What begins as a sorority challenge (“I will make that man fall in love with me,” says Radha) soon becomes true love for Radha (Devika) and her Professor Krishnan (Sivaji Ganesan). If their contrasting personalities don’t make it seem like a match in heaven, their names are clue enough that they will end up together. This is not a romance for the ages – the girl falls in love with her professor, after all. In some circles, this is what they call grooming. However, in this particular film, with its dreamy music and a superlative performance by Sivaji Ganesan, it is a relationship like any other.
It is normal. It is not. It is correct. It is wrong – the debate can go all day. For now, though, this is one of the most amusing love stories in Tamil cinema. The story of the woman who tamed the beast.
Krishnan is gruff. He wears his hair with an uncompromising middle parting. His shirts are buttoned up to the neck, and he is always in unrelenting black. He takes his job of educating young minds very seriously. Screenplay writer Javar Seetharaman, perhaps, envisioned Krishnan as a parody of the high-minded (and high-handed) literary minds of the Sixties, for there is a touch of mockery in the way Sivaji Ganesan plays the character. In fact, nothing about him evokes romance.
But, that is exactly what happens. In the early portions of the film, Krishnan gets flustered by the sight of his lady love. He falters over every other word – his normally stoic mask replaced by vulnerability.
The film makes use of age-old (perhaps they were new then) tropes to further the romance between its leads. Take, for instance, the idols of Radha and Krishna in Krishnan’s home – they are separated by distance. Radha nudges them closer. The romance begins. The heroine is drenched by rain. There’s a steamy embrace. Now, Krishnan has to contend with his passion for Radha.
In the first song of the film – Azhage Vaa Aruge Vaa ( a slow, seductive number by P Susheela), Sivaji Ganesan experiences a conflict of sorts as his burgeoning love for Radha slowly destroys his decision to stay a bachelor. He watches from afar, rooted to his place, as Radha prances around near the sea. In the end, he executes a running jump into the sea, an indication that he is ready to leave behind his high and mighty values (the higher ground that he watches her from) in favour of the unknown (the sea).
So, yes, a costume change is necessary. Almost overnight, gruff Professor Krishnan raids the Brooks Brothers closet to come up with a bow tie. There’s a change in sensibilities as well. He sees love everywhere.
Love may have freed Professor Krishnan from himself. But, love also proves to be his downfall. A man who built his image on his staunch adherence to bachelorhood, finds that love has brought him happiness, but also destroyed his standing in society. The most startling thing about this film is the way the woman is shamed into thinking that she, perhaps, is to blame for it all. “I seduced you,” Radha sobs into Krishnan’s fine black coat.
“Will you marry me?” Krishnan cries back. This proposal is not everybody’s cup of tea. Without Sivaji, this scene would definitely herald the film’s descent into farce. It is to the actor’s credit that it is an emotional high point, instead.
The heroine is a sophisticate. She is seductive, yes. Her every move is (initially, atleast) designed to lure Krishnan. When they embrace and Sivaji suddenly realises what he is up to, he says ‘I’m Sorry’. Radha replies, “I’m not Sorry.”
What a provocative moment! That such a moment could be envisioned, executed and allowed to be prominently featured in a film made in the Sixties is phenomenal.
The leads run into several obstacles in their path towards matrimony. The biggest one is fate, of course. As Amaithiyana Nadhiyinile Odam plays, emotions flit across Radha’s face. She’s excited to be meeting her beau after a long time. He bites his lip. The first 30 seconds of the song are a treat to watch.
Sivaji Ganesan imbues his performance with facial tics and mannerisms unique to the role. There’s the stiff gait, the faint air of superiority that Professor Krishnan wears as his armour to keep out the world. As circumstances change, his shoulder droop. He stops shaving himself and even sports a man bun.
The film is steeped in melodrama. The sub-plot, involving AVM Rajan and Pushpalatha, may well be unnecessary. However, these faults disappear when one watches emotions flit across Krishnan’s face as he finally sees his Radha. He thinks she’s dead. She doesn’t know who he is.
Sadness, grief, shock and joy are writ large on Krishnan’s face. It’s intimate, this moment. It’s also painful to watch.
Aandavan Kattalai – the title itself suggests a sort of finality. God’s judgement becomes our life. A voiceover in the beginning of the film hints at what lies ahead. “God made animals and plants. God also made Man. He laid down rules for all to follow. But, man alone wants to live on his own terms. Finally, it is always God’s will that is executed,”
And, in keeping with this, the star-crossed lovers unite only to break apart. Krishnan is put through the wringer that is the legal system once Radha is assumed to have drowned. Suddenly, that lake is not peaceful (Amaidhiyana Nadhiyinile Odam) after all. All the love and hope for a future together that bound Radha and Krishnan is buried.
Why would a lovely boat ride suddenly turn fatal? Why would an esteemed professor find himself working the mines years later? There’s no answer to it all. Except, this is God’s will.
Krishnan turns to spirituality to cope with all his losses. Javert Seetharaman explores the concept of man vs God, as life becomes increasingly untenable for Krishnan. Miseries pile on – his mother dies, his standing in society is long gone, his lover is dead (in reality, she has lost her memory) – and he only has God for comfort.
Krishnan is in a dark tunnel with no light in sight. In an ironic twist, he works as a miner and his literal light at the end of the tunnel is the sight of his lover in his boss’ home. Cue wonderful background score by Viswanathan – Ramamoorthy.
Aandavan Kattalai was high concept for its time. Hidden in its melodrama were ideas about physical and emotional love, the inevitability of fate, and the many dangers that may potentially erupt when man refuses to engage with the circle of life. If Krishnan had continued as a bachelor, and potentially inspired his adoring students to do so as well, wouldn’t we have lost out on a whole generation of new thinkers?
As it stands, perhaps Radha was sent to make sure that life continued its inevitable journey.
For me, the characterisation of Radha as a woman who knows what she wants was one of the best parts about the film. To see her struck dumb later on, spouting inanities about how she is doing penance for her sin (luring Krishnan away from his noble path), is a letdown. She ultimately facilitates his return to teaching.
There’s also some dangerous messaging here. Woman is evil, Krishnan seems to suggest from the beginning. Engage with her and your life just might go for a toss. It harks back to the time when apsaras were sent to lure rishis away from their tapas. It hints at the story of Adam and Eve.
On the one hand, Aandavan Kattalai wants to be an epic journey of a man who lost everything, and then found the one thing that would redeem him. On the other, this very person who redeemed him is treated with faint disdain. Such is Tamil cinema.
The film indicates a change in Krishnan’s ideals at the end. Krishnan leaves behind his Swami Vivekananda-influenced beliefs. He has engaged with the circle of life. Now, he has a new idol – Jawaharlal Nehru.
Me? I’d rather he hung a photo of Radha above his head.
She tamed him after all!