It’s the year 2000. The first quarter. Trailers for Alaipayuthey are out, and so is the music. I’m 13, and my brain and body suddenly burst onto the stage where romance, relationships, attraction and pleasure are at play. Rahman’s tunes, brought to life by the stunningly handsome Madhavan, send me into a tizzy. The family notices; I am, after all, religiously reading every word I can about the movie, running to the living room when I hear a few notes of Endrendrum Punnagai from the trailer, tearing off ads for the movie from Tamil and English newspapers and magazines and keeping them stuffed in my bookshelf, writing out error-ridden lyrics of Snehidane in my diary. I make it clear that I want to watch the movie even as Amma hesitates after watching snippets of Kadhal Sadugudu which has Madhavan and Shalini frolicking between the sheets: ‘It looks vulgar’, she says. But I don’t relent. I wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema with friends then, and my only hope – my older sister – has ditched me to watch it with her friends. And so I go to watch the movie, to feast my eyes on the glorious Madhavan, with my father.
Alaipayuthey was some sort of a milestone in my life: it was the first time I gave serious thought to the idea of romance and relationships as possibly playing out in my life -moving beyond crushes to thinking about what I might like in a person, and the idea of a genuine relationship and what it entailed.
Let’s take flirting, for instance. As a 13-year-old, watching Shalini not wince or run away or blush (well, she does, but not much) when Madhavan pursues her (more on this in just a bit), was a reaffirmation that I could show interest in someone – that is, that I didn’t always need to be the recipient. When they cross paths on a train many days – or weeks – after their first somewhat-fleeting meeting during a wedding, she looks at him as much as he looks at her. This unabashed expression of interest stayed on in my mind.
How does the movie draw the line between flirting and harassing? As years wore on and I engaged more and more with feminism, the idea of Karthik (Madhavan) chasing this woman began to niggle away at my head. Mani Ratnam is clever; by making his female lead respond to the male lead – without anger, without telling him off – he distracts us from the idea that Karthik is stalking Shakti, something that we readily identify when, say, Vijay does it. As I thought back on the scenes, I was struck by how creepy it was that Karthik would ride his bike along the lane in which Shakti lived with her parents – I had gone through something similar in class 12 that had me panicking whenever I had to go home after school. And how discomfiting it was to see him try to figure out which college she studied in, and find her there.
In a work setting, someone recently mentioned hearing from girls in a semi-urban setting how boys’ relentless comments and jeering when they took the public bus to school or college was their opportunity to express interest in a boy, a permissible window where they were safe to initiate or respond to a relationship advance – subtly – in the presence of public. This idea was surprising when I heard it, but made sense as I thought more about it. It isn’t easy for women to initiate or quickly respond to romantic (or sexual) interest, but for those of us with some level of privacy, there are options, which are not available to everyone else.
I can’t think of any way to justify Karthik chasing her around, but was Shakti doing something similar? Staying within the boundaries of ‘propriety’ but responding with enthusiasm when she was approached?
While many movies I’d watched until then had dealt with life post marriage, this one was special for it showed (in its own flawed ways) how a relationship evolves through your dating stage to married-partner stage.
Looking back on it after 18 years, as a married person, I catch myself thinking ‘If only I knew…’ Marriage is tough, unforgiving and harsh. And (as long as it doesn’t cross boundaries into physical or emotional violence) it coexists with a strange mixture of affection, can’t-do-with-can’t-do-without and a shared hope for a future. When I think about the scenes in which Shakti and Karthik fight about them going to meet her seriously-ill father, and the next morning they make up and go together to see him, I see how compromises are made and we (often grudgingly) give our preferences a miss to keep the other happy. In all of four years, I see me and my partner flit from fighting to making up to wondering why we did this without the other to why we didn’t do this without the other. Marriage requires you to apologise, admit something by pushing your ego back, to learn that you and your partner will take each other for granted, to fathom how both of you have changed slowly, but surely, over just a few years.
I wonder what Shakti and Karthik did after she recovered; how long did those tender moments of affection that we saw in the ending scenes last? Did he get tired of taking care of her while she recovered? Mani Ratnam tantalisingly brings in these aspects – the difficulties in marriage, as in Alaipayuthey; the idea of refusing marriage, OK Kanmani; an abusive, violent and yet (problematically) ‘romantic’ relationship in Kaatru Veliyidai – but stubbornly stays within socially accepted norms of love, relationships and marriage.
Listening to one song in Alaipayuthey pushes me back into my school days of excitement and hope. Into my third decade of life, a few years wiser with marriage and sudden health issues, that nostalgic trip gives me a few minutes of happiness and memories of wild, carefree (and may I say, delusional) ideas of flirting, romance and marriage.