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Sivaji is at his funniest in the film when he's mocking exactly the kind of over-the-top dialogues he helped make famous.

Bale Pandiya (1962)

Starring: Sivaji Ganesan, MR Radha, K Balaji, Devika, Vasanthi, Sandhya

Director: BR Panthulu

While nearly every Tamil film-watcher knows of the 1990 blockbuster Michael Madana Kama Rajan, Sivaji Ganesan’s Bale Pandiya, which created the comic template for that and other later classics, has remained largely forgotten.

Sivaji Ganesan’s three plum roles in Bale Pandiya may likely have persuaded Kamal Haasan to pen four characters in MMKR. And the 1962 film’s silliness (in the best way) and its ability to free its characters of consequence would go on to influence comedy in Tamil cinema for many years to come.

Sivaji’s performances as ‘Appavi’ Pandiyan, Rowdy Maruthu and Scientist Shankar form the core of this hilarious comic caper. But MR Radha, at the peak of his career, nearly outdoes the thespian with his double role as Amirthalingam Pillai and Kabali.

There is so much fun to be had in this film with people changing identities like clothes, and throwing everything into uproar and confusion. The engine of the film is carefree cheerfulness, and even during the most serious of scenes, we are somehow convinced that nothing will really go wrong.

Director BR Panthulu is less famous than some of his most seminal, popular movies – Karnan and Kappalottiya Thamizhan, both featuring Sivaji, among them. Unlike his contemporaries, CV Sridhar and A Bhimsingh, Panthulu did not achieve personal fame and is known mostly through his films.

In Bale Pandiya, he directs proceedings with a remarkably light-hearted touch. His reworking of trite dialogue as comedy without self-consciousness is rip-roaringly funny and offers us insight into just how hackneyed conversations in cinema had become in those times. This is a much-needed course correction in writing dialogues for scenes without them becoming too heavy.

The music by Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy has left us with some great radio and TV favourites to this day, including ‘Vazha Ninaithal Vazhalam’ and ‘Athikkai Kai Kai’. Lyrics are by Kannadasan with assistance from Panchu Arunachalam.  

Sivaji’s performance is riveting as Pandiyan and he is at his comic best. We are familiar with Sivaji’s over-the-top performances in the great tragedies like Pasamalar, but Bale Pandiya gives us a wonderful chance to delve into his comedic skills. He is especially funny when poking fun at the exactly those dialogues that he helped make famous.

As Maruthu, Sivaji brings a casual menace to the goings on, and his version of the English-speaking Shankar is eccentric and absent-minded with a cute tendency to repeat phrases.

Sivaji’s ease with comedy cannot be taken lightly; it seemingly involves quite a few improvisations and he is especially good at riffing with both MR Radha and Balaji. The scene in which Pandiyan addresses Kabali as “Kabali sir, Kabali sir” is a good example of his character’s childlike innocence.

The movie opens dramatically with Pandiyan attempting to jump off a multi-storeyed building as a huge crowd looks on. At the scene are Kabali and Amirthalingam, both played by MR Radha. Kabali stops Pandiyan from jumping, and gives him a roof over his head and feeds him for a month. But all the while he is scheming to kill him and collect on the insurance. In this dark plot, he is aided by Maruthu.

Meanwhile, Geetha’s (Devaki) purse is stolen from the scene of the attempted suicide, and Pandiyan goes to her bungalow to return it. And here, quite deliciously, Geetha tries to dupe Pandiyan by posing as both a tennis player and a carefree, but more traditional woman. This is the first time in the movie that someone plays two people. But in this instance, they are revealed to be the same person. Later, however, the multiple characters played by Sivaji and MR Radha switch identities at will, leading to hilarity.

Interestingly, Panthulu is not interested in taking us through the complications of courtship, and his protagonists – both female and male – are just instantly smitten by each other. At first, it’s Pandiyan and Geetha. Later, it’s Geetha’s cousin Ravi (Balaji) and Vasanthi (Vasanthi), who are inexplicably and immediately drawn to each other.

In fact, their marriages happen, not in the climax of the movie as it often happens, but with a full hour of runtime to go. It is clear that Panthulu wants to make short work of the romances in favour of the quirkier and funnier swapping of identities, which goes into high gear as the movie hurtles towards its climax.

Through all this, the dialogues really standout: In one scene, Geetha asks Pandiyan to wait for some time so that she can convince her father about their true love. Pandiyan retorts: “Porukki porukki porukki ayiduven” (I will become a vagabond waiting for you)”.

This is not to say that the screenplay by Dada Mirasi, based on an original story by MaaRaa and Joshi, is without flaws. For instance, it’s unclear how Kabali will get the insurance money if Pandiyan leaves no will; Also, Vasanthi is miraculously cured of her insanity after a car accident; Pandiyan is sent to jail presumably after trial, but his family remains unaware. All of these are glaring blemishes, but none is an obstacle to our viewing pleasure.

Also, the movie is not entirely free of cliches: Pandiyan’s reaction to the death of the father who has adopted him and the lines he spouts at this point are much like the ones he made fun of in the opening scene. There are some visual cues that don’t fit into a movie like this: For instance, there is a stuffed miniature cheetah beneath a calendar that Kabali uses. All of these could have been easily avoided, but as the movie moves forward fluently, we are unlikely to make much of these clichés.

The cinematography by V Ramamoorthy captures the action perfectly, but he obviously has to do more in the scenes involving the same actor performing two different characters. During these scenes, the technical aspects are perfect given the year the movie was made. And quite coolly, not much is made of when Pandiyan leaves the frame from the right even as Maruthu enters from the left.

Ramamoorthy’s camera is also aesthetically aware; a shot of a stationary car after it has hit a tree with a chugging train in the background is something that really belongs in Maniratnam movies.

There is a little slapstick thrown in for good measure. In one scene, Pandiyan and Ravi engage each other in a wrestling bout that ends with Ravi waving a white handkerchief after Pandiyan declares, “Vettri allathu veera maranam (Victory or death)”. There is another scene in which Amirthalingam is in front of a mirror or so he thinks. The reflection is actually Kabali trying to desperately imitate the richer man. He is a trifle slow and is caught, naturally, but the scene is plumped for its hidden hilarity.  

Another special scene is the one in which Amirthalingam tests his future son-in-law Pandiyan by getting him to sing, resulting in a number, ‘Neeye Unakku Endrum Nigaranavan’. Here, Sivaji and MR Radha take riffing to the extremes, and it is almost impossible for any viewer to sit through that scene with a straight face.

A strain of insanity runs through the movie. While there is a method to the madness in the screenplay, the characters themselves are often insane or suspected to be so. Vasanthi, when Pandiyan meets her for the first time, is insane; but she is later cured. At another point, Amirthalingam suspects Pandiyan is mad and towards the climax of the movie, Shankar’s wife is suspected by the entire ensemble to have gone insane.

This is not really a movie that relies on big twists or surprises to catch the audience. Instead it straightforwardly sticks to the terrain of all's-well-that-ends-well, and we are thankful for that.