Aval Appadithan: Why Is It Still Ahead of Our Times?

If Aval Appadithan were a book, one wouldn’t be surprised to find words like “revelatory,” “iconoclastic,” “path breaking,” or definitely “radical” in its blurb. When the film was released in 1978 on Diwali’s day, the film was hailed as ahead of its times. Rudhraiah’s directorial debut, dedicated to Ananthu, is ‘still’ ahead of our times. The film is all about Manju (Sripriya) who works as an art director in an ad agency owned by Thyagu (Rajini), her boss, who in turn asks her to assist a documentary filmmaker Arun (Kamal).

Even now few Tamil films have female characters as their leads, but not one on the scale and complexity as that of Manju’s. While the opening credits roll, we can hear voice overs. One can hear Kamal’s distinctive voice saying “This is cinema.” Heck, it is! Kamal in one of his interviews said that “Aval Appadithan was a guerilla attack on the industry by insiders like me. It slipped through their fingers, so to speak. With all the attention that films get these days, I doubt we can get away with such a film anymore.”

The film opens with an audacious Brechtian shot with the camera focused at the audience while Arun, making a documentary on women from all walks of life, looks at the audience and says “Please move…to the left!” The camera is focused on us, desiring to show ourselves our inherently hypocritical society. It then moves to show another camera focused on a scantily clad cabaret dancer, showing the documentary being shot. Aval Appadithan is probably the first Tamil meta-movie as there are other instances in the film where we are audiences to the ‘mere’ documentary being shot and which looks unscripted and real. In another definitive moment while shooting the documentary, Arun interviews a group of college-going women, some of them wearing Western dresses. He asks them about pre-marital sex. Most of the women don’t answer, while one steps up to say “It is not accepted in India.” While interviewing another group of women, this time working-class women from a lower socio-economic status, Arun asks them if they ever desired to be like the men — drinking, indulging in extra-marital sex, having two wives — to which one of the women replies, with candor, “Yes!”. The film, at crucial moments, employs jump cuts — a clear influence of the French New Wave — not merely as a stylistic device but at precise moments where the screenplay warrants them.

Not only in content but also in technique, Aval Appadithan is phenomenal because there are many such brilliant moments of camera work and screenwriting. In a scene where Manju’s parents are quarreling because her father, not only has he had enough of his wife’s extramarital affair, but also he confronts the abuse Manju suffered at the hands of her mother’s lover, the camera focuses on a young Manju and her tears. The rest of the quarreling is relegated to the background in the form of audio. Any other mediocre director would have focused the camera on the parents’ fighting to evoke cheap melodrama, but not Rudhraiah. There’s hardly any plot in the film, and much of the dialogue aids revealing the characters’ inner minds rather than advance the story. Probably another first for Tamil cinema!

Manju, while on the surface appears to be a cynic, is the most complex Tamil screen character ever created. She rejects all conventions and social mores yet not a nihilist, feisty but only when someone passes snide remarks on her, appreciates sensitivity when she sees it in a man, in this case Arun and develops genuine feelings for him. Arun is a sincere man, who tries to understand Manju as best as he could. Manju opens up to Arun about her life — her broken home, her parents, her college love, her affair with the son of a Christian priest — with abandon. In an age where even a male character cannot speak freely about his sexual encounters on screen, the script called for Manju to speak of hers in 1978! Think of that.

Thyagu is an interesting caricature (I use “caricature” and not “character”), effortlessly portrayed by Rajini. Sporting sacred ash on his forehead, he views life in simple binaries: “Madhu and Maadhu are the two things that need to be liked and enjoyed”; “There is no substitute for money and life, for everything else there is something”; “Women need to be enjoyed, not analyzed”; or better when he is drinking “She needs a man, not for protection but for sex.” He also utters, in English, probably the most famous dialogue in all of Tamil cinema: “She is a self-pitying sex-starved bitch.”

In the closing moments of the film, as the camera moves away from Manju, we see her standing on the road, and as it moves farther and farther away from her, we know that our journey with Manju is over. We dropped her somewhere, and now we have to move on. What about Manju? She will continue her life’s journey the only way she knows — trying, negotiating, and searching her place and space in a man’s world — because aval appadithaan.