My tormented love story with ‘Moondram Pirai’

Nota bene : this essay was written some months ago, between december and january, and there could be some spoilers for those who haven’t watched the film.

I’ve watched Moondram Pirai four times since my childhood and I should say my love story with this ‘chef d’œuvre’ has been quite tormented. Spoilers alert : however, contrary to the film, this story has more or less a happy ending.
I first experienced it when I was only 12 or 13, without knowing anything about the Balu Mahendra – Shobha background story, without understanding the ambiguity of Cheenu and Viji’s relationship, without having any critical approach on gender representations in Tamil cinema. For the little me, it was only about Cheenu, a kind-hearted teacher who saves Viji, an amnesic young woman from a life of prostitution, who takes care of her, like a father of his child, and who is finally left alone, devastated and wounded on this railway station platform, when she recovers her memory. I cried a lot for Cheenu and I was so angry against the betrayer, Viji/Lakshmi.
Then, one day, some years later, my mother who was certainly reading an « Anandha Vikatan » or a « Kumudam », suddenly told me it was so unfair that ‪Kamal Haasan had a National Award for Moondram Pirai and not Sridevi. As Cheenu’s heartbreaking climax antics still impregnated my mind, I didn’t agree with her statement but to check the validity of her point, I finally rewatched the movie…The young woman I was, again cried a lot but didn’t see the same movie at all. This time, my anger just flipped against Cheenu. What first appeared as an act of generosity and humanity, became an act of pure egoism to my eyes. Indeed, Cheenu is a lonely teacher who takes an amnesic young woman he met in a brothel to his home without thinking of her background, of her needs, of her consent.

Somehow, for the sake of saving her from prostitution, he kidnaps again this young woman who has already been kidnapped from her parents, from her life. In the scene where he comes back to Ketti with Viji/Lakshmi, his neighbour “paatti” tells him that this is not a good idea and Cheenu answers : “I felt that she was made for me…so I took her…”. Of course, it reminds me when in Nayagan, Sakthivel married Neela without really waiting for her consent, again for the sake of saving her from prostitution…As if the male savior doesn’t have to ask permission to the young lady he is supposed to save…

So, Cheenu decides to kidnap this young woman met in a brothel and to bring her to his house, in the heights of the Nilgiris, where this mentally fragile being can be protected, and should we say, somehow imprisoned. Indeed, behind Cheenu’s good intention, hides the desire of a man who wants to preserve this woman like a carved deity, like a precious painting, like a princess in her dungeon. Somehow, in this oneiric mountainous background, time seems to be suspended for Cheenu and his protegee, condemned to remain a seven years old kid freezed in the body of an adult woman. Interestingly, even though he knows that her real name is Bhagyalakshmi, Cheenu decides to rename her as “Viji” (by shortening her brothel name, Vijaya) when she enters his world. It reminds me of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited away” where Chihiro is renamed Sen as she enters the fascinating but dangerous World of Spirits : the first purpose of the little girl then becomes to remember her real name and escape this imaginary prison where her identity is stolen…just like Lakshmi/Viji, who, despite her renaming, keeps introducing herself as Bhagyalakshmi throughout the film. Moreover, Cheenu doesn’t take any step by himself to heal Viji’s amnesia, and significantly, when the neighbour women tell him to take her to a “vaiththiyar”, he is first hesitant before accepting.

Thus, Moondram Pirai is the story of a dream…the dreamt fantasy Cheenu builds around his relationship with Lakshmi/Viji. Through his genius filmmaking, Balu Mahendra slowly reveals how Cheenu falls into this dream, then understands this dream cannot be eternal, then wakes up and comes out of this dream, and how finally, he experiences the harsh reality when Lakshmi/Viji leaves him. Four stages in Cheenu’s psychological journey summed up by these four scenes…

“Poongatre” song sequence depicts how Cheenu fantasizes his nascent love story where time is suspended in a bubble of happiness and innocence. In this scene, he first saves Viji stuck up in the railway just as he saved her from the harsh reality of prostitution. In fact, in the whole movie, Balu Mahendra uses the railway/the train to symbolize the reality opposed to Cheenu’s dream, and that’s precisely why the duo say bye to the train at that moment.
However, in “Kanne Kalaimane” song sequence, Cheenu seems to be aware that his dream is not meant to last forever, that he lives in a fragile castle of cards based on Viji’s amnesia and where his protégée is deified and even more, sanctuarized : “Kadhal konden, kanavinai valarthen. Kanmani unai naan, karuthinil niraithen. Unake uyiraanen, enaalum enai nee maravaathey. Nee illamal, ethu nimmathi, neethaane en sannithi”. And indeed, the spell finally breaks, Cheenu has to wake up from his dreamt relationship with Lakshmi/Viji : significantly, the director chose to depict Cheenu napping, lying on a tree, when the neighbour “paatti” comes to wake him up and tell him that the police and the girl’s parents have come to bring her back.


Finally, the way Balu Mahendra beautifully framed the climax séquence reveals the opposition between reality and fantasy. Indeed, in this brilliant scene, Lakshmi/Viji is in the foreground, sit in the train whereas Cheenu is in the background, desperately gesticulating and trying to remind her their dreamt life together. In other words, Lakshmi/Viji is in the real world, in the audience side while Cheenu remains in the fantasy he has created, in the fictional side, should we say. The frame within a frame created by the train window all the more stresses the fact that he is imprisoned in this fantasy, in the role of the monkey who entertains and make Lakshmi/Viji laugh with his antics just as he did in the whole movie. Thus, sit in this train, she seems to be, just like us, part of the audience watching a movie through the train window. Somehow, isn’t Cheenu’s story a metaphor of the art of cinema itself ? Isn’t the dreamer Cheenu, a reflection of Balu Mahendra himself, creating fantasies called movies based on his real wounds and finding meaning in the fictional side ? Isn’t Lakshmi/Viji leaving Cheenu, a reflection of Shobha, who, after marrying Balu Mahendra, decided to leave the world by committing suicide ? Isn’t this omnipresent and threatening train the symbol of the harshness of reality, which, despite all the imaginary denials, finally bursts in our lives ?

For me, this climax sequence is one of the most beautiful and well thought scenes in this history of Tamil cinema, which has also been impregnated by the psychological profile of Cheenu. Indeed, isn’t there a hint of Cheenu in Guna who, in the eponymous film again staring ‪Kamal Haasan, kidnaps and idealizes Abirami ? Or in Vinodh who madly fantasizes about Divya in this Selvaraghavan movie titled after a lyric in “Kanne Kalaimane”, I mean, “Kadhal Kondein” ? Or in Prabhakar who yearn for his childhood lover, Anandhi, in “Kattradhu Tamizh”, a movie by Ram, a Balu Mahendra’s disciple ? Moondram Pirai left a legacy for so many remarkable male characters, without a doubt. But here was the problem when I rewatched it a second time : this distressing feeling that the film is, after all, and despite its greatness, one of a long list of movies beautifully exploring men’s complex emotions but often reducing women to the recurring role of the evanescent, idealized and deified object of a man’s love.

Capture d’écran 2020-05-20 à 09.36.23

Every movie is rooted in a specific cultural context, especially when it comes to gender representations and so is “Moondram Pirai”. In that sense, rewatching the movie again, again and again (four times, I told you) was necessary. Even though the film opens on Lakshmi, it’s, in fact, based on Cheenu’s point of view, and it shows different shades of womanhood reflecting his own vision on the movie’s female characters.
Firstly, of course, Lakshmi/Viji is a child woman, that is to say a pure being who is saved, protected, molded by the male hero…Clearly, their unequal relationship based on paternalism lies somewhere between the “Pygmalion syndroma” and the “Lolita syndroma”. It’s no coincidence if Balu Mahendra chose to make his hero, a teacher by profession. Indeed, not only Cheenu takes care of Viji by feeding and singing lullabies to her, but he is also the master who answers all her childish questions, who teaches her how to wear a saree, how to write and read (see this scene where Viji pronounces “Kamal” instead of “Camel”) and who scolds her when she messes around by breaking his furniture or ruining his inspection papers. However, this dominant/dominated relationship is complicated by another stereotype on female characters, known since the Garden of Eden, we should say. Indeed, Lakshmi/Viji, the epitome of innocence, is also depicted as a dangerous woman who has Cheenu at her mercy. Balu Mahendra uses the “Adura raama” monkey play where she is the trainer and he is the monkey as a metaphor of their relationship : and, obviously, this monkey play is used in the climax, when she is shown all the more dangerous as she becomes the betrayer lady who leaves her saviour. The child woman who happens to be cruel to a martyr hero is a leitmotiv since the oldest mythologies and literature, but also in cinema : think about Nabokov’s “Lolita” or Patricia in Godard’s “Breathless”.

Sadly, I feell that, despite its complexity, “Moondram Pirai” is rooted in this very common and strongly sexist male fantasy on the child woman, so well propagated in Tamil cinema : don’t you remember of all those cute, bubbly, childlike, innocent, pure and partially dumb heroine characters populating our films since the 1950s ?
But the relationship between our hero and his childlike heroine is even more ambiguous. In that scene where Cheenu is daydreaming about Viji as an adult woman, she wears a saree, she comes to delicately take him in her arms, in order to feed him with a glass a milk… This not only reflects Cheenu’s hidden attraction for his protégée but also a Freudian Oedipus complex behind it (in fact, Freud works are themselves problematic in terms of sexism and homophobia but that’s another subject) : Cheenu’s more or less unconscious sexual desire for Viji makes him imagine her as an ideal representation of motherhood. Thus, Balu Mahendra walks carefully on a tiny line between the acceptable feelings and the somehow paedophile desire for the child woman Viji…and I feel that he doesn’t cross the red line. But man, in Indian cinema, so many directors have played with that tiny line, sometimes glorifying those forbidden desires.

Interestingly, the director adds another crucial female character which happens to appear as  the very antithesis of his childlike protégée : indeed, the temptress and bored school headmaster’s wife played by Silk Smitha (who was chosen specifically as a commercial asset to fill cinema theatres) is the embodiment of Cheenu’s repressed sexual desire and fantasies.

This unnamed character appears in strangely floating scenes which are like islands of eroticism clearly separated from the main intrigue : think about these scenes where Cheenu and her meet and talk, think about the iconic “Ponmeni Uruguthey” song sequence that is, in fact, “unnecessary” in the plot according to Balu Mahendra himself. In fact, the film’s architecture reproduces the compartmentalization of Cheenu’s desire and emotions : his mind is mainly busy with his relationship with Lakshmi/Viji but here and there, even though he refuses her advances, he allows himself to become the object of desire of the seductress. Beyond that, I think that it’s precisely these “erotic islands scenes” with the headmaster’s wife that make the “purity” of Cheenu and Viji relationship acceptable and believable to the audience. Yet, both the love story and the sex story are impossible, because both women are, for different reasons, forbidden fruits, to Cheenu’s eyes. In fact, I first thought that the opposition between these two female characters was the usual “Madonna and the Whore” thing. But, as a matter of fact, they are not totally opposite as Balu Mahendra leaved hints of parallels between them : there are similar scenes where his camera just records each of them walking with the same nonchalance and melancholy ; the fact that Lakshmi is first chosen for consumption in a brothel and then renamed Viji after her prostitution nickname, Vijaya, leaves a very special aura on her throughout the film ; finally, the unnamed seductress tells Cheenu that she was married as a second wife to the headmaster when she was only 17… which leads us to the same tiny line of morality, to the question of paedophilia and consent of these young girls/women in these relationships.

I am not sure if it helps to understand or, on the contrary, to misunderstand the film, but when I rewatched the movie as a grown up, I knew more about the background stories behind “Moondram Pirai”, which was written and filmed by Balu Mahendra, some months after the suicide of Shobha in 1980 shortly after their marriage. She was 17 when she died, he was 40. Of course, we can easily and rightly think that the Cheenu and Lakshmi/Viji duo are the filmic avatars of Balu Mahendra and Shobha. But I also feel that we can see their spectrum in the headmaster and his young wife married couple… As if the first duo was the idealized, pure and luminous version of them whereas the second couple could be a darkest version, just like the reflection of Balu Mahendra feeling of guilt…or not.

Anyway, for many reasons, “Moondram Pirai” is as moving as disturbing for me. But the main reason why I unloved it, despite the greatness of Balu Mahendra’s writing and filmmaking and despite the tears it took from me, are its disappointingly stereotyped gender representations. Despite his complexity, Cheenu is glorified as a dominant paternal and heroic saviour. For instance, that scene where Lakshmi/Viji has this near-to-rape experience enhances Cheenu’s stereotyped heroism as he almost kills the abuser as a revenge for Viji’s honour. On the contrary, Lakshmi/Viji desperately lack “agency” : she is dependent, vulnerable as her “karpu” is threatened and finally, her body is exposed in that near-to-rape scene, even though she is a child woman. Indeed, the male gaze as theorized by Laura Mulvey remains obvious in the film, be it through the headmaster’s wife filmed in all angles or through the childlike Viji. Thus, Balu Mahendra’s complex chef d’oeuvre doesn’t escape the usual stereotypes of the Tamil film heroine, rooted in commercial cinema, “from a passive subject to a pleasurable object” as Sathiavathi Chinniah wrote. Beyond that, it glorifies the martyrdom of the male character, his sadness, his despair, his decline, as in so many Indian and Western films. That’s why my love story with “Moondram Pirai” will remain forever tormented I guess : the fact that, even though Cheenu is a fascinating character, even though his story makes me cry each time, my feminist mind keeps asking : “okay, this is HIS story, but where is HER story ? where is this untold story from Lakshmi/Viji’s point of view ?”

So, here it is, my love story with Moondram Pirai is tormented. Yet, like so many other films that we know at the fingertips despite our critical look on it, this film is part of me now. And as I was wondering why this story so deeply impregnated my imaginary, I understood that Balu Mahendra not only made a film but create a tale which introduces the audience in a disconcerting, marvellous and dreamlike bubble, far from the real world. Firstly, except the hero and the heroine, most of the characters are unnamed because their significance doesn’t lie in their psychology but in their function in the plot : Cheenu’s friend is the usual giver who leads him to the object of desire, the neighboor “paatti” is the usual helper throughout the story, the “vaiththiyar” seems to have magical power like a wizard or a fairy who somehow breaks the curse on Lakshmi/Viji. Secondly, just like any tale, the symbolism of animals is omnipresent : the dog Subramani, the monkey or the fox…all these animals are, in fact, reflections of Cheenu himself. Take this bedtime story Cheenu tells Viji to make her sleep : the cunning fox that paints his face in blue and pretends to be a king, could be a metaphor of how Cheenu dreams himself as the master of Viji’s life. Thirdly, the mountains and forrest landscapes of the Nilgiris, bathed in milky daylight and kind of magical mist, all the more enhances the tale atmosphere.

Interpreting Moondram Pirai as a tale made me reconsider the tragedy in it. Indeed, just like the famous rabbit-duck illusion of Wittgenstein, the film could be seen in two different angles. Of course, Cheenu’s story arc is tragic : when the spell breaks, he is left alone on this railway platform and he has no choice but returning to his solitude. But, on the contrary, Lakshmi/Viji’s story has a happy ending…because if Moondram Pirai is a fairy tale, she is the real heroine who experiences the known stages of any tale : the initial state of happiness, the car accident as the triggering event, the abduction by Cheenu, the magical remedial action with the “vaiththiyar treatment” and finally, the recovering and the return train trip. In fact, Lakshmi/Viji is the one who experiences a “moondram pirai” (third crescent) as she was born as Lakshmi, renamed as Viji and finally reborn as Lakshmi again in the climax. Thus, the film is a tragedy for Cheenu but a fairy tale for Lakshmi/Viji. This ambivalence is brilliantly revealed when we compare how the film begins and how it ends : the warmth of this initial beach scene with these friends around a campfire is diametrically opposed to the coldness of the very last scene depicting Cheenu’s extreme solitude in this railway platform wet on a rainy day ; the spring in the enjoying youngsters hearts is diametrically opposed to the winter in Cheenu’s heart. And that’s where Balu Mahendra leaves us, in a state of melancholy that was already suggested by the very lunar film title, “The third crescent” which is, in my opinion, inspired by Rabindranath Tagore poetry book, “The Crescent Moon”, where he brings alive the world of a child…just like Balu Mahendra.

Shakila Zamboulingame