THE ALLURE OF IT ALL: on the Indian classic CHIDAMBARAM (1985)




In the preceding post on CHIDAMBARAM, I had shared my thoughts on a pensive, profoundly moving cinematic work that diagnosed the moral weight of human nature without calling attention to itself as an overarching statement. A potent creation lets the evocation of a particular emotional landscape be conveyed in silences and a sustained mood.

Here in this screenplay, adapted from a story by C. V Sreeraman, that mood of wonder and later curdled melancholy, a kind of inexpressible inner damage visit the two protagonists ( Smita Patil and Bharath Gopi) who indulge in an ill fated affair, that leads to the woman’s husband (Sreenivasan) to commit suicide and an overnight breach in trust on his part towards the estate manager( Gopi) he looked up to as a kindly, amiable man. He treated him as an equal even though the class structure made one the master and the other a menial orderly looking after the cattle.

Instead of verbose words, most of it unfolds like a silent film hence adding to the enigma. The lull of the pacing and framing of shots is successful in capturing the very tenet of human existence amid natural beauty that overwhelms and also humbles us. The sequencing hence is designed as a series of images that eventually reveal the silent storm of a stricken conscience. This kind of articulation can be very tenuous or hollow in terms of screen treatment. But in the hands of Aravindan, this minimalistic touch exudes a mastery over behavioural patterns. Set in lush environs of Kerala, this progression is like a ‘fire in the mountain’ scenario. Shaji Karun’s photography is attuned to the complex shades of this subtly woven, densely affecting realization on screen while the music by G. Devarajan sublimates with the sensual reckoning , sparsely used here owing to the naturalistic sound design but effective nevertheless. The background vocals coinciding with Sivagami’s (Smita Patil) sensual reckoning is excellent, especially in the conveyance of a sense of thrall that the hills transport to her mental state. One doesn’t need a supplement of words to grasp that.

Even actor Mohan Das, as the other worker in the estate, manages to convey his misogyny, class consciousness and sense of associative danger here competently. This is the closest, truthful lens through which we can see life experiences unfold. All participants rise to the occasion.


The allure of CHIDAMBARAM is in the images it leaves us with. In the pursuit of new sorroundings by Sivagami and the unexpected awakening to a dalliance with the estate manager who is clearly besotted by her pure beauty, the location comes alive. The passionate evocation of this pair is adjunct with a physical reawakening. This, to me, is the essence of a wandering soul searching for an anchor. For Sivagami, her marital home comes with a vigour she had not seen in the rocky terrain at her maternal place. For the estate manager, possibly a spinster or confirmed bachelor, her sight offers a respite from reserves of loneliness within these sprawling acres. All smoldering looks and dignified airs abound as the alienation of the provincial life often shown us ala ANNA KARENINA and MADAME BOVARY. Class distinctions blur in this case and the power of suggestion is paramount to the sensual abundance in CHIDAMBARAM.

There is also the affinity of touch, whether it is the woman caressing the flowers or the emotional connection among these lonely souls. That is a prominent idea here. Lust is not a direct corollary of this bonding. Rather it’s an unexpected longing for identification. This mythic attribute of natural human desires aggravates the tragedy for both. The godliness of nature envelops both during these transitions. Their personal circumstances render them immobilized spiritually. Their own purity of being despite that moment of weakness, where both succumbed to desires, makes their exile tragic to an internalized degree.


I had mentioned in the earlier post how the location of the movie is in Kerala, canonized as God’s own country. CHIDAMBARAM finds the two performing their penance under God’s eyes, as when the man runs through the forest after witnessing Sivagami’s husband hanging by the noose in the cattle shed and falls down in a stream. Even the running trickle of water cannot purify his guilt and I found his further descent into melancholy Macbethian. This absolution on the part of the male is also so very different from the flashy machismo that could have defined the aftermath, so common as a rationale used for single men even when they physically commiserate with married members of the opposite sex. This stinging guilt is indicative of his inner conscience. As Sivagami walks down the undulating hills with the setting sun in the background, her figure disappears and dissolves in the darkness of her own suffering. It’s a secluded journey, with the man reading a book on the nature of morality. These elemental, basic facts add a layer of realism and poetic langour together to this dark canvas of self actualization. Poetry after all is heart rending when it addresses sadness. CHIDAMBARAM achieves that.

Sivagami’s husband is nothing but a speck of humanity lost amid the cattle he herds. The heirarchy within the estate and the betrayal on the part of his own master reduces this innocent, God fearing man to nothing. His suicide amid the mooing cows is haunting.

In the end, the title comes to life as their union, after a long spell, occurs in the compound of the fabled Chidambaram temple. Under God’s eyes, two repentant souls, broken and battered, come together. The camera shows the downcast, sullen faces of these voyagers and then pans to the temple’s upper decks, with statues lining all sides, ending with a devilish, mythic being’s stone carved visage on the top. As if he is the overseer. Hence the myth like, legend like accents of this timeless visualisation. What’s gripping is that the climactic meeting maintains the anonymity of their private pain. Their dalliance had been hidden in their private chambers until it wasn’t and all these years their life has borne their own mark of expiation. What happens after the reunion is not shown. The suggestion of these lives is powerfully brought here.


Finally, circumspection / the idea of looking back at our actions is an underlying point we take from such immersive tales. The direction here doesn’t simplify complex emotions though the presentation is lucid and multi layered. The performances are eye opening. CHIDAMBARAM flows with the efficacy of life and fundamental truths.


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