Acclaimed director Balu Mahendra’s films were routinely described as “cinematic” – meaning they were far less wordy and theatrical than most other movies and relied on the elements unique to the seventh art to convey meaning and create emotions. Common strands in Mahendra’s titles, including the Summer of ’42-inspired Azhiyadha Kolangal (1969), Moondram Pirai (1982) and Sandhya Raagam (1989), are realism, evocative and naturalistic cinematography, strong performances, and psychosexual themes that drive the characters to make unusual and often tragic choices.
Moondram Pirai is perhaps the best known Mahendra film outside Tamil Nadu since it was remade in Hindi as Sadma in 1983. The unconventional plot, powerhouse performances from the leads Kamal Haasan and Sridevi, Ilaiyaraaja’s score, and the tragic climax have ensured Moondram Pirai’s place in Indian film history.
The plot wouldn’t pass muster today. Srinivas (Haasan) rescues from a brothel a woman (Sridevi) who has regressed to an infantile state after an accident with no memory of her past. The school teacher takes the woman, whom he christens Viji, to his house near Ooty. In the mist-laden town, far away from conventional morality and rationality, a romance blooms between the adult man and the child woman. One of the movie’s best-loved songs is Kannae Kalaimane, a lullaby written by the veteran lyricist Kannadasan, but the standout track that displays Mahendra’s command over the medium is Poongatru Puthiraanathu, fabulously sung by KJ Yesudas.
Poongatru Puthiraanathu is a montage song, rather than a lip-synced track, comprising vignettes that indicate the level of intimacy between Srinivas and Viji. The clip-clops of a horse segue into the song’s opening beats and set off a series of unforgettable images. Viji sees a man ride by and mimics him – by perching on a donkey.
With tremendous economy, Mahendra conveys the dependency that has developed between Srinivas and Viji. He tries to teach her to write, feeds and cares for her as he would a child and pretend smokes with her in the mist. Perhaps no image conveys the deep bond between the two than the one in which Viji puts her ear to a railway track to catch the sound of an incoming train, only to have Srinivas place his ear to hers.
The fallibility of the relationship, which depends entirely on Viji’s regression and amnesia, will be proven soon enough. Until tragedy arrives to ruin Srinivas’s idyll, he has his moments with Viji, and in his head, every one of them is perfect and beautiful.
Mahendra remade Moondram Pirai as Sadma the following year, and except for a few cast changes, kept the original narrative untouched. There was at least one crucial difference. Ilaiyaraaja rearranged Poongatru as the equally sublime Ae Zindagi Gale Laga Le, sung this time by Suresh Wadkar and written by Gulzar. The tunes are similar but also different, and the montage is differently edited. Mahendra reshot and rearranged some of the shots, but the crucial train portion intact plays out at the same point and with the same violin interlude in the background.
Whether in Tamil or Hindi, the story is one of love based on a false premise. The denouement also involves a train sequence, justly cited as one of Haasan’s most powerful screen moments.