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25 November 2011

Muthal Mariyathai (1985)

                              Directed by: Bharatiraja                                
                                    Music: Ilaiyaraja                                     
       Starring: Sivaji Ganesan, Radha, Vadivukkarasi, Satyaraj
I have always been wary of watching Sivaji Ganesan on screen. My introduction to the thespian came through watching him on Oliyum Oliyum, the Tamil version of Chitrahaar. And on the occasional regional language film that DD showed on Sunday afternoons. And, frankly? Weaned on Amitabh and Dharmendra, Rajesh and Vinod, a corpulent man, jowls quivering with emotion and eyes red with anger, whose dialogue delivery was more a declamation than speech was not very enthralling. When Sivaji Ganesan thundered, yenna da? even the heavens trembled.

And of course, there was the slight Malayali snobbishness – our actors were better than their actors. I conveniently forgot that MG Ramachandran and his arch nemesis MN Nambiar were both Malayalis. And that neither believed in restraint. And if I thought about it at all, then I would have shrugged it off as all the Tamil film industry’s fault – they demanded over-the-top theatrics.

And then, some time in 1997, I got to watch a Malayalam film called Oru Yaathramozhi. I was blown away by the pathos the Nadigar Thilakam brought to his role as a man who meets his only son as an adult, develops a close relationship with him; not knowing that the son is on the lookout to kill the father who abandoned his mother and him.

It was a revelation. I began to understand just why the veteran actor commanded the respect that he did. And so when I got a chance to watch Muthal Mariyathai, a movie that had released more than a decade earlier, I grabbed it.

In a dilapidated hut on the banks of a river, an old man, Malaichami (Sivaji Ganesan) lies ailing; it is the talk of the village; he had been their headman. The villagers have all massed at his wife Ponnatha’s (Vadivukkarasi) place begging her to stiffen her upper lip and go get him. He will not step into the house of his own volition, of that they are sure. The wife’s voice rises in indignation – why are they all blaming her? She had hoped that some of the village elders would have gone to bring her husband back. The villagers move to the hut; they are indignant on the ailing man’s behalf. The wife has not only not come to visit, she hasn’t allowed her daughter to come to her father.

The patient overhears the discussion; there’s a resigned smile on his face. Suddenly, as he draws a painful breath, far away, its pang is felt by a young woman who is in jail. He is waiting, waiting, and no one has any idea why, or for whom. She is suffering too – each mile that she travels cannot be too soon, and she does not know what she will find at journey’s end.
One of the village elders comes in to the hut – the man’s wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchild have all come to see him. Could he open his eyes and see them? He doesn’t. His wife is infuriated. Who else but she would have put up with this man for over thirty years? And now, he is languishing in love? As her voice rises and falls in condemnation, the scene segues effortlessly into a flashback.
If it is not her husband, then it is her husband’s orphaned nephew who is at the receiving end of her sharp tongue. At least her husband had a stick and four goats, she tells him; you don’t even have a piece of cloth to call your own and yet you sit there begging for food. As she desultorily serves her husband lunch with the same hand she used to wipe her nose, he quietly leaves in disgust. She is unperturbed.
But the skies are clear; the sun is high up  and there’s a pleasant breeze; Malaichami cannot be unhappy. He proceeds to the fields. As he sees his workers toiling in the fields, he bursts into song while they join in the chorus. It is clear that he is regarded with affection and respect.

A lone voice, clear and pure takes up the refrain from across the fields. Malaichami is upset when he sees someone step across the fence. They are immigrant workers who have left their village due to the famine, hoping to see if they can earn a living somewhere else.  While the father is humble and subservient, the daughter (Radha) doesn’t take kindly to Malaichami’s teasing comments.

When he asks who she is, the girl informs him that she has a name – one that has been bestowed upon her in a temple, in the presence of the deity and many thousand relatives and friends. She is Kuyil (Cuckoo); spirited, independent and very much no-nonsense.
Malaichami is amused, and sends them on their way. He is not as amused when he sees them building a hut on the riverbank the next day. The old man explains that they had not been able to find work either in the village or the fields; his daughter had had the bright idea of ferrying the villagers over the river so they could earn their living. Malaichami is not unkind; he agrees, warning them that they should ask permission first. He even inaugurates the boat service.
Days later, he and his nephew are alone at home, when he spots a sparrow pecking at grains on the window sill. Amused, he breaks into a song begging the sparrow to find a mate and build a nest in their home. As he addresses the sparrow, he is surprised to hear it answer. Or so it seems.
Kuyil, who was passing by selling fish, couldn’t help but respond. But when she hears him shout, Kuyil hides. Malaichami is intrigued. Who is there in the village who can answer him so well in song?
The arrival of his wife soon puts a stop to any thought of music or song. At the fields, the workers are happy at the increased yield. Malaichami gently points out that it’s their hard work that has cause the earth to yield so much. And despite their protestations, he asks the overseer to share a sack of paddy amongst the workers.
As Malaichami wanders around, he cannot keep from singing; once again, a disembodied voice answers him in song. Who is it? 

In a bid to find out, Malaichami continues to ask questions in verse; and gets answers in return. Yet, he cannot find the singer. Once again, the song dies on his lips with the arrival of his wife. She is aghast at the idea of a responsible mature man singing in the fields. And furious when she finds out that he has allowed the workers to share a sack of paddy.
If it were his money, then he would be bothered, perhaps. The workers are disgusted with her attitude, and quietly put back the paddy they had been given. Kuyil is witness to Malaichami’s humiliation.
Malaichami remembers how his father-in-law had fallen at his feet to save their honour. As always, Malaichami turns to song to express feelings that dare not say out aloud. Kuyil’s sympathy finds her responding to his queries, and when he asks (sings) who she is, she cannot hide anymore.
He is surprised and amused, perhaps even attracted (a bit); it is clear that she thinks of him as she would her father.
It does hurt his pride a bit, and when she challenges him to lift a heavy boulder, he asks her what the reward would be – it will prove he is young (and not only at heart), she says.
He teases her – that’s not enough. Would she marry him? Shocked, she stares at him; then, not one to give up a challenge, promises to marry him if he succeeds. He has no intention of following up on his teasing, but when she leaves him, cannot resist trying to lift up the boulder, if only to prove to himself that he is young and strong.
Needless to say, he doesn’t succeed. 

From then on, every time he passes their hut, he cannot resist trying – much to Kuyil’s amusement. It angers her father when he hears about it, but Sengodan, the village cobbler, tells her Malaichami’s backstory. It shakes her to the core, and only makes her more sympathetic to a man who has become a friend.

Their friendship develops slowly with Malaichami helping her sell her goat for three times its worth; and Kuyil cooking the fish he helped her catch and forcing him to eat a meal at her house – she is aware of the hurt and sadness that he hides behind his bonhomie, and from that deep well of pity arises a love she does not care to hide.
He’s touched by the care with which she serves him, and an affection that he hasn’t experienced for he cannot remember how long. It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Finally, one day, Malaichami succeeds in lifting the stone. Kuyil, who has watched him is astonished, but Malaichami is embarrassed.
There is a side plot about the romance between Malaichami’s nephew and Sengodan's daughter, Sevuli (Ranjini). When her father fixes her marriage, the two elope. As they belong to a lower caste, Sengodan is afraid that she will be dishonoured. He comes to Malaichami for help. The latter is aghast – a relationship between castes? That’s against tradition, and the family’s honour. As he begins to search for the lovers, Kuyil, who has been helping them is furious – he is more bothered about tradition? Where was this tradition when he became friends with her?
Better sense prevails and he gets the two of them married. Kuyil finds her affection deepening into love.
Meanwhile, the two young lovers are deliriously happy. Until one day, Sevuli is drowned. The Panchayat brings in a verdict of accidental death, but her father is not satisfied. He has proof she’s been murdered.
Malaichami is perturbed – who in the village would commit such a heinous crime? That senseless tragedy is compounded by another. And Malaichami is a broken man. The music is finally stilled.

His only solace is Kuyil, but even that’s not destined to last.
It brings matters to a head, however, and despite his hurt at the way their relationship is tarnished in public, he stands by her. Kuyil is curious – why did he say what he did?
When he confesses that he said it in the heat of the moment, she is devastated. Her reaction shocks him. But Kuyil is unrepentant. Her heart beats for him. And can he say he doesn’t care for her? 

How can Malaichami respond? And his wife? It’s not in her nature to stand aside. How will the village panchayat respond to the headman’s indiscretions?  What is the dark secret that Malaichami is hiding? And Kuyil? Will her self-respect allow her to keep silent in the face of his rejection?

As I mentioned earlier, Sivaji Ganesan was Malaichami; benevolent, playful, paternal – who, bound in a claustrophobic marriage, becomes friendly with the boatman’s daughter; a relationship that matures into love. His sorrow when faced with his wife’s shrewishness, his almost-constant humiliation at her hands, his affection and benevolence toward the villagers, and his wonder at being loved unconditionally by a girl young enough to be his daughter – it was amazing to see all that expressed with very little dialogue. Even when Kuyil asks him to be true and ask himself if he didn't love her, he is adamant he doesn't - because he cannot imagine himself doing so; she's young enough to be his daughter. However, once he admits it to himself (and it's a hard thing to do), he has no reservations about admitting it to her.

Vadivukkarasi as Ponnatha was no less effective – she makes you itch to slap her. She constantly rubs her husband’s face in the fact that it’s her father’s money that allows him to swagger around as the headman of the village. And makes no bones about publicly insulting him, or even calling the Panchayat and her relatives to punish him for daring to consort with a lower-caste woman. Everyone knows her for what she is, her daughter, the villagers, but she is not cowed down – she is dominating, domineering, and absolutely unlikeable, and the actress ensured that we hated her. Yet, in the end, when she is faced with the bitter truth, and she deflates into nothingness, one feels a sneaking sympathy for a woman; you get the feeling that, in that one moment, she has lost something irrevocable. And there’s a fleeting sadness because her pride was all that she had.  

Radha. What can I say about her? This was an actress who was known for her glamorous roles. Who sashayed on the screen in false eyelashes, mini skirts and enough make-up to make taking it off an hour-long endeavour, and who was happy to remain arm-candy to the various heroes who happened to be around. She was also the ruling heroine of the time.

Kuyil was a challenge; one that she handled with such ease that one wishes that she had been given so many more opportunities than she received. Her sprightliness and independence is established right in the beginning. Her courage in standing up for what she feels is right comes to the fore when she excoriates Malaichami for giving in blindly to tradition. Her sympathy for the latter, and its slow development into a lasting love, where no sacrifice is too great to ensure his happiness – the actress used her beautiful eyes and mobile face to great effect. It was a role that most heroines would give their eye teeth for. And it’s to Radha’s credit that, nearly twenty-five years later, I cannot imagine another contemporary actress doing it as well. 

This was another national award winning performance that got shafted at the National Awards – Radha lost out to Suhasini in Sindhu Bhairavi, and across the border in Kerala at least, shock rippled through cinema-lovers. The reactions to Sridevi’s shocking loss three years before this was being replicated across the state - How could they? 

Muthal Mariyathai is a realistic depiction of different relationships between man and woman on one side, and a sensitive exploration of a May-December romance on the other. With Bharatiraja masterfully helming his own script, and Ilaiyaraja’s melodious score (and background), Muthal Mariyathai merged story, music and acting into one harmonious whole. For the first time (that’s what I read somewhere; if it’s not, please let me know), the maestro used Esa paatu – the musical trope where one verse asks questions and the following verse (by another singer) provides the answers.
At the end, I became a diehard fan of Sivaji Ganesan and will now sit through even his most theatrical of films (in small doses). 
For a decent DVD print of this film, with subtitles.

Erm, the subtitles are hilarious, often translating the dialogues literally into English, but you can get some sense of its meaning (which, by the way, were remarkably natural).

This was also the first post I began when I returned to blogging at the beginning of the year. bollyviewer had persuaded me to write about south-Indian films and I wanted to begin with this film; only I did not own this DVD and it was not available online - until now. So, bollyviewer, this, once again, is especially for you.


  1. Hey thanks for that, Anu! This film sounds lovely, but I am still not convinced that I can watch Sivaji Ganesan!!! So you have to let me know how it all ends.

    As far as over-the-top theatrics go, I think it is usually a combination of what works best with the audience (hey, SRK earns most when he hams hard!) and of course, director's choices. Hindi has it's own fair share of hams, and very few escape hamming when Yash Chopra directs. Amongst the regional film industries, Malayalam and Bengali cinema seem to have the reputation for having the most restrained acting, and from what I have seen of Bengali cinema, that is certainly is true. What say you about Malayalam movies?

  2. This sounds good, but when will I ever get to watch it!
    SivajiGanesan is, I think the first Tamil hero, whom I got acquainted with over the films on rare Saturday evenings, when Bombay DD used to show 'regional' films other than Marathi. And I was very much in awe of his quivering moustache and bulging eyes. At that time they were landmark of good acting for me!

  3. Not fair! You wrote that enticing review of Charade, so I had to sit and find it on Youtube and watch it, and I am not done with it yet. You then give me another enticing review of Mudhal Mariyadhai, which I think I watched over 20 years back with my mother, and I am watching that also. Don't you realize I have so many other things to do - like grinding the batter for dosa, doing the dishes, etc.? How will I ever get caught up with everything? At the very least, you should give me two weeks' time to watch the movie before you allure me with the next movie - don't you think that's fair?

    While this movie looks great so far, my problem is with the way these actors seem to speak - it is fast and I can hardly get half of what they are saying. But the subtitles are so baaaad!

  4. I swear to you that you can absolutely watch Sivaji Ganesan in this film, bollyviewer. And it is worth a watch. Cross my heart; or as we used to say when we were kids 'God promise'.

    I agree with you about SRK hamming; I do not know how many times I have heard people lament that SRK got into the Chopra-Johar camp. :(

    I would say that most Malayalam films are a darn sight better than their counterparts in other industries. We have our share of duds, when some smartass director decides that he wants to imitate the neighbouring industries and tries to do it with one-hundredth their budgets. We also have periods when the industry seems to go into a slump with a paucity of good stories. On the whole, though, I would still say that our movies are more in touch with reality, and that our actors are definitely more restrained than most.

  5. harvey, dear harvey, that's why I provided a link at the bottom of my post. Just above my dedication to bollyviewer. See it now? Ah, good. :)

    Laughing at the thought of SG's quivering mouche and bulging eyes - sharpens my recollections of those very same movies. :))

  6. I am so sorry, Lalitha. Truly. It's just that I've been having trouble sleeping these past few days. :( So instead of driving myself batty tossing and turning, I, well, I write posts. The subtitles are baaaad, but what's new? I'm surprised to find a copy with subtitles at all! And the movie is so good. My diatribe against bad subtitles can be the subject of another post.

  7. It sounds like a really good watch, Anu. I love reading reviews on Tamil films, as I am keen to start watching these, but am not sure about where to begin.

  8. Start with some of the newer ones, Banno. There are some incredible movies coming out along with the usual commercial stuff like Enthiran (which, I must confess, I thoroughly enjoyed). Mani Rathnam's Kannathil Muthamittal, for instance, is a wonderful film. Older ones that have really stood out for me? Moondram Pirai with Kamal Hassan and Sridevi, Vedam Puthithu with Amala, Karuthamma, Avargal, with Sujata, Kamal and Rajnikanth. Out of the newer lot, I have seen and liked Autograph, Abhiyum Naanum, Mozhi, Vettayaadu Vilaiyaadu, Anbe Sivam, Nala Damayanthi, Alaipaayuthey,...

    Have I left you with enough to start off? :)

  9. the complain was much more of lack of time rather than opportunity, dear Anu!

  10. Ooops! So sorry I misunderstood! :(

  11. Anu, every time I go away for a couple of days, I come back in anticipation to see what you have reviewed while I was away. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought of 'Muthal Maruiyathai', though I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You seem to see movies in any and every language!

    This was such a wonderful movie, wasn't it? Sivaji just aced this role! And I agree (totally!) that Radha was cheated out of a well-deserved National Award.

  12. I read the review and was so glad that you'd provided a link, but Anu, I couldn't understand anything! :( I did fast forward to the songs, and oh, they sounded so beautiful. I loved the one where he sings to a bird and she answers. I wish I understood all these wonderful languages so I could see the movies you write about.

  13. Sridhar, I'm willing to see movies in any language, provided they have sub-titles. Here, I lucked out - I do speak Tamil. This will always rank among my favourite films of all time.

  14. I'm so sorry, Tina. I agree the sub-titles are awful and do no great service to such a good movie. As I said before, the quality of sub-titles in Indian cinema is a rant worthy of a complete post. The songs are beautiful and that's because I run out of adjectives to talk about them. Ilaiyaraja is in his element here.

  15. This sounds wonderful, Anu, but like many of the others, the subtitles are so bad they might just not be there at all. And because I do not understand the language, this is one movie I'll have to miss. :(

  16. I'm so sorry, Ruhi. Unfortunately this is not new - the number of movies that people miss because of the unavailability of good quality DVDs, the lack of subtitles and / or its abysmal quality! I know there are many regional films I will miss because of these reasons. I hope someone will come up with a good quality DVD and good subtitles for Muthal Mariyathai. It's too good a movie to be retricted to a Tamil-speaking audience.

  17. jayamohan Msreedharan6 March 2012 at 14:18

    muthal mariathai is a classic film.bharatiraja crush out sivajis light acting.The depth of sivajis acting in silence is crystal clear in this ideal film.model screenplay, photography,music,lyrics and direction.bharatirajas magical touch.radhas most super acting.live villae life ,culture,folk songs.touching and tragic story 
    the film once again attest the truth that no actor in india has been such a master in the art of acting like sivajiganesan

  18. Thanks for dropping in, and commenting. Sivaji Ganesan came from a theatre background, and that reflected in his acting. Yet, the man was capable of so much more - as is seen here.

  19. VenkateswaranGanesan26 July 2013 at 03:15

    Hello. Came across this post from where it was shared in a forum for Sivaji only today. So pardon such a late response :) As a diehard fan of Sivaji, :thumbs up:

    It does warm one's cockles to see Sivaji being discovered by a skeptic and being accepted with open arms after discovering what range he's capable of. That is how I would personally like folks to discover him too. He has acted in some truly terrible films and has overacted in a lot of roles. But even in those middling films, we can see a moment or two that is truly Sivaji amid the garbage around where he would be forced to overact.

    To elaborate further (one of his celebrated performances but can be kept a notch below because it is bombastic and dramatic), actor Mohan Ram hosted a talk show where he spoke of a scene from Thiruvilayadal where Sivaji, Sivan disguised as a poet, argues with Nakkeerar. The nameless poet explains his verse and as they disagree on the content, they argue. What is a generic argument till here, with Sivaji questioning Nakeerar (director AP Nagarajan himself) as to whether high class women also suffer the fate he prescribes, gets its stakes higher with deities invoked and as Nakeerar goes a notch higher and says even Parvathi suffers the fate of the theory he holds as truth, we can see Sivaji do a momentary 'take' with his right leg moving back and eyebrows widening in rage ("how dare you bring my wife in" kinda reaction) and that happens to be the tipping point for the poet to turn into a raging Sivan.

    That scene here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozgQLP3o6gY#t=18m8s

    That was Sivaji throwing the subtlest of cues at us even in a performance that seems bombastic on the surface. Needless to say, we can see him being respected across the spectrum from the brethren in Mallu land (the slight cockiness from you is ok with us due to the quality of movies and actors in your language). I'm a Tamil but a big fan of Mohanlal and Mamootty and it's heart warming to see the acknowledgment being mutual (I would admit though that Mallu movies from the 70s to 90s were streets ahead of Tamil films and Sivaji could have been used way better there in the 80s than in Tamil where he was made to ham his way). Great to read this blog :-)

    Also, on the IR doing an Esa Paatu, direct one to one conversation has to be this song. But he has done similar themes before. An En Kanmani Un Kadhali where the hero sings and his conscience replies (IR explains the same with reference to a counterpoint here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZqWFe1-kqo) is a fine example which may not qualify strictly as an Esa Paatu but qualifies as a conversational song. Cheers.

  20. Mr Venkateswaran, thank you so much for your response. And your kindness in overlooking my Mallu cockiness. :) I guess a slight amount of regional pride does remain in this Marunadan Malayali. I discovered Sivaji Ganesan in a Malayalam film, yes, but I have seen many more of his performances in Tamil now, and there is no way to deny the man's incredible talent.

    Thank you for the links. And that last song. Beautiful!


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