N.B : Small spoilers ahead…Another article with a detailed analysis of this movie will be written soon.
Avargal (« They ») is a landmark and cult movie released in 1977, written and directed by K.Balachander. It takes us in the life of Anu, undoubtedly one of the strongest women characters in K.Balachander’s filmography, an oppressed wife who becomes, throughout the film, an emancipated woman.
In the first scene of the movie, Anu (Sujatha) comes from Bombay to Madras after divorcing her sadistic husband, Ramanathan (Rajinikanth). Indeed, she married him reluctantly because her ex-(real) lover, Bharani (Ravi Kumar), didn’t answer any of the letters she sent him, suggesting Anu that he had burried their love story.
In the scene that interests us, Bharani, who happens to be Anu’s neighbour in her new life in Madras, explains his guilty silence that changed her life. None of her 32 letters have reached him because they where intercepted by his psychotic and extremely jealous sister. As Bharani tells her the story, Anu imagines what happened then.
That’s when this frame appears as a meaningful, powerful and most innovative visual composition by K.Balachander and his cinematographer, B.S. Loganath.
- An innovative flashback.
In the foreground of the frame, we can see the present, that is to say Anu, whose face is shown with a beautiful close-up, in a bias angle. In the background, below the stairs, appears a scene from the past, Bharani and his sister, talking about Anu’s letter. At that time, flashback scenes usually appeared in tamil movies with a camera movement, or a « calendar effect », or a cross fade, or a nostalgic background music slowly emerging, and then only, the past scene replaced the present one on screen. In this scene and this frame in particular, K.Balachander keeps a conventional flashback technique, that is to say, the narration of the past with a voice-over, but the filmmaker also adds a very innovative technique. Indeed, the past (Bharani and his sister) and the present (Anu) are coexisting in the same frame. The past (and the truth) violently appears in Anu’s life as it appears in the frame, which is only an embodiment of the heroine’s imaginary thought. In addition, the depth of field allows us to see that the stairs are separating Anu from the truth, Anu from this past, Anu from Bharani : somehow, her lover belongs to her past.
In world cinema history, swedish director Ingmar Bergman was the one who blasted flashback standards by using for the very first time this same technique in his chef d’œuvre, The wild strawberries (1957). This movie is a kind of inner road-movie in which Isak, an old university professor, takes the memory lane which leads him to his childhood, and we can see him, being the spectator of his own memories, coexisting with his past, in the same frame.
But in K.Balachander’s own filmography, there are also many occurrences of this technique to show the characters fantasizing or day-dreaming. For instance, in his movie, Sindhu Bhairavi and more precisely in the song « Naan oru sindhu », Sindhu (Suhasini) sings for her biological mother’s family but can not tell her the secret that she is actually her daughter, the baby she abandonned long ago. Sindhu could only fantasize a reunion with her mother : K.Balachander uses there the same technique as in Avargal’s frame, to express the inner feelings and imagination of the heroine.
- A woman’s tragic destiny in a frame
Through the composition of this frame in Avargal, K.Balachander makes Anu a spectator of her own tragic destiny. Indeed, Bharani’s sister’s lie has turned her life upside down, by making the reunion with her lover impossible and by causing her unhappy marriage. As Anu says, laughing, in the end of the scene, « we proposed, she disposed ». It’s not a coincidence that K.Balachander choses a bottom view, with the camera overlooking Anu. The bottom view is a classic and powerful visual tool used by filmmakers to show how a tragic destiny dominates and oppresses the character.
The use of the close-up on Anu’s face enhances the idea that she is imprisoned in this tragic destiny. It’s known that the close-ups are common in K.Balachander cinematic language, especially for his many great female characters. Indeed, we can concentrate on the character’s face, on her eyes, which are, in K.Balachander movies as in many other filmmakers works, the windows to the soul. Here are some examples from K.Balanchander movies.
Ultimately, as this beautiful frame in Avargal proves it, frames in K.Balachander’s filmography have so much to tell us that we can easily say that each one is oru thodar kathai (a never ending story).
Dhananjayan Govind, Pride of Tamil Cinema, 1931 to 2013, 2014.