Shooting film songs

Picture the song: In ‘Vaasamilla Malar Idhu’, a tune is worth a thousand words

In the popular track from EM Ibrahim’s ‘Oru Thalai Ragam’, two college sweethearts sing about their feelings for one another.

The title of the ongoing television series Oru Kadhai Paadattuma Sir (Shall I Sing a Story Sir) emanates from its theme. Each episode of the Colours Tamil show features a 20-minute narrative narrated through songs.

Music composer Madhan Karky, who is one of the brains behind the show, described its objective ahead in April: “To show that an entire story can be told using songs as a device”. The show is a throwback to old Tamil films that were led by music, said Anup Chandrashekhar, the business head of the channel. He remembered one film in particular: the 1980 musical Oru Thalai Ragam.

Indeed it is worth recalling EM Ibrahim’s musical for the unique manner in which it used its soundtrack. The title, which implies one-sided love, explores the unrequited love of college student Raja Shankar) for his classmate Subhadra (Roopa).

Raja falls in love with Subhadra the minute he sees her. Clad in a saree whose pallu is worn like a tight shawl, Subhadra returns his smile as well as his stare in that instant. However, Raja isn’t entirely sure if that means she likes him too.

Things get more complicated as time passes. Subhadra’s hot-cold attitude leaves Raja confused. Her eyes always manage to seek out Raja, be it in college corridors or the train that they both take to college, but when Raja approaches her, Subhadra runs in the opposite direction.

Ibrahim’s film, in fact, is famous for featuring a lead pair that barely utters a word to each other throughout the 121 minutes. How does the couple communicate with each other? Through the seven songs in the film.

It isn’t easy being a female college student in the 1980s in Tamil Nadu, the film tells us. Male classmates hang around like predators at the college campuses, and women are pursued and harassed until they are driven back into their homes. Subhadra, especially, does not have it easy. After news of her father abandoning the family and her mother’s old college love affair spreads in the village, Subhadra’s mother becomes the subject of gossip. The name-calling makes Subhadra extra-cautious and wary of any interaction with a male.

Subhadra knows that Raja isn’t like the rest, but she does not want to risk her already threatened reputation. Ibrahim, therefore, uses the soundtrack, composed and written by T Rajendar, to help the silent, suffering couple speak to each other.

The track that introduces Raja’s musical talent is Ada Manmadhan Rachikanum, whose lyrics are made up of the names of nearly all his female classmates. Not exactly a wise choice for Raja if he is looking to impress Subhadra.

In the next song, Koodaiyilae Karuvaadu, he attempts to draw Subhadra out of her shell, but she seems content with admiring him from a distance. T Rajendar’s lyrics put it succinctly: Paakuradhu paavamillae, pudippadhu sulabamillae (Seeing is no sin, what’s difficult is getting a hold of the beloved).

Raja’s efforts gradually inch towards success and the couple finally share a moment together in silence at a temple. Subhadra reveals her feelings by sprinkling holy ash near the idol for Raja to apply on his forehead. He responds by lighting the lamp.

Subhadra’s worst fears come true on the way back from the temple. Raja is beaten up by goons hired by their classmates who disapprove of their love story. Subhadra’s reputation is likened to her “loose” mother. She withdraws into a cocoon.

Ahead of an event in college, Raja attempts to draw out Subhadra again into conversation by referring to the jasmine flowers in her hair. Subhadra unpins the flowers and chucks them on the floor. Raja gets on stage and begins Vaasamilla Malar Idhu Vasanthathai Thedhuthu (This is a flower with no fragrance, it is searching for spring). Sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, the song is Raja’s attempt to hold on to hope despite being repeatedly turned down by Subhadra. The song is laden with figurative expressions (there are 12 months in a year, why are you trying to add one more to it). Using sarcasm, wit and poetic metaphors, Raja tells Subhadra that he is hopelessly in love with her.

When she realises the meaning of the song, Subhadra walks out of the auditorium, but she cannot get herself to go home either. She is drawn to Raja’s song, despite herself.

The track is filled with anticipation, a will-she-won’t-she mood, that sums up the film. Standing alone, away from the crowd, Subhadra is unable to control the smile that seems to be spreading across her face. Her foot begins to keep the beat of Raja’s song.

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Oru Thalai Ragam (1980).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.