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Sighappu Rojakkal: Unshackling cinematic stereotypes the red way

With Sighappu Rojakkal (Red Roses), director Bharatiraja, who had earlier directed 16 Vayadhinile, a movie that continues to be regarded as the watershed of Tamil cinema, and Kizhakke Pogum Rayil – both of which focused on bucolic backgrounds – can be said to have attempted the cinematic equivalent of Operation Entebbe; none so telling as the manner in which its title credits roll: the discolouration of a rose in a dark background, accompanied by the harsh scream of a feminine voice in the background, conveying subtly that she may be getting raped, or even murdered, and sowing the seed of thought that its lead could be an anti-hero.

A trendsetter in ways more than one, the director adopted urban Chennai - replete with women in attractive attire with little or no inhibitions, glitzy bars and restaurants, and people in odd jobs striving to make ends meet - as the canvas for Sighappu... The departure in the theme was, as many a chronicler of Tamil cinema would say, the director’s message to his detractors, who were keen on branding him as a rural-centric filmmaker. After all, his first two movies had catapulted him, along with music director Ilayaraja, to the pinnacle glory. (It is another matter that some of Bharatiraja’s latter ventures of note – Man Vaasanai and Mudhal Mariyadhai with Ilayaraja, and Kizhakku Cheemayile and Karuthamma with A R Rahman – returned to the region that comprises 70 per cent of our nation). Ergo, it was only natural that many an eyebrow in Kollywood twitched till it led to a deformity.

The portrayal of the hero in Tamil cinema (and possibly in the rest of the country) was tightly bound by a string of stereotypes. He could never express his true sensations, and was always bound to the path of righteousness. If he ever strayed from its path, such as wooing a woman through inappropriate means or fibbed, it was for an extreme reason, which usually was in beguiling the villain to his downfall. If the hero’s character ever had negative shades, it was either in the Robin Hood mould or as the vigilante of society. Sighappu... smashes such pseudo-injunctions to smithereens by casting Kamal Haasan, a traditional favourite with the fairer sex, as Dileep, a playboy millionaire always on the lookout for women wanting to jump into bed with him. (His servant while in his master's bedroom at dawn to give him a cup of tea notices a brassiere thrown, almost carelessly, at the bedside.) Dileep murders these women (of course, after he does it with them) and films the proceedings for posterity and for his supposedly senile father who is too infirm to go about with his philandering ways. That a rose bush is planted at the exact spot where these women are buried, and the gardener (who also doubles up as an undertaker) daily provides a rose – a red rose – to Dileep is evocative of the title. We are told in a flashback that he had encountered a series of unpleasant experiences with women in his childhood, leading to his utter distaste for women.

So ahead of its time was this movie in its portrayal of psychopaths that the Silambarasan, Jothika starrer Manmadhan, a movie which in many ways was a spitting image of Sighappu... and was made in the 2000’s, an era most associate with modern, liberated cinema, made a hash of itself by not having the gumption to portray the fallibility of its hero. The protagonist (Silambarasan) flirts with women two-timing their lovers and murders them in order to uphold morality, resulting in a movie that could be likened to a sermon inside a discotheque.

The love bug bites our hero, and how! The flamboyant Dileep gets smitten by Sarada (Sridevi), a salesgirl at a clothing showroom, and attempts to woo her by visiting the showroom to make a purchase, a kerchief, and points to her navel when questioned about the colour needed – hardly a sequence one would associate with the first romantic rendezvous. His persistent efforts pay off as she acquiesces and the two tie the knot. Bharatiraja lulls viewers not having the heart to view such negative shades of heroism into a false sense of security by introducing the facets of Sarada’s character – the devout woman and a typical homemaker –and impressing upon them that the plot could turn into a clash between divinity v/s evil forces. I suspect that he may have flirted with this theme in the sequences where a distraught Sarada after getting to know about the true colours of her father in law, locks herself in the pooja room and prostates before an idol of Goddess Devi (The once silver screen goddess praying to a real goddess; even the names Devi and Sridevi can be appropriately used in a pun!). The chase sequence in the climax, which culminates with Dileep, when in hot pursuit of Sarada, enters a graveyard and falls on top of a cross only adds credence to my speculation.

One can also argue that this was also due to Bharatiraja’s fascination for iconography. The anti-hero character of Dileep is well etched, thanks to the articles that he confides to Sarada are dear to him - the bust of a naked woman and the black cat, which makes its way into Sarada’s room when she cuts her finger accidentally. The culmination of a flashback on Dileep’s dark past with Sarada staring at the walls of her huband’s dark room, on which the names of his victims are scribbled, lend the perception of horror to a movie, which until then, was proceeding as a thriller.

Despite Sighappu... unshackling many of the stereotypes associated with the then cinema, it falls prey to one. The women of the time who were murdered had some ‘unacceptable’ qualities: one wore a tight skirt that ended in the north of her thigh; another woman clad in Western dress (Vadivukkarasi, in a surprisingly different role, far from the matriarch roles that she became synonymous with later in her career) dared to smoke in front of her boss. However, Sarada, the docile and devoted wife of the psychopath, manages to survive her husband’s attempt on her life.

Will this aberration (if it can be called that) be corrected in a sequel?

PS: For the statistician, Sighappu Rojakkal was remade in Hindi by Bharatiraja himself as Red Rose, starring Rajesh Khanna and Poonam Dhillon in the roles of Kamalhaasan and Sridevi in the original. While Khanna manages to portray his role with conviction, poor Dhillon resembles her lookalike in Madame Tussaud's. Bappi Lahiri's jaded score comes nowhere near that of Ilayaraja in the original.

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