THE ESSENCE OF LIFE
Direction : G. Aravindan.
Cast : Smita Patil, Bharat Gopi, Sreenivasan
CHIDAMBARAM is a 1985 Malayalam film, belonging to the sensitive and creatively rich state of Kerala, the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent that has been globally upheld as God’s own country owing to its natural beauty. ( Malayalam is the official spoken language here)
Out of this ethos has emerged one of the country’s foremost proponents of sensible filmmaking as an unit . CHIDAMBARAM is one of its most shining beacons. To me, this regional abundance doesn’t stop at one locational fulcrum. It becomes a pan national sentiment and statement of excellence.
Thanks to the presence of iconic actor Smita Patil who dabbled in the axis between the overall canopy of Hindi language films and regional content ( as mentioned in her classic credits for AKALER SANDHANEY and DEBSHISHU in Bengali cinema in my previous posts), this G. ARAVINDAN directorial gained a large traction that has only become stronger in this era of proper film studies and among a whole community of cinephiles.
CHIDAMBARAM is named after one of the most sacred sites in the Indian pantheon – that of the titular temple town in the state of Tamil Nadu. This affinity to the divine in the natural world and among supplicants makes the central tale of stinging guilt and comeuppance one of great urgency. The divine power of the omnipotent, overseen by ordinary, flesh and blood human beings, is stretched towards the limits of our own desires under whose spell we become mere specks among the living multitudes. The natural beauty of our sorroundings overwhelms us and we get subsumed in the lust for life but the essence of our moral transgressions are all encompassing in finality. There is a greater lust or curiosity in all of us. The grass is always greener on the other side hence, as we believe.
CHIDAMBARAM pivots around such a plot where dynamics of adultery wreck havoc upon perfectly compassionate, decent individuals. But crossing the threshold into the arms of temptation comes with a painful deliverance. The divine in these stricken souls then adds poignancy to the pain of their own self imposed exile and absolution.
I have to also give my regards to Maithili Rao’s book SMITA PATIL : A BRIEF INCANDESENCE (published in 2015) for ensuring this film remained on my radar, in no small measure due to my admiration for its brilliant subject ( I have written about the book in my earliest blog posts here from 2018)
As much as it is about the reflexes of morality, it is a cinema of sensuality, shot with relative simplicity, with the point of view of the new entrant to this Eden of verdure Sivagami (Smita) occupying its lucid progression. We can inhale the scent of flowers, feel the crisp country breeze and fix our visions at the undulating hills, in this remote corner. Gradually, this awakening extends to a personal front as the newly married bride reciprocates the affections of her estate manager ( Bharat Gopi)
Caught in the quagmire of this mostly hidden union is the innocent worker(Sreenivasan) , who adores the manager, a kindly man, and is married to Sivagami.
The tragedy of the resultant actions becomes pronounced because these are not sinners in the common sense of the word ; a connection forged between them leads to their collective fall from grace. Aravindan’s direction removes all preserves of judgement because he understands that every saga of pain is entailed by a private journey. The essence of life can be in the nectar of a flower or the elixir for one’s awakening can be found amidst this teeming scenery. Nothing can prepare us for the experiences that will eventually shape us.
CHIDAMBARAM lets this sense of spiritual realization and its exhaustion weigh heavily on the protagonists. The mood is evocative, the sound naturalistic with few strains of musical accompaniment to these stirring images.
Nothing is ruled out as absolute, either sin or virtue. The undefined zone in the middle of these polarities befits our daily life scripts as we are flawed and succumb to our desires, no matter how hard we try. CHIDAMBARAM is one fine example that goes into the interiors of the soul, a God fearing one, and how His greatest creations reach the point of a ‘paradise lost’ . That forbidden fruit is the bearer of all temptation.
CHIDAMBARAM truly haunts the viewing individual because it is so true to the principles of life. THE ESSENCE OF LIFE as I have titled it. It is a treasure trove of Indian cinema as it is humane to a great degree, something which current cinematic efforts cannot hope to retrieve. That’s why this team stood for making masterpieces.