The scene where Sarada tries to measure ARR’s waist but can’t stop giggling has so much affection in it that it’s hard to think of another from Tamil cinema that is comparable.

Singer SPB and actor Radikaa collage from 'Keladi Kanmani' movie
Flix Flix Flashback Wednesday, September 30, 2020 - 15:47

The ‘90s were a period of college romances in Tamil cinema. The big stars of the current generation – Vijay, Ajith, Suriya and Vikram – all debuted in various years of this decade. The stories revolved around misunderstandings between the hero and the heroine, familial opposition to their love and other circumstances that separated them. The films were youth-centric, made with peppy songs and dances that would bring the college-going, urban crowd to theatres.

But right at the beginning of this decade, in 1990, there came a film that’s still considered to be one of the greatest romances in Tamil cinema and yet was markedly different from the films that would follow. In an unusual directorial debut, Vasanth cast SP Balasubrahmanyam as the hero in a romance between two people who’d decided that it wasn’t for them.

SPB, a noted singer by then, had already done several acting roles. But Keladi Kanmani was the first film where he was one of the leads. The film actually begins in the typical style of ‘90s romances. Sasi (Ramesh Aravind) and Anu (Anju) are warring collegemates who play pranks on each other (some of those would surely be recognised as sexual harassment if the film had released today). Perhaps because the rest of the film is so sobering, Vasanth wanted to draw the audience in with some fun and colours. But this is unfortunately the weakest segment in the film and one that hasn’t aged well.

However, as soon as the story shifts to AR Rangaraj (SPB) in the past, the film immediately acquires a dignity that it maintains right to the end. He’s a widower and single father to a young girl, Anu (Neena as the child Anu). Sarada (Radikaa) is a teacher who has decided never to marry because her parents (Srividya and Poornam Vishwanathan) have speech and hearing disabilities. Circumstances bring the two together and a quiet romance blooms.

Unlike Anu and Sasi whose romance is full of fury and passion, ARR and Sarada Teacher’s relationship is like a gentle breeze that brings comfort. They like each other but are acutely aware of the obstacles ahead. SPB, with his heavy frame and dark circles, is an unlikely hero but his genial smile and matter-of-fact demeanour immediately make ARR an immensely likeable leading man. His exchanges with Sarada are brief but sound like real life conversations.

The two actors build up great chemistry on screen, pulling each other’s legs and easily admitting to their limitations. The scene where Sarada tries to measure ARR’s waist but can’t stop giggling has so much affection in it that it’s hard to think of another scene from Tamil cinema that is comparable. And of course, there’s the sensational ‘Mannil Indha Kadhal’ song, which is a big reason why the film hasn’t faded from public memory. SPB’s superb breathless rendition of the song, composed by the brilliant Ilaiyaraaja, has ever since been a challenge that upcoming singers have taken up to prove their mettle onstage and in reality shows.

ARR and Sarada have everything going for them but his daughter is unwilling to accept another woman in her mother’s place. The lovely Geetha appears in the flashback-within-flashback portions and we’re briefly shown the family that they once were – is there a more beautiful lullaby than ‘Karpoora bommai ondru’?

Watch: 'Mannil Indha Kadhal' from Keladi Kanmani

Watch: 'Karpoora bommai ondru' from Keladi Kanmani

Though ARR comes across as a sensitive man, he’s lost when it comes to understanding his daughter. Vasanth presents these situations through the eyes of the child, making us realise why things that sound trivial to adults may carry greater meaning for children. For instance, when ARR breaks the 5 Star chocolate bar and offers half to Sarada, it’s not a mere chocolate for Anu but the breaking of a ritual she cherished with her father. The camera focuses on ARR’s hands breaking the chocolate, the music underlines the upheaval in Anu’s mind. And it is such moments of thoughtlessness that make the child reject what the adults think is in her best interest.

The frame story for this elaborate flashback is rather melodramatic – Anu is suffering from a fatal disease and she blames herself for her father remaining single and not marrying Sarada. She enlists Sasi’s help in tracing the teacher. In an era without the internet and smartphones, this involves a lot of running around and ‘just misses’ and finally, the film does end on an optimistic note.

There are other plot threads, too, which are quite overblown in retrospect. Like Adaikkalam’s (Janakaraj) unnecessary death or Sarada’s parents deciding to kill themselves just so their daughter can get married. But surprisingly, despite the pervading sense of gloom all through the film, it ran for 285 days in theatres and was also released in Telugu as O Papa Lali.

SPB passed away on September 25 this year and every tribute written for him would have mentioned Keladi Kanmani without fail because that’s just how special the film has been for Tamil cinema lovers. The title translates to “Listen, sweetheart”, maybe what a loving father would tell his truant daughter. But for SPB fans, it is perhaps a reminder that whenever we miss his presence in our lives, we can always listen to his music and let it do its magic.

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