Notes from a festival: Of memories and mortality
In this series of columns, the writer, the entertainment editor of the organisation, will be reflecting on the films being shown at the 51st International Film Festival of India in Goa
Sunday marked the winding up of the 51st edition of IFFI, the first festival to open its venues to attendees since the pandemic caused everyone to be forced indoors. So, it’s an experiment in a sense, and given the enthusiasm of festival fans like yours truly, even if everyone wore a look of mild trepidation, it has to be said that this has been a successful experiment. Staggered seating was implemented, temperatures were checked, sanitizers were dispensed, and films from across the world were screened for over 10 days. For this week and a half, while you were getting exposed to many worlds inside the darkness of theatres, you could be forgiven for thinking that normalcy had well and truly returned.
My most emotional experience at the festival was a film that paid homage to the late singer, SP Balasubrahmanyam. The film in question, Sigaram (1991), was hardly the man’s best work as an actor, though there are many scenes even in this film that stand testament to his endearing onscreen presence. It’s his work as a composer that truly stands out in this film, which has as many as fifteen songs. Almost every homage to the singer after his demise made a reference to the song, ‘Vannam Konda Vennilave’, which, of course, is the opening track of this film. To hear this affecting tune echo in a theatre, to hear the lilt of his voice once again, is to feel his presence.
The film, fittingly, is mounted on its music, with the plot centering on a rival composer (Nizhalgal Ravi, seemingly rehearsing for his Annamalai role) unable to deal with Damodar’s (SPB) success. Many other angles in this film have to do with music as well, like Damodar’s son, Krishna (Anand Babu), trying to be a saxophone player… like Priya (Radha) meeting Damodar at her concert. Even Damodar’s wife, Sukanya (Rekha), is shown to be accomplished musically, with the film’s opening scene showing her suggest the ‘pilu’ raaga to Damodar, which results in him coming up with ‘Vannam Konda’. This occurs after he says he’s looking for a raga that can also communicate a subtle sense of sadness. This hits you in many ways now.
There’s also the lovely ‘Idho Idho En Pallavi’ song, which stands as a metaphor for how the lives of Damodar and Priya are seeking completion. These are songs that have far outlived the film. Sigaram, by itself, isn’t exactly a revelation, despite some great songs and some progressive writing as well by director Ananthu. There isn’t enough finesse in filmmaking; the romantic portions feel fabricated and over-sentimental; the writing feels simplistic and manipulative. Nevertheless, the progressive portions are still well ahead of their time. You see this when the film talks about the utility in separating love and sex. One character in this 1991 film dubs sex a ‘natural outlet’ for a person. It’s also notable that the film is a critique of the cowardice of all its male characters, with many of them even admitting so, including Damodar himself.
Ultimately though, this film will not be remembered for its politics. It will be remembered for one person: its actor, composer and the singer of most of its songs, SP Balasubrahmanyam. One line from the opening song, ‘Vannam Konda Vennilave’, does a fair job of summarising the effects of separation from this legendary singer, and from other close ones due to the pandemic: ‘Thalli thalli nee irundhaal, sollikolla yaarum illai’. The truth, however, is, so long as this singer’s voice echoes in living rooms and theatres, we can always resume our conversations with him. This is why when Paan Singh Tomar was screened earlier in the festival, the late Irrfan’s family attended the screening despite the Covid menace raging on. So long as you occupy a theatre seat, mortality takes a back seat. And that’s a pretty fine reason to let a film be played on the big screen. I’ll see you again next year, IFFI.