Whether Laila Majnu or Antony and Cleopatra, the stories of legendary lovers are doomed from the start. But not hers, says Susheela (Jayalalithaa) in the memorable song Ninaithen Vandaai from Pa Neelakantan’s Kavalkaaran (1967).
Susheela is the daughter of the boastful and womanising Marudachalam (Nambiar). She falls in love with Mani (MG Ramachandran), who works as their driver, and wants to marry him. Predictably, Marudachalam says he will never allow it. He suggests an alternative: make Mani as rich as them and the wedding bells will ring.
The self-respecting Mani is outraged and says he is not for sale even as he is ready to give his soul to Susheela. “All I need is a companion, a wife who is willing to lead a life with me using the means I can provide,” he declares. A shattered Susheela comes home to see Marudachalam feeling vindicated. He fixes her wedding with another man. Sobbing, Susheela runs to her room and flings herself on the bed. Her hand touches a book plainly titled ‘Arts festival’. She opens it and is transported to the world of Antony and Cleopatra and Laila and Majnu.
Kavalkaaran was a blockbuster when it came out. It was the first MGR film out after the legendary actor and politician was shot in January 1967. Starring Pandari Bai, Nagesh and Sivakumar along with the famous lead pair of Jayalalithaa and MGR, the plot follows Mani, who is actually a CID officer in disguise, trying to uncover the murky secrets of Marudachalam.
The film has a hit soundtrack with such songs as Mellapo Mellapo and Adangopuraane, composed by the maestro MS Viswanathan. In the voices of TM Soundararajan and P Susheela, Ninaithen Vandaai is the most impressive. Amidst solid pyramids and majestic sphinxes (some coconut trees in the background notwithstanding), Susheela and Mani appear as Cleopatra and Antony singing about how lucky they are to be together. A stanza later, the duo, clad in traditional Punjabi attire this time, continue to celebrate their mutual comfort. From Antony and Cleopatra, Susheela and Mani become Laila and Majnu, another pair of tragic lovers.
But Ninaithen Vandaai is anything but a song of separation. In Susheela’s imagination, the song represents that moment in the lives of the two famous sets of star-crossed lovers where none of the obstacles exist and no outside force hampers their romantic fortunes. Well, not yet. They dance, they get close and then they dance some more. As the lyrics suggest, anything is possible. All Antony needs to do is think of Cleopatra and she will be right in front of him. All Majnu needs to do is ask Laila for her heart and it will be his.
The ecstatic mood of the song fills Susheela with hope, but, more importantly, with courage. At the end of the song, she runs away from home to be with Mani. She may have imagined her relationship to be similar to tragic lovers across time periods. However, she will not share their fate.