how Sivaji portrayed this split personality character so well, I got the feeling that Sivaji had a ball playing this different character in the film, after a long while.

Come to think of it, the irony, or rather interesting thing, is that Sivaji was not the first choice for the role. Initially the director and his team thought of casting actor Rajesh, who had just acted as a middle-aged character set in a village in Balachandar’s Achamillai Achamillai. Later, they even toyed the idea of casting singer SP Balasubrahmanyam who was doing cameos in Telugu films once in a while. Eventually, director Bharathiraja thought that it was time for him to accord his Muthal Mariyathai (first honour) to Sivaji in this film by casting the actor as the hero, for the very first time in his career. Today, one cannot imagine anyone else other than Sivaji as Malaichami.

R Selvaraj, who wrote the story for Muthal Mariyathai, recently revealed that the spark for the story line came from the life of the famous Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is said that in the course of assisting Dostoevsky in writing a book, his assistant Anna, much younger to the author, developed a fond relationship with Dostoevsky. In Muthal Mariyathai, the theme is similar, but with the story set in a village, a familiar playground for director Bharathiraja. In Tamil cinema, there has been no other filmmaker who has brought the earthiness of a village better than Bharathiraja before and after him.  He brings in the milieu, the sights, sounds, the language and the cultural aspects of a Tamizh Naatu Gramam like no other. Bharathiraja also had cinematographer B Kannan to be his pair of eyes and between them they brought the villages to life before our eyes on the big screen. Muthal Mariyathai, almost entirely shot outdoors, is no exception.

In Muthal Mariyathai, Bharathiraja explores a strange relationship between the male and the female leads – one an elderly upper caste gentleman who is revered by one and all and is deemed to receive the “first honour” in the village and the other a very young, under-privileged girl who has come to the village to make a living. It is difficult to explain the exact nature of the relationship between Malaichami and Kuyilu in this film. While the people of the village speculate on the nature of their relationship to be love, fondness, respect or even an extra marital affair, the director and writer show it as a kind of a platonic relationship which we as viewers are able to understand.

While on this topic of “affairs,” it is a strange coincidence that three of the top Tamil filmmakers of those times, namely, K Balachandar, Bharathiraja and K Bhagyaraj weaved stories in their respective films — Sindhu Bhairavi, Muthal Mariyathai and Chinna Veedu — around this subject in the same year of 1985. Yet, the three films were completely different in their narratives and became super hits.

There are only few films in which all the elements of film making come together in perfect harmony to make them memorable. Muthal Mariyathai is one such film and it was no surprise that the film went on to bag quite a few awards. But, the biggest disappointment was Sivaji not getting the National Award for the Best Actor for his performance in this film. Radha, who did an exceptional job as Kuyilu in the film also lost out but you can say that half of the credit of Radha’s performance must go to actress Radhika who dubbed for Radha in this film.

It is well documented that Ilaiyaraaja, who did the music score for the film, did not like the movie at all when he was shown the edited version. Yet, he turned up to create one of the best background scores in Tamil films for Muthal Mariyathai. The songs, all rooted in rustic charm, are a delight to listen to, even today. I remember very well that when the audio cassette was released back then and I listened to the songs, I didn’t like them so much. However, after I watched the film, ‘Poongaatru Thirumbumaa, Antha nilava thaan kayila pudichen, Raasaave Unna nambi and Vettiveru Vaasam’ continued to play around my ears for a long time. 

Like Bharathiraja in filmmaking, there is no other music composer who brings out the authentic “gramiya” sounds and tunes better than Ilaiyaraaja in Tamil cinema.  If there was a way for the jury to give the National Award to the same music director for two films in the same year, Ilaiyaraaja would have got it for Muthal Mariyathai also. Incidentally the National award for the Best Music Director in that year went to Ilaiyaraaja for Sindhu Bhairavi.

It was with Muthal Mariyathai that Bharathiraja started the now familiar opening phrase “En iniya Thamizh makkale….” in his inimitable baritone voice. Every time, I hear Bharathiraja say those lines even now, it brings back memories of the film Muthal Mariyathai. It is 35 years since the film hit the screens and our “mariyathai” for the film continues to linger.

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