It was sometime in 2009, five years before director K Balachander (KB) passed away, I asked him what was the most controversial movie that he had made in his storied career that saw him helm over 100 movies.
The man was no stranger to handling artistically provocative and edgy subjects. For example, his Apoorva Ragangal (1975) — Rajnikanth debuted in it — grappled with the then taboo theme of an older woman and younger man relationship.
His Nool Veli (1978) was on the even more forbidden topic of incest. His Thanneer Thanneer (1981) and Achamillai Achamillai (1984) were seen as politically explosive, and some politicos of the day were less than happy for being shown in less than flattering light.
His Sindhu Bhairavi (1985) grappled with the sensitive issues of bigamy and having a kid out of wedlock. His Punnagai Mannan (1988) created quite a stir for its representation of Lankan Tamils in India.
His Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988) stirred the hornet's nest in the Carnatic music world for speaking out against some established attitudes towards creativity. His Vaaname Ellai (1992) was deemed as being anti-reservation.
But faced with my question, Balachander did not bat an eyelid. "It has to be Arangetram," the veteran director said with a firmness that you could feel over the quaver in his voice engendered by old age.
“At that time, it was seen as a cultural shock," he said of his film that was released 50 years ago in February 1973.
Indeed it was, as it had scenes, in those dowdy conservative times, where an exasperated grown-up daughter talks about contraceptives and family planning to her mother pregnant with her ninth child. But the film received brickbats not for this but for its central plot which was about a young woman, from an orthodox but poverty-stricken Brahmin family, taking to sex work to salvage their indigent circumstances.
Arangetram — the start of Kamal-KB partnership
The story of the film is now well known that it is not uncommon to come across terms like 'Arangetram syndrome' to describe situations where one takes up unmentionable jobs to tide over difficult circumstances.
The film is also seen as a watershed for many other reasons too. It was the movie that saw the debut of young actresses Jayachitra and Jayasudha, and it was the first Tamil film for the heroine, Prameela.
Of course, it was also the first film as an adult actor for Kamal Haasan. He and Balchander went on to work in 36 films together, and their partnership is the cinematic equivalent of, say, Len Hutton and Cyril Washbrook. In Arangetram, Kamal appears as a gawky teenager aspiring to study medicine and eventually does and turns against his sister who sold her body to help her brother pursue his dream education.
Arangetram was the last film that 'KB' worked with music director V Kumar, with whom he had struck a great combination since his first film as director of Neerkumizhi (1965). (Arangetram has four small song bits, each lasting less than a full minute, rendered by Kumar's wife Swarna, who was a singer in her own right).
As a film, Arangetram was deemed a success and critics rated it highly, even though it feels highly dated to watch it now, and the acting performances border on hammy and funny in unintended ways.
It also stars Sivakumar, Senthamarai, S V Subbaiah, M N Rajam and Sundari Bai, among others. Two actors who played notable characters in the film, Sasiskumar and 'Achacho' Chitra, met with unfortunate endings in their lives.
Sasikumar (and his wife) perished in a fire mishap at their house while 'Achacho' Chitra took her own life for reasons that are not still not known much about.
Post Arangetram, Kamal went on to become one of India's film legends. Jayasudha and Jayachitra had good innings as heroines and then in middle age roles across south Indian movies. Prameela, who donned the heroine's role, was unfortunately stereotyped in roles that called for oomph and sex, she paled into obscurity by the 80s. She is now said to be in the US.
But her role in the film, as a prostitute, is still seen to be inflammatory. In the film, she is the daughter of a highly orthodox Brahmin priest. This became the bone of contention and it is fair to say that this film and the role alienated KB from the Brahmin community. Many brahmins still feel that KB, who also hailed from the same caste, let them down with such a film and story.
"The subject was acidic those days. I showed a lower middle-class Tamil Brahmin family where the parents had several children, and the heroine becomes a prostitute to support this family," KB said.
KB And The Shallow Dravidian Criticism
But did he have any regrets considering the backlash it received? "No," KB told me tersely. But did the family have to be shown as Brahmin? "It was a creative contrivance. The extreme orthodoxy is in sharp contrast to the path she is forced into," he said and added almost as an afterthought "it is a milieu (Brahminical) I know better."
The latter point is very crucial. The film's remake in Telugu Jeevitha Rangam (1975) and in Hindi Aaina (1977) were not big successes as KB was not so sure-footed in his acquaintance with those traditions and specifics.
In a sense, KB peopling his controversial theme with Tamil Brahmin characters had a ring of intellectual honesty. In that he did not 'other' the whole issue (to another community). It also redounds to his credit that he was unfazed by the criticism it received.
But it is not as if he was unmindful of audiences. In the film, the heroine character, despite a chance to get married (and live happily ever after), does not get that eventuality. She becomes insane in the end.
"I didn’t want to alienate my audience, so I tried to strike a balance between what I wanted to convey and what I thought my audience would accept. If I made the same movie today, she would have lived happily ever after, with or without marriage. As I said, a happy ending doesn’t necessarily mean marriage," Balachander told the writer Baradwaj Rangan in an interview.
Ironically, while KB received the opprobrium of Tamil Brahmins for Arangetram, he continues to be seen as a 'casteist Brahmin' by the typical Dravidian sections. Of course, 'Dravidologists' eventually reduce every Brahmin to be casteist irrespective of what he or she actually is. So, their reductive approach can be easily looked past.
But it is quite revealing that such a criticism is only reserved for the likes of KB whereas directors like Bharathiraja who has shown his community (Thevar) in a flattering perspective in quite a few movies never gets pulled up by these so-called social justice warriors.
The modern-day gadfly Karu Palaniappan's debut film Pirivom Santhipom was, for the most part, seemed to be a wedding video of one of those typical Chettiar families. But he still gets to strut around as a paragon of anti-casteism.
Even actors like Sathyaraj and Manivannan (as a director too) were a part of a string of movies that talked up their community (Gounder) through much of the 90s. But somehow Sathyaraj and Manivannan never had to face any criticism on the caste front. That is how the Dravidian ecosystem works.
It is a tragedy that a genuine filmmaker like KB faced flak from both the fronts. But the true innovator that he was, he hardly paid attention to such criticism. That is why he was able to make more than 100 films, and all of them on his own creative terms. The fact that Arangetram polarises opinion 50 years after its making is proof enough for its intellectual sincerity.
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