In #WatchWithTNM this week, we revisit the Vijay-Shalini romance that's still etched in the minds of the Tamil audience.

When love was love only Revisiting Vijay-Shalinis Kadhalukku MariyadhaiYouTube Screengrab
Flix Flix Flashback Friday, June 19, 2020 - 16:52

Before playing the practical, plain-speaking Shakthi in Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey (2000), a film which is an evergreen favourite for many, actor Shalini played Mini, a demure, undecided, loved-by-all woman who is torn between her family that dotes on her and the man she loves. The film we’re talking about is the 1997 hit flick Kadhalukku Mariyadhai, directed by Fazil. While the film won actor Vijay, who was then called 'Ilaiya Thalapathy', his first Tamil Nadu State Award for Best Actor, actor Shalini held the audience's attention just as much. This was surprising because the actor barely speaks in the film, not counting the pre-climax dialogue. Shalini, however, had played the same role to critical acclaim in the Malayalam original Aniathipravu opposite Kunchacko Boban.

23 years since the Tamil film released, TNM takes a look at this classic ahead of actor Vijay's birthday. Watching the film again now, the emotional scenes look a tad too soppy, the romance is old-fashioned, the characterisation devoid of specific social locations, and the idea of a woman patriarchal. However, this 1997 romance between Mini and Jeeva, two youngsters who brave all odds for the sake of their love, just to give up towards the end, is etched in the minds of the Tamil cinema audience. If you don't stop to analyse too much and buy into its “love and love only” premise, it's still a very watchable film.

Jeeva is from an affluent Hindu family and Mini is from a close-knit, middle-class Christian family. One of Jeeva’s friends comes from a fishing family and his father plays an important role in the story of the two lovers. Director Fazil throws in a surprise early on, when we watch Vijay begrudgingly walk past his parents, when he sees that they’ve been trying to find him a bride. This is quite a refreshing start to a film, especially since we are so used to only women fighting the pressures of getting married early.

The buildup to their love-at-first-sight scene, a trope that was still very fresh in the '90s, is quite interesting and establishes the entire tone of the film - the idea of a devoted lover. Jeeva and Mini’s meet-cute is at the library where the two pick up the same book, Love and Love Only (if you’d like to know more, there’s a Q and A on Quora discussing the veracity of this book's existence). But just before this scene, by means of establishing characters, we are introduced to an old man living alone who talks about his “madness”.

“When she died, I refused to let them take her. I slept next to her body for three days. Finally they had to sedate me to take her away. Since then, every night I’ve been unable to sleep. So I sleep with this gun next to me,” he says, while laughing out loud. Although the scene is written in a way so as to sound funny, we get the idea of a devoted lover and subsequently, we are prepared to plunge into the mood of the film. In that sense, director Fazil makes sure he gives every character in his film a background, and this helps the viewer connect better with the story.

The 'kadhal' in Kadhalukku Mariyadhai happens without fuss but thankfully, when Jeeva tries to trick her into it, Mini doesn't give in. While we’ve seen plenty of stalking and gaslighting shown as love in Tamil cinema, this is where Kadhalukku Mariyadhai comes across as a better film (bear in mind that it was a time when lovers caught butterflies and wrote about it in letters to each other. Ah!).

“Can I take it that you love me?” Jeeva confronts Mini. “Oh no, I never said that,” she says. “Okay shall I take that you don't?” he asks. “Why are you talking like this…” she hesitates. “So you do love me?” he asks her again, to which she says, “I didn't say that.” “Okay, you don’t," Jeeva says again, and at this point Mini is ready to leave (so are we). But this is not when the two acknowledge their love for each other. Later on, a few scenes later, Mini meets Jeeva to profess her love for him.

The world of Kadhalukku Mariyadhai comes with a white-washed view and has very few light moments, the hello-hello scene from the beginning coming to mind. There’s no complexity to the characters, no greys, no bloodshed. Even threats of “kill her, slash him” sound less threatening. Even their decision to part for the sake of their families sounds like a brief lull before the happy ending.

The climax, however, is especially riveting because we’re made to understand just how the director places his women in this film. If you are to discount Mini’s cringe-worthy confession as soon as she returns home, the climax comes across as almost perfect. There’s an organic setting where the two families sit down together and exchange pleasantries, and everyone is so respectful to the other (the title, after all, is 'respect for love').

Here the audience is holding its breath, observing just the women. Even the camera turns away from the men, who were the reason for all the hassles and the heartbreaks so far in the film, and focuses entirely on the women, as if nudging us to anticipate their thoughts. And like the planets conspiring, the women decide to reunite the lovers. 

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