Louis Malle on the set of Thillana Mohanambal : the unreachable otherness.

NB : you can turn on the english subtitles in the bottom bar of the video.

  •  The unreachable otherness of tamil cinema for a french filmmaker

 In 1968, french filmmaker Louis Malle went to a film festival in India and decided to stay for a while. After six months traveling this unknown country, camera in hand, with a makeshift team, just a sound technician and a young cameraman (Jean Becker), Louis Malle returned to France with 30 hours of rushes. From this material, two documentary films were born : Calcutta, released in 1969, and L’Inde fantôme (Phantom India), a series of 7 episodes, broadcasted in France and in England. Phantom India is a kind of kaleidoscopic travel journal which depicts the complexity of India. This short extract is a part of the very interesting second episode : « Choses vues à Madras » (Things seen in Madras).

Here, it’s the point of view of a western man lost in the Madras film industry. The fumbling camera makes sudden movements, zooms on movie posters, scans and seems to spy actors faces in a proliferation of close-ups : thus, using a cut editing, it goes from a close-up on film poster to a close-up on the face of Padmini, the main actress, who is preparing herself for the shot. Here is a desire to understand this foreign cinema. However, in this extract, tamil popular cinema’s otherness seems to remain unreachable for the filmmaker.

Indeed, while Louis Malle expresses an orientalist fascination for the « real » street people, beautiful and delicate, his comment on the « reel people » is, conversely, very harsh : actors are described as stocky with thick-featured face, and even uglier with their heavy white and pink makeup. The final close-up sequence on Padmini’s false tears reinforces the statement on the artificiality of this film culture. The recall of indian intellectual’s point of view on popular cinema (condemning « its poor taste, its stupidity and excess ») would appear too violent and contemptuous for any tamil cinema lover (me, for instance). Yet, while indicating the poor quality of this popular cinema, Louis Malle confesses he likes some of these movies, revealing his complex and contradictory feelings : he can not help but be fascinated and attracted by this cinema.

The confrontation between a western filmmaker and tamil cinema is quite fascinating, but at the same time, for me who grew up with these two film cultures, it’s also disturbing that the french filmmaker tries to show an almost ethnographic distance, while remaining totally influenced by his own western film culture. For instance, the comparison between Sivaji Ganesan and Jean Paul Belmondo, the favorite actor of the New Wave movement, is slightly too hasty and irrelevant. Indeed, in the 1960’s, Sivaji Ganesan who had made his debut far before Belmondo, in 1952’s movie Parasakthi, directed by Krishnan Panju, was already a huge popular star, considered as one of the best indian actors.

For these reasons, Malle’s analysis on tamil cinema appears limited and frustrating to me. Indeed, one of its limits is the fact that the filmmaker doesn’t let the actors, the director or the technicians the opportunity to talk about what they are doing, they are just speechless characters who, thus, remain mysterious and strange. How to understand a cinema industry without giving voice to those who make it ? Something essential escapes him. Thereby, we can easily understand his own statement about his documentary :

 « Each time i thought i understood something, it appeared that i was mistaken…We thought we were filming a reality, but behind this reality, there were another reality. The truth is always… more tortuous. »

Louis Malle reiterates the sad observation that it’s impossible for a foreigner to reach indian culture, in the last part of « Things seen in Madras », on Kalakshetra dance school (Louis Malle’s comment is much more interesting there), when he comments the attempt of an American and a Japanese women to dance Bharathanatyam :

« Their touching but pathetic efforts are a bit embarrassing (…) They demonstrate in a striking way how it is impossible for foreigners to fit into indian culture. The failure is particularly striking here in its physicality but it’s the same in all domains. »

As a matter of fact, our extract shows the set of Thillana Mohanambal through a succession of images that seem stolen, as if Louis Malle was hidden somewhere in the set, spying what was happening, as if one of the beautiful songs of this movie had been written and sung for him : « Marainthirundhu paarkum, marmam enna » (What’s the secret of hiding and observing me stealthily ?)…This is confirmed by the filmmaker when he explains that his team was asked to leave Kalakshetra dance school, after some days of shooting :

 «  Then we were suddenly thrown out, like slightly suspect characters, disturbing their perfect order. (…) When I think back on it now, i think they were right. We were indeed thieves, intruders in a world to which we didn’t belong ».

Do watch the whole episode of “Things seen in Madras”Link to watch “Things seen in Madras”

  • A rare capture of 1960’s Madras film industry

However, though this short documentary extract is far from perfect, it remains a unique and rare document on Madras film industry in the 1960s, with its 15 studios, its 200 movies per year, its detective movies as well as its historical epics. Moreover, there is no denying that Louis Malle rightly points out a few realities : thus, the heavy white and pink make-up of the actors recalls the fact that tamil movies reinforces social norms and in particular, the idea that one must be fair/white to be beautiful. Indeed, the diktat of white skin, especially for actresses, is still surviving in tamil cinema.

But above all, filmed images of old tamil cinema shootings are extremely rare. Indeed, nowadays, the border between people and film industry is becoming thinner : shooting’s pictures, bloopers, « making of » videos give the viewer a glimpse of how movies are made. But in the 1960’s, people usually didn’t know this submerged part of the iceberg, actors were inaccessible, worshiped.

Some rare movies make exception and show the making of a tamil movie in the 1960’s, inviting the viewer to go behind the camera, to break the fourth wall : for example, Server Sundaram (1964), directed by Krishnan Panju, or even Iruvar (1997), directed by Mani Ratnam.

It’s troubling and even moving for any tamil cinema enthusiast to see iconic actors like Sivaji Ganesan, Padmini or Baliah, « at work », in the intimacy of their acting, as focused and dedicated artisans, far from their star image. Isn’t it beautiful to see Padmini gracefully getting ready for her scene ? Isn’t it moving to see Sivaji Ganesan becoming his character, and then getting out of it, listening carefully to the director’s instructions ? Isn’t it striking to see the director, A.P. Nagarajan, guiding his actors, knowing by heart every note of the music played by his characters ? Isn’t it fascinating to feel the almost complete silence between the takes, revealing the concentration of every technician on the set ?

Moreover, in the extract, Louis Malle is very approximative about Thillana Mohanambal, which happens to be one of the most classic and cult tamil movies. Based on popular novel by Kothamangalam Subbhu, directed by AP Nagarajan, the movie cannot be reduced to a love story « between a handsome musician and a well-bred and chaperoned girl » as the french filmmaker says : the two characters are, beyond all, a Nadaswaram vidwan (expert) and a classical Bharathanathyam dancer, and the movie is an invitation to the cultural richness of Tanjore traditional arts.

Here are some reasons that make this movie a chef d’œuvre :

  • Thillana Mohanambal is a love story between two renowned artists, Sikkal Shanmugasundaram (Sivaji Ganesan), the Nadaswaram vidwan, and Mohanambal (Padmini), the Bharathanatyam dancer, who, contrary to too many tamil movies, fall in love not because of love at first sight, not because the hero saved the heroine from a villain character, not because of some incoherent reason, but because of mutual admiration towards their talents. These mature characters are interpreted by two mature actors, Sivaji Ganesan and Padmini, who became a legendary pair after this movie thanks to their great chemistry, even though they acted together several times before : for example, 10 years earlier, in Uthama Puthiran (1958).

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  • Thillana Mohanambal also reveals a feminism that is rare in the 1960’s tamil cinema. The movie screenplay is based on strong women characters who are decisive in the story. Mohana (Padmini), the dancer who show determination in front of men and in front of her mother who wants her to get married to a wealthy man rather than Shanmugam. The fact that Padmini is a renowned Bharathanatyam dancer in real life enhances her character. Jil Jill Ramamani (Manorama) is a folk dancer and a girl of suspect virtue who is, in her side, the comic strength of the movie. Her folk song sequence, where she is disguised as a man, is one of the movie’s highlights. The fact that a female comedian holds on her shoulders the humour of a tamil movie is rare enough to stress it. And as a matter of fact, even Vadivambal (C.K Saraswathi), Mohana’s mother is also a very strong and influential woman who knows what she wants (a wealthy life).
  • Above all, the movie is a tribute to south indian tradional arts, Nadaswaram and Bharathanatyam in particular, as the movie invites us to follow troops of artists traveling in Tamil Nadu. Some american universities acquired the print of this film in 16mm for the study of South Indian culture. As in India, cinema is a modern art which is a threat for tradional arts survival, it’s very rare to see them in movies : however, Thillana Mohanambal has been a trend-setter for some more recent tamil movies like Sangamam (1999), Karakattakaran (1989), or Kaaviya thalaivan (2014). And of course, i cannot conclude without mentioning the song sequences of this movie, enhanced by K.V Mahadevan’s music, by captivating dances and by a colourful visual composition. Here is one of these gems.

Shakila Z.

References : 

Dhananjayan Govind, Pride of Tamil Cinema, 1931 to 2013, 2014.

Insaf Ouhiba, « Louis Malle », in Pouillon, François (dir.), Dictionnaire des orientalistes de langue française, Karthala editions, 2012, p.675