Sathyajyothi Thyagarajan: Sridevi lost her National Award for Moondram Pirai because of politics
With the iconic Balu Mahendra film, Moondram Pirai (1982), turning 40, producer Sathyajyothi Thyagarajan shares lesser-known details about the making of this classic
Kavignar Kannadasan's line from the classic ‘Kanne Kalaimaane’ goes, "Oomai endraal, oru vagai amaidhi, yezhai endraal athil oru amaidhi", stating that pain is, in a way, soothing. Forty years ago, Balu Mahendra's Moondram Pirai turned out to have a similar effect on the viewer—it was a pain that was soothing. Interestingly, the film's producer Sathyajyothi Thyagarajan recalls that 'amaidhi' (silence) was perhaps the main response from those who saw the film for the first time in 1982. "This was so rare for a super-hit film. There was absolute silence after the climax. Balu sir (Balu Mahendra) and I were standing in Ega theatre's balcony, and we saw crestfallen people slowly walking away. Many didn't even leave the hall for a while; such was the impact."
Thyagarajan notes that whenever tragedy is organic in a story, Tamil audiences have always celebrated it. "The success of Moondram Pirai gave us the confidence to make Idhayam. People were in tears when they saw Murali leaving Chennai." He adds that the attention to minor details in Moondram Pirai influenced the final impact. "Seeing Kamal sir, Sridevi and Balu sir work together was magical. Kamal sir went out of his way to add nuances to Sridevi's performance. For instance, the cute moments between the leads in ‘Kannai Kalaimaane’ was conceived on the spot."
The 30th National Awards announcements took the team of Moondram Pirai by surprise, as Sridevi's name failed to make it to the winner's list, while Kamal and Balu Mahendra bagged an award each for Best Actor and Best Cinematography, respectively. "We were deeply disappointed. I got to know that Sridevi missed the award because of politics. The makers of Arth had lobbied for Shabana Azmi to make her win. By the time we got to know this, it was too late."
Thyagarajan shares that the climax sequence, pivotal in fetching Kamal Haasan his first National Award, left him borderline scared when it was shot. "As it was my debut film, I was there throughout the shoot. The entire shoot felt like a picnic to me as Balu sir had planned everything in advance. But I was so nervous when Kamal performed in the climax. He wanted to give his fullest for the role and refused to use a dupe. He fell in front of the car and banged his head on the pole to ensure that the pain of Cheenu felt realistic on screen. He is one of a kind."
The producer heaps praise on Balu Mahendra's craft. "Several decades have gone by, and I haven't met a cinematographer who has captured beautiful frames like him. Every time we launch a project, I meet the cameraman and say, 'Take all the budget you want, just give me one frame like Balu Mahendra.' I became his fan when I saw Pallavi Anupallavi. In fact, his aesthetic frames are the reason why I chose to listen to his script."
Though Balu Mahendra was on top of his game when it came to technology, the availability of resources was fairly limited. "We didn't have monitors then. We had to wait till the films would get developed in Chennai to know the end visual. But Balu sir was confident of his craft. Even when the conditions were hazy and rainy, his frames looked pristine. Director SP Muthuraman sir often says that cinematographers are his pair of eyes, but Balu Mahendra was both the brain and eyes behind Moondram Pirai."
Thyagarajan dismisses the famous theory that Balu Mahendra wrote Moondram Pirai to grieve the death of his young wife, actor Shoba. "I heard the narration from him much before the demise of his wife. Only while we were finalising the project did this tragedy hit him."
Moondram Pirai was way ahead of its time in many ways. Kamal's Cheenu visits a brothel, Sridevi's Bhagyalakshmi (Viji) parties with men and Silk Smitha's character is lust-driven… and yet, there is no judgement. Thyagarajan shares that the little doubts he had about the acceptance of the audience vanished the moment families started celebrating the film. "The era in which Moondram Pirai got released was different. The industry was ruled by commercial cinema that stuck to templates of good and bad. But our film was drastically different. I was a bit skeptical about people understanding our portrayal, but surprisingly, the first green flag for Moondram Pirai came from the family audience."
Thyagarajan hopes to present Moondram Pirai to today’s generation in theatres. "I want people my granddaughter's age to experience the film, the same way we all did four decades ago. I have completed digitising the film and it will be re-released on limited screens soon. I am also in talks with a major OTT platform." He adds, "I want the re-release to be a tribute to Balu Mahendra sir. I will make sure everyone who was a part of Moondram Pirai and is alive, is part of the re-launch event."