40 years of Nizhalgal: A Tamil film still relevant in COVID time
The 1980s film 'Nizhalgal' completes 40 years in Tamil cinema.

40 years of 'Nizhalgal': A Tamil film still relevant in COVID time

The famous drummer in Tamil cinema, Purushothaman’s sudden demise has once again put the spotlight on a popular number ‘Madai thiranthu thaavum nathialai naan’ from the film ‘Nizhalgal’ (Shadows – 1980). Also called ‘Purus’ fondly by his friends, he worked as a music conductor in Ilaiyaraaja’s team for more than 44 years and passed away on May 19 due to blood cancer.

Though he has been associated with Ilaiyaraaja from his debut film ‘Annakili’ (1976), he shot to fame with the song ‘Madai thiranthu’, where he was seen playing drums onscreen for a minute or two.

Written by lyricist Vaali, ‘Madai thiranthu’ became a popular number because of its drums score and of course, for its lyrics. However, the song has more to do with Ilaiyaraaja.

Most film critics would agree that Tamil cinema music has seen a new vigour after the arrival of Ilaiyaraaja. Now people divide the Tamil cinema music as ‘before Annakili’ and ‘after Annakili’ period.

It was the first song in which Ilaiyaraaja featured and the lyrics came out to be true in real after many years. For example, ‘Puthu ragam padaippathaley, Naanum Iraivaney’ (Since I am composing a new raga, I too am a God). And over the years Ilaiyaraaja’s music came to be so revered that today he is celebrated as ‘Raga Devan’ (The God of music) by his fans across the world.

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The other interesting song present in ‘Nizhalgal’ was ‘Ithu oru ponmalai pozhuthu’. Having an idealistic and philosophical touch, this song went on to write the history of Vairamuthu’s arrival as a lyricist. Look at these lines:

Vaanam Enakkoru Bodhi Maram

Naalum Enakkathu Sethi Tharum

Oru Naal Ulagam Needhi Perum

Thirunaal Nigalum Thethi Varum

Kelvigalaal Velvigalai Naan Seiven

(For me the sky is a Bodhi tree

It gives me messages daily

The world gets justice one day

A date is marked for that good day

I will do yagna with my interrogations)

With the simple yet colourful imageries, these lines attracted and continue to attract the idealistic youth.

But ‘Nizhalagal’, is not only spoken only for its songs. The film talked about one of the major issues of the 80s: unemployment. It is because of this, even today, when we are witnessing salary cuts and layoffs in COVID-19 times, the film seems to be relevant.

It talked about three youngsters Gopi (Ravi), Hari (Chandrasekhar) and Prabhu (Rajasekar), all in their early twenties, who wanted to make something great out of their life. Gopi, well-read in English literature looking for a job. Hari, aspiring to be a musician. Prabhu, a college student has some artistic talents.

While Gopi and Hari live in a rented room, Prabhu is living in his own house. One day, a new family comes to Prabhu’s apartment to stay as tenants. The family has a daughter named Mahalakshmi. She is attracted by the talents and aims of the trio. While Prabhu and Mahalakshmi became friends since both were studying in the same college, Maha develops a soft corner for Gopi. While helping Maha in her studies, Gopi eventually falls in love with her.

Hari tries with a lot of production houses for a chance at music composition but all goes in vain. Gopi, though intelligent, is unable to get a job because of a lack of recommendation and money to bribe. Prabhu wants to learn Veena but is unable to do so since the music teacher he respects very much dies suddenly.

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Frustrated by their failures, the trio led their lives in shame and disrespect. Unable to pay the rent, Gopi and Hari were asked to leave. They were helped by Mani, a rickshaw puller. One day, Gopi, who came from the village to Chennai in search of a job, hears that his father has died. He was unable to raise sufficient money to travel to his native and make arrangements for the funeral. Mani asks his son Singam to go and approach a moneylender. En route, Singam meets with an accident and later dies. In order to save his life, Gopi approaches the moneylender, who speaks ill of Singam. Angered, Gopi murders the moneylender and gets arrested.

Meanwhile, Prabhu expresses his love for Mahalakshmi and she refuses. However, Prabhu tries to molest her. Maha tells him, that she loves Gopi. Dejected, Prabhu stabs himself and dies. Suspecting it as a murder, police arrests Maha. In the turn of events, Hari goes mad since he was dropped by a production company that initially appointed him as a music director for its upcoming film.

Directed by Bharathiraja, the script throughout the film portrays negativity, failures, and false hopes. Scripted by a newcomer Manivannan, who was then assisting Bharathiraja, the film has dialogues that paint the city as a place that has no sympathy. Particularly the scene, where Gopi breaks down because of his inability to raise money to reach his native resembles the plight of migrant workers we are seeing today. The dropping of Hari from the films reminds us of the thousands of retrenched employees citing COVID lockdown. The death of Prabhu’s veena master, one way or the other makes us think of the students who yearned for an education abroad which has now become an almost impossible thing.

Hailing from Coimbatore, Manivannan used a poem written by A. Ranganathan, of ‘Vaanambaadi Poets’- poets collective which was active in Coimbatore in the 70s and 80s. The poem goes like this:

Iraviley vaanginom

Innum vidiyavey illai

(We bought at midnight

We still haven’t seen a light)

These lines succinctly capture the mood of the then youth, who had all skills but were unable to get an opportunity to prove themselves.

Besides, Manivannan (later became an actor-director) and Vairamuthu, the film was also a launchpad for actors, Ravi, who after the release of the film started to be called as ‘Nizhalgal’ Ravi, Chandrasekhar, who later turned politician and joined DMK, Rajasekar, who went on to become one of the director duo Robert – Rajasekar.

Related news: Music buff documents early years of Tamil cinema, presents rare glimpses

While Manivannan and Rajasekar died some time ago, Vairamuthu recently celebrated his 40 years in cinema.

With the death of drummer Purushothaman, the film also completes its 40 years in Tamil cinema.

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