‘Alaipayuthey’ at 20: Breaking down the eternal sadness of ‘Evano Oruvan’

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She peers at him and he peers back, in slow motion — as if everything else had frozen for two seconds, when their eyes met. They are Strangers on a Train and had not known each other’s remote existence, except for once when they had flirty exchange of words at a wedding.

Their paths never crossed, not until that day.

“Could it be love?” wonders her elder sister out loud, making her visibly uncomfortable brooding on that subject. “How can you fall for someone at first sight? That’s completely foolish,” comes her response.

But the sister knows.

His heart beats for her and says she is THE one. “You don’t even know her name. It is not love but lust,” say his friend, espousing Freudian beliefs. But he is right, partially. How can he find her in the city’s seven million population? But our guy not just has good looks but brains too. He is a software engineer; he does some permutation and combination, and narrows on a number: 70 girls out of the seven million. The next day, he arrives at the station looking for her in a sea of faces. She catches him in the act but buries her face in embarrassment.

She comes to the station the next day, only to be welcomed with impish smiles. This time, she looks for him. She takes cursory glances that intensify as the train in the parallel track departs. “Didn’t I tell you? He isn’t here,” she says.

But he is there, carefully studying her nervousness from afar. She notices his presence, biting her lips to conceal the smile that tries to escape. But he breaks into a full-denture smile, as ‘Sakiye’ gently surfaces in the background, putting a fleeting smile on our faces too.

Karthik and Shakthi, the playfully mischievous couple from Alaipayuthey, have been married for 20 years now. Of course, they still have their silly fights over trivial matters. But I suspect their love for each other has only grown over the years.

Alaipayuthey is Mani Ratnam’s second film in what I would like to call a ‘generational romance’ trilogy, that began with Mouna Ragam and ended with OK Kanmani, with an interval of 14-years apart from each of these movies. Sandwiched between Dil Se and Kannathil Muthamittal in Mani Ratnam’s filmography, Alaipayuthey has become the textbook definition of millennial romance for various reasons. It was and still is a beautiful movie, exploring the dynamics of a young couple post-marriage.

There are multiple angles — its narrative style, class politics and how each song was tonally different and so on — one can specifically pick and write about on its 20th anniversary. But I thought I shall talk about the sadness that runs through the gorgeously shot ‘Evano Oruvan’, which, in my opinion, is a vital moment in the movie that forms the building block in Karthik-Shakthi’s relationship.

A well-structured song can be used as a powerful tool to convey the emotional complexity of characters. Mani Ratnam was perhaps one of the earliest to realise its potential and has been consistently pushing the envelope when it comes to ‘writing’ and staging songs, in painfully tedious way.

Let us break down ‘Evano Oruvan’ in Stanislavski’s method by considering two essential aspects of drama: super-objective and beat. Super-objective, from what I understand, is the ultimate goal of the scene which the director arrives at by displacing a series of images, giving it an arc and a closure. Beat is the subliminal emotion that runs through the background of the scene, propelling the narrative to achieve the super-objective.

So, the super-objective in ‘Evano Oruvan’ is this: the persuasion of the hero in finding his ladylove — which later became the recurrent motif in Gautham Menon’s movies. And the beat? Grief or sadness or longing. There are umpteen ways to arrive at the super-objective, in this context. But Mani Ratnam achieves this by offering a rare perspective of what Shakthi is grappling with internally, in under five minutes. For, the song is shot from Shakthi’s point of view, giving us an expansive look into a panoply of thoughts that goes through her mind. It is difficult to do this exercise without mentioning the towering contribution of Vairamuthu, the man who has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women in the #MeToo movement in 2018.

Somebody out there is playing the music.

I’m enjoying it, in the darkness.

In this state of trance, I’m crowded with thoughts.

But it is growing on me, gradually.

Shakthi shook hands and broke up with Karthik, following a nasty exchange of words between their respective parents. But the sadness looms large when she is deposited to Cannanore for a relief camp. We come to understand Shakthi much more in ‘Evano Oruvan’. She is torn between Karthik and family, and the song is a visual description of her oscillating mind.

Screengrab from ‘Alaipayuthey’

But a song is only half-effective without complimenting visuals. The empty frames in ‘Evano Oruvan’ show Shakthi in isolation and there is an indication of a storm coming — it could be Karthik, in this regard since the scene cuts to Madhavan arriving in Cannanore. There is sadness in their eyes and the gloomy tone seems to indicate that there is sadness in the frames too. They both go through individual journeys in the song, as the flute tops the crescendo. It results in heavy downpour as Karthik inches close to Shakthi. He finally spots her from above a bridge. But we still have not reached the super-objective. And then comes yet another wonderful line:

If not for this music, I would have gone long back.

The music, on screen, gradually fades out and lets the emotion take the centre stage. Shakthi glances at someone. We know it is Karthik. A whirlwind of thoughts must have crossed her mind, but she breaks into tears. If you notice, Karthik climbs down the bridge to meet Shakthi. She is charmed by his persuasion and the first thing she asks is: “Why did it take you this long to find me?”

Screengrab from ‘Alaipayuthey’

The super-objective is met and the hero completes his journey.

When everything — from lyrics, music, performance, visuals to editing — comes together, it brings a certain aesthetic quality to it. Mani Ratnam’s songs are paintings with light.

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