The cruelest of worlds is not the one that kills you; it's the one that kills the ones you love. It's this world that Tamil director Bala conveys in his films - a world of outsiders, struggling to make it, but not completely without hope. There are always glimpses of light, of humor. But there is also a spiral that seems inevitable, one of violence and grimness.
Sethu (check bollywoodblog.de for screencaps) launched Bala as a director, and made Vikram into a reckoned name in the industry. The success of the film lead to a pretty known Hindi remake of it, Tere Naam starring Salman Khan and Bhumika Chawla - a film I've not seen. Sethu is a destructive story of desperate love - stalking the one you love, pestering her endlessly is not alien to Indian love stories, but the story here does not end as happily as it typically does.
Vikram, whose nickname 'Chiyaan' comes from this movie (it's a nickname of the title character), proves his worth with this performance, though I was already a fan when I put this movie on. The transformation of the character is tragic, and partly incomprehensible; his co-star Abitha is plain-looking, and possesses no charisma whatsoever. Why Sethu falls so madly in love with her, I still haven't figured out. Why he goes through hell for her is equally puzzling.
The film may lack the layers that made Pithamagan, Bala's third film, one of my absolute favourites, but it is by no means a bad movie. I wasn't attached to the characters and still remained glued to my seat.
Nandha is a tragedy that taps into a central theme in Indian movies; family bonds, and those bonds falling apart. Nandhaa (Surya) is but a child when he defends his mother against an abusive father, and ends up committing patricide. After serving his prison sentence, he returns home, only to have his mother deny him.
The film is perhaps my least favourite Bala film, but even then an interesting watch. Where Sethu made Vikram a star, Nandha gives Surya Sivakumar a chance to portray an interesting character, and Surya does well with the role - many say this film changed him into a good actor, period. Laila plays a Srilankan refugee whose character provides a slightly more light-hearted romantic storyline to the movie. While her acting skills are limited, she has a lovely presence and definite chemistry with Surya.
It's also interesting to see such positive portrayal of Srilankan Tamils in a Tamil film. I've heard that Tamil Nadu people tend to have a slightly negative attitude toward Srilankan Tamils as they are known for their violent actions (Tamil Tigers and what have you). This film portrays Tamil unity; according to subtitles, one song claims, "Tamils are always great!".
Pithamagan is the Bala film I saw first, and one that blew me away. In it, Vikram plays Chiththan, who grows up in a cemetary, cared for by a neglectful priest. When the priest dies, Chiththan wanders into the real world, meets a female drug dealer (Sangitha) who helps him land a job. Being unaccostumed to human company, having always lived in seclusion, Chiththan cannot cope, however, and lands himself in more trouble than previously. Through these ordeals he meets Sakthi (Surya), a humorous conman, who befriends Chiththan and begins to look after him.
Some have questioned the realism of Vikram's character - can a man truly be so animal-like in his behavior? While the details of the character might not be correct (eg. his small proficiency in language), I believe in theory it is very possible, though of course unlikely. Bala is inspired by seclusion; sometimes it works for the character's benefit, sometimes being an outsider is the one thing that leads to their destruction. There is so much I could say about Vikram's performance here. It's unsettling, believable and tragic all at the same time.
I have talked about Surya and Laila, the film's other stars before in a post about Vivah and Pithamagan. Their romantic storyline is funny, and sweet, though in a very Bala-sort of way, with some disturbing elements thrown in.
Another great aspect of Pithamagan, or perhaps the best aspect of it, is the interaction between Surya and Vikram. I doubt we'll see them together in a movie again, since Tamil films do not typically contain two heroes - and that's their status nowadays, no doubt about it - but in this film, their characters have an odd, but touching connection and friendship.
Soundtracks are not typically strong suits of Bala films; they contain more haunting melodies that reveal character mental atmospheres than catchy tunes one can shake a leg to. However, there is one track that has to mentioned: a stand-out remix of old Tamil film tunes title Aruna ruunam, featuring actress Simran as herself (in fabulous irony, Simran is one of the heroines that has her dialogues dubbed by somebody else).
I rarely call myself a fan of a director - for one directors are even less reliable in quality than actors, at times, and for two, there is hardly anybody whose specific style I've fallen in love with. However, should Bala ever make another film (his last one was in 2003!), I would definitely want to see it. His world may be gloomy and his characters more or less hopeless, but there is something utterly captivating in them nevertheless.