Flix Flashback
Through a terrific Sripriya, this film tells the tale of a no-nonsense woman up against a world that simply refuses to understand her.

Aval Appadithan (1978)

Cast: Sripriya, Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth

Director: C Rudhraiya

Aval Appadithan is a bold polemic on the silver screen; let the lesser mortals resort to making conventional pictures. Made during the height of the women’s liberation movement in the West, the film explores the themes of feminism and equality for women through events in the life of its main character, Manju (a terrific Sripriya).

Dedicated to writer and director Ananthu, the film was produced by Raga Manjari, along with the students of Chennai’s MGR Government Film and Television Training Institute, their first such effort. It was also the first time a student of the Institute ever directed a film.

The movie is written by Somasundareshwar and Ananthu with a screenplay by Rudhraiya and Vanna Nilavan. The film featured award-winning cinematography by Nallusamy and MN Gnanashekaran, a subtle, riveting score by Ilaiyaraaja and philosophical lyrics from Gangai Amaran and Kannadasan. Songs were sung by Kamal Haasan and KJ Yesudas.

With its deliberate pacing and loaded dialogues, the film tells the tale of Manju, whose history of neglect and abuse is enough to fill four novels.

From the start, the film plays with the idea of cinema to great effect. So you have Haasan’s voice, echoing words thrown around by film crews, running over the opening credits. The effect is ominous and disturbing. It may be that director C Rudhraiya, who debuted with this film, wanted to suggest that this was just a movie, but one that may not end well.

The opening shot has documentary filmmaker Arun (Haasan) instructing a scantily clad dancer to stand a little to left, indicating where the director’s sympathies may lay. The film-within-a-film aspect of Aval Appadithan gives us some of the movie’s best scenes.

Later, Manju derisively questions Arun, asking him if he is a communist as he has a book by Marx with him. She also notices a poster of the Mamayev Hill in Volgograd in southern Russia. (The battle at Mamayev Hill was the bloody ground zero where Russian and German forces clashed during World War II.)  

Arun is making a documentary on women and their concerns, and Thiyagu (Rajnikanth), Arun’s friend and Manju’s superior at the ad agency where she works, asks Manju to help him out. Some of the most vocal scenes outlining the ideology of the makers come from the scenes in which Arun is making his film. One scene has Arun questioning a group of students for his documentary about premarital sex and legalised abortion.  In another, they interview Kutty Padmini, playing an actor questioning society for thinking that people in the film industry have loose morals.

The presence of Haasan and Rajinikanth, sporting fashionable, collarless T-shirts, was a big plus for the movie, even though it bombed at the box-office upon release. It was Haasan who backed Rudhraiya and convinced the cast, including Rajinikanth and Sripriya, to take part in the film. The film, now seen as one of the best Tamil films ever made, has gained a huge following on DVD, torrents and YouTube.

Sripriya is perfectly cast in the film – her devil-may-care attitude and bindass walk say a lot about who Manju is. Portrayed as a woman with biting sarcasm and a rude speaking style, Manju is up against a world that simply refuses to understand her. Even Arun, one of her closest friends, fails to interpret her actions patiently, properly.

During an interview with a woman running an NGO for the distressed, Arun asks penetrating questions but is shocked when Manju mocks the woman for taking satisfaction in supporting women who have slipped in their lives.

“If you need to be satisfied, then more and more women need to become helpless,” says Manju. When the head of the NGO asks them if make-up will be necessary for the interview, Manju cynically tells her to wear her usual “society make-up”.

Initially, Manju is dismissive of her relationship with Arun, confiding in her friend that while he has “clear ideas”, she won’t drink coffee with him. But in a follow-up scene, that’s just what she does at filmmaker’s house. When Arun asks Manju about her family, she lies and tells him they are in Paris. It is later revealed that she is from a broken home.

Manju’s troubles start at home. From a young age, she is subjected to the agony of accompanying her mother as she hangs around with men she is having affairs with. Manju’s demure and mild-mannered father is helpless to change things. Later, Manju is abused by her uncle. She falls in love with Kiruba in college, but he dumps her to secure a job.

Another relationship is ended after its consummation by her lover Mano (Sivachandran), the son of a priest at a church, who calls her his sister in front of her father. “Kiruba killed me first and then I was killed a second time by Mano,” she tells Arun. (There is an after-sex conversation between Manju and Mano, which is downright radical for its times). Ilaiyaraaja’s music for these scenes highlights the horror much better than any dialogue could.

Manju confesses that she felt like Queen Sheba from the Bible during the height of her romances. The very fact that this scene lends itself to Manju’s fantasies is to be appreciated.

She also tells Arun the story of a sparrow which is feeding on a ship when it leaves the harbour. The sparrow comes to its own in mid-sea and attempts to fly to land, but each time it tries, it fails. Manju compares herself to the sparrow in the way she repeats the same mistake repeatedly.

Later, in a harrowing scene, Manju gets angry with Arun, throwing things at him, screaming and finally fainting inside a toilet. In many scenes, there is a huskiness to Sripriya’s voice that bothered me. Kamal’s voice is practically unrecognisable in many scenes.

Some of these dialogues are not like everyday conversation, and may have worked well in literature but not in a movie. It sometimes seems that the director is in favour of thrusting his ideology upon us instead of just telling the story.

Rajinikanth’s performance is delicious with his usual stylish mannerisms. These work as an antidote to the intensity of the movie. His character Thiyagu, who prides himself on understanding women, does not believe that women and men can be equals, particularly in the bedroom. Arun then calls him “a prejudiced ass”. Thiyagu is also is a supporter of polygamy, which in his ‘considered’ opinion should be legalised.

Thiyagu, smears sacred ash on his forehead while drinking like a fish. He is in sharp contrast with Arun, whose everday choices shout out his ideology, including only smoking beedis (another communist trait). In fact, Arun condemns Thiyagu’s drinking as escapism. Over a drink, Thiyagu calls Manju “Thirupurasundari” and tells Arun that all she needs is a man in bed. “An insatiable woman is a big trouble, so is an independent one,” he says.

This is one of the puzzling parts of the film – the relationship between Arun and Thiyagu. Arun tries to explain this by saying that Thiyagu is good at heart, but that doesn’t really ring true.

Some of the film’s metaphors are in your face. There is a scene in which Manju and her friend are playing Carroms, when Arun asks Manju why she quit her job and what she is going to do next. “I am going to hit this coin,” she says, and a minute later, the friend asks Arun to take her place in the “game”.

Ilaiyaraaja, an acknowledged master in creating great background music, comes up with a score that is in perfect sync with the film’s seriousness. Often enough, the score hints at what is to come even while trying to capture the inner life of the primary characters. Two of the songs are still radio favourites – ‘Uravugal Thodarkathai’ and ‘Panneer Pushpangale’.

The camerawork is superb. There are plenty of zoom ins and outs and self-conscious pans and pauses that make you introspect. Sometimes, the camera is almost searching for the subject. Shot in black & white, the movie has excellent lighting that weaves the characters into and out of shadows.

The way the movie works best is as a pause -- from all that you know and think you know. A story of a woman has always been a rarity in Tamil cinema, which is why this movie is precious. Do watch if you haven’t yet.