As I understand it, cinema is an audio-visual medium that transports you to another world with its riveting stories. Though the auditory and visual elements often combine to create an ethereal experience, I often wonder if the visual element has primacy over the auditory counterpart, on the celluloid screen. After all, silent movies were the forerunners in cinematic history, worldwide. The power of imagery, when skilfully captured, assembled and edited, is nothing short of experiencing magic!
Mahendran sir’s Uthiripookal (1979), which I recently watched for the first time (Come on, I am a millennial!), gave me exactly this magical experience. The movie is about a sadistic patriarch (Sundaravadivelu) and how with the entry of two new men to his village (a teacher and a doctor), his unhealthy hold over his family and the village is threatened. The movie masterfully adopts the Hitchcock-ian ‘Pure cinema’ approach, and, I believe, successfully evokes the emotions in the audience with minimal dialogues.
Take, for instance, the sequence that introduces us to Shenbagam, the sister-in-law of Sundaravadivelu (SV). She seems to be a happy-go-lucky girl, visiting her sister Lakshmi in the absence of her lustful brother-in-law. Lakshmi observes that Shenbagam’s blouse is torn. Then follows a shot sequence: Lakshmi is stitching Shenbagam’s torn blouse, then worryingly looks over her sister, quickly glances at two old women who also are wearing their saree without the blouse, and looks back at her sister again. This little string of shots conveys numerous things such as their acute poverty, Lakshmi’s concern for Shenbagam who is still unmarried and her worry that Shenbagam might die as an old spinster if she doesn’t act soon. Hardly 5 seconds spent, and we already are in their world!
Another example would be when SV confronts Prakash, the new teacher. He disapproves and is jealous of the brewing relationship between Prakash and Shenbagam. When he sees them together, he forces Prakash, who was playfully showing a ‘stone trick’ to Shenbagam, to leave her and go to school. Thereafter he secretly tries the trick himself, which he fails to do. The trick is such that the stone has to land back in one’s hand, at its end. However, after the failure, there is a deliberate close-up shot showing SV’s empty hand. The fact that Shenbagam is ‘slipping away’ from SV is brilliantly conveyed, again, with no dialogues. Incidentally, Mahendran sir develops the Prakash-Shenbagam relationship also with minimal conversation! (Exhibit A: their cute dumb-charade flirting)
Perhaps the first glimpse of SV’s goodness comes when, as a result of his blind pursuit of wealth and women, he finds his children unattended one day. The sequence that establishes this is brilliantly orchestrated. SV is walking down the road, with the village folk greeting him from all sides. This is a mark of his stature. He then sees his children, who, while eating under a roadside roof, also greet with a ‘good morning’. SV realises the unmissable irony and apologetically takes them home. As innocuous as the sequence might be, it shows that his self-centeredness has nearly turned his children into strangers.
Even a small detail like the blemished pottu (bindi) on Lakshmi’s forehead attains different meanings in different circumstances. When SV wants Lakshmi’s support for his perverse scheme to marry Shenbagam, he takes her and the kids to the movies. That evening, we see a rare instance. A smiling Lakshmi, in her husband’s presence. Her pottu is blemished, which implies that they had gotten physically intimate that night, though Lakshmi is unaware of SV’s intention. After this, there’s only one other such instance, when Lakshmi is in her deathbed. The same blemished pottu assumes starkly contrasting meanings signifying life and death, and efficiently so. I can’t but invoke the master of visual storytelling, Alfred Hitchcock, where he explained how ‘Pure Cinematic’ editing can be used to show the same image in different lights.
The most poetic, and tragic, example of powerful visual storytelling in Uthiripookal is when SV sexually assaults Shenbagam, giving her his “aaseervadham” (blessings) just before her marriage, by disrobing her. The sequence inter-cuts with Prakash waiting for Shenbagam, where he gradually picks apart a plant, leaf by leaf. The detailing extends to the fact that Prakash leaves the flower intact, just as SV leaves Shenbagam without her ‘defloration’!
Uthiripookal is replete with such artfully constructed sequences, including the stunning climax that solely relies on reaction shots without actually showing SV’s drowning. This mode of storytelling is not only satisfying cinematically, but provides the neo-realism that the parallel wave of Indian cinema was built on (At least 70% of human communication is non-verbal). It triggers the audiences’ imagination, subliminally helps in world-building and conveys more with less. It also enables an artist speak a language that is both unique and universal. If brevity is the soul of wit, visually rich filmmaking has to be the raison d’etre of cinema.