Pithamagan is an extremely highly rated film and is regarded as director Bala’s best film. The film won a spate of awards for its maker and its entire main cast including the National Best Actor Award for Vikram and proved to be a commercial success as well. However, the film largely depends on how credible one finds Vikram’s character to work. For me, I didn’t find it convincing at all and consequently couldn’t quite get into the film.
That said, there is no doubt Bala’s story is highly different and ‘hatke’ from the typical mainstream masala film even within the revenge genre. And, in fact, has something going for it. As usual as in Sethu and Nandhaa, Bala picks up a central character who is an outsider as far as conventional family life is concerned. But Bala’s strength is that he has been able to make engaging films about these very characters and by and large with a firm control over the narrative, often even entering morbid territory as the ends of Sethu and Nandhaa show. In that sense Pithamagam follows much of the same ‘Bala elements’ and even here, the love story and the friendship of the two men does not end happily as it needs Suriya’s death to take place for Vikram to take the final revenge. Incidentally, following Suriya’s death in Nandhaa, Laila again ends the film here unrequited in love as do the lovers in Sethu. In that sense, Bala’s films do leave one disturbed by the morbidity.
In the film, Chitthan’s mother dies giving birth to him in a cremation ground. He is taken care of by the cremator whom he assists in his work. When the caretaker dies, a grown up Chitthan (Vikram), having being cut off from society, is more like a animal rather than a human being with feelings. Finding it difficult to adjust in normal society, he is taken in by a drug peddler, Gomathi (Sangeetha), who gets him a job working for a cannabis grower and smuggler (Madhavan). Chitthan is caught and put in jail where he repeatedly runs foul of other prisoners and jail authorities. In jail, he meets conman Sakthivel (Suriya) who, taken by Chitthan’s plight, bonds with him and starts to open him out and humanise him. Sakthi is in jail thanks to Manju (Laila) whom he had conned out of her money and belongings. Gradually, however the two fall in love. As the foursome Chitthan, Sakthi, Gomathi and Manju form a bond amongst themselves, Sakthivel runs foul of the cannabis dealer as he spills the beans against him to the district collector and is brutally killed leading to Chitthan take a bloody revenge.
The biggest factor to which Pithamagan owes its success is the central friendship between Vikram and Suriya that takes place in the jail and explores how Suriya takes to Vikram and humanises him to a degree. This track is extremely well-worked out and works beautifully giving the film much of its strength. Bala spends time on letting this relationship grow so that Suriya’s death has that much more of an impact in the climax. The two leads share a chemistry that is worth watching and their relationship is one of the best examples of male bonding in mainstream Tamil cinema of the last decade. This male bonding easily overshadows the love story and interestingly, in a drunken state, Suriya even declares to Vikram how much he likes him while Vikram feels extremely jealous on seeing Laila with Suriya!
On the flip side, the entire sequence with Simran (playing herself) doesn’t work at all even if Suriya and her have a ball dancing to the medley of film hits and neither is the Suriya – Laila love track developed convincingly enough at all. Her shift to loving him is abrupt to say the least and this after he tells her that when he was on the run with her on his back trying to get him caught by the cops, he could have easily escaped by pulling off her dress but he didn’t do so and that is enough for her to fall for him. C’mon! Then, you don’t understand the collector investigating the cannabis track as it is only used to facilitate Sakthi’s death and nothing more leaving it hanging incompletely. The women bashing scenes are in bad taste especially as Laila is beaten up not just by her father but even by Suriya in the name of comedy.
But by far, the biggest shortcoming to me is the way Vikram’s character is sketched out. And the entire film hinges on this. Considering he seems normal enough as a boy who talks normally as well, one finds it extremely hard to believe that he grows up as an animal devoid of language and any human trait whatsoever. One can understand lack of certain social and communication skills as he mainly responds to humans only through his foster father and the people who bring their dead to the cremation ground and no one else. One has to accept this characterisation if one is to go along with the film. I couldn’t. Hence, to me Vikram’s central performance is not quite there. Again, let me iterate it’s not to do with him; it’s the way his character has been conceived. If one can successfully believe in the credibility of his character, then no doubt one has to admit he has his moments (see him when he looks out of the train window or reacts to Suriya crying in a film) in the film’s author-backed role. The fact that a huge amount of accolades and awards came his way shows that he and Bala have succeeded in overcoming the credibility factor with both audiences and critics, even if not with me.
To me, Suriya, playing the perfect foil to Vikram, in fact, comes off best in the film. The actor, known for understatement and for playing brooding, intense, introverted characters, lets his hair down and clearly enjoys himself displaying fine comic timing and high energy as he plays a tapori conman, who weeps like a baby when drunk, with great gusto. Suriya gives the film its lighter moments and manages to create an extremely likable character, consequently giving his death the solid emotional wallop it required. As mentioned above, his character could have done without the scenes showing him beating Laila even if played for laughs.
Of the other performances, Sangeetha is good as the drug seller but Laila overacts like there’s no tomorrow and is irritating as hell and totally unfunny in her lighter scenes with Suriya although admittedly she comes into her own in the emotional scenes following his death. Karunas doesn’t have much to do while Mahadevan makes a successful hard hearted villain.
Ilayaraaja’s musical score as well as background score perfectly complement the film while Balasubraniem’s evocative camerawork enhances the film. The songs are nicely picturised, in particular, the song showing the bonding of the four central characters is filled with several heartwarming moments. All other technicalities too help lift the film several notches be it Suresh Urs’ deft editing, the overall production design of the film as well as the more realistic action sequences.
Pithamagan went on to win the National Award for Best Actor for Vikram while it swept the Tamil Filmfare Awards winning awards for Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress (Laila), Supporting Actor (Suriya) and Supporting Actress (Sangeetha).
All in all, no doubt watchable enough but…
Tamil, Drama, Action, Color