Chidambaram – Tantalising Layers of Meaning

Bikram Singh on G Aravindan’s multi-layered poetry on screen titled Chidambaram. Originally appeared in the Filmotsav 86 Newstime Supplement.
Smita Patil in Chidambaram

Smita Patil as Sivakami / Courtesy :  Konangal Film Society.

The opening shots of Chidambaram are a slow, deliberate, visual seduction offering the transportation to some sort of paradise. The scene is too lush and green and cheerful to be anything else. What you see is tall grass, rich and proud and majestic. Everywhere Nature is clearly bursting with youthful singing and the camera lingers on the hypnotizing sights in a formal gesture of homage. Even the cattle around look as if they had been groomed for a prize show. On the level of mundane explanations, the place is an Indo-Swiss Cattle Farm. On it work Muniyandi (Srinivasan) the cowhand and Sankaran (Gopy) the superintendant, apart from the group of other workers. It is a beautiful world, but the people in it are self-absorbed and not conscious of the need to rise to the occasion. A diversion from the routine on a green slope, a picnic of sorts, with a bottle or two of liquor ends up in an ugly scene.If the sound of chirping birds is the signature of the farm, the staccato double-strokes of a motorcycle are something of inkstains on a white page.A motorcycle and a man on it savage the paradise a bit.More intrusions are on the way.

Muniyandi is respectful, even obsequious, and Sankaran keeps a distance to ensure effective use of authority. The distance is not reduced when Muniyandi, during a visit, has the hospitality of liquor forced down his unwanted throat.

Then Muniyandi gets married and sets up a proper married man’s house with Sivakami ( Smita Patil), his bride. Sivakami is from Chidambaram, where Nature is harsher and far less bountiful, and so her lush green surroundings are naturally a matter of open-mouthed wonder to her. She feats her eyes on unbelieving eyes on blooming Nature as much as she canand the same fascination even draws her away from her dwelling at times.In the process she draws an unwelcome sort of attention, and Muniyandi warns her against venturing out too far.

Muniyandi and Sivakami / Courtesy : Konangal Film Society

Muniyandi and Sivakami / Courtesy :  Konangal Film Society

Sankaran – bachelor, lonesome and curious, is attracted to Sivakami, he speaks Malayalam, she like her husband speaks Tamil.The desire to solve some language problems give them some moments together. It is clear that desire is also on the verge of awakening. Sankaran’s interest in Sivakami is mor open. Sivakami flinches, but you get the impression that temptation has a chance of subduing her.While the green foliage dances, there are other things afoot. Muniyandi is sent on a wild goose errand, and while he is away, Sivakami receives a visitor.It is the dead of night, dark village night. Following a premonition, Muniyandi returns abruptly and quietly.And as he knocks on the door, he sees a shadow sneaking out of the back door. Maybe Muniyandi has recognised the shadow, maybe he has not, but it does not matter really. The crucial event is the clandestine visit- after that Muniyandi has no desire to continue living. The next morning, Sankaran is in a nightmarish half-sleep, with strange noises floating around him. You think that his nemesis has finally caught up with him. But not yet. The cut to the next scene is a surprise – here is a spine-chilling and sobering moment, a quiet encounter with death. The way the scene has been conceived and realized makes it one of the most memorable moments in cinema.

Muniyandi has hanged himself, reportedly after killing Sivakami with a chopper. For Sankaran, there is no other road now except the one through the purgatory of guilt.

Chidambaram is without doubt Aravindan’s best film. The richness of visuals here even surpasses those in Pokkuveyil, the suggestion of the inscrutable mystery at the heart of human affairs is conveyed unambiguously than in Estheppan.If it were to be narrated in a few words, the story of Chidambaram would sound banal.It takes a genius to turn it into an occasion for solemn reflection upon love, life, nature and death. Aravindan is that genius, and his razor-edge sensibility invests every scene of the film with tantalizing layers of meaning.There are unspoken allusions to the Purush and Prakruti of Hindu mythology, there is an invitation to see all that flowering nature as mrugathrishna, and the muted tones of the moral lapses and crises would even suggest the destiny factor – Prarabdh.

Aravindan has a special way of looking at themes, a sort of cool overview. It is a privilege to share his viewpoint.

About Bharat Chronicler

The in-house master of ceremonies, online janitor and chronicler of the life and times of Bharat Gopy - playwright, author, director, producer and actor extraordinaire of Indian Cinema.

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