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|April 15, 2000
A simple love story
At the preview of his latest film, Alai Payuthe, Mani Ratnam introduced his heroine Shalini and hero Madhavan to the press and said, "No politics, no controversies in the film. It is just a simple love story."
But Alai Payuthe is not just a simple love story, it's also quite an ordinary film. We use the expression: old wine in a new bottle. But this is old wine in an old bottle. The only difference is that particular bottle happens to be very beautiful, thanks to P C Sreeram's excellent camerawork.
You have seen colourful marriages, exuberant heroines, innocent village belles and great dances in many of Mani Ratnam's earlier films. In this film too, an 'innocent' looking playboy, Madhavan, meets an ebullient Shalini at a wedding. He catches glimpses of her as she dances around the place, hiding behind old women and young girls (the Bombay influence?). He is fascinated by her energy and falls in love with her. The only difference in this heroine is that she is not an imbecile like Roja who coyly asks her 'intelligent' husband, 'What is curfew?'. Shalini is a medical student.
Like Arvind Swamy saw glimpses of Manisha Koirala as she went to catch the boat in Bombay, Madhavan sees Shalini again in the passing suburban train. Soon, they are in love. Both sets of parents, though, oppose the match. The duo decide to part as 'strangers who have never met.' Yet their yearning to see each other grows with each passing day.
In the meantime, Shalini goes to Cannanore to look after the flood-affected people. This absence makes Madhavan realise that he cannot live without her. He goes in search of her.
Shalini, in the meanwhile, dreams of Madhavan instead of looking after her patients. They meet in the camp and get married, but decide to keep it a secret till her elder sister gets married. So they return to their respective homes.
But the cat does get out of the bag. She is thrown out of her house, he walks out on his family. "If they do not want us, we also do not want them," they decide. As they settle into marital bliss, they realise it is not as rosy as the heady days of their romance. They start fighting almost everyday.
At which point, one is reminded of Mouna Ragam, a beautiful film Mani Ratnam made several years ago. It dealt with the lives of a couple, their quarrels and their love. The depth of those characters and the intensity of their feelings are all lacking in this film. Except in one song, the relationship between the lovers looks more platonic than passionate.
The film begins with Madhavan going to the railway station at 5.30 pm to pick up his wife. He stops at a junction to make way for an ambulance. The 5.30 train arrives, but Shalini is not there. The story unfolds as he sits down on the bench, forlorn and tired. Another train arrives, but there's still no sign of his wife. Flashback, once again. There was still no sign of his wife even on the 10.30 train. The film keeps flitting back and forth from the present to the past to the present.
It turns out that the ambulance, for which he made way in the evening, was actually carrying his wife, who had been hit by a car, to the hospital. Surprisingly, even though Shalini's carrying her identity card, a stethoscope and other such paraphernalia, neither the police nor the hospital authorities where she is admitted can identify her.
To cut a long story short, Shalini is operated upon. Madhavan reaches the hospital and sees his wife on the hospital bed, all bandaged and surrounded by tubes and machines. After his repeated pleas, she opens her eyes to say, 'I love you.'
The only person who scores good marks in the film is P C Sreeram. He has used his camera like a paint brush and the strokes are so stunningly beautiful that, once the film is over, one remembers only that. Alai Payuthe, like all of Mani Ratnam's films, is a visual treat.
Madhavan looks pleasant and handsome and does his job splendidly until the end, where he fails miserably. There is no shock or pain on his face when he sees his wife in the hospital. He looks totally lost in the most crucial scene.
Shalini is very beautiful but not as open as she used to be as a child star. It's as if something has been holding her back. But in the song Snehithane she lets herself, and her inhibitions, free. Great performers like KPAC Lalitha and Sukumari are wasted in the film.
Alai Payuthe is the creation of the director who made confusing films like Iruvar and Uyire. There was a time Mani Ratnam used to make beautiful films like Mouna Ragam, Nayaka and Anjali, with compelling story lines, strong characterisations, softness as well as intense feelings. Alai Payuthe makes one wonder what happened to that brilliant film-maker?
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