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Gautaman Bhaskaran’s Review: Madharasapattinam

The past evokes nostalgia. The future, sometimes hope. Tamil director A.L. Vijay’s Madharasapattinam blends these two periods to tell us the tale of a sweet romance set at a time when the sun was finally sinking over the once invincible British Empire.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2010 14:29 IST
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Hindustan Times

Director: A.L Vijay
Actors: Arya, Amy Jackson and Nasser
Rating: ** ½

The past evokes nostalgia. The future, sometimes hope. Tamil director A.L. Vijay’s Madharasapattinam blends these two periods to tell us the tale of a sweet romance set at a time when the sun was finally sinking over the once invincible British Empire. The narrative begins in the Madharasapattinam of 1945 and runs till August 15 1947, the day English quit India. We do not know what happened in the next six decades till we are brought face to face with an 80-year-old British woman, Amy, a picture of grace and dignity, but dying of a brain clot. When doctors advise immediate surgery, but give her only a 50 per cent chance of surviving the ordeal, she decides to travel to India to find her lost love, a wrestler who fought for fun and washed clothes for a living. Armed with just a black and white photograph of his and accompanied by her granddaughter, Amy flies out of London, much against her family’s wishes.

The film cuts to Chennai, originally called Madharasapattinam or just Pattinam, with its filthy Cooum River and Buckingham Canal (whose once crystal waters have now turned into foul smelling sewerage), chaotic roads, polluted environment and teeming millions, including cheats among them out to fleece particularly the foreigner. Amy and her granddaughter are accosted by one such guy, who takes them on a merry ride as the old woman begins a desperate search of a young man she once knew, and who must have aged beyond recognition. How is she going to find him in this mad, bustling metropolis?

Gautaman Bhaskaran
Gautaman Bhaskaran
Vijay, also credited with the story and script, keeps his camera panning from the past to the present in extremely smooth shifts that leave no room for confusion. The scene where the young Amy passes by the legendary Spencer and Company, which changes into today’s Spencer Plaza on Mount Road, nay Anna Salai, is just marvellous. So too is the transformation of the extraordinarily pretty Amy (played by Amy Jackson, Miss Teen World 2008) -- curiously wide-eyed and feeling wonderful about life in Madharasapattinam -- into an ailing, dejected woman in Chennai.

Art director Selva Kumar has tried recreating the old Madras with its tramcars and buses, road signs, coins and even Washermanpet or Dhobis Colony. However, the images often seem superficial, and the studio sets look, well, like studio sets. Somehow the trams, the buses and the Central Station do not look right. Such period recreation is not easy, and requires huge funds and a very talented art director. The production house, AGS Entertainment, seems to have had neither.

The Central Station and Washermanpet, where much of the plot unfolds, witness a Raj romance between Amy and wrestler-dhobi Parithi (essayed by Arya). Daughter of the last British Governor of the Madras Presidency, Amy finds herself attracted to Parithi after he stops her car from rolling downhill, though merely to save his donkey.

Amy’s sudden engagement to a British officer, arranged autocratically by her father and stepmother, creates impediments to her blossoming love for Parithi. Strangely, his community does not oppose the affair. Rather, it tries to get the lovers married. But the Governor and her fiancé would not let Amy “consort with a bloody native”, even while they viciously plan to build a golf course by demolishing the washermen’s colony.

Madharasapattinam has several holes in its story. The writer forgets that it is not the East India Company he is dealing with, but the Empire, ultimately known for its rule of law. Even General Dyer, the butcher of Jallianwallah Bagh, was not let off scot free. But here in Vijay’s work, the Governor and his future son-in-law resort to atrocious forms of torture that include electrocution of prisoners and letting dead bodies rot in a pond!

And why would the Governor want to build a golf course close to Independence, and right in the washermen’s colony? The British in India at that point of time were exercised over issues like Partition. They were anxiously looking for an honourable way to exit the subcontinent. Surely, torture and golf courses could not have been part of their agenda then.

To top it all, what was Amy doing all those 60 years before she thought of Parithi? And, pray, why did Parithi – who seem to have got rich in the intervening period – not try and trace Amy? It could not have been difficult to find the last British Governor’s daughter. A long trail of unanswered questions.

Vijay has obviously bitten more than what he could comfortably chew. A period piece is a highly ambitious project, and one cannot be put together without detailed research, minute planning and a keen sense of historic authenticity. It is not just enough to build a few tramcars and buses, and a façade of a station. The narrative has to be structured with an eye to human behaviour as it was then. Amy’s fraternizing with Indians, and British sadism are completely out of place in “Madharasapattinam”.

Also, so much of Vijay’s work is a rip-off from Titanic. I am tempted to quote another piece of writing on the subject::”So much of it is a blatant rip-off from Cameron’s Titanic that you lose any interest in the lead pair post-intermission. Everything is there: Rose's first view of Titanic, contrasted with her memories, entering her quarters, the way her young eyes merge with the old, and even the way she sings a bleary song as she's floating on a piece of wood in the ocean; everything has been faithfully replicated with Amy, making it look like Titanic on land”. I cannot agree more with this writer.

Added to this are the singularly disappointing performances. Amy is passé, and her highly accented Tamil dialogues are difficult to follow, given the intrusive background score.

Admittedly, in the structure of cinema, music is the most noticeable feature of sound, which, if used with care, becomes a creative presence. Otherwise, it jars. Sadly, very little attention is paid to background score in Indian cinema: many use it to hide directorial defects, incompetent acting and other shortcomings. Was Vijay trying to distract us from Amy’s acting weaknesses?

Arya is worse. Except for a well toned body, his face is absolutely wooden, and here is a poor, illiterate man being sought after by a virtual princess. Where is the excitement? Where is the passion? And, where are the emotions?

Vijay offered sheer delight in Poi Solla Porum a few years ago. Its Hindi remake, Khosla Ka Ghosla was not half as good. Now, where is that Vijay. Perhaps, he should stop attempting grandiose period films.

First Published: Jul 14, 2010 14:23 IST