“Kadugu pona theriyum aana pushinikai pona theriyadhu; adhu dhan jananayagam.” When mustard disappears, it will be noticed, but when a pumpkin disappears, it will not be noticed; that is democracy. So says a villager (Delhi Nayakar) about independence a few minutes into K Balachander’s Achamillai Achamillai (1984).

Nayakar’s lines are typical of the acclaimed filmmaker’s darkly comic commentary about post-independent India, in which even the August 15 date emerges as character in its own right.

The National Film Award winning production is titled after Subramania Bharati’s renowned Tamil poem Achamillai Achamillai (Fearless) and follows the lives of a small yet strong-willed group of people in a village in Tamil Nadu. Adding to Balachander’s long list of tenacious female characters is Thenmozhi (Saritha), a fierce young woman with a mind of her own. She falls for the village do-gooder Ulaganathan (Rajesh) and gets married to him. Things start going south for the couple when Ulaganathan is swayed by his lust for political power. His high moral standards go for a toss, and he rebels against everything he once stood for, indulging in bribery and adultery.

Ulaganathan’s transformation from a simpleton into a corrupt politician is spectacularly shown through three symbols: a cycle, followed by a bike, and then a car.

Achamillai Achamillai (1984).
Achamillai Achamillai (1984).

While the film takes a dark turn after Ulaganathan loses his bearings, Balachander keeps the satire ticking through the use of skillful metaphors. The waterfall is a powerful motif that occurs frequently in the film whenever the couple’s relationship is tested. Colour is also used carefully, and is often inspired by the Indian flag.

True to its theme, the major character is the day India got free. August 15 is the date on which Thenmozhi and Ulaganathan get married and are later yanked apart. The significance of the date does not end there. Thenmozhi’s father, a freedom fighter, loses his eyesight a few days before India’s independence.

There is further symbolism in a dwarf, who plays Thenmozhi’s brother Suthanthiram (independence). He explains the significance of his name to Delhi Nayakar: he was born in the year India got freedom. “You are as old as independent India. Maybe that is why you are stunted as well,” Nayakar quips.

The end credits say it all: Suthanthiram desathanthayin kaaladiyil azhudhu murayittu kondirikiradhu” (Independence is crying at the feet of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of nation).

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Achamillai Achamillai (1984).