Bharathiraja’s “En Uyir Thozhan”
I should first admit to a bit of cheating, in choosing this movie as part of my ‘favorites’ section. Hitherto, the movies in this section have been ones that I’ve seen a number of times over the past few years in the theater or on video. For example, I would’ve seen “Aboorva Sahodharargall” more than 20 times! It’s clearly one of my “favorites.” Not so for “En Uyir Thozhan”-- I saw this movie in parts once, quite a few years ago on Sun TV, and the one thing that struck me was the ‘raw’ nature of this movie. When I was checking out some DVDs from www.indianmovies.com, I thought I should check out a movie that I don’t remember a thing about. This is one decision that I will not regret. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. “En Uyir Thozhan” isn’t merely something ‘worth checking out on video.’ It’s a great movie-- a must see for anyone who appreciates high quality cinema.
Although the screenplay and direction are by Bharathiraja, this movie does not have a lot of his usual poetic, almost surreal, touches. This is more of a raw, stark, realistic movie with a biting attack of politics, corruption and how the hypocritical politicians use rhetoric to gather a huge following of the poor, uneducated and the guileless millions like the Dharma (played by debutant Babu) character of this movie.
Bharathiraja adopts a direct-attack approach instead of a satire (“Makkal Aakshi” and “Amaidhi Padai” are two of the best satires of contemporary politics). Bharathiraja accomplishes the difficult, almost improbable task of attacking as well as sympathizing. Unlike “Makkal Aakshi” which invited us to enjoy jokes at our expense, this one comes as a wake-up call for us to acknowledge the sorry state of affairs. So, while the aforementioned satires might’ve been hugely entertaining, this is the most thought provoking one that lingers long after Bharathiraja’s epilogue has ended.
“En Uyir Thozhan” is the story of Dharma, a die-hard fanatic of the Opposition party. He is one of the most beloved ones in the slum (in Chennai) where he lives with his ‘sister’ Vadivukkarasi. The leaders of the party and the sidekicks (which include Livingston in one of his best yet underrated performances) are sleazy, calculative and manipulative—put succinctly, they are typical politicians. A village girl (debutant Rama) with a sad past is rescued by Babu and is taken in by him and Vadivukkarasi. Rama and Babu fall for each other. The final portions of the movie are about a huge dilemma faced by Babu and the irreversible decision he makes.
One of the strengths of the movie is its authenticity. Throughout the movie, we get a feeling of watching a documentary (this is not meant to be derogatory) of the lives of the innocent party supporters and the impoverished people of the slums. This is largely due to the attention to details and the down to earth nature of the movie (Cheran’s brilliant “Desiya Geetham” seems to have been inspired by this movie). The movie’s subject is heavy but the scenes and emotions involved are simple and artless. Babu, the hero of this movie, was supposed to have coached several of the artistes like Vadivukkarasi in delivering the Madras lingo dialogues and the results are there to see. Babu’s verbal tussle with Livingston, his arguments with Vadivukkarasi and his shyness when it comes to his relationship with Rama, are places where we get the feeling of a hidden camera capturing the real-life activities of a simple man in the slums. In this aspect, this movie resembles “Pudhiya Paadhai” for its non-cinematic view of these people.
The political aspect of this movie is given full thrust by Bharathiraja, with his brutally honest opinions of the slimy politicians. The way he shows the huge disconnect between their squeaky clean exteriors and their hideous intentions, is stunning and forceful. Livingson shines in these portions in spite of his inhumane, cunning character. We hate him but don’t mind laughing at his openly hypocritical nature. Livingston mentioned in an interview recently that Bharathiraja asked him to improvise, to ensure that the scenes didn’t seem staged. This works extremely well because his dialogues are to the point and natural yet sarcastic and funny. The scenes involving him provide the only (twisted) humor in this otherwise dark and depressing feature. The concluding portions where he plans to use Babu as a tool to manipulate the public (in an effort to win the elections) are places where he adroitly mixes humor with cruelty (a la Sathyaraj).
Though the primary focus is on the dirty politicians, Bharathiraja doesn’t lose focus on the relationships. The Babu-Rama romance is low key and tender. The way Babu expresses his happiness at Rama’s wish to marry him, is wonderful. Another relationship that is very well portrayed is the one between Vadivukkarasi and Babu. The way Babu recalls memories of the former ‘adopting’ him is very moving. These two relationships are the focus of the movie’s middle portions. But the Rama-Ramesh romance in the village is a disappointment, with Bharathiraja’s voice just not suiting Ramesh. The scenes themselves are pretty artificial with Ramesh cutting a sorry figure. Another constant irritation is the character of ‘Citizen’ (ManiVannan had a similar character in “Desiya Geetham”). Sure the character is different from the run of the mill props but he doesn’t do anything of note until the very end. But the major disappointment in this otherwise gripping movie is the music of Illayaraja. None of the songs are memorable and the movie doesn’t even have one of his great background scores. I think this movie marked his last score for Bharathiraja.
Outstanding acting lifts this movie a notch above a ‘very good’ movie, making it a ‘great’ one. Babu beautifully essays his character. Understanding the complexities of the character, Babu forcefully brings out the intensity associated with his fanaticism yet never loses the innate guileless nature of Dharma. Though the character has shades of several of Parthiban’s rowdy portrayals, this is softer and Babu makes the role his own with his body language, unique facial expressions and dialogue delivery. It is a pity that this talented artiste met with a serious accident that prevented a promising career from taking off. As mentioned before, Livingston excels in a villainous role. Vadivukkarasi is fantastic in a nicely etched character role that brings out her abundant talent. Rama is adequate while the other debutant Ramesh is horribly stiff and ineffective.
The movie’s climax is quite effective in underscoring the movie’s message but I have a quibble—having presented the whole movie in an extremely realistic, believable fashion, I feel that Bharathiraja should’ve extended that right up to the climax. The denouement is convincing but not as compelling as Babu’s final scene-- that scene, with Babu’s flabbergasted reaction, Charlie’s fear, the noise of the train in the background, all blend perfectly to create an unforgettable image. Wish the climax was as potent…
Overall, in spite of the little things that didn’t work for me, the movie as a whole had a terrific impact not just on the mind but also the heart…After watching this movie, two words ran across my mind—