June of 1985 saw the maestro Mani Ratnam make his debut in the tamil cinema world with ‘Pagal Nilavu’, a movie in the masala drama genre to put it conveniently. Did he enter and announce himself totally with a big bang? Was Pagal Nilavu a clear indicator of the gems to come? As a standalone movie by is it a classic to be celebrated? Thankfully enough for me as a reviewer, the answer for all the above questions is not a simple, one-dimensional yes.
Pagal Nilavu is in essence the story of Selvam(Murali) an aimless youth in Muttam(Kanyakumari Dist) who out of a sense of deep gratitude ends up joining the gang of Devaraj aka Periyavar(Sathyaraj) and the complications which arise when he falls in love with Jyothi(Revathi), the sister of Robert Manohar(Sarat Babu) an honest and committed police inspector who is newly posted to the town. Periyavar pretty much runs the town and though he helps people in need, he is a diabolical kingpin who will not compromise on his hold of the town for anything. He wins Selvam’s undying loyalty when he helps him with money and power at a critical juncture to save his mother. In this backdrop Robert takes charge and moves into the town with his sister and daughter. Being uncompromising in his morals, Robert is automatically drawn into a game of oneupmanship with Periyavar and his gang. He also consequentially cannot stand Periyavar’s chief henchman Selvam, and is consequentially drawn into continuous verbal and physical duels with him. Selvam meanwhile falls hook line and sinker to Jyothi(Revathi) and tries every trick in the book to woo her and eventually wins.
Does Robert approve of the match? At what cost? Where does Periyavar, Selvam’s self appointed guardian figure in all this? These are the questions which are eventually answered in a very crisp and non-melodramatic fashion.Pagal Nilavu makes for a fascinating study from the angle that the components of the story by themselves are not path breaking, but it still manages to be a pioneering venture in more ways than one. Damsel falls for a ruffian, careless youth falls in awe of a Don, honest cop obsessed with bringing the big Don next door to book all of these are thing we have seen from time immemorial in Indian cinema. What sets this one apart are two key factors which form the core of Mani Sir’s subsequently game changing stint with the movies .
First and foremost, a steadfast commitment to minimalism, especially in casting, performances and pacing. The scenes leading up to Selvam totally entrusting himself in Periyavar’s hands, Sathyaraj’s quiet and unruffled diabolism till the end(only for a second in the climax does his face even twitch with worry) , the super crisp way in which the romance is revealed to Robert and how a conclusion to the same is arrived, the clinical graph of Radhika’s brief but effective role were all just a few beautiful samples of a great career to come. Not only that even in the most important turning points in the script, no dialogue is more than 30 seconds and no sequence takes literally more than a couple of minutes to wind up. Some of the best examples being the dramatic sequence between Robert, Jyothi and Selvam, the sequences before and after Robert’s death and the somewhat abrupt climax. The cast is totally up to the task led by a very confident Revathi(post Man Vasanai and Kai Kodukkum Kai), a raw and impressive Murali just in his 2nd tamil performance post a successful Poovilangu and ably supported by the ever dependable Nizhalgal Ravi and Radhika. But to me, Pagal Nilavu will definitely first bring up images of the game changing negative role played by Sathyaraj and his cat and mouse with the honest cop played by Sarath Babu. This definitely set the tone for a whole new era in the good cop-bad guy paradigm of the tamil film industry, some of the striking examples being seen in Mani Sir’s movies themselves such as Agni Natchathram, Nayagan and Thalapathi.
The second factor as we all very well know is Mani Sir’s uncompromising attitude in working with only the very best technicians around and always setting technical benchmarks way ahead of times. In this case, special mention must be made about music, cinematography and editing. Even as a hard core Raja Sir fan I would not say that the Pagal Nilavu album is a classic. Poo malaye(Ilayaraja, Janaki) and Poovile Medai(Jayachandran, Suseela) are definitely the pick amongst the songs but there is nothing outstanding beyond that. But the BGM is totally to die for. It is worthy enough to be listed as one of the lead actors in the movie. Just watch it lift seemingly simple sequences like Robert’s fight sequence with Selvam, the Selvam-Jyothi romance expose moment and the climax scene. There is a repeated mouth organ tune and a confrontation piece which are just to die for. The lighting techniques employed, especially in dramatic sequences involving Revathy or Radhika, by the veteran Ramachandra Babu(Rathinirvedam, Dweepu, Chamaram, Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha etc) are mindblowing. The editing plays a key part in keeping both the independent scenes and the overall movie in a very tight leash(about 140 minutes)
Pagal Nilavu of course is definitely no all-time classic sans any flaws. The most important one being a totally avoidable,loud and irritating comedy track involving George Kutty, played by a Malayalam massacring Koundamani,that does no justice to the creator, actor or the audience. Similarly, though the treatment is novel, as mentioned before the basic parts of the story are far from path breaking. The sad song in the 2nd half is a bit loud in an otherwise subtle masala movie and is a cliché which could have been avoided. The climax though crisp is a bit too convenient and could have definitely done with a bit more of depth.
In summary, Pagal Nilavu will definitely not make it to the list of 100 movies to see before you die, but is a must watch for cinema technology nerds, cinema history junkies and of course Mani Sir fans. Its also a good VCD/ Sun TV watch even just for Periyavar and the majestic BGM. When you plot Mani Sir’s long and illustrious graph, its like a hard fought Dravid plod in a tough first session, which provides the foundation for the Sachins and Laxmans to flow later on. The challenge in this case being the predominantly formulaic, low-tech and melodramatic cinematic landscape he was working in.
3-3.5 stars depending on your mood and your love for the technicalities of cinema.
Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:
1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan (Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan(Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)