Twitter is flooded with responses to “Me At 20” challenge. As part of the challenge, people have to post pictures showing how they looked 20 years ago. The latest social media trend is bound to take its participants down memory lane as they fish out photos from the archives. Nostalgia is a feel-good drug, especially, when the present and the future look so dark and terrifying.
Earlier this week, something else turned 20 years old. On April 14, 2000, director Mani Ratnam’s Alaipayuthey, the 21st century’s first masterpiece from Tamil cinema, debuted in cinemas. And like our old photographs, this movie is also packed with nostalgia. 20 years later, this movie still looks fresh due to the thoughtful observations offered by the director on life and relationships in the postmodern urban society.
Alaipayuthey was way ahead of its time. The majority of the movie that came out before this dwelled on the collective hatred of parents against the idea of their children falling in love. It was always a boy and a girl from a different class, caste and religious background risking everything they have to be with each other. So, we never really thought what happens after the couple end up with each other? The drama in Ratnam’s movie begins right where other movies until then ended: marriage. This movie burst the happily-ever-after bubble, so to speak.
Madhavan’s Karthik and Shalini’s Shakthi bump into each other for the first time at a friend’s wedding in a rural place. Karthik couldn’t resist but pull the leg of his friend for falling into the “trap” of marriage. Shakthi confronts Karthik. Karthik is caught off guard with Shakthi’s directness and mocks her assuming she is a girl from a small town. And Shakthi shows us that she is a girl from a big city by dealing with Karthik like a boss. Shakthi throws Karthik off balance by simply passing an underhand compliment. “It seems you’re not lucky. I thought you are a bit handsome. No problem, there are other good looking men in here,” Shakthi tells Karthik. Boom, mic drop. Shakthi walks away with Karthik’s undivided attention. And Ratnam stages this entier power play between this pair in less than 30 seconds. And this meet-cute scene sets the tone, pace and rhythm for the following scenes.
For example, Karthik repeats the same joke about marriage being some sort of jail at another friend’s wedding. But, this time, this cliche joke leads to a fight that pushes Karthik and Shakthi to the verge of breaking point. It seems everything changes quickly after marriage.
Karthik may come across as a reckless larger-than-life Romeo-esque character who is moving the story forward. But, look closer, you will see he is just following the lead of Shakthi. It is Shakthi who first gets Karthik’s attention, and she reasserts her interest in him by locking looks with him between moving trains. And when things get tough, it is Shakthi who comes up with the idea of getting married in secret just to prevent obvious challenges that their parents will throw at their relationship.
Shakthi may hail from a conventional middle-class family, but her ideas are always out of the box. In fact, Shakthi has a stronger character arc compared to Karthik.
Madhavan’s famous smile, looks and inbuilt swag made him an instant hit with the crowd, especially with the girls. He was easy to fall in love with. Even as Shalini is easy on the eyes, her character inspires other strong emotions. She is a risk-taker, go-getter, tender, modern, and confusing all at once. Welcome to the complex portrait of a 21st-century woman.
Karthik confesses his love for Shakthi almost at the beginning of the movie. But, Shakthi doesn’t jump to the conclusion. She asks him, “What do you mean when you say you love me?” Despite Karthik’s repeated requests, Shakthi won’t tell him the magic three words until she figures out what is the meaning of ‘I love you.’
She may not boast about it, but she is the most evolved character in the movie. She marries him, lives with him and yet she takes her own sweet time to decide whether or not she loves him. Maybe she prefered a simple temple wedding because she was not sure whether it was worth to spend money on a lavish wedding to marry a man, she doesn’t love yet. Maybe, if not for her conventional middle-class family baggage, she would have prefered a live-in relationship over marriage.
The lyrics of “September Matham” song suggest that Mani Ratnam was itching to tell a live-in relationship story back in 2000. The approximation of the song’s chorus lines goes thus: “We lost sorrow in love and happiness in marriage.” Maybe, the director considering the sensibilities of the general audience decided against presenting Shakthi in such a liberal mould. And made her wants and desires rather simple which could be easy to digest for the audience. And he waited for 15 years for us to become more evolved to make a movie about a live-in relationship (O Kadhal Kanmani, 2015).
Also, in Alaipayuthey, Ratnam tells us the boys are easy to win over but to make a girl fall in love, one may have to bend backwards. This observation has stood the test of time as the film itself.
Alaipayuthey is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.