Krishnan-Panju’s tragedy about a heartless rich man, played by MR Radha, who contracts leprosy remains immensely popular with film lovers.

Ratha Kanneer MR Radhas film is a scathing indictment of our cultureYouTube screenshot
Flix Flix Flashback Sunday, May 31, 2020 - 12:15

In Ratha Kanneer (Blood Tears, 1954), Mohanasundaram, a filthy rich man played by MR Radha, contracts leprosy; the object of his sinful affection Kantha (an outstanding MN Rajam) dies in a plane crash; his best friend Balu (SS Rajendran) ends up marrying Mohan’s wife. And, all that is left behind when the movie ends is a statue of Mohan in the town park.

But through this tale of clashing morals, unbridled lust and discordant notes on culture, directors R Krishnan and S Panju (often called Krishnan-Panju) weave one of the greatest tragedies ever since the arrival of Tamil talkies.

MR Radha, in his greatest role ever, proves why EVR Periyar conferred on him the title ‘Nadigavel’ (loosely translated, it means ‘spearhead of acting’).

If the actor’s turn as the rich Durai (landlord) is funny as it is chilling, his transformation into a leper is meticulous and complete. His bent posture, unsynchronised body movements and wheezing dialogue delivery may have come in for some mockery in the modern era, but back in the 1950s, it must have captivated the audiences.

After an elaborate title sequence, we launch into the story of Mohanasundaram narrated by Balu in a park where the Minor’s (usually a title for the landlord’s son) statue has been erected. After losing his father, Mohan goes to Europe and the US in search of artistic satisfaction. Balu brings him back to India, but Mohan refuses to change his womanising ways. What’s worse, he equates surrounding himself with good-looking women as a study of contemporary culture.

We cut to a shot of Kantha sitting in front of a mirror posing the question: “Naan yaar theriyuma?” (Do you know who I am?). A few minutes later, we are treated to the song, ‘Aalai Aalai Parkirai (You are leering at me)’. Kantha is perhaps Tamil cinema’s best-known villainess. It is her vicious knot that has Mohan trapped forever. The cry “Kantha” from MR Radha is known to every Tamil speaker out there.

MR Radha makes his first appearance at a public function where he is invited to talk about the plight of labourers. He flat out refuses, then speaks in English to a hostile crowd – and finally says that labourers in the US and Europe do better than their counterparts in India because of their fate.

Mohan and Kantha meet at a lavish event – a ballroom dance programme organised for the city’s elite. A small scene involving a dog is telling. Mohan asks the helper to give the American dog biscuits from Paris. “Don’t ruin it by feeding it rice,” he says.

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This should give us enough indication about Mohan’s decadent lifestyle, but Tiruvarur K Thangarasu, who wrote the movie’s screenplay and dialogues, has other plans. He wants to take Mohan’s philandering to a great height before dropping him stone cold.

While walking in a park, Mohan and Kantha meet a leper, much to their disgust. For many familiar with what is to come, this scene is an eerie reminder, even as Mohan calls the municipality “nasty” for letting the leper into the park in the first place.

Back home, Mohan spews much hate at his mother. He asks her to wear gowns and restrict herself to the outhouse. When a marriage proposal with his uncle’s daughter, Chandra (Sriranjani), comes up, Mohan shoots it down. He says he will marry a girl from a club in Paris. But he later relents and agrees to marry Chandra.

The wedding sequence is shot at a blistering pace. We mostly get to see only the shooting of a marriage photo. As the ‘first night’ is fixed, Mohan’s uncle tells him that Ragu and Kethu are in the right position. “Who are these Ragu and Kethu? Can’t they stay back and take the nightly mail?” asks Mohan.

During the first night sequence, Mohan tries to get his village belle wife to eat a banana. When she refuses, he storms out and goes to meet Kantha. Censor rules made it hard for Tamil movies in those days to show any sexual activity, but it is clear from the beginning that Mohan and Kantha are partners.

Thangarasu’s dialogues are consistently brilliant. Some of Tamil cinema’s much-vaunted lines find their home in this film. The exchange between Mohan and his uncle that leaves the entire household heartbroken is sharp and to the point. The back-and-forth between Mohan and Balu on what constitutes culture is also a pleasure to watch.

One time in a frenzy to reach Kantha, Mohan strikes his mother injuring her badly on the forehead. Later, when she dies, her funeral is held (a beautifully shot sequence) without Mohan in attendance.

Read: Thyagaraja Bhagavathar’s ‘Haridas’: This 1944 film has stood the test of time

How bad a person is Mohan? Is there a kernel of truth to what he is saying? Born in a Third World country, he yearns for the luxury of Paris. Coming from the East, here’s a man who wants everything about him to be Western. So, when his villager wife applies turmeric on her face, Mohan can’t take it because it is an ingredient used in sambar.

The film was produced by National Pictures. Much of the music was by Vishwanathan-Ramamoorthy with lyrics by Bharathiyar and Bharathidasan.

The stunning make-up is by TS Gopal Rao who does a terrific job of showing Radha as a leper. The art direction is by AK Shekar and editing is by S Punjabi. RR Chandiran is behind the lens and makes the camera function in service of the story.

After the first hour, Mohan begins to show symptoms of leprosy and is correctly diagnosed by a doctor. Kantha quickly loses all interest in him. She refuses to take care of him even as he is ailing.

Meanwhile, Mohan suspects that his wife and Balu are having an affair.

After contracting leprosy, Radha changes his dialogue delivery. He begs Kantha to take him back in sequences that are among the most well-known in black and white cinema. He pleads with Kantha to help cure him, but she keeps him in a room with little or no food.

They say dialogue delivery is about breathing and it is clear that Radha nails it. Another actor who turns in a good performance is Chandrababu. Playing Kantha’s pimp can’t be easy, but Chandrababu remains endearingly funny.

When he turns director as Kantha becomes an aspiring actor, Mohan says that the profession is in danger because of the pimp. There is even a scene in which Chandrababu imitates MR Radha.

When Mohan causes a ruckus in one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Kantha calls the cops. An inspector arrives on the scene with a group of policemen and shows Mohan the door even as a thunderstorm rages outside. Ultimately, Mohan loses his eyesight as well.

The rain sequence is quite bold and the song ‘Kutram Purinthavan’ has Mohan at his lowest point.

After wandering the roads, Mohan comes to Chandra’s house and begs for food. But she cannot recognise him (no one can) and he cannot see. In a subsequent sequence, Balu is unable to recognise him either.

The reunion of the main cast during the climax doesn’t come as a surprise. But the dramatic plea for remarriage as a norm in society does. The movie ends where it all began – at the park with Mohan’s statue – and Balu singing about human values. The statue is erected as a warning to people and symbolises the story of someone who went astray in his life. It is erected by Balu after Mohan makes a dying wish to this effect.

In many ways, the film was important for the Dravidian movement. Notice, for instance, that Mohan is portrayed as an atheist. The film mocks many things, all which find approval by the party. Many of Radha’s tongue-in-cheek remarks find relevance even today. Ratha Kanneer began life as a progressive play which was a roaring success. It was later remade in Telugu in 2003 and was changed to suit the present era.

Ratha Kanneer remains immensely popular with film lovers. Directors, too, have often named the flick as a major influence.

Has Ratha Kanneer then stood the test of time? At little over 2.5 hours, the film can be a drag at times. After all, it is several decades old. What hasn’t aged even a little are the dialogues. Every time the film falls – especially during the song sequences set at Kantha’s house – it is the dialogues and MR Radha’s delivery of them that come to the rescue.

For its time, Ratha Kanneer was filled with modern ideas. It was also a scathing indictment of our culture. An evening with the film would be time well-spent.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Nandhu Sundaram is a film critic and freelance journalist who lives in a village situated in the back of beyond in Kanyakumari district. He loves cricket and is trying his hand at short stories. He has a seven-year-old daughter.